cover image A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters

A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters

Julian Barnes. Knopf Publishing Group, $18.95 (307pp) ISBN 978-0-394-58061-6

Admirers of Julian Barnes ( Flaubert's Parrot ; Staring at the Sun ) are accustomed to thoroughly unorthodox approaches to the novel, and his latest, while brilliantly entertaining, certainly strains the limits of the genre. There are many leitmotifs that link the extraordinary episodes: a fascination with Noah's Ark and Mount Ararat, with the perils of the sea, with woodworm and with the nature of love. Add a dash of art history, a good bit of philosophy, an offbeat vision of the Hereafter, plus Barnes's blend of storytelling skills and high intelligence, and the combination must be the thinking person's novel of the season. Whether he is offering a decidedly cynical view of the Ark, imitating 15th-century French religious and legal rhetoric or playing with a goofy U.S. astronaut or a spoiled British movie actor on location in darkest Venezuela, he seems to have perfect pitch. As for the art history, it is a masterly piece of exposition based on Gericault's famous painting The Raft of the Medusa --which the reader gets as a full-color insert. The so-called half chapter is a rueful dissertation on the fragilities of human love. A History may be ultimately undefinable, but it is thoughtful, often funny and never less than fascinating. (Oct . )