Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Arthur & George – Julian Barnes

The blurb of Julian Barnes’ new novel, Arthur and George, tells us that this book is bound to win him ‘an entirely new audience’ while still satisfying his old readers. One should, of course, automatically be suspicious of publisher’s statements like this, especially when emblazoned on the back of a Julian Barnes novel. Of that much-vaunted generation of British novelists – Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie et al. – he would have to be near the best selling. Barnes is never going to be Dan Brown and literary bestsellers like Atonement or The Corrections were seen by many as their respective author’s best work. I very much doubt anyone who has read Barnes’ earlier work – especially Flaubert’s Parrot or A History of the World in Ten and a 1/2 Chapters – could seriously argue that Arthur and George comes anywhere near them. So this novel, to appeal to an entirely new audience, may have had to make some damaging concessions. As it stands, few novels I have read so emphatically re-enact the compromise necessary to appeal to everybody.

Arthur and George concerns the arrest, trial, imprisonment and later freedom of George Edalji (pronounced Edalji as George, to his and our annoyance, constantly has to remind everyone) a half-caste solicitor from a village vicarage near Birmingham. Running concurrently with this is the seemingly unrelated tale of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (the two principals don’t meet until nearly two-thirds of the novel has passed) coping with his wife’s slow death from consumption while carrying on an affair with a younger woman and developing an interest in Spiritualism (a mystic semi-religion concerned with scientifically accurate seances and the like). The ‘angle’, as I’m sure Jonathan Cape’s publicists would have it, is that this is a fictional reconstruction of historical fact. The publicists might call it ‘faction’. George Edalji really was arrested and imprisoned; Arthur Conan Doyle really did help to clear his name, and really did have a wacky interest in Spiritualism. The case is very carefully constructed by Barnes and concerns a series of threatening letters sent to the vicarage where George lived with his parents and sister; this campaign followed by a series of brutal animal mutilations, with all the letters and documents reproduced in the book coming from the real case. It is only after George is inexplicably freed from prison, but is not given a reprieve, that he writes to Conan Doyle to help clear his name and enable him to practise law again. As Conan Doyle investigates we are given a series of clues, from what might have been the weapon of mutilation to the obvious racial bias of the chief constable of the George’s village. Barnes is very good at this, but then he should be, considering he has published a couple of detective novels under the pseudonym Dan Cavanaugh (his wife’s surname). I don’t think its ruining the book for anyone to say that we aren’t given a neat ending, and there is no conclusive evidence to point to who did the crime, just vague suspicions in a number of directions. The two obvious rejoinders to my disappointment in this would be to say ‘well Barnes was merely trying to demonstrate his themes: of the difference between believing and knowing; of how far we can trust ourselves to guard against the prejudice that lies in all of us and, further, he was merely telling us what actually happened in this case – these were the facts and ‘real life’ doesn’t always work out like a genre novel’. In these two objections we can see the very serious problems with Barnes’ book.

In Flaubert’s Parrot, the famous Barnes narrator – urbane, erudite, somewhat smugly clever – was Geoffrey Braithwaite, a widower on the trail of the eponymous author’s parrot, with a dark and surprisingly untacky secret lurking close behind. It, like many of Barnes’ books, wanders the line between essay and novel, and throughout, we learn much of Flaubert’s life, of the shit-hole town of Rouen which he could never seem to leave, of his unusual affair with George Sand (she was later to take up with Chopin), of his various interpreters and critics. Braithwaite seems to be calmly obsessive about all things Flaubert, but as the novel wears on his own problems become clearer and Barnes is able to open about his theme, which is the very fundamental question of the relationship between literature and life: Between Flaubert’s work and his life, and, more primarily, between every reader, the books she loves and the life she leads. And none of this sounds trite, unlike the potted synopsis given above. It is, rather, a perfect demonstration of novelistic thinking.

