Julian Barnes’ Elizabeth Finch is a curious book. It’s my fourth Julian Barnes, and the third I’ve read with my reading group. In 1995 we read A history of the world in 10 1/2 chapters, and in 2012 it was his Booker Prize winning The sense of an ending (my review). (I have also read his curious but enjoyable Pedant in the kitchen.) All have intrigued me, for different reasons.
Elizabeth Finch tells the story of a man’s fascination with an inspirational teacher, the eponymous Elizabeth Finch, who taught an adult education class on Culture and Civilisation. This man is Neil, our first person narrator, and he maintains a friendship with EF (as he refers to her), through semi-regular lunches, until her death some two decades later. Through Neil’s memories of the class and his reading of EF’s papers that she’d bequeathed him, Barnes explores various ideas, including how we live our lives (particularly in terms of friendship and love), and the impact and thrust of history (primarily through considering the so-called last pagan emperor, Julian the Apostate). (Interestingly, the protagonist in The sense of an ending is also bequeathed personal writing.)
The novel, while told chronologically, is quirky in form. Part One comprises Neil’s introduction to EF, up to her death; Part Two contains Neil’s “essay” on Julian the Apostate (who was significant to EF’s ideas); and Part Three returns to Neil, now focusing on trying to understand EF with a view to possibly writing a memoir/biography. Here, he also catches up with old student friend, and ex-lover, Anna, who does enliven the book. In a sense, the novel reminded me a little of J.M. Coetzee’s tricksy books, like Elizabeth Costello and Diary of a bad year (my review), because they also tread this strange fiction/nonfiction, novel/philosophy ground.
At this point, I’m going to depart a little from my usual approach, and share some of my reading group’s discussion, because the book book engendered widely divergent reactions. They fell into three groups. One member loved it, describing it as a dense, compact novel which takes readers down interesting paths. She enjoyed thinking about Julian the Apostate, and what might have happened had he prevailed, and she enjoyed reading about the wide range of thinkers who have pondered Julian over time. A couple actively disliked it or were “very disappointed”. They felt the novel had some interesting threads but found it simplistic, repetitive, disjointed. They didn’t like the EF character, and one described the novel as “an ordinary study of a crush on an ordinary woman”. The rest of us, including me, had mixed feelings. Our reactions varied but we all found things to like (or be intrigued by) as well as dislike (or be mystified by). I won’t share all our ideas, but a couple of us felt that the book read like something that Barnes wanted to “get off his chest” at this stage in his life. (He’s 76). A couple of us particularly enjoyed the discussions of Epictetus and of history.
The book’s narrator, Neil, was problematic for some, but I rather liked his self-deprecatory tone, the sense of bumbling along as a middle-aged British male. Neil is not Barnes, but I wondered if reflects Barnes’ self-assessment or, at least, a recognition of how he and his peers are viewed in the current age. It is tempting, actually, to see an autobiographical element to the novel, because EF was apparently inspired by the late British novelist Anita Brookner. She had beaten Barnes in the 1984 Booker Prize, but they had subsequently become friends and had lunched semi-regularly after that. I have read (and enjoyed) several of Brookner’s novels and can imagine her being somewhat like EF, who was “high-minded, self-sufficient, European” and “whose vocabulary was drawn from the same word-box she used for both writing and general conversation”. (Brookner’s books aways send me to the dictionary!)
What might Barnes have wanted to get off his chest? This is where I came unstuck a little. As I started reading the book, it felt like the elder Barnes wanting to work through long-pondered ideas, but what exactly were they? As the novel progressed, I felt less certain. Is Barnes – ironically perhaps – emulating EF, and throwing out seemingly random ideas for us all to consider. However, there are, actually, recurrent threads. One concerns whether the world might have been better had “history” fallen out differently. This is where Julian the Apostate comes in, because early in the novel EF poses the idea that Julian’s defeat in 363 was “the moment when European history and civilisation took a calamitous wrong turn” (p. 31), it being the moment when Christianity defeated paganism/Hellenism. I wondered if the novel was going to be an anti-Christianity treatise, but it’s not exactly. EF raises many questions – but she also draws some long bows. I think Barnes challenges us to think about this.
Anyhow, history is one of the book’s central concerns, which is not surprising, given Barnes’ age and the ideas that have underpinned his writing to date. I have only read three of his novels but from those, I’ve gathered that he likes to interrogate, often playfully, the slipperiness of life and relationships, culture and history. So, in this novel, he explores what we believe and who we rely on, when it comes to history (and that related field, biography). In his Julian essay, which some in my group found lifeless, Neil describes how perspectives on Julian’s role and significance varied over time. He’s been either completely ignored, or seen as the cause of all ills, or held up as a model for good thinking.
History, in other words, is “fallible”. It’s “for the long haul … not inert and comatose … [but] active, effervescent, at times volcanic”. This is not new, but worth repeating all the same.
EF also shares with the class an idea she attributes to Ernest Renan, which is that “getting its history wrong is part of being a nation” (p. 33). Renan, she points out, does not say part of “becoming” a nation. This point was appreciated by my reading group, given where Australian “history” is right now. I’m guessing it may also reflect Barnes’ own reflections on British history.
Another recurrent thread in the novel is EF’s interest in the Greek Stoic Epictetus‘ statement that
Some things are up to us and some are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires aversions – in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor are our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices, or, that is, whatever is not our doing. (p. 21)
Epictetus’ point, as Anna clarifies with the often obtuse Neil in Part 3, is that learning to distinguish between the two, and understanding that we can’t do anything about what is not up to us, “leads to a proper philosophical understanding of life”. My reading group discussed this, with one member suggesting that “a proper philosophical understanding of life” means “not being neurotic”, that is, “not expending energy on the things you can’t influence”. Made sense to us!
The novel does meander a bit, but that’s not all bad if you find the ideas you are meandering through interesting. Ultimately, I’d say that Elizabeth Finch is part homage to the people who inspire us, part a discussion of the business of living, and part an exploration of the fallibility of history and biography. It is not Barnes’ most exciting book, but I found it compelling enough all the same.
Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also enjoyed this book, which in fact she generously sent me. Thanks so much Lisa. Her post commences with an interesting discussion of its cover.
London: Jonathan Cape, 2022