Elizabeth Finch, by Julian Barnes. Pub 2022
As mentioned in previous posts, my adoration and novel-lust for all things Julian Barnes is very strong. When I learned earlier this year about his next (now latest) novel, I sourced it out from a bookseller in England (Blackwell’s in Oxford) so I could have the earliest possible access. When it arrived, I put it aside for a few busy weeks so that I could savour it over a few days. The time and space emerged last weekend, and so I made my tea, put up my feet, and slid between the pages to learn about Elizabeth Finch.
Sadly, this book was a disappointment. While many of Barnes’ stories and novels are subtle, this one takes that subtlety to the extreme, making it about nothing. We meet the titular Elizabeth Finch (or EF as she’s referred to throughout) posthumously; having recently died, the sketchy narrator, Neil, tells us about her in bits and pieces. We never learn much about Neil (as he frequently reminds us, this story is not about him) but we also learn very little about EF.
And how could we? Neil, a former student whose infatuation with EF as his teacher has elevated her to near saintliness, in fact barely knew her; after taking one post-graduate class with her, their entire relationship consisted of 20 years of biannual lunches and the occasional post card. We are led to expect more depth and detail, as (for some unknown reason that just adds to her allure for Neil) she has bequeathed him all her books and papers, allowing him the tantalizing prospect of greater intimacy. But alas, her notebook collection seems to be incomplete and her writings’ random and impenetrable, there are very few letters (not even Neil’s post cards have survived), and the book collection is small and mostly academic. So, both Elizabeth and Neil remain incomplete, are separated by death, and are mostly uninteresting.
Neil’s infatuation with EF is primarily an attraction of the mind. He remarks on her sharp wit and perspicacity, her mystery and timelessness, and the impact of her teachings and conversation on his mind. However, looked at from the reader’s perspective, EF is more provocative than clever, more shallow than sharp. Her challenges to her students seem more intended to suggest open-minded thinking rather than providing anything to fill or spark the mind once opened, and thus appear more faux-intellectual than truly insightful. She has succeeded in sparking Neil’s curiosity, but one suspects that that is more from his idolatry of EF rather than true inspiration. While she’s clearly more intelligent and self-aware than Neil (as are most of the other characters we meet), she sometimes comes across as the kind of person who knows several clever quotes from obscure texts and drops them into conversation to appear more knowledgeable than she actually is.
As an example: she makes an off-hand mention of Hitler’s Table Talk during a lecture on organized religion. When she is called out about that by a student (“Is Hitler on the reading list now?”), she makes a veiled reply that suggests she is Jewish, which shuts everyone up. However, we learn through Neil’s research of her background that this was a lie – EF has no Jewish heritage – which makes her even more suspect as an intellectual (rather like throwing an -ism into an argument to shut it down) and much less likeable. There are a few instances of this, almost as if EF is caught out going beyond the range of her own erudition and she rescues herself with either an obscure quote or a barbed comment that shuts down the discussion. This may be a Barnesian commentary on the shallowness of social media and cancel culture, but that commentary is lost in the shallowness of EF and Neil.
There is a significant digression in the novel’s middle section, with a long presentation of the life and various interpretations of Julian the Apostate, Augustus of the Roman Empire and famous anti-Christian. There is much mention of Julian throughout, as he seems to have been an obsession (or at least a big focus) for EF in her academic and literary life; much of her library consists of texts about or obliquely related to Julian. Her thesis is that, had Julian lived and reigned longer than he did (he died at 31 after barely three years as emperor), the influence of Christianity on civilization and the modern world would have been significantly blunted if not removed altogether. This is an interesting premise that, like the characters in the novel, is left dangling and inconclusive. Ultimately, Julian is as unknowable as EF, with even vaguer and more conflicting accounts of his life, and the considerable distance in time and space between Neil and his subject.
As in recent Barnes’ novels, a theme is the fallibility of memory and the lack of completeness that anyone can have in their knowledge and understanding of another. As Neil researches EF’s life, he learns that some of his own memories of her are incorrect or only partially true. Neil’s remote relationship with EF, combined with his juvenile adoration of her, make him a more unreliable narrator than most. But unlike in The Only Story or The Sense of an Ending, here we neither learn about nor come to care about any of the characters, Julian included.
At one of their lunches, EF asks Neil about his chosen meal. “How is that? Disappointing?” Yes, EF it is.
Post-script: in reading several reviews post-my-own-reading and review, I learned that this novel is intended to be an homage to Anita Brookner, a friend and fellow novelist who died in 2016. For me, this made the reading even more sad, as the homage is thin and dull and not very flattering. It certainly does not inspire me to seek out Brookner’s works.
Fate: This will be added to my collected Barnes books but is not one I will read again.