From Nebulae to Noah's Ark

FIRST LIGHT by Peter Ackroyd, New York: Grove Weidenfeld,

(London: Hamish Hamilton), 328 pp., $19.95


by Julian Barnes, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, (London: Jonathan Cape),

308 pp., $18.95

`I AM on a storm-tossed boat out at sea, the dark waves around me. This was what the earliest men saw in the skies above them - an unfathomable sea upon which they were drifting. Now we, too, talk of a universe filled with waves. We have returned to the first myth. And what if the stars are really torches, held up to light me on my way?''

Gazing up at the night sky from a small observatory in Dorset, astronomer Damian Fall sees galaxies, nebulae, planets, interstellar debris. He also believes he is seeing the same night sky seen by certain prehistoric inhabitants of this region, whose stone-circled burial mounds seem to have been designed as earthbound reflections of the celestial order.

Damian considers himself a failed astronomer: His original dream of making a great discovery has come to naught, and he sees himself as a mere functionary, passively recording his small bits of data.

As Damian plots the nightly course of the giant red star Aldebaran, nearby a team of archaeologists is excavating the ancient burial mound. Mark Clare, head of this project, is married to a lovely woman with a limp who still suffers from the feeling of being the ``crippled girl,'' pitied and left behind. Mark and his wife love each other deeply, almost desperately. Even his obsession with the prehistoric past pales whenever he contemplates the poignancy of his wife's recurring sadness.

Mark and Damian are melancholy men. Their sense of personal failure intensifies the emotions they feel in pondering the steely, impersonal procession of history and time itself. As their personal lives and scientific theories move towards a point of tangency, there is a succession of epiphanic moments which, one somehow feels, are what this novel is finally all about.

Peter Ackroyd, author of a perceptive biography of T.S. Eliot and of four previous novels (``The Great Fire of London,'' ``The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde,'' ``Hawksmoor,'' and ``Chatterton''), continues in ``First Light'' to pursue his passion for the past. He is no mere collector of antiquities and legends, but a writer who fully understands the ways in which the past is always present in our lives: how consciousness is shaped by memory and how the present is never truly present in the mind until it has passed into memory.

Ackroyd's vivid imagination and his evocative, finely honed prose are equal to his ambitious conception. Yet his actual plot is a little disappointing. The excavation is threatened by mysterious accidents, and the cause, when finally revealed, is unintentionally anticlimactic. Ackroyd also has a weakness for what might be called comic relief. But the comic characters he invents - Floey and Joey, a retired music hall husband-and-wife act; a rustic local called Farmer Mint and his son Boy Mint; the relentlessly cheerful civil servant Evangeline Tupper; archaeologist Martha Temple, whose bluff heartiness conceals a penchant for sowing dissension among her colleagues - are not quite outrageous enough to amuse nor believable enough to involve us. They turn out to be needless distractions from a story - indeed, a vision - of considerable power and beauty.

There is probably a convincing reason why stone circles and other archaeological remains figure so prominently in contemporary British fiction. Perhaps writers dismayed at the current state of affairs in their country are trying to take a longer view. Something of the sort is offered by Julian Barnes in ``A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters,'' which, despite its dust-jacket label, is less a novel than a collection of linked stories and essays that are variations on the theme of Noah's Ark.

Barnes casts a cold eye on the ethics of ``survival,'' a term that has gained great currency in recent years as a form of self-congratulation on the part of those who believe that saving one's own skin is not only a sensible and justifiable act, but also a deed worthy of special commendation. The opening story is a revisionary account of Noah's operation, told from the viewpoint of a stowaway wood louse:

``And of course, while they said they'd take two of each species, when it came down to it ... Some creatures were simply Not Wanted On Voyage. That was the case with us; that's why we had to stow away.... There were splendid animals that arrived without a mate and had to be left behind; there were families which refused to be separated from their offspring and chose to die together; there were medical inspections, often of a brutally intrusive nature; and all night long the air outside Noah's stockade was heavy with the wailings of the rejected.''

In other stories, we visit a Mediterranean cruise hijacked by terrorists who impose their selection process on the passengers; a tiresome old survivor of the Titanic suspected by his relatives of having donned female clothing to gain access to a lifeboat; the Jewish refugees aboard the liner St. Louis in 1939, denied entry to Havana, turned away from the United States, and returned to their fates in Europe. There is an account of the wreck of the Medusa in 1816, followed by a little impromptu art criticism discussing G'ericault's painting of survivors on ``The Raft of the Medusa.''

As in his previous works (``Flaubert's Parrot'' and ``Staring at the Sun''), Barnes leapfrogs easily from fabulism to reportage to criticism to the personal essay. His performance is undoubtedly slick, but there are shafts of brilliance that compensate for the less inspired ``chapters'' and a saving taste of the bitterness that breeds effective satire.

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