Saturday, January 21, 2006

Arthur & George, and Michiko & Terrence and others, and Julian and me

I finished reading Arthur & George, by Julian Barnes, a couple weeks ago but haven't had sufficient time to write anything with proper reflection about it. Now that everybody else has read and written about it too, it seems like a good a time as any...

The first and perhaps most important point to make is that it has taken me a couple weeks to get around to posting any notes about it. I don't feel any passion for this novel. It didn't leave a very strong impression on me.

The reviews, however, I have some issues with.

And "A child wants to see." I want to see.

(You should know that the eponymous Arthur is Arthur Conan Doyle. That's not a spoiler per se — anybody who's read the book flap, or the reviews, knows that. It's a fictional account of historical characters and actual events. My impression, however, based on hearing Barnes speak about the novel, is that Barnes intended that famous identity to be slowly revealed over the first 50 pages or so, so as that the character might be solidified as a real person with an identity beyond that of being a famous author, so that our expectations of Arthur might be more realistic. The marketing department evidently thought differently and may thus be largely responsible for the first review considered below.)

The first review to appear in the New York Times, a couple weeks ago, is just plain stupid. Michiko Kakutani:
might have expected him to use the story of Arthur and George as an armature for some sophisticated, postmodernist games or as the jumping-off point for philosophical musings about, say, the gaps between life and art or the difficulty of understanding the past. Instead, Mr. Barnes has decided to write a straight-ahead historical novel — a task he completes in a clumsy and lugubrious fashion.
Whatever the intent, it's a strategy that backfires: the reader doesn't experience the thrill of putting together clues — the way one does when reading a good detective story — but instead feels bombarded by a blizzard of boring bits of data.

Sure, a Holmesian approach might've made for a good book. But Arthur himself spent many years fighting his way out from under Sherlock's shadow (which you might've understood if you'd paid any attention); such a book would be pure fiction. Barnes did not write the book you wanted him to — Get over it! Be clear, too, that while it may not appeal to your tastes, it is anything but clumsy (I'll get to that bit yet).

Last weekend's review in the New York Times opens with one of the spirtualist themes Doyle tackles: "How can you make sense of the beginning unless you know the ending?" And then it goes on a bit about ghosts. Then:
If this makes "Arthur and George" sound like metaphysical-puzzle fiction of the Borges/Eco variety, I suppose that can't be helped. Its ghosts — the huge, imponderable questions of life and death and truth and time — are there, and nothing can reason them away.

Well, the review may want to make it sound that way, but be clear: this is not puzzle fiction, there's very little seriously metaphysical about it, it bears no resemblance whatsoever to Borges or Eco. Borges and Eco. That's just silly.

The rest of the review is quite complimentary. A big deal is made of its Englishness. Both title characters are English and not-English. I don't quite understand Arthur's non-Englishness — Barnes tells me its there, but I don't get it. Because he's Catholic? I wish Barnes could make it clearer for me, but I accept that this is a failing on my part, not having a drop of Englishness in me, and I have all my life grappled to understand certain sensibilities among my peers of English heritage — it is a culture distinctly foreign to me. Still, I like English novels, and this is one. The Englishness lies in its tone of restraint.

Julian Barnes has written a deeply English novel, in the grand manner, about the sorts of existential questions the English on the whole prefer to leave to the French. "Arthur and George" conceals its contemplation of the imponderables slyly, discreetly hiding it behind the curtains while scenes of Dickensian force and color play out in firelit rooms. Barnes narrates in a preternaturally calm, controlled third person, alternating skillfully between Arthur and George, and everything flows so smoothly that you barely notice he's doing something terribly cunning with tenses. George's passages are in the present tense until his arrest, when the progress of his life, as he sees it, comes to an unscheduled stop; Doyle's are in the past until he meets Jean and begins a relationship that, he tells himself, "has no past, and no future that can be thought about; it has only the present." Too clever by half? In a French novel, it might seem so. In "Arthur and George," it feels more like an honest attempt to see through the story, or to see beyond it — in any event, to see more clearly.

