115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Julian Barnes’s A History of the World in 10½ Chapters and Writing History with Metaphors

Suejeong Kim, Ewha Womans University, South Korea

Julian Barnes’s A History of the World in 10½ Chapters suggests an alternative mode of historical writing which manifests the participation of imagination. The metaphors in the novel demonstrate the possibility for us to achieve a historical truth by means of literary imagination which is denied by traditional historical approaches.

Proposal: 

In this presentation, I examine how Julian Barnes’s A History of the World in 10½ Chapters (1989) suggests an alternative mode of historical writing which plainly manifests the participation of imagination. The novel consists of eleven discontinuous episodes including a half-chapter named “Parenthesis.” Each chapter is narrated by a different narrator, and some chapters such as the fourth chapter and the seventh chapter are even narrated by more than a single narrator. Despite the word “History” in the title, almost all the chapters of the novel deliberately mix historical facts with fiction, sometimes to the extent that it is difficult to identify which part is factual and which fictional. Many critics point out that, like other contemporary historical novels, the aforementioned strategies deployed in A History problematize the objectivity of historical knowledge. The novel, in other words, challenges positivist historical approaches which suppress literary nature of historical writing for the sake of appearing scientific and unexaggerated. However, there has been little focus on how the novel explores the interplay between imagination and historical writing. Even though the novel exposes the fictional quality in past reconstruction and inaccessibility to the objective past world, it highlights the way literary imagination illuminates a truth about human condition instead of falling into nihilism. Therefore, I would like to complement their argument by exploring what significance the author assigns to literary imagination in writing history. In so doing, I investigate two metaphors in the novel: one is the image of unfamiliar and labyrinthine settings, and the other is that of drifting ships without destination. It is true that, as other critics note, the author rejects the objectivity and scientificity of history; yet, the metaphors in A History demonstrate that we are able to achieve a historical truth by means of literary imagination – a truth different from what we can obtain through the positivist historical approaches.