In Julian Barnes’s New Novel, a Teacher’s Pet Becomes Obsessed

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ELIZABETH FINCH
By Julian Barnes
178 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $26.

Are you prepared for a vision of sizzling sexuality? Picture this. A woman dressed in brown suede brogues and a below-the-knee skirt, her legs obscured by stockings. Sandy-gray hair. A discreet brooch pinned to her blouse, a formal manner of speaking, a keen interest in antiquity and a tendency to suffer from migraines. These qualities may not scream “racy” or “seductive” or “exotic” to you, but you are not the narrator of Julian Barnes’s 25th book.

The siren is Elizabeth Finch, a teacher of adult education courses in London two decades ago. The narrator is her student, the somewhat dimwitted but diligent Neil. On the first day of class, Elizabeth outlines her pedagogical method: “I shall not attempt to stuff you with facts as a goose is stuffed with corn; this would only lead to an engorged liver, which would be unhealthy.” Neil is besotted. Intrigued by Finch’s poise, dazzled by her confidence, he concocts wild fantasies about her extracurricular life: silk pajamas, Italian lakes, French vineyards, mysterious lovers.

When the course ends, Neil bravely invites his crush to lunch, and for 20 years they dine twice or thrice annually. It’s unclear what Elizabeth gets out of the meetings. What Neil gets is the opportunity to be outwitted by a woman of formidable reticence and intellect. He is, if not quite a glutton for punishment, then at least someone with a hearty appetite for it.

Upon Elizabeth’s death, a lawyer notifies Neil that she has left him her books and papers. Neil, casting himself as disciple, scours the notebooks and discovers that his instructor’s scholarly interests centered around Julian the Apostate — Roman emperor, soldier, scholar and denouncer of Christianity. There ends Part 1 of the novel.

Part 2 is Neil’s attempt to write the essay on Julian that Elizabeth, he presumes, would have composed had she lived longer. The effort is valiant. He remembers Elizabeth, in one of her lectures, expressing disapproval of triple adjectives. (Tall, dark and handsome — that kind of thing.) So, in his essay, he dutifully honors her preference by crafting strings of four, five or even six adjectives. The poor guy is an incorrigible follower of the law’s letter. But perhaps this explains the bequest: Finch knew her student to be incapable of pulling a maneuver like that of Charles Kinbote, the deranged exegete in Vladimir Nabokov’s “Pale Fire.”

The essay about Julian takes up about 50 pages. Is it exhilarating to read 50 pages of Barnes impersonating an amateur scholar poking clumsily through Roman history? No, but it’s not as dull as you might fear. Part 3 brings us back to the life of Neil, as he moves beyond Julian to scavenge for further information to solve the puzzle of Elizabeth.

Julian Barnes, whose new novel is “Elizabeth Finch.”Credit…Marzena Pogorzaly

This is a tale of reverence, and a contemplation of whether that state — with its mingled elements of devotion, self-abasement and love — is possible as a secular exercise. Elizabeth Finch may or may not be a credibly intoxicating thinker as far as the reader is concerned; that isn’t relevant. What matters is that she enchants Neil. One of her teaching strategies is to couch history in terms that her students can grasp — thus the Roman gods were “famous multitaskers” and Carpaccio’s painting “St. George and the Dragon” a “freeze-frame from an action movie.”

Another of this novel’s concerns is legacy. Through his studies of Julian, eternally labeled by history’s victors as a heretic, Neil tussles with how he might contribute to Elizabeth’s posthumous reputation. If her memory is to abide, the task will fall to his shaping of her private materials. What’ll it be, then — Elizabeth the Great? Elizabeth the Minor Scholar Who Published a Book on Female Anarchists in London Between 1890 and 1910, Now Out of Print? Or something in between?

One silly misstep in the novel is Barnes’s attempt to convey the modern rite of cancellation. In Part 3, Neil divulges what he calls “The Shaming.” During the final stages of his friendship with Elizabeth, she delivered a vaguely anti-Christian lecture to a public audience. For some reason it was covered by the media (unlikely) and went viral (highly unlikely). Unflattering paparazzi photos of Elizabeth appeared in newspapers. (Almost impossible to imagine.) Even if you grant that this took place during the world’s slowest news week, nothing about the teacher’s persona or lecture could plausibly stoke a mob into merciless censure.

The cancellation, of course, is a narrative convenience. Elizabeth must be brought low so that Neil can conceive of her as a martyr. (Elizabeth the Apostate.) But it would have been cannier of Barnes to make her a genuinely convincing provocateur. He might have selected any option from the banquet of contemporary pieties and shown Finch stomping it with her sensible brogues. Doing so would have added a nasty edge to his glossy prose while also revealing the scope of Neil’s idolatry. It would also have required Barnes to risk the outrage of people who make a habit of confusing fictional characters with the novelists who create them. But so what? Does he really care about those readers?

Back to the classroom. In her initial remarks, Elizabeth expresses a hope that students will find her course “interesting and, indeed, fun. Rigorous fun, that is.” Rigorous fun: a nice description of Barnes the fiction writer. His ambitions expand and contract from novel to novel: some more fun, some more rigorous. “Elizabeth Finch,” though charming, could use a bit more of both.

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