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, 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:
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.