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.
Barnes’s inventiveness lies not in plot and the other traditional novelistic skills as they continue to be practised, though he can do all these things well enough for his purposes, which are, broadly, in James’s phrase, to catch the strange irregular rhythms of life. I imagine few would disagree that his best book so far is his third novel, Flaubert’s Parrot, a hunt through the surviving rubbish of Flaubert life – decaying statues, decaying archives, decaying parrots – by a man obsessed with the idea of stringing together some connections between the fragments, finding a rhythm in them. It surprises by its obsessed, amused attention to detail, and by the freedom of its construction – the sudden irruption, for instance, of Louise Colet, allowed, after all the put-downs, to speak up for herself – and also by the certainty with which it hangs together, odd bundle that it seems at first to be. The wish to discover some sense, some personal relevance, in an archive of this sort and by these means, is the purpose not only of the book’s narrator, but also of its writer. He surprises, though always short of shocking: he has indeed shown himself capable of violent upshots, as in Before she met me, but his tone is habitually patient and unaggressive. He is quietly bold; épatant he’s not.
A History of the World in 10½ Chapters continues in this vein. Its method has just a little in common with that of the Flaubert book; here the narrative material is even more disparate, the links that hold together what at first look like a series of largely unrelated episodes are more tenuous. The opening chapter facetiously describes the voyage of Noah’s Ark from the point of view of a stowaway woodworm. Then there is a tale about the hijacking of a cruise steamer by Arab terrorists, followed by a factual account of a medieval trial of some woodworm for destroying the leg of a bishop’s throne, causing him to tumble and crack his head on the altar – a mishap which reduced the prelate to imbecility. There is a series of letters from an actor making a disastrous film in a jungle; and a documentary account of the wreck of the Medusa, examining all the horrors of life and death on the raft, and the progress of the painting of Géricault’s picture. Another section tells how a Victorian woman makes a pilgrimage to Ararat to look for the Ark; an American astronaut mounts a similar expedition and finds her remains, which he prefers to think are Noah’s. There is a sober account of the voyage of the German liner St Louis, with Jewish would-be refugees on a voyage to refuge in Cuba, and this cold narrative is associated with a disquisition on Jonah, and a narrative of one James Bartley’s account of being swallowed by a whale in 1891.
This is by no means all. There is a touching essay on love, interrupted by some sombre meditations on history. ‘The history of the world? Just voices echoing in the dark; images that burn for a few centuries and then fade; stories, old stories that sometimes seem to overlap; strange links, impertinent connections.’ One of Barnes’s characters rather improbably describes her supposed mental condition – imagining that she has survived a nuclear disaster, which, as it turns out, she has – as ‘Fabulation. You keep a few true facts and spin a new story about them.’ These words are exactly repeated in what we can’t prevent ourselves from taking as an authorial discourse on history, with this self-justifying addition: ‘Our panic and our pain are only eased by soothing fabulation; we call it history.’ This is what Barnes himself, in this book, attempts. He fabulates this and that, stitches the fabulations together, and then he and we quite properly call the product a novel. Then we say it reflects a distinctive view of the world, could hardly not do so.
The whole thing ends with a dream allegory about the self-defeating idea of personal immortality – fabulation offers, in the end, no relief there from the inevitable disappointments, the inevitable endings, of life, though this writer, without ever seeming cosy, never allows himself to seem too down about them. He prefers a witty Post-Modern sadness – hence the almost programmatic Post-Modernity of the book.
This is not to deny that A History is a serious book. Among the serious topics that are discussed (like Musil, Barnes is frankly essayistic – he will even tease us by saying that essayism is impermissible, and then launch into an essay) are immortality, life, love, death and history. In this last category come the prophetic archetypes – for example, Jonah in the whale is a type of the plight of the Jewish refugees in the St Louis. The archival material which provides these ironised historical patterns is thoroughly researched. Indeed, quite a lot of experts are thanked in a terminal note, an entirely characteristic breach of convention, a courtesy necessary only when fabulation is at work on archives that call for scholarly interpretation. In fact, the writing seems especially good in the straightforwardly archival chapters, the Medusa episode best of all.
The book, the title of which I am for some reason unwilling to continue recording (perhaps it reminds one too strongly of the author’s tendency to be flip), is amusing without being hilarious. It wryly accepts that God, or something, has arranged things as they are. The need for wryness produces moments when that self-deprecating flipness spoils the tone. The connections between the stories, lectures, episodes are often coyly subtle. Some are provided by repeated appearances of woodworm and deathwatch beetle, some by subtle Noachian allusions, some by exiguous plot links as when the girl who saw the Géricault on exhibition in Dublin becomes the woman who goes absurdly in search of the Ark. An impossible fabulatory-predictive theory of history is illustrated by the Indians of the jungle, who take the actors, when in costume, to be the historical figures they represent; subsequent events seem to confirm the theory, as the noise of a deathwatch beetle, thought to presage a death, precedes an actual death, and a fantasy of nuclear war turns out to be no fantasy.
Such linkages across time are simultaneously established and discounted as fabulation, and this novel might well provide texts for academic discussions about history and fable. It really is discutable. I am a great admirer of Barnes’s earlier books, which seemed, each in its own unportentous way, to provide an opportunity of satisfying a hunger to be serious, or as serious as present conditions permit, about life, death, and as Henry James if he read Barnes might admit, art, the art of fiction. But for all that I’m afraid I feel cool about this one. The strain on those links, however masked by the jokiness, seems too great. Certainly this is an experiment, and an experiment far more arduous than a casual reading might suggest. But, to make an obvious point, the point of experiments is that they would lose interest, and even cease to be called experiments, if they never failed.
Some sections of A History of the World in 10½ Chapters are actually a bit dull, something one would never have expected of this author, and one senses a consciousness of that, as well as misgivings about the experimental structure. ‘In proportion as it lives,’ said James, ‘it will be found, I think, that in each of the parts’ – of ‘any novel worth discussing at all’ – ‘there is something of each of the other parts.’ And that was what Julian Barnes must have intended. To bring it off he had to settle for a risky method, and this time, though very honourably performed, the trick didn’t quite work.