Julian Barnes is the most famous contemporary English novelist—in France, where he is enormously admired. He is a fastidious writer whose prose is always a pleasure to read. His sentences are beautifully crafted, though I sometimes suspect that the parts of his books are greater than their wholes.

The narrator of his latest novel is a middle-class man of indeterminate profession and limited success who has had a complex personal life and who, in his thirties, now thirty years ago, pursued an adult-education course, presumably because he felt undereducated. His teacher, Elizabeth Finch, was a woman whom the narrator (and author) wants us to find mysterious, admirable, and fascinating but, as many an author has found, it is harder to make a good character fascinating than a bad one. An author can decree that his character should be tall, hunchbacked, sallow-skinned, or whatever, but he cannot decree him or her to be fascinating. And Elizabeth Finch seems to me a sphynx without a riddle, though she is also mildly irritating, with her self-assurance masquerading as an openminded and somewhat disabused skepticism. Like many such a person, she is, at heart, sure of everything.

In her opening address to her students, as recalled by the narrator, she says, “I am no Socrates and you are not a classroom of Platos, if that is the correct plural form. Nevertheless, we shall engage in dialogue.” I am not sure that the author wished her to come across as preening and self-congratulatory, but that is what she sounds like to me.

Elizabeth Finch is clearly modeled in part on Anita Brookner, the late art historian and novelist whose subject was the difficulty that the intellectual middle-class women of her age had in forming satisfactory relationships. But Barnes is too adept a writer to have his character mirror exactly the biography of his model. While Brookner wrote many successful novels, Elizabeth Finch has published, in a manner reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes, only two out-of-print monographs.

As was Gaul, the novel is divided into three parts. The first is a narrative of the author’s relationship to his teacher, which continues with regular but infrequent meetings for lunch after he has left her class, until her death. She leaves the narrator her books and papers.

The second third of the book is the narrator’s disquisition, nearly fifty pages long, on Julian the Apostate, a figure whom he discovers from Elizabeth Finch’s notebooks to have been very important to her before her death, and whom he writes about in honor of her memory.

Among Finch’s notes are her thoughts for a public lecture:

Had churches been less monotheistic and oppressive, had the expulsion of those Not Like Us not taken place, Britons would have mixed more freely, miscegenation would have been normal, and whiteness no indicator of superiority. So a society with fewer evident markers of status and money and power. British history might therefore have become the story of a country learning from otherness rather than ignoring and repressing it. In place of a country of conquest, viewed from the outside with anything from wary respect to intense loathing, a country which led the world (or part of the world) differently—as an example of those virtues, often present in the society if frequently overshadowed, of tolerance, liberalism, and a good-humoured openness to others.    

This is tedious cliché at best, complete with an adolescent and crude version of history. One should not confuse an author’s opinions with those of his character, of course, but Barnes has given an interview in which he admitted that he shares his character’s view that history took a wrong turn with the death of Julian the Apostate, and that without this turn (I paraphrase, of course), the British would not have had to wait so long for so many different kinds of restaurants.

One could write Elizabeth Finch’s kind of history with regard to the wheel as well as to Christianity. What did the invention of the wheel bring? Consider the disasters it has wrought. It has enabled those with it to conquer and oppress those without it. It has enabled the movement of goods on an unprecedented scale, thereby encouraging polluting industry. It has enabled mass tourism, which renders every destination not worth the reaching. And so on and so forth.

The astonishing thing is that Elizabeth Finch (and perhaps the author also) imagines that she is being daring and pathbreaking in the above reflections, rather than uttering a modern orthodoxy. She continues:

Of course all this [the above], if stated publicly, would attract the usual anathematising: defeatist, self-loathing, pinko, a watering-down of true English and British blood, enemies of the state, etc., etc.

The narrator asks us to admire “the shimmer of her phrasing, the lustre of her brain.” No doubt unconsciously, the author is asking us to admire the shimmer of his phrasing, the luster of his brain.      

The third part of the novel is the narrator’s search for more information about his admired teacher. I think very few readers will share his curiosity, but if they do, they will be disappointed, for Elizabeth Finch remains strangely but uninterestingly indefinite, and would remain so were the book twice as long. When the narrator tells us that we should remember that she had “a fine, ironic wit to her,” we should have liked some evidence of it, not just his assertion. Her sayings are truisms with a slightly gnomic patina, as if tone of voice could turn truism into wisdom. Her trick is ultimately not very different from those who suppose that wearing dungarees and sporting a long beard will make sages of them, and not in appearance only.

She is a terrible self-deceiver, without, I think, the author intending her to be. She says to her students “I am not employed to help you. I am here to assist you to think and argue and develop minds of your own.”

Provided, of course, that they come to the same conclusions as she. She tells her students that she is there to assist them to think and develop minds of their own immediately after pronouncing the following speech:

Monotheism. Monomania. Monogamy. Monotony. Nothing good begins this way.

She ends imperiously by asking the students (one can hear the intimidation in her voice), “Any questions?” In short, she is a bully and a bore, while thinking herself a skeptic and a wit.

Although Elizabeth Finch is very flawed as a novel, it is interesting as a document, as an artifact of our cultural conjuncture. It is clear that the eponymous protagonist believes herself, as possibly does the author, to be in a kind of outspanned ox-wagon cultural laager, bravely fending off the hordes of the savages beyond. The problem is that the savages beyond believe more or less the same thing, that is to say that it is they who are fending off the savages from within their outspanned cultural laager.    

The feeling of being besieged is uncomfortable, perhaps, but it has its compensations. For one thing, it puts one on the side of the angels. For another, it lends a significance to whatever one does. As Cavafy says in “Waiting for the Barbarians”:

            what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?

     Those people were a kind of solution.

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