Julian Barnes falls, personally, into an ought to read category. The accessible and enjoyable The Sense of an Ending and Arthur and George are balanced by the oft tried but failed miserably Flaubert’s Parrot and once attempted (30 years ago) A History of the World in 10½ Chapters. The latter failures come frequently to mind when considering whether or not to read a Barnes novel. Sadly, to that list will now be added his latest, Elizabeth Finch.
Taught, precise language along with an endeavour to make sense of things past and present run through his novels – and Elizabeth Finch is no different. Except unlike The Sense of an Ending, Barnes has managed to make a short book feel like a long one.
It starts off well enough as our narrator, Neil, actor, twice divorced and father of three, was once a student in a Culture and Civilisation adult education class taught by Elizabeth Finch. He becomes consumed by her, admitting I probably paid more attention to what she said and how she spoke than I did to anyone else in my life. It’s not sexual adoration but something much more cerebral Her diction was formal, her sentence structure entirely grammatical,” Neil gushes. “You could almost hear the commas, semicolons and full stops. His championing of her is accepted among the small group of fellow students, even if thought a little odd.
Long after the course has finished, Neil remains in contact with Elizabeth Finch – the occasional dinner at the same restaurant three or four times a year. But her sudden death puts paid to that, only for him to discover he has been left Elizabeth’s journals in her will. Now, he feels, is the time to really understand the woman who shook my mind around, made me constantly rethink. A biography is in the making. But instead, he decides on the ultimate tribute, To please the dead – a biographical essay of her ancient hero: Julian the Apostate, the last pagan emperor of Rome, who attempted to turn back the disastrous flood tide of Christianity.
And that, after 44 pages or so of Elizabeth Finch is where the interest moreorless stops. Barnes is at his cerebral best/worst. At first I thought Elizabeth Finch a Romantic pessimist; now I would call her a Romantic Stoic. Are the two conditions compatible? Really? What follows is a tedious history essay interspersed with the occasional tidbit of the unremarkable life of Elizabeth Finch. Sure, we know Barnes can write well – and mass consumption has never been his concern (Arthur and George possibly his closest to a populist novel). But this?