Way back in 1983, when the Book Marketing Council ran its first Best Young British Writers promotion with Granta I actually found myself reading a surprising number of the writers on the list. Most have dropped by the wayside for various reasons: Adam Mars Jones seems to have stopped writing fiction anyway, Philip Norman writes non-fiction on topics that generally don’t interest me (though his book on The Beatles was excellent), Pat Barker held my interest only for the Regeneration trilogy, and I found that Martin Amis just didn’t interest me. Others became firm favourites: Chris Priest, of course, was the writer I was already familiar with; and since then I’ve become a devoted fan of Ian McEwan, Graham Swift, William Boyd. But there were still others who interested me, yet I somehow didn’t keep up with their work. Chief among these is Julian Barnes. The book that was current in 1983 was Flaubert’s Parrot which was excellent, and for a little while, prompted by the excitement of that book, I tracked down everything else by Barnes. His first novel, Metroland was good, but not exciting, and the couple of books that followed Flaubert’s Parrot felt much the same. His science fictional Staring at the Sun felt like a worthy failure, and it was clear he wasn’t going to emulate the startling originality of Flaubert’s Parrot anytime soon, so I stopped reading him. I still bought occasional books, and I kept meaning to try him again sometime, but there were always other demands on my time. Then we started to hear about Arthur & George (Cape, 2005), and the premise sounded interesting, I rather enjoy the recursiveness of novels about novelists, so I started to think that this might be the one to finally give Barnes another go. Then the reviews came out, and underneath all the expected praise (Barnes is one of those writers who tends to get good reviews in the mainstream press come what may) there was an undercurrent of doubt, a sense that this may be a little like Schindler’s Ark, a work in which the history has been so lightly reworked by the novelist that it might as well have been published as non-fiction. Of course, everyone was talking as if it was a shoo-in for the Booker, but even so I was beginning to get this little niggle of doubt. Nevertheless, I received the book for my birthday, and read it, and …
How can you lose when you open a book and find it dedicated to ‘P.K.’? And I don’t even know the man.
The story of Arthur Conan Doyle and George Edalji is told in chapters headed either ‘Arthur’ or ‘George’ depending on which is the viewpoint, though neither is told in first person and we are as likely to get glimpses of the thoughts of other characters as we are of our two stars. In the first part of the book, which relates their early lives up to the start of the events which would bring them together, these ‘chapters’ are very short, generally just a page or two, restlessly shifting between them. I suppose that in a purely artistic work we might suppose that these passages would evoke echoes between the two, establish parallels in their lives or backgrounds or outlooks, but Barnes does nothing of the sort. What he does, instead, is show us how different they are, how they have nothing in common, nothing that might in the normal way of things, brought them together. Arthur is a romantic, he comes from a good family but now living in reduced circumstances at a time when the family connections still count, he is educated, bright, a sportsman, he has married well and finds unexpected success as a best selling author. George is stolid and unimaginative, intelligent but solid rather than quick, he is the eldest child of a Parsee who has converted to Christianity and is now the vicar in a very small rural parish in the midlands, he is a loner, myopic, sedentary, who becomes a solicitor in Birmingham while still living with his parents and writes a slim volume on railway law which probably has total sales in single figures. In every way, socially and intellectually, in terms of interests and ambitions, these two are worlds apart, and Barnes creates their characters vividly and effectively. Forget any notion that this is thinly disguised non-fiction: in these early chapters deploys all the novelists arts, and to a very high degree of achievement.
Then, as we come to the heart of the novel, the pace changes significantly. The passages devoted to each in turn become steadily longer, we switch briefly to other viewpoints, and for a long section Arthur disappears from the narrative altogether. This is the hinge around which the whole book turns. For nearly all his life George and his family have received anonymous hate mail and have been the victims of a series of petty but unpleasant incidents. Then someone starts to mutilate animals in the local fields and the police, clearly driven by racism (though George, touchingly, always refuses to accept that racial prejudice ever had anything to do with his ordeal) and in defiance of any evidence, decide that George is the villain. They even decide that he is the author of the letters with which he has been both abused and accused. Even more incredible, they manage to convince a judge and jury of the same thing, and George is sentenced to seven years. A vociferous campaign is launched on George’s behalf, and after three years he is quietly released from jail, but without a pardon.
The view now switches back to Arthur. Now rich and famous, he meets and becomes fascinated with a younger woman named Jean Leackie, but just as they begin their relationship Arthur’s wife is diagnosed with TB. For ten years, as his wife declines, Arthur is wracked with guilt while trying to present the outward appearance of conforming to the proprieties of the day. Then, at last, his wife dies, but rather than being released Arthur suddenly feels even more trapped. It is at this moment that George’s campaign to clear his name comes to Arthur’s attention, and as he becomes involved he is given a new lease of life.
The final third of the book is mostly Arthur’s story as he enters wholeheartedly into trying to prove George innocent, while at the same time becoming ever more involved in spiritualism, and finally getting round to regularising his relationship with Jean. This is where the novel could become a detective story in the Holmesian mold, but thankfully doesn’t. We get lots of investigation, lots of theorising, and lots of wild leaps that are just as wide of the truth as the original police investigation. Meanwhile George looks on and finds himself caught between being grateful for Arthur’s help and appalled at his excesses. We never do learn for sure who was guilty, and the official resolution of the case is far from satisfactory (though George is sufficiently exonerated to allow him to return to his career as a solicitor), but it is instrumental in establishing the Appeals Court.
Judging from a final Author’s Note, I think that Barnes keeps to the facts throughout the novel, but he is never hampered by them. This is a fascinating novel which happens to tell a true story. This is a brilliant character study which just happens to study two genuine historical figures. But the writing, the imaginative insights, the empathy, the structure, are pure novel. After this I really must go back and try to catch up with Barnes’ other books now.
First published at Livejournal, 12 October 2005.