A History of the World in 10 &½ Chapters, consists of a series of short stories loosely linked by aquatic themes and it, too, doesn’t escape the accusation of being little more than a series of creative essays. The Barnes’ narrator appears again in the discussion of the genesis of Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa, and well as in the ‘1/2’ chapter, where ‘Julian Barnes’ talks to us directly about love. Beyond that we have woodworms stowing away on Noah’s Ark, a heaven of monotonous pleasure, and woodworms placed on trial for the desecration of a church. This final chapter was, interestingly for our purposes, based on a real case in early-modern France. But the book, for all its knowing obtuseness and recondite topics, delivers an emotional punch all the stronger because one never sees it coming.

Early in Arthur & George, Conan Doyle discovers the “essential connection between narrative and reward”. Barnes has always had trouble with that, but the calm superbity of his better books tended to cover over that crack. In his current book, the crack has become a crevasse and Barnes seems only dimly aware of it. There is no gradual deepening of themes or weighty emotional punch in this novel, only Barnes drolly recounting a story, which at times comes dangerously close to the banal: “Not all of the time, thought Arthur. There was something missing in his understanding of the case, something to do with that police visit”. If one is going to write like a crime writer, one better be willing to deliver the payoff.

It is quite difficult to see what Barnes is getting at in this novel. The case is an interesting one, and we are told that at the time it had a similar sort of galvanising effect of the English public as the Dreyfus case did in France. It was Edalji’s case, amongst others, that encouraged the introduction of an appeals court in England. But, thematically, what is Barnes getting at? At one point we witness Arthur pondering:

His mind had snagged on the phrase ‘the real world’. How easily everyone understood what was real and what was not. The world in which a benighted young solicitor was sentenced to penal servitude in Portland – the world in which Holmes unravelled another mystery beyond the powers of Lestrade and his colleagues – or the world beyond, the world behind the closed door through which Touie [Doyle’s dead wife] had effortlessly slipped. Some people believed in only one of these worlds, some in two, a few in all three. Why did people imagine that progress consisted of believing in less, rather than believing in more, in opening yourself up to more of the universe?

The ellipses in that passage are Barnes’ (and they seem to be something like the international code of stream of consciousness – “stand back, there’s dots! Someone must be thinking!). This isn’t a bad piece of writing, and, typically, the last, almost aphoristic sentence is nicely wrought and lightly provoking, but still, if this is what Barnes is getting at the reader doesn’t have much grist to work with. Arthur is clearly one of those who believe in all three worlds but the glimpses we catch of him in each of the three ‘worlds’ – fighting for George, writing stories, attending seances (both when alive and when dead) – all end up being unsatisfying, at least to this reader. Arthur’s interest in spiritualism seems tacked on and bulks out the novel unnecessarily, which is a shame, because Barnes’ treatment of it is tactful and credulous; and Arthur’s most famous creation barely gets a look in, which is another double-edged sword. Conan Doyle is so well known, and so frequently biographied that to focus on those famous incidents in his life – his mad father, the phenomenon of Holmes – would have been damaging. Yet if we don’t see Arthur involved in the world of imagination and literature, what are we left with? Well, with George’s dogged devotion to the ‘real world’. It is this devotion to scrupulousness and this belief in the inherent goodness of the ‘˜real’ that gets George in trouble in the first place. And the real, as Arthur and George learn, does not make for the neat ending or the careful construction; it is messy, unformed, radically subjective, and in the end one can’t reconcile the world of George’s penal servitude with the world of Holmes and Lestrade because the former ends up showing us nothing but the manifold things that can go wrong in criminal trials, while the latter shows us that when criminality occurs and is focussed on in fantasy the result is marvellous. But, as Arthur & George learns, it can only be marvellous in the hands of a talent like Conan Doyle. In the hands of a lesser talent the reader will close the book upon the denouement and sigh ‘It was all too easy’. On finishing this book I sighed that sigh, but it was tinged with rather more disappointment.

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