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In 'Elizabeth Finch,' Julian Barnes addresses collective vs. personal memory


"History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation," Julian Barnes wrote memorably in his 2011 Booker Prize-winner, The Sense of an Ending.

His latest novel, Elizabeth Finch, is a dual-pronged exploration of both personal and ancient history which asks, "Why should we expect our collective memory — which we call history — to be any less fallible than our personal memory?" Barnes' title character, a teacher, drums into her adult students that history "is for the long haul" and "is not something inert and comatose, lying there and waiting for us to apply a spyglass or telescope to it; instead, it is active, effervescent, at times volcanic."

Unfortunately, there is something inert and less than effervescent about Elizabeth Finch. It is a tribute to the teacher referred to as EF, who wielded an outsize influence on many of her students, including the novel's unprepossessing narrator, Neil. Part of the problem is that Neil, as he's the first to admit, is a passive, rather uninteresting character. But a bigger problem is that, tucked into his encomium is his decades-overdue essay for the course he took as a floundering 30-year-old after the end of both his first marriage and his acting career. The class was called "Culture and Civilisation," and Neil's belated paper is a lengthy disquisition on Julian the Apostate, the so-called last pagan emperor, who was one of Elizabeth Finch's heroes.

Despite his failure to submit a final essay on time, Neil was so taken by EF that he continued to meet her for lunch every few months for nearly 20 years. "Her presence and example had made my brain change gear, had provoked a quantum leap in my understanding of the world," he writes in his posthumous tribute.

Among other things, this is a novel about the power of influence — and obsessions. It is also, more broadly, about wrong turns — in Neil's life and, in EF's not-so-humble opinion, in world civilization after the death of Julian in 363 A.D., with the victory of Christianity over Neoplatonic Hellenism.

Barnes' 25th book features a theme that runs through much of his work: the difficulty of pinning down another person's life, whether someone you knew and loved or someone who predated you by centuries. To write biography is hard, he has Neil remind us in Elizabeth Finch: "I sometimes wonder how biographers do it: make a life, a living life, a glowing life, a coherent life out of all that circumstantial, contradictory and missing evidence." In The Man in the Red Coat, Barnes' nonfiction book about a Belle Epoque gynecologist whose portrait was painted by John Singer Sargent, he put it this way: "Biography is a collection of holes tied together with string."

Readers who have enjoyed the far-reaching fascinations that Barnes has woven into his other books — including 19th century aeronautics in Levels of Life, his meditation on the ups and downs of love and loss -- may be unfazed by this novel's dive into Julian the Apostate and EF's controversial thesis regarding his role in civilization's supposed wrong turn toward monotheism. Neil's essay focuses on the changing attitudes toward Julian over the centuries, which, in a lovely image, he likens to "walking across a stage pursued by different-colored spotlights." But that wasn't enough to lighten the pedantry weighing down his novel.

Fortunately, the portrait of the title character is more engaging. Based in part on Barnes' friend, Anita Brookner, with whole passages lifted verbatim from his 2016 obituary of the writer and art historian, Elizabeth Finch is a paean to a woman who was "old-fashioned but also outside, beyond time," solitary but not lonely. Like Brookner, EF speaks "almost in written prose, having no perceptible gap between brain and tongue, poised, elegant, alarming, complete." Her diction was so formal and grammatical "you could almost hear the commas, semicolons and full stops."

Like Muriel Sparks' Miss Jean Brodie, EF comes across as a commanding presence and a font of pointed opinions. She urges students to distrust descriptions reduced to three adjectives, "beware of what most people aspire to," and recognize that "a politician's main function is to disappoint." She loves to challenge pupils with big questions like "Does civilization progress?" And, Neil writes, "She obliged us — simply by example — to seek and find within ourselves a centre of seriousness." He adds, "She was corrective but not diminishing, as she directed us elegantly away from the obvious."

Neil also extols EF's personal stoicism, whether in the face of illness or public shaming, and hails her as "a still and radiant point in my life." Yet despite her lofty example, he confesses, "I just carried on living my life in much the same old muddled way as I always had" — "a predictable graphline of expectation and disappointment, repeatedly." This less than inspiring revelation manages to further deflate Barnes' already flat novel.

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Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.