A review of Arthur & George by Julian Barnes

Barnes has clearly done a tremendous amount of research, and even a reader who comes to this work without the slightest knowledge of Arthur Conan-Doyle will leave with a good understanding of the key events in his life, from his earliest memory to his death. There are images of George’s real book cover, real newspaper clippings, and other quotes from the annals of history. However, the real magic of Arthur and George is, as is almost always the case with Barnes, in the great beauty of the narrative, which brings these characters into fictional life.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Arthur & George
By Julian Barnes
Jonathan Cape
ISBN: 0224077031
A$49.95, Hardcover, August 2005, 360pp

“A child wants to see. It always begins like this, and it began like this then. A child wanted to see.” (3) Julian Barnes’ latest novel, Arthur & George is a novel about sight in all of its forms. From the simple impact of optical myopia to the complex impact of metaphorical myopia–short sightedness and long sightedness. It is about what we do and don’t see: the visible bonds of friendship, sympathy, or hatred and prejudice. This sight extends to questions of guilt and innocence; how we judge and determine, and perhaps more broadly, how each of us lives our lives with the knowledge of our impending death. These complex but subtly developed themes underpin the fictionalised stories of real life characters Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, and George Edalji, solicitor and victim of the Great Wyrley outrages. The story traces each of these characters separately, characterising their lives and the forces which made them who they ultimate became, and finally, in chapter 2, brings them together in a way which is equally powerful for both characters.

The novel is structured into four quite distinct chapters, each of which contain a series of titled passages which initially alternate between Arthur and George. In “Beginning,“ the first chapter, the passages are short, often only a page or two in length, with Arthur’s in the past tense and George’s in the present. This distinction makes George’s story seem more immediate through this section, even though they are both taking place at similar points in time and both narrations adopt identical, and fairly cool third person omniscient tones. It is as if it is George’s story primarily, which Arthur joins, bringing his back story into the present of George’s life:

Arthur developed into a large, boisterous youth, who found consolation in the school library and happiness on the cricket field. Once a week the boys were set to write home, which most regarded as a further punishment, but Arthur viewed as a reward.(11)

The second chapter, “Beginning with an Ending,” contains a large proportion of the plot, as we focus for some time on George, including the publication of his book Railway Law for The “Man in the Train.” There is a single passage which, almost beautifully, and so subtly it could be easily missed at this stage, begins the mutilation and murder of a horse: the first in a series which is ultimately blamed on George. We are also introduced to Inspector Campbell, the man at the head of the investigation, a fascinating contrast to Arthur’s suave Sherlock Holmes, and the investigative Arthur we later meet. The suspense in this section is high as the plot begins to speed up, albeit without losing the introspection that follows the extreme logic of George as he watches the world that once made so much sense to him fall apart, holding tight to his sense of ‘stolidness‘:

Part of him wanted to stay in his cell, plaiting nose-bags and reading the works of Sir Walter Scott, catching colds when his hair was cut in the freezing courtyard, and hearing the old joke about bed-bugs again. He wanted this because he knew it was likely to be his fate, and the best way to be resigned to your fate was to want it. The other part of him, which wanted to be free tomorrow, which wanted to embrace his mother and sister, which wanted public acknowledgement of the great injustice done him – this was the part he could not give full rein to, since it could end by causing him the most pain. (155)

It is in this section that Arthur’s narrative changes to present tense, taking on a greater corresponding sense of immediacy as he meets the woman he falls in love with, Jean Leckie. As Arthur begins to question his own sense of chivalry, along with his understanding of truth, he falls into a depression which worsens considerably as his consumptive wife dies:

He is a hypocrite; he is a fraud. In some ways, he has always felt a fraud, and the more famous he has become, the more fraudulent he has felt. He is lauded as a great man of the age, but though he takes an active part in the world, his heart feels out of kilter with it. (203)

The next chapter, “Ending with a Beginning,” traces Arthur’s involvement in George’s case. Arthur’s depression lifts as he attempts find justice in the context of the tremendous prejudices: class, race, circumstantial, and physical, that surround both George and the judicial system. The complex dance between Arthur and George is handled beautifully by Barnes as he creates an inner world which would only have been hinted at by the extensive research he must have done for this work. The reader is drawn by George’s sense of Arthur’s failure, Arthur’s sense of George’s failings, the frustration at trying to come to some concrete truth as the triangle which was once Arthur, his wife Touie, and his love Jean becomes the triangle of George, Arthur and Jean. The tenuous nature of reality and the fine line between truth and fiction are all brought into the story without losing the integrity of either the narrative, the characterisations or the plot. The final chapter “Endings,” is mainly focused on Arthur’s spiritualism, but also provides a sense of deliberately unsatisfying closure to George’s case, further showing the indistinct line between fact and fiction, and the difficulty of finding a concrete truth.

Throughout the novel, Barnes manages a fine balance between the kind of teeth grinding detective suspense that his alter-ego, the detective writer Dan Kavanagh, would be proud of, and a much slower, and more universal exploration of the way in which different people handle stress and make meaning in their lives. The language remains powerful while never interfering with the careful and detailed unfolding which Barnes has deliberately set. Almost purple metaphors like “Explode like the boiler of a tramp steamer and just sink beneath the waves with all hands,“ are set off by cool narration: “The Mam does not answer. It is not necessary to refuse his simile, or even to ask if he has seen a doctor for chest pains.“ (189) This is a novel both quiet and introspective, and full of rich action. In a bumbling, boisterous way, Arthur is the hero of this novel, and ends up lauded, famous, and respected as the man who was always willing to go out on a limb for the sake of justice, but he is also fallible. His predictions on the future utopia of mankind and the demise of organised religion is most notably wrong, and as a character, it is his failings which are most appealing. When Arthur first meets George, he tells him, “No, I do not think you are innocent. No, I do not believe you are innocent. I know you are innocent.” (219) This parallels his earlier conversation with his mother when he speaks of Jean‘s love for him, “I think she does. I believe she does. How can I know she does?” (189) Knowledge is a tenuous thing, subject to manipulation, shadings of light, emotions and desire. Arthur’s quest, set out in the most chivalrous of narratives, is one for inner knowledge. Inspector Anson, another culprit in the case against George tells Arthur that no one is completely innocent; or, in effect, there is no such thing as full knowledge. We can never really know. Knowledge is Arthur’s ultimate quest, and one which the reader feels he has fulfilled, as his metaphorical ghost hovers in the empty chair at the end of the novel.

George too is as appealing to the reader as he is to Arthur, for his tenuous but constant hold on naivety and his belief in righteousness and the ultimate power of logic. Barnes has clearly done a tremendous amount of research, and even a reader who comes to this work without the slightest knowledge of Arthur Conan-Doyle will leave with a good understanding of the key events in his life, from his earliest memory to his death. There are images of George’s real book cover, real newspaper clippings, and other quotes from the annals of history. However, the real magic of Arthur and George is, as is almost always the case with Barnes, in the great beauty of the narrative, which brings these characters into fictional life. Within the tight confines of Barnes’ exceptional narrative power, the reader is forced to look at the biggest questions of life. Barnes has taken a particular event in history, and turned it into something universal and timeless.

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