by Julian Barnes
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Julian Barnes once argued that novelists tend to use material far removed from their own lives before turning to more autobiographical sources. It was an odd claim, an attempt to celebrate the supposed uniqueness of Penelope Fitzgerald, who Barnes said was unusual in pursuing four novels drawn from personal experience — owning a bookstore; Working at the BBC – with four others from imaginative reconstruction culminating in her novel about German romanticism, The blue flower.
In reality, most novelists, including Barnes himself, start with a veiled memoir: he appeared in 1980 big city, about a suburban Francophile who attends a private school in central London. But he has since fulfilled his own description of the novelist’s later habits. Since turning 65 in 2011, his publications include two slim first-person novels that hark back to his adolescence and, in one case, responded to his discovery that a school friend had committed suicide in his twenties (The feeling of an end), in the other returning to his relationship with a concerned older woman (The only story). Now he has written his friend, art historian and aspiring novelist Anita Brookner, a curious and even inscrutable fictional elegy that offers a reflection on the biographical impulse, and perhaps a reflection on that reflection.
As in the case of Barnes and Brookner, the narrators of his new novel, Neil (a failed actor, twice divorced) met with the elderly, unmarried, west London resident Elizabeth Finch for a lunch that lasted 75 minutes. Finch would say to Neil as Brookner did to Barnes, “What do you have for me?” and, looking at his meal, say, “How’s that?… Disappointing?”
Like Barnes, Neil emphasizes his friend’s wit, reserve, sternness, and stoicism. “I hope you can see why I adored her,” he writes. And although Elizabeth Fink isn’t quite as limited to fond memories as Barnes’s 2016 obituary memoir of Brookner in the Guardianit is not a very novel-like novel, being thin with drama but full of statements about life, love and history, recited by Elizabeth at the lectern or at the dinner table or by Neil in his narration.
Finch doesn’t exactly match her model. Both had connections to the University of London, but while Brookner taught history of art at the Courtauld Institute, Finch is a non-university lecturer teaching a course on culture and civilization for older students. Finch’s two non-fiction books were out of print when Neil showed up in her class, while Brookner had a loyal following as a romantic painter and portraitist of lonely women.
The biggest difference, however, is that Barnes’ novel contains no trace of the exposure to French culture that formed the basis of his bond with Brookner – and that was as evident in her novels as Hotel du Lacbeat the Barnes Flaubert’s parrot to win the Booker Prize in 1984. Elizabeth Finch, on the other hand, quotes Goethe and, to the dismay of a student, Hitler. Her regular lunches with Neil are at an Italian restaurant (Barnes and Brookner went to Le Caprice). The extensive research project which Neil embarks on as a tribute – and which he shares with us in full – concerns the life and “posthumous reputation” of the Roman renegade Emperor Julian, who we learn received attention from Ibsen, Joyce and Schiller. It seems possible that Fitzgerald – a Europhile who set her novels in Italy, Russia and Germany but showed no particular interest in France and was adored as a teacher by her students – is somewhere in the mix, and that “Finch” is intentional repeats “Fitz.”
Barnes’ tendency to withhold details detracts from the novel’s clarity. We are never told what year an event is held or how old Neil is – only that the members of his class were all in their late twenties to early forties. (Even the word “university” doesn’t appear until page 141.) The tone is similarly enigmatic. Is Neil a buffoon? Is Barnes mocking his crush on Elizabeth? It could be intended as an unobtrusive cream puff, impressive only to academic followers. However, her table talk and demeanor are borrowed directly from a character Neil’s creator has expressed admiration for. Neil certainly goes further than Barnes when it comes to fetishism: “She didn’t smoke like everyone else”; “Were her earlobes even pierced? Now there is a question.” But if his historical account of Julian the Apostate, based on notes by Elizabeth, is to be excessive, an act of amorous adoration, it is a folly that the reader must grapple with for nearly 50 pages .
Perhaps the key to Barnes’ intentions lies not in his tribute to Brookner or his essay on Fitzgerald, but in the book that was eclipsed all those years ago Hotel du Lac. Neil’s act of homage is reminiscent of the inscription Flaubert’s parrotciting the author of Mrs. Bovary: “When you write a friend’s bio, you have to do it like you’re taking Revenge for him.” In this novel, Geoffrey Braithwaite’s exploration of Flaubert’s Apocrypha turns out to be a means of repressing personal bereavement. At some points, that seems to be happening here, the balance shifted from sublimation to reckoning itself – two parts on Elizabeth Finch and one on Julian the Apostate.
But there could also be a more pervasive irony at play – not Neil falling out with a long-dead Emperor to channel or deny feelings about a deceased friend, but obsessing over his occasional tutor to avoid his own wasted life . Neil claims more than once that this is “not my story”. And so maybe it’s Elizabeth – the subject of Neil’s “not exactly a biography” – instead of Julian the renegade representing Flaubert. Or rather, maybe she represents the parrot, a close relative of the bird Barnes names his maybe-heroine after.