Review: A History of the World in 10½ Chapters

A History of the World in 10½  Chapters
A History of the World in 10½ Chapters by Julian Barnes
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

God’s all-time bestseller, The Book, might be described (I wish to offend no one) as metafiction; it was written, divinely, by its main character, Who appears in various forms, at crucial cliff-hanger moments, as Himself. Unfortunately, so the story goes, God’s sixth-day creation, us — or more accurately our ancestors — made a muddle of His work, so God recruited Noah & Sons to cruise.

Mr. Julian Barnes launches “A History of the World in 10½ Chapters” (Knopf, 1989) with his own mock-knowing version of history, as reported by a wiseacre, truth-telling woodworm (baby termite?) stowaway, one of several who survived the trip. Why the need to sneak? Woodworms were not one of God’s chosen species, which leads Woodworm-Barnes to point out, amusingly but none too subtly, that those not chosen did not survive:

…Some creatures were simply Not Wanted On Voyage. That was the case with us; that’s why we had to stow away. And any number of beasts, with a perfectly good legal argument for being a separate species, had their claims dismissed.

Chosen by God? Chosen by Noah? This is more than enough to get those History/Memory/Association juices gushing: blameless refugees slaughtered because of “bushy tufts down your backbone.” You were born that way. Keep out.

More chapters of voyages follow: luxury liner hijacked, a dreaming woman and her cats go to sea, the St. Louis with her refugee tourists sail on and on, an expedition to Ararat seeks the true Ark. History as story, with its conflicting ‘facts’ (just like The Book), has become this World’s main character. It’s the familiar, but nonetheless worthy plot/game of What really happened?

Here, concerning Jonah in the whale:

Of course, we recognize that the story can’t have any basis in truth. We are sophisticated people, and we can tell the difference between reality and myth. A whale might swallow a man, we can allow for that as plausible; but once inside he could not possibly live.

Then: testimony of one James Bartley, sailor on Star of the East, 1891. The whale was flensed. Bartley was found, blinded by gastric juices, but alive:

…I realized that I was being swallowed by a whale…a wall of flesh surrounded me and hemmed me in on every side, yet the pressure was not painful and the flesh easily gave way…

Voyages, animals, survival, the carousel of history and story: in each succeeding chapter, these recurring themes gain a cumulative effect in the mind of the reader, until Chapter 5, Shipwreck. Here Barnes becomes a magician. The events of 1816 – 1819 are summarized: the ship Medusa strikes a reef, survivors are rescued from their raft two weeks later. An account of the voyage and rescue is published and becomes a sensation. Theodore Gericault paints the scene. Barnes, or his narrator, asks, “How do you turn catastrophe into art?”

The answer, detailed in eight parts, lies in what Gericault did not paint. He experiments, he eliminates. Barnes explains every step of the “process,” that voyage which Gericault (writers too!) embarks upon – and survives – “Monsieur Gericault, your shipwreck is certainly no disaster,” says King Louis.

Truth to life, at the start, to be sure; yet once the process gets under way, truth to art is the greater allegiance. The incident never took place as depicted; the numbers are inaccurate; the cannibalism is reduced to literary reference…The raft has been cleaned up as if for…a queasy-stomached monarch: the strips of human flesh have been housewifed away, and everyone’s hair is as sleek as a painter’s new-bought brush.

For me, this is the soul of 10½ Chapters. I read and reread for the pleasure of what Mr. Barnes was sharing — with Gericault, and me — that process taking place on Gericault’s canvas (changing proportion, shadow, color as he paints) and that simultaneous process of prose, wondrous as Barnes analyzes Gericault’s thoughts. And how could Barnes know Gericault’s thoughts? He looks, he imagines. Can we know, really know? We see the finished painting as inevitable, its marvelous portrait of men on a raft, lost, despairing, surviving: “Catastrophe has become art.” Imagination explains; the fiction of paint displays truth, but not forever. Paint disintegrates, woodworms attack. This is divine.

The World’s ½ chapter is love’s chapter, narrated by a sleepless man, who tells us he may be Julian Barnes. As he lies beside his wife, he thinks of his love for her, and continues to tell us about the intricacies and complications of love, life, and much too much more about the human condition:

And I’m not saying love will make you happy…If anything, I tend to believe that it will make you unhappy: either immediately unhappy, as you are impaled by incompatibility, or unhappy later, when the woodworm has quietly been gnawing…But you can believe this and still insist that love is our only hope.

The last chapter is The Dream: we are in heaven, or Heaven, which is a schoolmarm disappointment after all that earthly, monumental striving and suffering.

