Thursday, August 17, 2006

A-Leveling the Playing Field

A History of the World in 10½ Chapters
Edited by Ron Middleton
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. (349 p.)
(The Cambridge Literature Series)
ISBN: 0-521-48478-2 (paperback)
£5.75

The history of the world ... It's a lot to digest.

Just ask any A-Level English student writing about Julian Barnes's A History of the World in 10½ Chapters. Yes, it's on the list. No, I'm sorry, but I can't provide you with "everything there is to know about chapter number X." Besides, telling one's opinions fills the student of Barnes's novels with false hope. No master key exists that will unlock the sturdy vault holding the "proper" literary interpretation of History. In the end, readers much decide the answers, if there are to be any, for themselves.

So where do you go to get started? Ron Middleton would tell you to go to the Cambridge Literature edition of History. Middleton claims to have "edited" Barnes's novel, which is to say he has added a "Resource Guide" as an appendix. The text itself contains the occasional asterisk marking a word which appears in Middleton's helpful "Glossary" (35 total words), but otherwise remains unchanged, with on regrettable exception. The text was repaginated for this new edition, meaning Middleton's History has page numbering that does not match any other standard edition of the novel. (The UK hardback and paperback, as well as the US hardback and paperback, all match each other page by page.)

Nevertheless, Middleton's "Resource Guide" is a mostly helpful mix of "Activities", questions, and comments developed around each of the novel's 10½ chapters. The more useful of Middleton's questions directly address the book:
Chapter 8: Look at how Charlie reveals himself. At what points are you aware that there is a problem in his relationship with Pippa?
Such a question does, in fact, "guide" the reader toward a better understanding of Barnes's development of character. Similar questions address History's major themes and even offer comparisons with authors such as Auden, Hardy, and Larkin. Middleton seems to have a fine grasp of what Barnes was trying to do in the novel, but he seems on occasion to be stretching to fill his guide's quota of questions, as when he offers up an activity like this:
Parenthesis: Write a short story in which a couple talk about being in love. Their conversation could include their feelings for each other, whether their outlook on life has changed, and anxieties about the durability of their love.
Write a short story?! Is he serious? Such an activity may do less to help someone understand the nature of love than it would to raise their anxiety over whether they are a good fiction
writer or not.

Middleton's "Resource Guide" also includes some very appropriate quotations from Julian Barnes, including an excerpt from his interview with Melvin Bragg on The South Bank Show. The quotations are not only appropriate to the discussion of the chapter at hand, but are often the foundation for several of Middleton's questions and activities. One wonders, then, why he failed to provide citations for the interviews? Melvin Bragg's SBS is an extremely difficult show to track down, particularly if you live outside the UK. After a two-month search, I can tell you, in case you were wondering, that a copy can be purchased direct from London Weekend Television for somewhere in the neighborhood of £50. (I didn't order it, but you can at: London Weekend Television, Upper Ground, London SE1 9LT, UK). Middleton also quotes extensively from an uncited interview conducted by Alexander Stuart for the Los Angeles Times Book Review (15 October 1989, p. 15). Failing to identify such sources detracts considerably from this otherwise very fine volume. In the end, however, Middleton provides some much-needed groundwork for educators and students interested in Barnes's History. A-Levelers cramming for their final exams and teachers faced with creating coursework based on History should consider adding Middleton's Cambridge edition to their list of resources.

-- Ryan Roberts, May 2000

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