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Cover of book: Elizabeth Finch

Julian Barnes
Elizabeth Finch

When Julian Barnes’ novel Flaubert’s Parrot was published almost 40 years ago, you knew that the parameters of literature had changed. For all the quality of this work – which absorbed Flaubert’s writing and equalled him through emulation and empathy – Barnes has produced a swag of books that show an absolute commitment to the art of writing fiction. There were carnivals of intersecting voices, as in Talking It Over, a hundred stories almost in the French mode and, here or there, the odd book that lapsed in conception or composition.

Elizabeth Finch is something else. We know about the Julian Barnes who adored the British novelist Penelope Fitzgerald, a woman who began to write fiction at 58. Elizabeth Finch is, in a more or less bewildering way, a portrait of a genius and a goddess – if a goddess is someone who is apprehensible only through the hundred fragments of a mythology.

Elizabeth Finch is the soaring, never less than composed lecturer in her later middle years, her hair a flawless grey. She is giving a set of extension lectures on culture and civilisation to an adult education group in what seems like the early ’60s or mid-’70s. In any case, she talks like a book – which is rather the point. She is a master of the bon mot and she seems to know from the get-go how her sentences will end: with what flourish, what cadence, what calculated diminuendo and effect.

She captivates Neil, the narrator of this novel. He has lunch with her a couple of times a year at the same Italian restaurant. It’s always her shout, and they always order the same pasta, the same wine.

But before we are plunged into the precipitous drama or enigma-kindling wonderment of this narrator’s obsession with Finch, we hear the voice of the goddess herself. She is a prophetess who inveighs against the world that denies the pluralism of the paganism and settles for a monolithic and far from merciful Christianity, leading to the barbarities of Catholicism, Protestant Christianity and all the other ways of enshrining the One instead of the Many.

The pertinent figure, shadowing the book like a shroud, is Julian the Apostate, the last of the pagan emperors of Rome. His dying cry, according to legend, was “Vicisti, Galilaee” (“Thou hast conquered, O Galilean.”) These words are best known in Swinburne’s echo: “Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath.”

But why mention the figure who shares a Christian name with the novelist? After the extraordinary pyrotechnics of Finch’s performative pre-Socratic balletics at the beginning of the book – which sit a bit uneasily with their humdrum setting – she dies. Just like that. Snap. She leaves her papers to the bewildered narrator and he proceeds to write, in a style neither his nor hers, a mini-life of Julian the Apostate.

We learn about Julian’s disdain for the early Christians: how he despised their primitive moralism, how he continued to sacrifice animals to foretell the future in their entrails, how he denied Christians a philosophical education and how he wore a shaggy goat beard. We get bits of Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Along the way we’re told that the Christians killed a lot more of each other than the pagans ever did.

Then we’re off again into the narrator’s quest for Finch. We learn that she was a lecturer at London University, that she is survived by a homely brother who lives in Essex and that The London Review of Books offered to host a public lecture by her, which resulted in a scandal.

Elizabeth Finch is a somewhat mad novel and maybe a mistaken one. It bears no relation to the book that perhaps it initially recalls: Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. One of the greatest miniatures in the language, the story of the Edinburgh schoolmarm and her “gels” has a lyrical intensity of style but the realistic detail and moral perspective of Jean Brodie’s élan and her delusions are absolutely integrated into the story.

In Elizabeth Finch, we doubt from the outset the wisdom of having this realistically placed actor–narrator, a bloke who’s given to uncompleted projects and a set of self-improving middle-class associates. The narrator inhabits a different linguistic universe to the arias of the great teacher and his mundanity casts much greater doubt on the whole than the musical marvellousness of Finch’s star turns.

There is a lame little fable of the narrator clinging to the curtain of his desire to believe and of his being conquered by the apprehension – which in fact dawned long before – of what he felt for this siren of splendour and doubt.

This is a riddling, nearly confounding book by a literary master in a state of muddle. It’s a novel about the exorcism of one plane of discourse for another. Julian’s apostasy is to have littered a novel about obsession with the detritus of a detailed realism that doesn’t really sit with it.

But if Elizabeth Finch is a failure, it’s a marvellous and maddening one. Like the legend of what Julian did not say, it lingers in the mind – more than the success it gestures towards might have. 

Jonathan Cape, 192pp, $35

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 30, 2022 as "Elizabeth Finch, Julian Barnes".

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Peter Craven is a literary and culture critic.

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