JUlian Barnes has always enjoyed blurring the lines between fiction and non-fiction, writing novels that sound like works of history or criticism. His new novel, riddled to the point of denying the reader, devotes a third of its short length to a 50-page essay on the historical views of the Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate, who was thwarted in his attempt to abandon the Christianity and bring Rome back to pagan worship.
The author of the essay is the book’s narrator, Neil, a twice-divorced soap actor turned mushroom grower, who writes in memory of Elizabeth Finch, a lecturer who taught a year-long evening class at which he attended in London on the theme of “Culture and Civilization”. ”. He never submitted his final essay, instead asking Elizabeth, whose height sparks much intrigue among her students, to lunch. So began a 20-year routine of semi-annual lunch dates that lasted until her death, when she left her papers,
among them notes for an essay on Julien, to our narrator.
As Neil sets out to complete the work, an early reference to The golden legend, “this medieval assemblage of miracles and martyrdoms”, warns the unprepared reader (this presumptuous “that”). The same goes for the words of Elizabeth’s “rosy-cheeked, plump” brother, who tells Neil that he’s “not a literary guy by any means.” Although I like a good yarn. This is one of many clues that such a thing is far from Barnes’ goal: idem Neil’s admission that “the voyeur in me wondered if [Elizabeth] had left a harrowing and revealing diary… my sordid imagination was no better than that of the cross-eyed students she had taught”.
The novel confuses the reader’s sense of what is and isn’t significant with a steady drumbeat of caveats – about Elizabeth’s romantic life or Neil’s divorces – that turn the narrative into a series of falsehoods. departures; it’s typical when he starts a sentence by saying “In my case” to cut himself off (“but my case isn’t relevant”).
As a reading experience, it’s like answering a cold call only to find yourself put on hold, which doesn’t mean there aren’t some fun times. After an ex-classmate declares that “life…is not a story”, Neil tells us that he likes women “who are smarter or more clear-headed than me”; The next minute, he asks her if she’s ever slept with a woman, before trying to seduce her himself. The problem is that the comedy inflicts collateral damage on our ability to assess the reliability of a Neil guide to its general topic, not least because Elizabeth rarely seems like the purveyor of the 24-carat wisdom she claims to be. (“Life is both necessary and inevitable”? “Constitutional democracy is the least worst system we have discovered so far”?).
A passage finds Neil on a train reading Michel Butor’s 1957 novel The modification (A Changing Heart), whose narrator, also on a train, reads about none other than Julian the Apostate. Neil’s growing impatience with Butor’s shrewd refusal to make the anticipated connections between narrator and subject echoes our own frustrations. In other words, Barnes couldn’t say more clearly that he knew exactly what he was doing; the question is, why does he do it?
If you squint a bit, Elizabeth shares a DNA scrap with Barnes’ friend Anita Brookner, who died in 2016, and whom Barnes paid tribute to in terms that presage Neil’s discussion of the seriousness of ‘Elizabeth (“‘Anita, what do you think of Ireland’s chances in the Six Nations?’ was not a question that ever crossed my mind”). Seen in this light, the jokes of the novel grow: Neil’s disdain for the “crass idea” of writing Elizabeth’s biography might amuse another of Barnes’ friends, Hermione Lee, currently working on a life of Brookner, and her editors at London book reviewwhere Barnes writes regularly, would probably appreciate Neil’s summary of the publication’s reputation as “a nest of leftists, subversives, pseudo-intellectuals, cosmopolitans, traitors, liars and anti-monarchist vermin”.
In the end, I couldn’t help but wonder if Barnes had perversely drawn inspiration from Martin Amis’ autobiographical novel. Inside the storyhaving read it, perhaps, on the alert for a cameo of the kind he made in Friends’ memoir Live, which reported their bitter downfall in the mid-90s. Here is a centered Julian tale also shaped by the enigmatic magnetism of a woman, though cerebral, not carnal, in a roman à clef that keeps the key firmly hidden under a pot of plants near the back door, rather than jingling it à la Amis. Pure projection, no doubt, but Barnes is smart enough to know that readers faced with such an astringent novel might just find themselves having to indulge.