With no other novel have I been so acutely aware of its structure. On this point I choose to praise myself for having become a more astute reader rather than to fault Barnes for not layering over his hard work more subtly.

The review in The Washington Post shows admiration and sense in regard to Arthur and George:
Barnes's artistry underscores that these two proper gentlemen are both, in fact, victimized by the systems they admire most — the law and chivalry. Together, they are nonetheless able to redeem lives wracked by hopelessness and frustration.

However, I disagree with the assessment of the novel's conclusion:
In the novel's final pages, Arthur has matured into a convinced spiritualist, to the dismay of most of his admirers then and now. Yet Barnes's novel allows us to better understand why and how this may have come about.

Frankly, no, I don't better understand Arthur's spiritualist maturation. I'd've liked to be privy to Arthur's internal arguments reconciling the balderdash with the Holmesian method. We see bits of his life come up against each other, but why one result and not another? Barnes is too English on the matter, seemingly afraid to address it in polite company.

The review in the Christian Science Monitor is to date the most reasonable assessment (that is, most closely reflecting my own opinion) of this Good Book by an Important Author:
[I]f anything, Barnes gently mocks the Holmesian belief that life is a problem to be solved by logic and close observation. Instead, the story suggests, human justice can never be more than approximate because "truth" - always filtered through one individual consciousness or another - is so fluid a commodity.

I confess, perhaps influenced by a comment made by the professor who introduced Barnes when I saw him last October, I didn't really care for Arthur. George is the much more interesting character, quiet and introspective, governed by rules (the law as his profession, the law as his downfall, the rules of tradition, both religious and cultural in the household in which he is raised, both English and not English.

Arthur. Perhaps this is the difficulty of writing a historical character (George of course, is historical too, but he has made no lasting impression on the cultural consciousness. We can easily accept his character as being wholly fictional, and better for it.) There is a reticence in characterizing Arthur — too many creative liberties might upset biographers and Doyleans, too much fact would obscure the point of the story, too much emphasis on Holmes and he becomes a caricature.

So instead, he seems a little less than human.

Also, the novel simply did not live up to the excitement I built up for it when I saw Julian Barnes. Reading the book was not at all like what I imagine could've been a very lively follow-up to the reading, perhaps at a nearby pub, on the driving forces behind the habits of individuals, the rules of law, or the hand of God; the media, politics, and the powers that be; immigrants and the English; the reconciliaiton of rationalism and spiritualism; and love.

But if you don't have the opportunity to chat with Barnes over a pint, or at least, as I did, to hear him read from and freely speak about his work, then by all means read the book.

The official website of Julian Barnes.
The US edition of Arthur & George.
On hearing Barnes read from and speak about Arthur & George.


rachel said...

Conan Doyle is not English because he's Irish. And Scottish.

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Isabella said...

I knew that, Irish and Scottish, and should've said so.

What am I getting at? At the risk of offending a lot of people, is that really so very distinctly not-English? Arthur considered himself an outsider, but would others view him that way? And to the degree that George's family was not-English?

(George's father was from Bombay, and George was quite dark-skinned. The question of being an outsider is then complicated by the fact that George thought of himself as English, he was English, even while he refused to accept that threats against him, and being set up for the crime of which he was accused, might be racially motivated.)

It makes me uncomfortable to think of these two states of being an outsider as in any way equal. And I wonder, is that a deliberate effect, or is it just me?

There's a deeper discomfort, come to think of it: Barnes sets up their stories in parallel, splicing them back and forth, to highlight their similarities, but beyond the "we're all just people" sentiment and holding broad ideals in common — doing right by others, adhering to the code — I just don't buy it. They're very different characters. (Maybe this is why the structure was so obvious to me — it doesn't exactly, or comfortably, fit what it seems to be trying to uphold. But maybe that's the point?)


rachel said...

Well, bearing in mind that I haven't read the book, Irish and Scottish are VERY different from English. It's not so different than Canadians being different from Americans. They may seem indistinguishable to outsiders, but they don't like to be mistaken for each other.

