Elizabeth Finch by Julian Barnes

Julian Barnes is one of those writers who could put out a toaster manual and it would be worth reading. He’s talented enough to have won a Booker Prize (for The Sense of an Ending) and been short-listed for three more, and self-aware enough that his occasional detours into the obscure always make a democratic return rather than wandering off, muttering into the woods of esotericism. And he’s methodical enough to have written, in 2013, a triptych (Levels of Life) that’s part history, part nonfiction novel, and part memoir, covering everything from the history of hot-air ballooning and aerial photography to mortality and the mourning of his wife’s death. (All in the span of 118 pages, no less.)

But the same characteristics that have made Barnes a master novelist—trenchant insight, economic thoroughness, a surgeon’s poise, and the will to pan for gold in the rivers that connect the ordinary and the exceptional, the human and humanity—also lessen his capacity for surprise. The author of 16 or so works of fiction (depending on how you count), not to mention a handful of nonfiction books and translations, continues to work with the same grand themes: love, death, faith, loyalty, aging, and so forth. It amounts not so much to a flaw as it does to a limitation.

Surely, he knows all this, which is why each successive book is more finely styled than the last. In his latest novel, Elizabeth Finch, Barnes’s style is sharper than ever, but the effect is diminished by the course along which he steers the narrative.

Instead of the triptych of Levels of Life, he elects for a mix of fiction and straight history that masquerades as plot. Our narrator, Neil, is an adult student who insists, “This is not my story.” Nevertheless, he describes his obsession with an exceedingly dignified professor, after whom the book is named, in the most personal of terms. After he fails to adequately express his feelings, and she quietly dies as nothing more than a dowdy, scandalized (for other reasons) former professor and loose acquaintance, his infatuation adapts into a more restrained, but no less drawn out, fixation on the contents of her papers—and her history.

That is to say, Neil fails to work his way out of the friend zone before Elizabeth dies, and instead elects to make her unfinished business his own. This self-imposed allegiance draws him closer to Elizabeth than she ever would have allowed in her waking days. And like all stories about unrequited love, it reveals far more about the agent than it does the object. The narrative survives only on the basis of his desire—the book, in fact, seems to be only Neil’s story.

The specific focus of Neil’s adoring scholarship after Elizabeth dies is Julian the Apostate, the last pagan emperor of Rome—a “hold-out hero” against the surging tide of early Christianity, as the professor described him in her “Culture and Civilisation” lecture. In Emperor Julian’s biography, Barnes finds a fitting idée fixe for Neil. Religion, like unrequited love, raises a number of sticky, heart-sinking questions. Who, or what, is worthy of our blind faith? What constitutes a false idol? When does monotheism—or its romantic equivalent—turn into monomania? At what price comes worship? For Julian the Apostate, it’s violent death, and for Neil, it’s the other women in his life.

Barnes finds another tidy equivalence—one of his trademarks—between the auguries in pagan worship and the wishful thinking that lovers resort to when their passion isn’t shared by the other person. A fanatic is someone who’s willing to sacrifice history and logic for emotional satisfaction and a facile story.

Though most of his books are fewer than 300 (and often 200) pages, Barnes’s stories tend to begin as dispassionate outlines of character and setting. They gather steam like a fighter settling into a 12-round bout—somehow both longer and shorter than you think.

Yet, in Elizabeth Finch, the historical background on Julian the Apostate feels too drawn out, bogging down those crucial middle rounds in a long, lumbering clinch. Neil has compiled the authoritative historical and literary references to the man, and honestly divulges that some of it is merely “a bibliography of the so-far-unread.” If we ourselves are honest, the tireless research becomes a distraction from Neil and the rest of the story, like underwear that shows through a dress. The point that the adult student’s twin fixations—professor and emperor—aren’t worth the trouble is almost too clear.

Channeling philosophical observations through his characters is another Barnes hallmark. Neil and Elizabeth’s English-sounding refrain is actually from Epictetus: “Some things are up to us and some things are not up to us.” Reputation and history, unsurprisingly, are not. Elizabeth Finch is a comforting, if a bit slow, read, because it fits the lovely mold Barnes has tooled over the course of his career. It also unwittingly subscribes to its own point: trying to will a connection into existence doesn’t always achieve the desired outcome.

Nathan King is a Deputy Editor for AIR MAIL