Review of the book “Elizabeth Finch” by Julian Barnes

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Here’s one of those reviews—all too common lately—in which I find it hard to put off the sad news that you should skip this novel for as long as possible.

Such contortions seem particularly awkward, given that the novelist Julian Barnes is one of the best English writers in the world. As well as winning numerous awards, including a Booker Prize in 2011 for ‘The Sense of an Ending’, Barnes has published elegant, bold and often witty books that people love to read – ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’, “England, England” and “Arthur and George” among them. Indeed, there was always something magical about Barnes’ ability to make extremely scholarly subjects deeply engaging.

But now comes “Elizabeth Finch,” whose magic is to make a short book feel long. It’s not so much a story as a drunken late-night hagiography of distilled irony. Indeed, the only movement through most of these pages is generated by Barnes giving us an aggressive wink.

Review: “The Meaning of an End”, by Julian Barnes

It’s a story of idolatry, specifically the idolatry of a teacher, which should suggest something about the plot arc. The narrator, Neil, was once a student in an adult education course called “Culture and Civilization”. Neil is an actor. He missed two marriages and fathered three children, but those loved ones get less attention in this story than you might pour on a philodendron.

Instead, Neil remains engrossed in his former teacher, an independent scholar named Elizabeth Finch. “I probably paid more attention to what she was saying and how she was speaking than anyone else in my life,” Neil confesses. She taught without notes because, supposedly, she didn’t need them. “His diction was formal, his sentence structure entirely grammatical,” Neil gushed. “You could almost hear the commas, semicolons and periods. She never started a sentence without knowing how and when it would end. Yet it never sounded like a talking book. Her vocabulary was taken from the same word box she used for writing and general conversation. And yet, the effect was in no way archaic, it was intensely alive.

Barnes captures the language of worship with exquisite balance, the endless cycle of qualifications and special pleadings of the devoted student. “She was corrective but not diminishing,” Neil says. “You might think Elizabeth Finch is just as old-fashioned, if not more so. But if she was, it wasn’t in the usual way. Tirelessly, he raves to, “Like an ancient goddess – yes, I know what I’m saying – she seemed to stand aloof from time, or perhaps above it.”

Sure, Neil doesn’t know what he’s saying, but Barnes certainly does, like when he has his narrator say – twice – “That’s not my story.” Sure. Even students who have fun behind the back should understand that Neil is always thrilled by the thrill of deification that sometimes descends from the sky in a classroom.

I bet most of us remember a special teacher like this: an extraordinary individual who, in the tumultuous alchemy of youth, made us feel like we were receiving some occult wisdom. For me, she was a puritan woman from my Christian prep school who taught drama and sex education, reminding us, in both disciplines, that “pain is just an excess of pleasure!”

But the real drama of these one-sided and largely imaginary relationships lies in their evolution over time: the student’s gradual – or sudden and disorienting – realization that the adored teacher is not what she seemed to be .

This is not the case with Neil who, years later, reproduces Elizabeth Finch’s observations on zircons one by one, page after page, as if he were laying diamond bracelets on a velvet cushion:

“Don’t be fooled by time.”

“Beware of what most people aspire to.”

“You always have to distinguish between mutual passion and shared monomania.”

And when Neil inherits his teacher’s journals, well, you’ll want to catch up on your favorite podcasts.

Throughout this slavish accumulation of his over-clever aphorisms, sweeping historical generalities, and archaic cultural observations, Neil remains utterly devoted to polishing his devotion. “At first I thought Elizabeth Finch was a romantic pessimist; now I would call her a romantic stoic. Are the two conditions compatible? Are we supposed to care? Everything hilariously funny about this obsessive admiration gradually curdles under the suspicion that Barnes might share it.

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But, trust me, you’ll end up feeling nostalgic for the opening section of The Teacher Worship. In the second part, Neil decides to pay the ultimate tribute to Elizabeth Finch. “To please the dead”, he composes and presents a biographical essay on his former hero: Julian the Apostate, “the last pagan emperor of Rome, who tried to turn back the disastrous tide of Christianity”.

Julian is certainly a rich subject of biographical, even fictitious treatment. There have been many such books, from “Res Gestae” by Ammianus Marcellinus in the 4th century to “The Last Pagan Emperor” by HC Teitler in the 21st. But what no one needs now is the 48-page student essay on Julian that sits at the center of “Elizabeth Finch” like an undigested piece of potato in your throat.

On the other side of this ordeal, the novel picks up a bit as Neil tries to delve into Elizabeth Finch’s past and begins to entertain, at least for a moment, that there was an element of pretentiousness about this woman. . But effort is another feint, another pose. Even a foreshadowed scandal – the piece of action promised by the novel – crumbles upon its presentation.

“I sometimes wonder how biographers do,” Neil confesses, “make a life, a living life, a vivid life, a coherent life out of all this circumstantial, conflicting, and missing evidence.” But it seems late in the history of modern literature to present such an ironic questioning of the task of the biographer. Indeed, AS Byatt did it more effectively two decades ago in “The Biographer’s Tale.”

When Neil suggests, “Maybe a coherent narrative is an illusion,” that doesn’t stop us from craving it.

Ron Charles book reviews and writing Book club newsletter for the Washington Post.

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