Archive for the ‘Julian Barnes’ Category

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 ( 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?


Barnes, Julian.  Talking It Over.  New York and Toronto: Knopf, 1991

A book by Barnes much earlier than Arthur and George (2006), this one reveals then a longstanding interest in narrative alternations.  Talking It Over is about a love triangle–about two men of apparently opposite character who’ve been friends since school, and the woman one of them meets and marries and then the other steals away.  These three are the alternating narrators.  The novel itself often makes claims to being a sort of Roshomon situation–the characters seeing and understanding the same events differently.  See for instance, the quote from Shostakovich’s autobiography: “He lies like an eye-witness” (222).  Also, while we’re getting their versions of events, we can’t particularly trust them because they are aware of the person who is recording their stories–and perhaps even have a glimmering that they are actually characters in that person’s novel.  One way or the other, their awareness of a storyteller they talk at allows for their misrepresenting what happened or how they felt about it even within their own narratives: this offers  no stream of consciousness interior view of their minds, only what they’re willing to share, which will inevitably be then privileged in terms of presenting just what they want someone else to know.   Indeed, this is often a subject, too.  Oliver says, e.g., that we remember only what we care to out of the vast range of possible details and events.  “I don’t remember.  I won’t remember.  Memory is an act of will, and so is forgetting” (16).

But in fact, the novel challenges that idea.  For one thing, it never really does work as a Roshomon story.  We don’t get different characters’ views of the same events; instead, we get each character telling us only what they choose to tell, and it often happens later that we discover they’ve kept things back, from each other and also from the person they’re talking to through it all–the novelist, perhaps?  Me?   As they “talk it over,” then, they become the novelists of their own fictions, fictions built on not particularly whole truths.   This is not a case of people interpreting the same events differently in terms of their differences of character, etc.; it’s a case of people creating, consciously, different versions of events that then hide more detailed and more complex truths.  In “talking it over,” they reinvent it, quite deliberately, in order to create musunderstandings in each other and in readers.  The ending involves a deliberate act of staging.

The central characters are the stolid bankerly Stuart, his more artistic friend Oliver, and Gillian, who moves from Stuart to Oliver.  Stuart is not quite so completely stolid and dull as Oliver imagines, and Oliver manages to keep things secret from Stuart also–they are neither as caricature a representative of the dulls vs. the artsies as they each imagine the other to be.  (Thus, Stuart claims that “I’ve always thought you are who you are and you shouldn’t pretend to be anything else.  But Oliver used to correct me and explain that you are whoever it is you’re pretending to be” (19)  Neither of these turns out to be true–Stuart does pretend (by leaving things out for both Stuart and readers) and Oliver is more (or perhaps sometimes, less) than he pretends to be.

And on the other hand, they both work hard to maintain those images for each other.  The last section of the involves Oliver, who throughout the novel actually struck me as an egocentric, wit-obsessed, cruel human being, quite unattractive and quite objectionable, getting the girl–perhaps a wish-fulfilment fantasy for the witty Julian Barneses of the world? On the other hand, however, maybe he;s lost the girl at the very end–or she has lost him.  And Stuart really is quite dull.  In the end, I guess, you have to feel sorry for the mysterious Gilliam for allowing either of them into her life.  And why she does so remains more or less blank: she prefers to keep it that way, it seems.  Indeed, a key expectation not ever met here is that she’ll end up explaining it all, offering insights into the other two that help to account for why things work out as they do.  But in fact, she says little about that, and ends up seeming merely passive, and easily led, and then she creates disaster, perhaps, when she does act   That also makes the story about the relationship between the two men, with Gillian thrown in as a sort of prize for them to fight over.  It’s about how they need to be opposite to maintain each other’s sense of self, and how that leads them into a peculiar competitiveness that governs all their behaviour–with perhaps, Gilian as the unwilling (or willing?) victim? Also, she loves a Stuart who is what he created for Oliver?  Or does she love the real man beyond that, and hate when he turns into the caricature? (Or, as she claims still love him–love them both?)   Annd I can ask the same questions about how she feels about Oliver–how does the caricature version impinge on her feelings for him, before and after she fall in love with him?

Gillian’s work as a picture restorer seems operative here–she removes a veneer to find a different picture underneath: does that happen in her relationships with the two men?  On the other hand, Oliver, as usual has an opinion about this: “”There is no real picture under there waiting to be revealed” (122))  and later, Gilliam makes a related significant comment: “”Stuart had his idea of what I was like, he’d decided upon it, and he didn’t want to hear anything different” (175).  So this is where life escapes from the confines of story, where what you’ve invented as your life isn’t adequate to account for expanded or changed facts. Stuart, ironically (?), is the one stuck in an imaginary reality that Oliver and Gillian move beyond?  Oliver turns out to be open to more possibilities, less stuck in a pretence.  The irony is that the stolid normal guy is the one stuck in an invented image.  He is less capable of the vulnerability of openness to other stories than the poseur who believes in posing.

The ending involves a stages scene (staged by Gillian for the benefit of a concealed Stuart who doesn’t know she’s staging it) that goes very wrong, and we’re left hanging as to the consequences.  Is Gillian finally on her own, without either of the two men?  Has she created a reality by pretending to it?  Or did her staging in fact work as she’d intended?

All of that merely suggests that I’m somewhat confused by, and about, this novel.  All I know for sure is that the alternating narratives (and the fact that they’re addressed consciously to an audience) are a key operative part of everything, and a way of moving towards a clearer understanding.  Structure, then, and focalization, are a key to meaning–what the novel is about is how different stories by and about people can be compared in order to understand more.

Why does Gillian’s mother suddenly appear as a narrator, 145 pages in?  Because the events of her life–a husband who leaves her for a school girl–might have made Giulian seek the apparent safety of Stuart?  that would imply a  fairly trivial and over-obvious explanation for her, a cheap way of filling in then novel’s blanks.  And then on old girlfriend of Stuart appears (183), and some pages later, Stuart and Oliver, as narrators now in a narrative space rather than the people they narrate about in a story space, gang up and push her out of the novel.  All this offers a  sense of allowing for messy possibilities beyond the rigidity of the three alternators, an openness to more stories than just the ones we appeared to have already settled on?  A sudden change of a regular pattern like this would never, I think, appear in a children’s or YA novel, where pattern and regularity tend to be everything, even in the midst of innovation and complexity.