Julian Barnes’ Arthur and George

The first Julian Barnes book I ever read was Flaubert’s Parrot. At the time, I’d never heard of Barnes, but the title of the book intrigued me, and I was going through an intense Flaubert reading phase, so it was book I couldn’t possibly ignore.

It remains my favourite among Barnes’ books. While I have nothing but admiration for the rest of Barnes’ work, I’ve always found him to be more impressive than exceptional – reading his other novels was a pleasure, but Flaubert’s Parrot is the only one that I found truly exciting, the only one I could consider reading again.

So when I first heard that Barnes was writing a book where Arthur Conan Doyle would be a character, I had high hopes. In the final analysis, Barnes contributed considerably to my fascination with Flaubert (a fascination that began, strangely enough, with a single line from Robert Lowell where he calls Flaubert the supreme artist) and I suppose I vaguely hoped that he would do something similar with Doyle.

That may be one reason why, in the end, Arthur and George left me disappointed. No, that’s not fair. It wasn’t really Arthur and George that left me disappointed, it was Barnes himself – Arthur and George is in every way an irreproachable book, but it is a book that could have been so much more.

Statutory plot summary: Arthur and George is, as the name suggests, the story of two people – a young half-Parsee lawyer named George Edalji who is wrongfully accused of maiming cattle, and of Arthur Conan Doyle, writer, doctor, sportsman, ‘unofficial Englishman’ who comes to his defense. The story opens with these two as children, and tracks their careers as adults until they finally come together in appealing George’s case before the Home Office. Along the way Barnes manages, with his usual understated skill, to show us the differences in temperament between these two men – George is cautious, introverted, logical, precise; but also myopic and a snob. Arthur is driven, restless, outgoing – a dreamer driven by arcane ideas of chivalry and honour who finds solace for his failure of faith in spiritism. The ironies inherent in this contrast are too numerous to go into, but each represents, in his own way, a side of British culture without being, in either case, a typical Englishman. The novel thus becomes a fascinating exploration of the schizophrenia at the heart of British culture, and Barnes’ greatest achievement for much of the book is the way he makes us feel sympathetic towards both of his characters, even when their points of view are diametrically opposed.

So far so good. The trouble is, I think, that Arthur and George is not really one book but a number of different books, and the juxtaposition of them seems as unlikely and circumstantial as the coming together of its two main protagonists. Just as one could ask what Arthur and George have to do with each other, one could also ask what the different parts of the book have to do with each other, and it’s hard to come up with a truly satisfying reply. Which is not to say that the parts don’t fit in a loose way, only that they don’t really seem necessary to each other, and I can’t help thinking that by juxtaposing them Barnes adds little value.

The parts of the book I thoroughly enjoyed were the parts that dealt with George. In portraying George’s trial and the events leading up to it, Barnes affords us a fascinating glimpse of an interesting and unusual character, a glimpse that reminded me, quite forcibly, of Camus’ L’Etranger. in his own way, Edalji is an outsider too, set apart from society not only by his racial status (though he himself is quick to argue that his conviction had nothing to do with race, a little too quick perhaps) but also, and perhaps more importantly by his own nature. The fact that George is highly myopic may be part of the reason he grows up to be the person he becomes, but it is also the most telling metaphor in the book – this is a man who sees the world as being complete in himself, and whose ability to understand the real world is therefore critically impaired. George is a blind man of Hindustan, a man who can only apprehend the world by bumping into it, and his story here is the story of how such a series of collisions adds up to a life. Race, Barnes suggests, is at least partly a red herring here – the jury is certainly prejudiced against George, but you can’t help feeling that the prejudice comes less from racial bigotry and more from an inability to understand a 27 year old man who sleeps in the same room as his father and never goes out at night. At any rate, George’s trial remains for me, the high point of the book – like a version of the L’Etranger which is deeper and more human for being less existential.

The rest of the book does not, in my opinion, quite match up to this standard. The contrast between Arthur and George is interesting, but feels at least somewhat contrived. Barnes speaks of Arthur Conan Doyle’s life at great length, but offers few or no insights into Conan Doyle as a writer, and large parts of the Arthur sections seemed irrelevant to the narrative. I mean, okay, so we understand that Doyle only took up the Edalji case because he was at a difficult point in his life, but did we really need a forty page description of Doyle’s fairly quotidian love life to understand this? This is not to say that the forty pages aren’t well written, but they seem like a tangent to the rest of the book, and compared to the seriousness of Edalji’s case, you can’t help seeing them as frivolous. The book picks up a little as Doyle begins to investigate the Edalji case, but the overall effect is faux-fiction [1] – it’s hard to take Doyle seriously here, he’s charming, but you can’t help feeling that he has no perspective. As for the last section, with its description of the seance following Doyle’s death, that too feels interesting but a little besides the point, like watching a man run a fast action race, then stop to dawdle in a field picking flowers.

It’s this lack of consistent rhythm that made Arthur and George a difficult book to read – again and again I felt Barnes lose momentum, slip back and forth between gears for no apparent reason. Almost as though her were afraid of writing too fluid, too single-purposed a book. The whole thing felt like a collection of exquisite diversions, and while the quality of writing was impeccable throughout, and each individual piece was engaging, the lack of overall direction irritated me, and I found myself wishing that Barnes had chosen a tighter structure.

Bottomline: Arthur and George has all the makings of a truly great novel – part L’Etranger, part In Cold Blood, part Perry Mason, part The Ambassadors. The coming together of these different strains is an awkward one, though, and in trying to combine them Barnes ends up writing a book that though interesting, reads more like an average Atwood novel, than a true classic.

[1] In the interests of full disclosure, and at the risk of being pilloried, I should say that I’ve never much cared for Arthur Conan Doyle’s writing in general – the Sherlock Holmes stories in general leave me cold, in much the same way as Superman comics, because I don’t see the point of watching someone with virtually superhuman powers of detection solve cases. My definition of good detective fiction is more Agatha Christie – I like stories where the author plays fair and all the clues necessary to solve the mystery are included in the story, so you can either figure out who the murderer is or kick yourself afterwards for not having seen it. With Holmes you almost never get that – no one but Holmes could solve the mysteries he solves (usually because no one else can tell with a glance which of the 400 different varieties of top-soil found in Northern Ireland can be seen on the culprits boots), whereas in theory, everyone could have figured out what Miss Marple figured out, if only they’d thought about it the right way. The fact that I’ve never been impressed with Doyle much may be one of the reasons the book doesn’t enchant me enough.