BOOKS: Julian Barnes – ‘A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters’

“History isn’t what happened. History is just what historians tell us.”

Barnes’ A History… was my first read of 2015; though should have been read much before that, seeing as I wrote a second year degree exam answer on it about 20 days later (sorry lecturers) (though I’m sure they’re not shocked by these kind of admissions by now, and pretty certain the majority of them did the same as undergrads, else they cannot be human). Knowing that I had to produce a scholarly essay on the text in an hour on the day of the exam, my first thought when getting to grips with it was “oooooooohhhhh shit”. This is a dense, intricate and complex novel that daunted me at first, though this kind of intricacy is what compels me to finish a book. I can’t wait to finish them so that loose ends can be tied and wrapped up neatly! In this case, I can’t say that ending the book is automatically satisfactory. There are a gazillion ‘ends’ presented, mostly because it is divided into ’10 1/2′ chapters as the title informs, but then each chapter is a different short story and each contains countless intertextual references; both to other stories that make up the novel and a plethora of separate works, many religious. Matching up these loose ends would be like sifting through a really large vat of spaghetti; so really, the reading of this novel doesn’t end with the last page, but with research in and around it if you really want a clear understanding… which I don’t even know if I still do!

Reading this novel is definitely enhanced by understanding the term and concept of historiography – the study of the study of history. A History… is a postmodern critique of the way in which we blindly accept the version of world history presented to us as fact. Before studying A History…, and historiographic theory (mostly Linda Hutcheon), I had never thought to question the glaringly obvious oversight that all written documents are filtered through the subjective accounts of one or a group of persons’ world view, and this too applies to what we know to be ‘history’. In short, what we know of the past is not ‘history’, or ‘the history of the world’ but indeed ‘a history’: one viewpoint which can never be confirmed or denied. The events are in the past, the people who experienced it dead. If they are alive, we take their account as the closest to objective truth we can, though it must be generally accepted that each person will tell even a slightly different account of the same event. Human condition of fallible memory and conditioned viewpoint therefore dictates that there can be no such thing as objective truth. These matters are discussed in the novel in Chapter 5: Shipwreck, Chapter 7: Three Simple Stories, and the ‘1/2’ chapter Parenthesis, between chapters 8 and 9, in which Barnes speaks directly to the reader as himself.

So far I’ve done this novel a massive injustice and just made it sound really heavy and boring! Be assured that the alternate history routine isn’t ‘shoved in your face’, or even obvious until well into the book. The reader (without any prior knowledge of the text) only begins to make connections and question the ‘motive’ of the novel probably at Parenthesis, in hindsight. The stories are at first presented as whimsical, exaggerated and highly fictional – though upon futher reading it’s made apparent that this is purposeful in order to draw attention to the inherently fictitious nature of recording history. Brief plot outlines of stories include Chapter 1: The Stowaway which is a subversive account of what ‘really’ happened on Noah’s Ark according to an illegitimate woodworm passenger; Chapter 2: The Visitors concerns a famous presenter/entertainer forced to become a terrorist negotiator on board a cruise ship; Chapter 8: Upstream! is made up of letters from an actor filming in a jungle and working with a native tribe (this chapter is of most interest to me – there is something Barnes is conveying here that I’m not getting!). For me, Chapter 10: The Dream cements A History... as a great novel, in its portrayal and critique of the 21st century consumerist heaven and the scepticism of an educated eye.

This is a fascinating and eye-opening novel which draws your attention to food for thought that you’d probably never dreamt of, which is one of the reasons I love to read. I’m excited to one day have time to read more Barnes novels, and in fact more novels by most authors I was introduced to whilst studying Postmodernism (Angela Carter, Don DeLillo) – definitely one of my favourite university modules so far.

[ As I’m mostly reading set texts for my degree, many of them will be discussed here – partly because writing about them breeds more thought/insight into them, and also because I’d love to help any struggling students to understand them a bit more, as others have done for me when frantically googling them! ]

BOOKS: Sylvia Plath – ‘The Bell Jar’

The trouble was, I had been inadequate all along, I simply hadn’t thought about it.

*Notice* First post for my new venture: A BLOG. I hear that’s how everyone gets jobs and shit done these days. Other recent ventures include starting a journal (a very sad, handwritten book) and challenging myself to read 20 whole books this year, recorded on Goodreads… but already cheated at that by listing a short story and a play I had to read for uni which each took me under an hour to finish.

Besides those, The Bell Jar was the second actual novel-length book I’ve read so far in 2015 – the first being Julian Barnes’ A History of the World in Ten and a Half Chapters, which I may write about after this one. I feel I should be able to write a decent blog post on A History after I wrote an exam essay on it as part of my degree, but equally feel vastly unqualified for such a task as there’s so many reallllly intelligent analyses of it already on the internet which I don’t think I can touch at this stage in my… ‘career’.

To begin: Bell Jar wasn’t all that I expected. By that, I mean it wasn’t half as dark. For my first year’s university exams I studied Plath’s Collected Poems which set a precedent for my presumptions of her novel. I can’t decide whether I’m more relieved by the sedate content in comparison, or disappointed. There definitely is a certain disappointment, but at the same time I was pleasantly surprised throughout reading it not to be dogged with nightmares about severed thumbs, evil tulips and spurned zombie daughters.

I think what I liked most about this novel is the analogy of being depressed likened to being shut in a bell jar. Plath’s depiction of relief from depression, as if the bell jar is lifted allowing in fresh air and freedom, resonates in many a shared experience; perhaps a major factor in the great success of the novel. Likening depression to feeling trapped inside a glass confine is clever, relatable and sad. The sufferer – Esther Greenwood, in this case, as Plath’s protagonist – sees their distorted world through clear curved glass but is prevented from engaging. Confinement ould be said to be a central theme of the story; Esther is confined to her expectations of working life and college, her family home over summer as her depression takes hold, her worries about her career path, and then her illness which results in confinement to a mental institution.

During my time studying Plath’s poetry at uni, we were taught not to presume Plath’s work is autobiographical. We had to view each poem as a representation of thoughts and feelings or something, and not necessarily her own. Thinking about this now, I reject it. Any reading around the life and times of Sylvia Plath points to her work being highly autobiographical – the bees? The German? The hospitals!!! As a result of recklessly abandoning my lovely lecturer’s well-meaning and expert advice, I read this book as a kind of fictitious version of what is essentially a true story. Or rather, Plath’s ideal of her own life’s story. Having half-attempted to narrate my own life story before has highlighted a tendency to rose-tint one’s own experiences. While I can’t say this novel is ‘rose-tinted’, due to some pretty macabre instances (though how would I know – I’m not Plath. And I think that’s what my lecturer was getting at all along but that’s a whole new tangent), it’s fairly safe to assume that a large portion of the content of this story is things which did happen to Plath, reworked for fiction. I think. Maybe. Nobody knows but Plath, and none of it is up for confirmation any time soon.

I was eager to start this book after hearing people say it changed their life, but I should have known that I was setting myself up for a let down there after I read The Beach under the same pretences. But I did love The Beach! It just didn’t radically change my outlook or make me a better person like I had hoped (Can books do such a thing? A discussion for another day). And neither did this. I never thought I’d be in a position where I enjoyed poetry over a novel, but this case has done just that, and I’m quite glad by it. I liked some poetry! It’s a Christmas miracle! Despite not enjoying it as much as I’d hoped, it’s an easy and pleasant read – even inoffensive, which is, on reflection, the main reason it let me down. I’d gone in prepared to wrestle a rottweiler and got sort of rebuffed a nonchalant labrador.