There are many reasons why a reader might pick up Elizabeth Finch. After all, Julian Barnes is one of UK’s notable writers; each of his books tends to be quite different from the others; and he displays wit and erudition in his works. I’ve read quite a few of his books after being stunned by History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters and Flaubert’s Parrot (both read before I started blogging), and all up I have read eight of his books.
But the real reason that I read this book was because, nestled between Parts I and Part III is an essay on Julian the Apostate. I should imagine that for many readers, this section on Julian was an obscure and boring distraction – after all, who has an essay in the middle of a novel, especially about a long-dead Roman emperor? But if you follow this blog, you’ll know that for the last 18 months I have been listening to Mike Duncan’s ‘History of Rome‘ podcast- a mighty 189-episode performance. I was fascinated by Julian, later designated ‘the Apostate’, who was the last non-Christian ruler of the Roman Empire and who tried to undo his uncle Constantine’s tolerance for -and indeed encouragement of- Christianity. I know that ‘good’ historians shouldn’t indulge in ‘what-if?’ history but -oh- alternative scenarios just unroll before your eyes when considering the suppression or withering away of Christianity before it really got started: no churches; no Popes; a whole range of gods to choose from. Perhaps. But ‘what if’ Julian didn’t die at just 31 years of age, but instead lived to become more intolerant and repressive and ended up ‘Julian the Cruel’ instead? This is one of the threads in the 48-page essay about Julian the Apostate in Part II of this book, an essay which may have led me to choose this book, but probably repelled many more readers than it attracted.
Parts I and III of the book return to the eponymous Elizabeth Finch, a quietly-spoken, demure lecturer in a Culture and Civilisation course for adult students. The narrator, Neil, is one of the older students in the class, and while he shares the fascination of his fellow students for this inscrutable, rather insipid, teacher, Part I is almost a love-letter to her and her effect on transforming his ‘paltry thoughtlets into something of fuller interest’ (p.15). The course completed – even though Neil didn’t get round to writing the required essay on a topic of his choice- he and Elizabeth (abbreviated to E. F.) continued to meet for lunch for the next twenty years. Pasta, one glass of white wine, coffee: she always paid and the meal always lasted seventy-five minutes. When she died, she left to him all her books and papers, although her only sibling Christopher was the executor of the rest of her estate. It was while going through her papers that Neil realized that E.F. (like me!) had been drawn to Emperor Julian, and it was now- 20 years later- that Neil wrote the essay that he had failed to write at the end of the course- and it is this essay that makes up Part II of the book. In Part III we return to Neil, who is by now trawling through E. F.’s life, trying to make small snippets fit, and recalling what Neil came to think of The Shaming, when a small public lecture for the London Review of Books given by E.F. blew up into a small but ultimately inconsequential controversy. Neil is making a dogged attempt to reconstruct her biography, but the pieces don’t fit. Her rather dull brother Christopher knows only ‘Liz’, his fellow students have had their own interactions with her, of which he was completely oblivious, and have made their own judgements. The hero-worship of Part I gives way in Part III to a rather bleak acknowledgment of the unknowability of any other person and the unrecoverability of the past.
I must say that I am rather puzzled by this book. It reminded me of J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello in more ways than one. Barnes’ choice of title evokes Coetzee’s book, and both are about the research passions of middle-aged academic women (both written by middle-aged academic-type men).
As far as Elizabeth Finch is concerned, I don’t really know what it’s for. I wasn’t particularly convinced by Elizabeth Finch’s brilliance, I found Neil’s adoration rather mawkish and his attempts to trawl through her life intrusive, and his essay -his act of devotion- on Julian rather uninspiring. I don’t know whether to be disappointed or to wonder whether there was something I missed.
My rating: 6.5/10
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library
Other reviews: Lisa at ANZLitLovers reviewed it and discovered that the front cover has been carefully designed to highlight the fragmentary nature of our knowledge of other people – something that was completely lost on me, because my library book had been covered in plastic! (E-book readers will miss it too)