Balancing Act

A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters

by Julian Barnes
Knopf, 307 pp., $18.95

Julian Barnes
Julian Barnes; drawing by David Levine

The new work of fiction by Julian Barnes is his fifth since 1981, and about as much entitled to the name of a “novel” as to the name of A History of the World. Like its predecessor, Flaubert’s Parrot, it is a novel in deep disguise. Setting aside the matter of titles, a reader who picks up this new book will find it to consist of ten or eleven short stories, mostly sardonic in tone, written with meticulous point, at a temperature not far from zero centigrade. Several are connected with one another, thematically if not by narrative links; they create, if not a history, then a vision of the world. There’s a fair bit of factual material woven into the prevailing fantasy, a good bit of impersonation in different voices, a couple of relatively straight narrations, and also something like a rhapsody. It’s a book to keep the reader on his toes.

Woodworms, for which the popular name is furniture beetles, the learned title Anobium domesticum, provide one unlikely skein of the narrative. Seven of the little bugs—one literate—are understood to have stowed away on Noah’s ark. The one articulate (and in fact quite erudite) coleopter provides a strikingly disabused view of the voyage; from this narrative neither Noah nor any of his offspring, nor for that matter the Deity, emerges with the slightest shred of credit. In fact the insect-narrator combines very agreeably a condescending view of the human race’s congenital ineptitudes with a kind of resentful whine, altogether befitting his station in life.

The story he tells, naturally from his own point of view behind the wainscoting, is pretty much that familiar from Genesis 6–9, though he is careful to point out where the human race, to serve its private ends, has prettified details. One is glad to have made his acquaintance and at the end of his narrative, to send him along. But he links in an indirect and perhaps significant way with another community of woodworms who are protagonists of another story. These insects, dating from approximately the Middle Ages, are being sued in an ecclesiastical court and stand in peril of excommunication. Their crime is that they ate through á leg of the Bishop of Besançon’s throne with deleterious consequences for the Bishop’s noddle. Despite the forceful pleas of learned counsel, the insectioles are found guilty and condemned to an annual penance which, by an ingenious and characteristic maneuver, they triumphantly circumvent.

Well, so much for woodworms, though a few scattered ones turn up throughout the rest of the volume. But Noah’s ark recurs several times, first in an ugly little story of cowardice in the face of terror aboard a cruise ship in the Aegean, then in the story of a determined nineteenth-century English lady’s visit to Ararat in search of the ark (she arrives just in time to view the catastrophic earthquake of…

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