Julian Barnes, Arthur and George
I will begin this review by saying that I did not like this novel. Contrary to the opinion of most readers, I consider it a literary failure, unworthy of being shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. This being said, I will first list its merits, before ending with its shortcomings.
Arthur and George is the story of two men, with strong biographical elements. One of these men is famous author of Sherlock Holmes’s stories Arthur Conan Doyle, and the other, rather unknown (by me at least) solicitor George Edalji. Julian Barnes parallels the lives of these two men of very different origins and personalities, and narrates the events that brought them together.
Where the portrayal of the two men is concerned, Julian Barnes did a pretty good work. George, the son of a vicar of Parsee origins and a Scottish mother, is a very peculiar character. His shortsightedness, his foreign origins, the modest but very sheltered environment he grew up in, his difficulties to adapt to a world he is wary of, his lonely temperament, and a strong religious upbringing, all design him as the perfect scapegoat. Therefore, when anonymous letters are being sent, and when later, animals are being ripped open with a knife, he quickly becomes the main suspect. George’s character is pretty endearing and, in his refusal to assign his being a victim to his race, his obsession with englishness reminds a bit of the character of Christopher Banks in Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans.
Many amazon.com reviewers state that George is the one coming alive in the story, much more than Arthur. I disagree with this. I thought the character of Arthur very interesting too, in part because I liked to learn more about the man behind the famous detective, but also because Julian Barnes did a good job exposing the complexities of his personality, his internal dilemmas. One of my favorite parts of the novel is when Arthur is torn between his ideals of chivalry (Arthur is very proud of his family noble origins), and his repressed manliness. Indeed, when Touie, his first wife, is slowly dying of consumption, he falls in love with a young, lively woman named Jean, and wants to remain a true gentleman towards both woman… Another interesting side of Arthur’s personality is that, like, I suppose, many writers, Arthur strongly resents being either eclipsed by, or compared to his creation. But when he is called by readers to help solve real-life problems, he cannot resist playing detective. So, when the animals killings known as the Great Wyrley Outrages occur, he meets Edalji, who has written to him, and becomes convinced of his innocence. Edalji has already served a prison sentence, but he wants his name rehabilitated, so that he can work as a solicitor again. Arthur is adamant that he will obtain a free pardon for him, and to this effect starts looking into police reports and trial transcripts. Another fascinating aspect of Conan Doyle’s multifaceted personality is his belief in spiritism. The scene of Arthur’s funerals and the following séance is one of the good moments of the novel. I wish more of the novel has been focused on Arthur’s interest in spiritism, but instead most of it was devoted to the Great Wyrley Outrages and its consequences. And here lies my problem with the novel…
To tie Arthur and George’s destinies, Julian Barnes had to focus the story on the killing of animals and accompanying anonymous letters that occurred in the span of several years, since these events brought these two characters together, who would have had nothing to do with each other otherwise. But the account of the murders, the minutiae of the trial, the details of the letters were, in my opinion, much too long and frankly, also utterly boring. I wonder if this “true animal crime” story was not good material for a novel, or if the author misused it, wanting to show all the result of his thorough research when much of it could have been spared us.
When reading a two-men biography (one of whom is a writer), I am reminded of David Lodge’s Author, Author, about Henry James and his friendship with illustrator (and also novel writer) George Du Maurier. While Author, Author, also constructed on a the interaction between two men, is a masterpiece, one of the best novels I have read in recent years, Arthur and George fails to deliver. Barnes certainly wanted to spice things up with a “mystery”, but quite frankly, I couldn’t care less about it. I think if he had known how to focus on the characters, and spare us the precise sequence of events around the outrages, his novel could have been much better. As it is, I almost gave it up after one-third of the book, became engrossed in the middle, and again lost interest after George’s stay in prison (on of the best parts), when Arthur reviews every evidence of the trial. This novel was too unequal, too slow-going, too boring…