There's a lot of very bitter history there. And you're talking about a country (England) where infinitessimal differences in accent could (once upon a time) brand you for life. Class differences were as divisive as race differences, and he would have been subject to both -- the Irish were considered a race, with all the baggage that imparts. Surly, lazy, violent, despised. Conan Doyle, however he may have tried to blend in, would have been readily identifiable as Irish, the moment his name was heard. Doyle is a really common, really Irish name.

(who is Irish, Scottish, AND English. They can interbreed!)

Tim said...

I'm never quite sure what to make of authors who decide to fictionalize the lives of famous people (particularly authors). I suppose in some way its a tip-of-the-hat to those who inspired you. Yet, more often than not, I find myself being let down by these attempts to draw (very) real people into fiction.

The first time I read a novel where this was attempted was another Arthur Conan Doyle "adventure" -- The List of 7. While Doyle's real life self might have made a perfect match for Frost's imaginative landscape, I couldn't help but feel as though Doyle was being short changed.

It's almost as if the authors find it pleasing to use real people as characters, but work hard not to step on anyone's toes. In so doing, they wind up creating very flat characters, who don't stand up against the vivid backgrounds and plots they're attempting to create.

Isabella said...

Damn you, Rachel, making me think...

I have no problem accepting that there are differences, even more than between Canadians and Americans, and stronger ones 100 years ago than now. But I still have trouble believing it could rival the obstacles faced by a visible minority.

There's no argument with you, Rachel, but now the book's got to argue its way out of my head.

(I've skimmed over the beginning again and I hope to have time later this week to track down people who've read it so someone can confirm or dispel my reading — please!...)

Barnes doesn't say much about Arthur's childhood. His father was absent as a drunkard and then in the madhouse. His mother took up with another man. Arthur was sent to school in England. Barnes gives no evidence for Arthur being marked as non-English. If anything, his parents' behaviour might mark him an outsider, but even that seems to wash off him. I don't know whether Barnes's approach reflects that little is documented of Arthur's childhood, that it doesn't much interest him, or that he doesn't feel it's relevant.

And then Arthur finds success early in adulthood, in England — if he had suffered discrimination, he readily overcame it. So when he perceives himself to be non-English, I'm a bit surprised.

In his successes and values, Arthur may be more English than non-English; George on the other hand may be more non-Engish than he lets himself believe. (Maybe this is Barnes's point?)

Tim: When I saw Barnes he matter-of-factly stated he read the Sherlock Holmes stories as a kid. So, not really an homage in this case. His interest lay in how a writer took up a public/political case (as Zola in Dreyfuss).

The case against George simply isn't as important as the Dreyfuss affair. As with the characters of Arthur and George, Barnes tries to draw parallels, but not entirely effectively — they're just too different.

There are some interesting issues raised regarding race etc, but Barnes treats them with such a light touch (too light), I was never made to seriously consider them.

For a book that didn't leave much impression on me, I certainly have a lot to say about it now. I promise I won't bore you with it any longer. While I enjoyed the book on a superficial level, now I know why I wasn't entirely satisfied with it.

MaryB said...

Thanks for your review of this, Isabella. I want to read it because the subject matter interests me and because I usually enjoy Julian Barnes.

I read another book about Conan Doyle several years ago called Teller of Tales, by Daniel Stashower and found it fascinating.

Kate S. said...
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Anonymous said...

Book Review 'Arthur and George'

This is not so much a comment but I thought someone might be interested in a non-fiction account recently published by Pegasus Elliot Mackenzie? This new book “Conan Doyle and the Parson’s Son: The George Edalji Case”, researched and written by Gordon Weaver between 1999 and 2003, is the only non-fictional account of the George Edalji miscarriage of justice case. This book goes behind the scenes to explore the complex issues that surround the harassment of the Edalji family and the conviction and trial of George Edalji. The vast wealth of Home Office documentation held at the UK’s National Archives provides additional dimensions to what in fact was the case that changed the face of English legal procedure.

The work provides a comprehensive account of social attitudes, legal processes, police duplicity, judicial connivance and bureaucratic intransigence during the late Victorian and Edwardian era. For a synopsis of this work visit

Best wishes,

Adam Navin