Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Arthur & George by Julian Barnes

I was going read only fiction over the holidays and give myself a break from writing reviews.  So I picked up Arthur & George by Julian Barnes.  I remembered I reviewed The Sherlockian by Graham Moore and began to feel obligated to review this other novel about Arthur Conan Doyle as well.

The books are very different.  The Sherlockian is a thriller and it is entirely fictional.  Barnes’ book is a more literary, historical novel based on real events.  If he had been writing a thriller, the story would have started when Doyle got involved in overturning the wrongful conviction of solicitor George Adelji for mutilating and killing animals in the rural community where he was raised by a Scottish mother and an Indian father who converted to Anglicanism and served as a vicar.  This doesn’t occur until you’ve already read 70 percent of the book.  Barnes doesn’t indulge the achronologic order a novel permits, but he does take his time, gets into the heads of his protagonists, and takes a long look at side stories.  This is why I refer to it as a literary novel in contrast to a thriller, which is more to-the-point and plot driven.

I wonder why Barnes decided to write a novel instead of a nonfiction account of the events.  I suspect there was plenty of source material.  Doyle was a prolific writer.  Newspapers abounded in England at the time.  Clues to the truth can be found in even the most obfuscatory court and government documents.  The Adelji case led to new laws, including the introduction of appeals courts to the British criminal justice system.  I suspect he wanted to explore themes that interested him without too strictly bound to a factual narrative.

There is the suggestion of a theme in the opening chapters.  Doyle and Adelji are introduced through their childhood exposures to death, something that would have been common in the 1800s.  Doyle famously became a spiritualist.  He was committed to the idea that death was passage into another life and that gifted people could communicate with the departed.  I do not know if Adelji’s views are on the record, but Barnes depicts him as something between neutral and skeptical.  He also seems indifferent and uncurious.  The only fact he is sure of is that everyone dies.  What happens after death, if anything, is unknown, and he finds the evidence of an afterlife to be weak.  These views are not contrasted; they are juxtaposed.

Ethics may be another theme.  Doyle derived his ethical view from his notions of chivalry.  Adelji, who comes across as a high-functioning person with Asperger’s syndrome, found his place in the order and logic of the law.  There was plenty of unethical activity, or at least human venality, presented in the story: racism, eugenic notions, sloppy police work, unjust courts, and heel-dragging bureaucrats.

I might have preferred a straight nonfiction account of the events.  Barnes novelization worked for me, though.  It was certainly more effective than the partial fictionalization attempted by David Gelernter in his history of the 1939 World’s Fair.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in

Barnes, Julian.  Arthur & GeorgeNew York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.