Elizabeth Finch

Julian Barnes

Jonathan Cape, £16.99

Review by Rosemary Goring

ARE novels more frivolous than non-fiction? Not in Julian Barnes’s universe. His are as thought-provoking as any history or biography, and never more so than in this latest offering, which is as much a work of ethics and philosophy as of invention.

If this sounds daunting, it is anything but. Barnes’s style is so compellingly undemonstrative – almost self-effacing – it would be easy to gulp it down without pausing to chew. Rarely, though, has he offered more to digest. Crammed with ideas, Elizabeth Finch sets countless intellectual hares running, leaving readers to find the answers for themselves.

The eponymous central character is a retired London University lecturer, who taught a course called Culture and Civilisation for mature students. The narrator, Neil, was one of them, his life reshaped by the experience: “She obliged us – simply by example – to seek and find within ourselves a centre of seriousness.”

A former actor, Neil ended up in the hospitality trade via a brief flirtation with the good life: “Our daughter Hannah no longer said, with childish pride, ‘My dad’s on the telly’, and bravely tried putting the same verve into, ‘My dad grows mushrooms’.” That was when he was still married to his first wife. By the time the story opens, he has two failed marriages behind him, though he remains a romantic at heart.

Like his fellow students, he was seeking a more informed understanding of the past. In this, there could be no better mentor than Elizabeth, who lectured without notes in perfectly parsed sentences. All these years later, Neil recalls that, while she dressed elegantly, she wore brogues all year round and “resisted the annual hemline tyranny”. Or, as Elizabeth confided in her journal, “Of course, my kind of woman is out of fashion. Not that I have ever sought fashionability, or indeed ever had it. Sustainability is more what I sought.”

After classes, the group would speculate about their tutor’s private life, but she remained tantalisingly unknowable. Even though Neil and she became friends, meeting two or three times a year for lunch, there were questions he could never ask her. Only on her death, when she bequeathed him her journals, books and papers, did he hope to fill in some of the biographical gaps.

The novel takes the form of a partisan memoir, as Neil recalls her inspirational teaching, and tries to discover more about her. Equally importantly, he writes about the historical figure whom she considered pivotal: “Naturally, we honour the dead, but in honouring them, we somehow make them even more dead. But to please the dead, this brings them to life again. Does that make sense?”

The figure she revered was Julian the Apostate, the last pagan emperor of Rome. His death, she claimed, was “the moment history went wrong”. A tolerant ruler, who chose not to make martyrs of Christians, his brutal end on the battlefield marked the triumph of Christianity. What followed were centuries of violent and cruel division, not to mention joylessness and persecution. As Edward Gibbon wrote in Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, “more Christians were put to death in a single year of the Christian Empire than had been executed in three centuries of pagan dominion.”

Neil does not miss the parallel between Elizabeth bequeathing him her library and Julian being given a library by the empress Eusebia as he set out on his campaigns in Gaul. Although the emperor was addicted to reading auguries – the entrails of 100 oxen a day could be ripped out to see what they foretold – he was also a scholar and philosopher.

In this telling, his demise was the start of the dark ages of the mind, Christianity’s narrow monotheistic idealism proving a ferocious enemy of rational thought. It was Voltaire, we are told, who viewed Julian’s tolerance of other faiths as the forerunner of the Enlightenment. This leads Neil to reflect that had paganism, with its multiple deities, remained the predominant religion, “By the time the Age of Reason came around, we would already have been living in it for fourteen centuries…. Imagine science unhindered by religion.”

Can a religion in which intestines plays such a large role be called reasonable? And, even if we might have done better without Christianity, is paganism really the answer?

Regardless of where you stand on that question, the premise behind the novel is intriguing. What would the world be like if Christianity had remained a fringe belief, or simply fizzled out? Would we still be consulting oracles for advice? Would the arts as well as science have taken an entirely different direction without the patronage, and disapproval, of the harshly devout? Even more pressingly, as Elizabeth Finch asked, “Does civilisation progress?... Undoubtedly it does in terms of medicine, science, technology. But in human, moral terms? In terms of philosophy? In terms of seriousness?”

Split into three parts, the central portion of Elizabeth Finch is Neil’s essay on Julian. Leavened by his companionable voice, and drawing on progressively more favourable historical judgements, it is a lesson in time lending perspective. Not until the novel concludes, however, does its purpose become fully clear. If it is hard to reconcile conflicting information and opinions about an emperor who lived in the fourth century, should it not be easier to understand someone from our own times? You might think so, but as Neil delves into his lecturer’s past, she grows more complex and confounding rather than less.

With a diffident Englishman as narrator, Barnes transforms an unabashedly philosophical and historical inquiry into a searching and resonant contemporary tale. Sophisticated and subtle, it is also enthralling. Using Neil’s fellow students to offer fresh perspectives, the author holds various surprises and revelations in reserve to keep the plot’s gentle momentum going. By the book’s end, its obvious narrative artifice is outweighed by its probing profundity. Not that Elizabeth Finch would have any problem with artfulness. As she said on learning of Neil’s first profession: “Ah, acting, the perfect example of artificiality producing authenticity.” Elizabeth Finch is another.