Finally, is The World in 10½ a novel? For some readers, Yes: its thread of themes holds it together; their affect is cumulative; stories begin with an ostensibly cleansed world, and end in heaven. For some readers, No, it is a series of chapters, moving, witty, at times heavy with lessons. But one chapter in particular is well worth its entire World.

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Review: Witz

Witz by Joshua Cohen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Oy vey you say. Another funny Holocaust book?

Now is the month of holidays, from the Jewish New Year through the Feast of Tabernacles and ending with Celebration of Torah. My (Orthodox) friend of forty years came to visit. I showed her a page from “Witz.” She closed the book, fast. “There’s a lot in there I wouldn’t approve of,” she said.

Yes, O WickedWitz.

Witz — which means “joke” in Yiddish, and “son of” in its various forms (e.g. Horowitz, Ephraimovich). Also Auschwitz.
A witz should be funny, no? “Witz,” by Joshua Cohen – JC hereafter — (Dalkey Archive Press, 817pp) — “Witz” is bleak, not funny, though it is based on a joke, perhaps the greatest joke ever told.

Who tells the greatest joke?

“A mensch (man) walks into a talent agent, ouch, a mensch walks into a talent agency, ouch, next time he should use the door. No seriously folks, a mensch walks into the office of a talent agent and sits down and says, no, listen up, I have this fantabulous new act…”

JC has Ben tell it while Ben is on tour in “Los Siegeles” (Vegas). Ben continues: “…it’s jokes like this, acrobats, juggling, magic, how I’m doing all of them just by living. Here and now, that’s the act, I’m it, that’s the joke, me….”
That is Ben’s version.
The classic version of the joke is never completed in the novel, at least not as stand-up. My summary: The performers enter, the presentation begins. The talent agent is treated to, is witness to, abominations, including but not limited to: fornication, sodomy, bestiality, evacuation of any and all bodily fluids via any convenient orifice, filth, cruelty, all of the above in various permutations or, what the (gehenna) hell, simultaneously. “And what do you call yourselves?” asks the agent. The answer is the punchline: “The Aristocrats.” *

*Treat yourself to the whole schmear –

The art of this joke – any joke? — is in the delivery. The stand-up comic shows his/her exquisitely sordid imagination, no limits allowed; anything that makes an audience cringe and laugh until tears drip and bellies ache is the goal.
The Yiddish expression “lacht mit yashtsherkes” comes to mind. Literally, “laugh with lizards,” laugh in sorrow, not joy.**

**Terrific laughing lizard cartoon, treat yourself —

Now for the novel’s story, outrageously brief: Xmas Eve, 1999. Benjamin Israelien is born a man in his parents’ “kitschen” in “Joysey” with beard, eyeglasses, self-shedding foreskin. Ben (means “son”) is the first male child, #13 after 12 girls. That night, a mysterious plague kills all Jews, except firstborn males; these survivors are transported, for their own protection, to Ellis Island. Soon all die except Ben; He becomes Messiah and is carted around by a marketing cartel. Now everyone wants to be Affiliated. As the real thing, Ben-Messiah is forced to make appearances, but He wants to flee his “Orthodox” life. He escapes, is recaptured, escapes. He is not religious, bad for business. Ben’s life is in danger. JC follows Ben’s picaresque misadventures across the US, a visit with Doktor Froid extraterrestrial, back to Joysey, to Polandland, and back again, and again.

The art of “Witz” is in the delivery. JC’s prose has a breathless rhythm and endless associations, e.g. wombs, ovens, babies, bread, incineration. He can’t get the words out fast enough, such genius, so talented he is, “poo poo poo” –***


— another detail, another gag, just one more comparison, expression or pun in English, Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian. Readers who do not understand words and idioms used by JC will lose much of the novel’s humor, innuendo, heartbreak.

Here, in one of JC’s cheery-by-comparison passages, is Santa, in Ben’s house on that Xmas Eve:

“The problem with this tradition has always been once he’s gone down the chimney, how does he manage to get back up to the roof? If the devil Satan must fall, one might argue, then a saint like Santa must rise…He and with a silence that seems to twinkle returns to the den, if den it is, takes Benjamin by the hand…To take him slow, and gently as you’d expect, naked first in mitten fringed in tinsely poms, to lead Him to the stairs then up them, three at a time, and down the hall of shutdead doors to His room above the garage and its angelic ladder expected – forget it, you might as well stay a while, won’t you, make yourself comfortable, my house is yours, there’ll soon be beds empty enough; the two of them, Santa and son almost of equal size, stepping high, huge, and damn sleep loud into His room – and then Santa, holding a forefinger through the loose skein of yarn wool worn to his lips, slams the door bang behind them, though there’s no one left alive to awake.”

