Julian Barnes’s Arthur & George

Posted: May 10, 2009 in adult literature, alternating narratives, Julian Barnes

Barnes, Julian.  Arthur & George.  New York: Knopf, 2006.

Since I mentioned this novel while discussing Barnes’s Talking It Over, it seems useful to say a bit more about it here.  Arthur and George tells the story of how Arthur Conan Doyle, mostly famous as the inventor of the arch crime solver Sherlock Holmes, helps George Edalji, a lawyer sent to prison for attacking animals and other crimes, to get out of a wrongful conviction.  This is based in actual historical events, and I have to admit that, while I greatly enjoyed reading it, it’s hard to tell exactly why it’s a novel exactly.  It’s very good at creating the characters of Doyle (enthusiast, sportsman, lover, etc.) and Edalji (which Barnes seems to have made up even though there was such as man and such a case–but little biographical info?–whereas his Doyle is based on biographical materials?).  And they are interesting characters, and in an interesting situation, especially in terms of the racial backgrounds of the central characters in a time of racial tensions and empire–but it isn’t clear why it forms a cohesive whole, why exactly Barnes wants to tell this story.  What does it amount to thematically?

Nothing particularly obvious, at least to me.  I suppose it shows how class, race, colour, and so on influence how people are thought about and how they think about themselves, but that hardly seems enough, and in any case, is surely inevitable in the context of a specified historical place and time?

In a way, even, the history weighs it down as a novel.  It has to follow the contours of what’s known (even though Barnes invents beyond that), and so things happen that seem somehow extraneous to the central concerns–like, for instance, Doyle’s interest in spiritualism.  This doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the Edalji plot, except insofar as Edalji is always rational and has no truck with it, and so there’s an opposition to be considered, but isn’t really all that subtle or interesting a one.  But the spiritualism has to be there, because it was a fact of the real Doyle’s life.  And as a result, the novel somehow seems more random than a novel should be–or perhaps, infuriatingly, it’s just more subtle than I’m managing to get.

Moreover, it never really seems to justify the alternating narratives.  We see inside each man’s thoughts, but they are not necessarily understanding or misunderstanding each other in ways that surface as particularly thematic, nor are any of the usual things happening that an alternating focalized narration is usually used for.  All it does is allow the story of two men quite different from each other and who start out unconnected but then become connected to be told–with the implication (inherent in the form?) that somehow one’s life contrasts or counterpoints the other’s.  Two quite different people come to be involved, but that still doesn’t seem enough to justify all this effort.

Nevertheless, there is clearly a paralleling of the alternating narrations.  The book moves unevenly through the characters’ lives, with some short alternating sections and then long sections devoted just to one of the characters–but when the latter happens, then it happens in turn with each of the characters.  Also, the plot involves a history of life-changing events–for Edalji, being arrested, tried, convicted, and imprisoned all in one long go, for Doyle, meeting a younger woman he falls in love with even though, he thinks, he’s more or less happily married.  So I have the sense that if I spent more time at it (which might well be worthwhile), I could unearth a whole saga of counterpoints and variations.

The whole clearly follows an expected pattern: Arthur and George start quite separately and have little or nothing to do with each other, but then one hears of the other, and then they meet and become involved–and then, in this case, move apart into isolation again.  They effect each others lives, but they don’t become a happy family or community, as most conventionally happens in children’s fiction with alternating narratives.

They are, in fact, significantly different to start with, and, intriguingly, remain so throughout  Difference does not, as most often in fiction for oyung people, lead to sameness or perceptions of shared selfhood or interest.  Doyle is gregarious, manly, active, sexually alive, Edalji is the opposite of all those.  One of the men is already famous, the other obscure until he becomes notorious for his supposed crimes.  Arthur feels saddled with Sherlock Holmes, yet agrees to take on Edalji’s case in spite of his disclaimers about interest in crime-solving.  Edalji, son of a Parsee and a Scots mother, has been raised in an isolated household and is a weird isolate, but thinks of himself as thoroughly English and quite normal.  Is Holmes then an opposite?  He is the quite normally and thoroughly an English establishment stud, but constantly dwells on his Irishness, his being different.  Both, then, lack self-perception?  And are their lacks of self-perception related to class and race–how their views of themselves are at odds with the cultural norm’s dominant view, which affects their lives despite their refusal to see it?  That works more readily for Edalji than it does for Doyle, perhaps, who wants to be “different” rather than “same,” instead of vice-versa.

And finally–what does Doyle’s spiritualism have to do with anything?  He is the thoroughly rational man suckered by himself, whereas Edalji is the unusual eccentric guy suckered by his sense of his own normalcy.

So maybe this novel is about something after all.  Even so, even the Julian Barnes website (www.julianbarnes.com/) seems uncertain about that, offering this impressively vague and embracing statement about the novel:  ” It is a novel about low crime and high spirituality; guilt and innocence; identity, nationality and race; and thwarted passion.  Arthur & George explores what we think, what we believe, and what we know.”  Golly, is that all?  How narrow can you get?

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