Stowaway Woodworm

Frank Kermode

  • A History of the World in 10½ Chapters by Julian Barnes
    Cape, 320 pp, £10.95, June 1989, ISBN 0 224 02669 0

About a century ago Henry James remarked sadly that, unlike the French, the English novel was not discutable. It had no theory behind it. Its practitioners were largely unaware that ‘there is no limit’ to what the novelist ‘may attempt as an executant – no limit to his possible experiments, efforts, discoveries, successes’. A new novel by Julian Barnes is a reminder that – up to a point, anyway – the situation has changed. Without being defiantly weird or consciously trying to alter the future, Barnes is clearly no slave to limit; he does something different every time, and if he were French and not just Francophile, his textes, as they say, might be called recherchés. On the other hand, he has an English modesty about Theory, and though he does here and there drop a demure hint that matters of that sort are not absent from his mind, he leaves his readers to work them out as they choose.

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