Julian Barnes: Arthur and George

So this year was, for me, a Booker anomaly. Usually I love the Booker Prize. It has introduced me to some fantastic books, not to mention some of the best novelists. I don’t know when I would have found Julian Barnes if it weren’t for his sometimes appearance on the Booker shortlist. His most recent to hit the list was Arthur and George (2005), the year John Banville’s The Sea won (a book I didn’t particularly like at the time but that has refused to leave my mind), and probably the last good year for the Booker Prize. This year Julian Barnes’s memoir Nothing to Be Frightened Of, listed as one of the five best nonfiction books of the year on several lists, inspired me to revisit one of my favorites:

arthur-and-george

In its own way, this novel is also a bit of nonfiction. The Arthur in the title is the famous Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. A bit more obscure, but no less real, George Edalji is the son of an Indian father and a Scotish mother. The novel’s main narrative thrust comes when George, due partially on his race, is arrested for a series of animal mutilations. Knowing he was innocent, Arthur engages on a quest to prove his innocence and find the real culprit. This actually happened, as unbelievable as it may sound: Arthur was confident enough in his sleuthing to adopt the trade of his greatest legacy, Sherlock Holmes. However, the book is so much more than an interesting telling of this biographical footnote.

The book begins with some wonderful, though completely disconnected (Arthur and George didn’t meet until 1903, much later in their lives) vignettes about Arthur and George’s youths. Here are the first lines in the novel, introducing Arthur:

A child wants to see. It always begins like this, and it began like this then. A child wanted to see.

He was able to walk, and could reach up to a door handle. He did this with nothing that could be called purpose, merely the instinctive tourism of infancy. A door was there to be pushed; he walked in, stopped, looked. There was nobody to observe him; he turned and walked away, carefully shutting the door behind him.

What he saw there became his first memory. A small boy, a room, a bed, closed curtains leaking afternoon light. By the time he came to describe it publicly, sixty years had passed. How many internal retellings had smoothed and adjusted the plain words he finally used? Doubtless it still seemed as clear as on the day itself. The door, the room, the light, the bed, and what was on the bed: a “white, waxen thing.”

A small boy and a corpse: such encounters would not have been so rare in the Edinburgh of his time.

And here are the first lines introducing George:

George does not have a first memory, and by the time anyone suggests that it might be normal to have one, it’s too late. He has no recollection obviously preceding all others — not of being picked up, cuddled, laughed at or chastised. He has an awareness of once having been an only child, and a knowledge that there is now Horace as well, but no primal sense of being disturbingly presented with a brother, no expulsion from paradise. Neither a first sight, nor a first smell, whether of a scented mother or a carbolicy maid-of-all-work.

Though I often don’t like it when an author fiddles with verb tenses, in this book it becomes more than a gimmick. Arthur’s narrative is in the past tense until he meets Miss Jean Leckie, a woman who will become his notorious mistress in a notoriously unconsumated affair. Indeed, one of the most interesting aspects of the novel delves into Arthur’s inner battle to be faithful to his dying wife, whom he loved dearly, and maintain an unsexual romantic affair with Miss Leckie. George’s narrative is completely in the present tense until he is put in prison for the animal mutilations. If that were the whole point though, then I would say this was a clever narrative gimmick, but Barnes extends this “tense” issue beyond this. Much of the book deals with life and death, what comes after, what remains. It is not a spoiler to dislcose the last lines: “What does he see? What did he see? What will he see?”

Without disclosing too much of the story, it must be said that Barnes uses Arthur and George to examine in novel form what he eventually does in his memoir, and had previously done in a New Yorker personal history essay entitled “The Past Conditional,” which begins, “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him.” Using Arthur’s fascination with spiritism, Barnes delves into the more spectral aspects of our existence. When most authors would have been content to exploit Doyle’s attempt to do Holmes in a simple mystery novel, Barnes uses it to roam around some longer-lasting mysteries.

