Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 20, 2022

Elizabeth Finch, by Julian Barnes

With a dust jacket consisting of cutout spheres and hemispheres on a blue background, the cover design of this latest short novel from Julian Barnes made no sense to me until I saw its name in the credits. The designer Susan Dean is listed, and there’s a mention of a photograph on board from a series called ‘The Eye of Love’ by the Swiss photographer René Groebli.   Google brought me #StillPuzzled to his website where it explains that the series is a tender photoessay on a photographer’s love for a woman, his wife. The photographs are very beautiful though Wikipedia quotes those who interpret the series very differently.

It’s not until you remove the dustjacket that you can see the image that lies beneath.

The point being that people are unknowable. All we ever see are fragments, filtered to reduce our perceptions only to what is permissable, what a person chooses to reveal.


Neil, a rather ordinary man with two failed marriages and a lacklustre career behind him, is looking back on the most satisfying time of his life.  He had taken a course called Culture and Civilisation, taught by the enigmatic Elizabeth Finch.  She has an idiosyncratic style of teaching, more about getting her students to think for themselves than following any prescribed course content.

Elegant in that quiet British way, fiercely protective of her private life, always poised, she was not in any way a public person; nor would she have wanted to be.

She had neither the temperament nor the aptitude for fame. I doubt it was a matter she ever considered.  I remember her once remarking that Clio was the Greek muse of history, usually portrayed with a book or scroll in her hand, ‘whereas in our more enlightened age the Clio Awards are distributed in the United States for excellence in advertising.’ Also, that Clio was the muse of lyre playing, but doubted that those showing excellence in advertising would be serenaded  by a bank of lyre players.  Her manner was droll and wry, and thus — to us, anyway — neither patronising nor snobby.  It was also a way of saying: don’t be taken in by the proclaimed values of your own age. (p.38)

Her interest in the classics leads to discussion about the most iconoclastic idea in the book, i.e that far from being the catalyst for Western Civilisation and its triumphs, the Roman Empire’s adoption of the monotheistic Christian religion was a fatal error.

‘Monotheism,’ said Elizabeth Finch.  ‘Monomania.  Monogamy.  Monotony.  Nothing good begins this way.’ She paused. ‘Monogram — a sign of vanity. Monocle ditto.  Monoculture — a precursor to the death of rural Europe.  I am prepared to acknowledge the usefulness of a monorail.  There are many neutral scientific terms which I am also prepared to admit.  But where the prefix applies to human business…Monoglot , the sign of an enclosed and self-deluding country.  Monopoly — and I do not refer to the board game — always a disaster if you give it time. Monorchid: a condition to be pitied but not aspired to. (p.11)

When she asks if her students have any questions, there is the predictable query about her objection to monogamy.  It is not until some pages later that her hero Julian the Apostate is revealed.  He was the last pagan emperor of the Roman Empire and it is her pet theory that if he’d been able to stave off monotheism that the world would not have taken its calamitous wrong turn.

The old gods of Greece and Rome were gods of light and joy; men and women understood that there was no other life, so that light and joy had to be found here, before nothingness encloses us.  Whereas these new Christians obeyed a God of darkness, of pain and servitude; one who declared that light and joy existed only after death in His confected heaven, progress towards which was filled with sorrow, guilt and fear. (p.31-32)

While Neil denies ever being ‘in love’ with Elizabeth Finch, he wangles his way into friendship with her after the course is over.  They have conversational lunches together; she always pays.  And when she dies, she bequeaths her papers to him without any clear explanation.  He’s certainly not her literary executor…

He browses her books and he reads her journals, most of which are missing.  Those remaining are scrappy and enigmatic and offer no coherent idea of what she was thinking or might have been planning. Feeling vaguely responsible though he’s not sure what for, he tries to honour her legacy by writing an essay about Julian the Apostate.  Part II is that attempt, and it’s quite interesting in its way, and (a sign of Julian Barnes’ authorial finesse) Neil loses interest in Julian before the reader does.

Part III is about his desultory efforts to render a life of Elizabeth Finch, a task as frustrating as trying to track down the ‘real’ Julian the Apostate, which defeated him and may have defeated her too.  Neil meets Elizabeth’s brother, a nice man who barely knew her, and tracks down some of her students who, he learns, were not as enamoured as he was.  She remains elusive, and he realises that bequeathing her literary leavings to a man notorious for his unfinished projects may have been another example of her fine, ironic wit.’ 

In the end, she is unknowable…

Author: Julian Finch
Title: Elizabeth Finch
Publisher: Jonathan Cape, 2022
Design by Susan Dean, from a series called The Eye of Love by René Groebli
ISBN: 9781787333932, hbk., 179 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh $35.00

 


Responses

  1. I will come back to this, as my reading group is doing it later this year. It’s a while since we’ve read Barnes. We’ve done at least two of his over the years.

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    • Have you already got a copy? Because I can send mine up to you if you haven’t…

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      • No, I haven’t Lisa… But I like to write in my books so it’s best if I got my own. Thanks very much though.

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        • Don’t worry, consider it a gift. These days I don’t keep all my internationals because I don’t have room.
          I’ll post it up for you to keep.

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  2. Happy to hear your thoughts on this, as I have read mixed reviews, particularly of the middle section. I love Barnes’ writing and have a nice signed hardback waiting for me – and will approach with an open mind!!

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  3. I have been a Julian Barnes fan for years, but not all of his works have pleased me. I will probably give this one a whirl.

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    • I didn’t like the first one that I read. But I’ve really liked his most recent ones.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve stayed clear of Barnes so far, thinking (maybe wrongly) that his novels would be too deep for reading at bedtime which is about the only time I actually get to spend with a book. This is clearly a thought-provoking novel..

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    • I hear you. Pillowability is a new word I’ve invented which means a book is interesting but doesn’t keep you up all night…

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