Months old, Ben finally has sex — with his dead mother, Hanna, who is also an apparently living Mary, one of several Marys in the room, watching:

“He arches Himself, His elbows heave and …melt into fingers…pursuing her with the gnashing of teeth – an application of the appearance of mourning, accomplished to titillate and hurt. With His tongue in one thought, His mind in another, He’s sensing suffusion, an oozing of light from within…Glaciate and slow, hard as the earth His head immersed, misted, in the midst of what seems a soft sky dewy and glowing. He squints against that rising shine…dazzly motes, tears and their saline sting, dizzying and foreign, the dusting of sand, real sand…then, as if prepared, He opens His eyes wide inside: and there, inside her, is – Jerusalem …valleyed entire in the genital of her womb… if I forget thee O Jerusalem let my righthand forget its cunting, let my tongue cleave to the Ruth of my mouth…”

Ben’s tongue becomes

“…a relic, to be exhibited…eventually worldwide: paraded around from town to town, wherever pays, whether money or homage…”

A year after that first Xmas, we observe

“the yahrezeit, the Anniversay of Death (A.D., as it’s respectfully, avoidingly, mentioned)…”

JC has an assortedly sordid imagination, but of course nothing he imagines is as nasty as human history. He takes us, along with eager tourists, to see the sights of Whateverwitz. The fictional horror is real.

“It’s easier than ever to enter this city, this station, this stopover; everyone off – and they all have maps still handydandy with Selected Retail Outlets writ large. There are separate marked gates, each reserved for each and every kind of ingress or egress, rest assured; abandon all hope, but not humor…”

The following “humor” is dispersed throughout the last – or better, final chapter, “Punchlines,” as told by the last Holocaust survivor:

“…When they were born, he was born, and when they came for the born, he went…When they were young, he was young, and when they came for the young, he went…When they were, he was, and when they came, he went…When they were dead, he was dead, and when they came for the dead, he went…”

Back to that joke.

Who are The Aristocrats? My answer, (and not necessarily JC’s) in fine Jewish humor tradition: Who isn’t?
The Nazis said, We are! and performed abominations. Dare I mention the abominations performed by, and on, the Chosen People, as told by Him Himself? The goyim believe they are, Muslims, Hindus, who doesn’t? How about the humans, that sapiens Us? Who doesn’t hook worms or poison stinkweed, exterminate those annoying roaches – if only you’re fast enough – and all those tasty cows, chickens, herring, pigs (chas v’ shalom)…I could get killed for this – who doesn’t wish a wife here a brother-in-law there – they’ll kill for this – less than best of luck? Pray for less, much less than best of luck.
Does God have a sordid imagination? Does He tell jokes?
“Witz” begins with this epigraph:

“ ”

Was what God said deleted, or did He have nothing to say?
JC has plenty to say, poo poo poo. “Witz” is an extravaganza: long, difficult, always dark, at times a burden, often confusing, brimming – overflowing — with JC’s evident learning, talent, need to tell. Despite its witty satire reputation and disguise, it is moving, indeed heartwrenching, and memorable. Emes — I’ll never forget.

PR (Post Review)
A note on the cover:
What are those 3 things?

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It’s my money

Cover for 'AffectionAires Part 4'

AffectionAires Part 4

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Mermaid Deadline

Cover for 'AffectionAires Part 3'

AffectionAires Part 3

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FREE ebook week

Free ebook week

Check the Smashwords home page for the free coupon code, good for the week.

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Praise for Cocoa Almond Darling

Find full reviews at:

Review excerpts:

“…Cocoa Almond Darling quickly blew past my initial low expectations to become one of my more surprisingly great reads so far of this young year, and it comes recommended in that specific spirit.”    -Jason Pettus

“…Once I picked it up, I didn’t put it down until I had finished it at three o’clock in the morning because I was that absorbed in the story. Once I got into and got to know Milly, I just had to know what happened to her. She is a wonderful character. I almost feel like she is a real person that I know now.
It is also the best story I have read about race issues in a long time. This story brings to light the differences between black and white, and what it is like when they fall in love. Even with racism not often an issue, this novel highlights the other issues that exist with this type of relationship.
The book is heartbreaking and wonderful and a must read for anyone interested in race-relationships.”    -Kathy Schneider

“A captivating story that was told in an orginal style which made it all the more real. This is the second that I have read by this author which left me emotionally involved.”    -Suzy Stewart Dubot

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Royal Mess

Cover for 'AffectionAires Part 2'

AffectionAires Part 2

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