5 thoughts on “Julian Barnes: Arthur and George

  1. Lisa Hill says:

    Yes, I agree about the ‘last good Booker Prize’. Like you I have been introduced to many fine writers through the Booker and its shortlists, and I began collecting them seriously a few years ago, but I haven’t read any of them since the Banville. They are there on my TBR, but with so many other wonderful books to read, the latest Bookers just don’t appeal. Maybe I’ll get round to them one day….

  2. Well, Lisa, I can’t offer any words of encouragement. The Inheritance of Loss, The Gathering, and The White Tiger are all subpar books in my opinion. If you’re like me and feel a need to read all of the Booker winners, then I probably can’t dissuade you, but there are plenty of other good books to read before you read the last three winners.

  3. KevinfromCanada says:

    I’ve been banished from the kitchen while the bird is being prepared, so I am delighted to find this Christmas Day post to occupy me.

    On our trips to London, the first full day always ends with a stop at Hatchards on Piccadilly. Since we usually go in the fall, a highlight is always to start out by checking the displays of Booker finalists before moving back into the shop. I always emerge with a bag that contains as much as I can carry on the walk back to Knightsbridge where we stay — that usually means five or six hardcover books, most of which are read before it is time to come home.

    So I remember well my excitement when I bought this book in the fall of 2005 — I too am a Barnes’ admirer (although I have to say his work is uneven) and certainly was intrigued by the premise of this book.

    Perhaps, I was too excited. The first part of the book — the conflicting tenses — I did find very interesting and rewarding. But I’m afraid as it moved into spiritism I got more and more frustrated. I’m not into spiritism, so that was part of it. And I certainly got the feeling that Barnes had got himself trapped in his conceit and was so wrapped up in that that his interest in serving the reader got lost. (What I like best about Barnes is his social satire and that is pretty much absent in this part of the book.) By the end, I wasn’t disappointed in the book so much as thinking “oh well, that didn’t really work.” Your review does bring all those memories back and I am heartened that you found a meaning to the overall work that I did not. The reminder is enough for me and I don’t think I’ll be revisiting it.

    I did think The Sea (also bought on that same visit) was a deserving, if surprise, winner and have reread it since and found it grew in my estimation. While I agree with the assessment that recent Booker winners are pretty pale compared to some previous ones, I would urge Lisa to consider the shortlist each year. In all three of these years, there are some excellent books that did not win — The Secret River and In the Country of Men in 2006; The Reluctant Fundamentalist, On Chesil Beach and Animal’s People in 2007; and The Clothes on Their Backs, The Secret Scripture and Sea of Poppies in 2008. My comment on the 2005 shortlist is that all five books have value — and that is the latest year when that happened.

    Now I think I’ll see if I am allowed back near the kitchen. I have decided that my “holiday” book will be Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, a very promising look at “the glittering salons of Gilded Age New York”. I enjoy Wharton a lot — she doesn’t do Europe as well as Henry James does, but I think she does America better. And I am going to intersperse that with a reread of Cynthia Ozick’s Dialogue, her book of four longish short stories from last year, which I highly recommend.

    Many thanks for the holiday diversion. I hope your holiday is going well.

  4. I remember finding this book very gripping and enjoyable. But if there was any profound wisdom Barnes wanted to impart here, it didn’t come across. It’s no coincidence that Barnes is a massive admirer of Penelope Fitzgerald. Like Fitzgerald’s best work, I think Arthur & George is a beguiling exercise in writing “meaningfully” but without a meaning in mind.

    Fitzgerald and Barnes certainly see literature as a means of transcending reality, but not in order to reach some higher plane of understanding. For both authors, literature may try to rationalize the chaotic unpredictability of human lives, but it won’t succeed — the meaning of life, and the question of how to live, are unsolvable mysteries.

    Thus both authors set out to present unusual lives, plainly and simply, as they were lived, without judgment or interpretation, to let the reader reach her own conclusions.

  5. For both authors, literature may try to rationalize the chaotic unpredictability of human lives, but it won’t succeed — the meaning of life, and the question of how to live, are unsolvable mysteries.

    Interesting perspective, Jonathan. I think you’ve articulated one of my favorite aspects of this novel, even though I didn’t know it at the time. The attempt itself is fascinating and worthwhile!

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