The Strange Case of Julian Barnes

How an author transcended his sources and unleashed magical powers.

There is a peculiar pleasure that comes to a critic who has badly underestimated the capacities of a particular novelist. Peculiar, because one hates to look like a fool; but pleasure, because it is always good to find the number of excellent novels in the world enlarged. With his new book, Arthur & George, Julian Barnes has increased that tally by one, and I am left feeling suitably chastened by my failure to foresee this turn of events. (But before I proceed with my mea culpa, a quick caveat emptor: To champion Barnes, I can’t help giving away the plot. So, click away now if you’re planning to read Arthur & George, and come back when you’re done.)

One of the enormous satisfactions of this fine novel lies in its careful doling-out of information, so that each turn in its mysterylike plot delivers a genuine surprise. Brilliantly structured, Arthur & George begins with a series of alternating chapters headed “Arthur” and “George,” each describing the childhood and youth of a young British male. From the narrative context alone we gather that Arthur, who hails from Edinburgh, comes from a lower socioeconomic class than George, son of the vicar in a village near Birmingham. Both are born in the second half of the 19th century (Barnes manages to work in that fact with the delicacy of a cardsharp slipping an ace into his own hand), and while George becomes a solicitor, Arthur trains as an ophthalmologist and begins writing stories on the side. The two lives proceed completely apart, and only the ampersand of the title promises us that they will someday intersect. It is Page 48 before we are told (without, in my case, having had the slightest suspicion beforehand) that Arthur is, in fact, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, and it is Page 221 before Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first encounters the case of George Edalji.

One of the many surprises in the book (it occurs after we imagine we are already well-acquainted with George) is our discovery that George is half-Indian. George thinks of himself as fully English—as, indeed, his Scottish mother and Bombay-born father have encouraged him to do—but gradually it dawns on us, and on him, that certain elements in his village view him as a “half-caste,” a “Hindoo,” “not a right sort.” These attitudes are to be found not just among the loutish farm boys who surround him at his first school, but in the most powerful people in his local world—namely, the obnoxious chief constable and his unthinking minions. So, when George’s family is victimized by anonymous hate mail and troublesome practical jokes, the police somehow manage to convey the sense that such problems are the Edaljis’ own fault. And when a series of animal mutilations horrifies the neighborhood, it is George who is unfairly arrested and ludicrously convicted of the crime. Barnes conveys this miscarriage of justice in such thorough, coolly observant, believably contemporary terms that we actually feel we are standing on the sidelines, watching the egregious trial take place. I have not felt so agitated reading a novel since I witnessed Sonia Marmeladov’s suffering under the unfair accusations leveled against her in Crime and Punishment—which is not to say that Barnes is quite at Dostoyevsky’s level yet, but then, who is?

There is a reality to these characters—not just Arthur and George themselves, but also Arthur’s beloved second-wife-to-be, Jean Leckie; his loyal secretary, Alfred Wood; George’s sensible sister, Maud; and the racist chief constable, Capt. Anson, to mention only a few of the large and well-deployed cast—that stems only partly from the fact that they were once real people. Arthur Conan Doyle did, in fact, take on the case of the wrongfully convicted George Edalji, and did win him a pardon on the grounds of various pieces of overlooked evidence (including the ophthalmological observation—a nice Holmesian touch—that George was too nearsighted to have committed the crimes). All the quoted documents except a single love letter, Barnes tells us in an appended note, are drawn from the actual historical records. Barnes has made no effort to conceal his diligent research: We can sense that these names and dates are specific, that these headlines come from real newspapers, even before we know the basis of the story to be factual. It is as if two realities coexist at once—the 21st-century moment from which we, with Barnes, look back on this event that defined and changed British justice (the English version of a Dreyfus Affair, it is suggested), and the lived moments that each of the two protagonists, Arthur and George, went through together and apart. Neither reality trumps the other, and neither obliterates the other. It is the kind of triumph that permits an author to be “proud of having created a character in whose true existence readers effortlessly believe,” as Barnes says about Sherlock Holmes and his author.

I would not have expected this from Julian Barnes, this magical ability to create a fiction that is larger than either his authorship or his sources, this startling understanding of the way in which fictional characters can be both more complicated and more moving than their historical models. And yet he had it in him all the time, I can now see as I look back over the career. Why did I erroneously class him below the superb McEwans and Mantels of his generation? Why could I not forecast this level of achievement? Or—if I want to give myself a bit of a break—what is it about the present material that has allowed Barnes’ gifts to reach their full flower?

Like the Staffordshire villagers who falsely accused George, I would argue on my own behalf that mine was an honest and credible mistake. There was a dissociation of sensibility in Barnes’ previous novels. Flaubert’s Parrot was clever and amusing but rather cold. Talking It Over was filled with feeling and unpersuasive as literature. England, England had strong elements that led in the direction of this recent success, but they were thwarted by that novel’s science-fictionlike atmosphere and social-critique tone. Not until now, it seems, has Barnes had a subject that allowed him to maintain exactly the right distance—neither too close nor too far, neither helplessly indignant nor cowed by admiration, neither mired in the plot nor caddishly manipulating the heartstrings of his characters. Flaubert, perhaps, was too chilly a model for him, and too grand a one. He needed somebody he could stand up to—someone whose thought processes he could reasonably hope to emulate and maybe even outdo. He needed a figure who cared, as he evidently does, for logic, order, and structure. He needed someone who was both English and not-English, because one of Barnes’ constant strengths, especially in his nonfiction, has been the ability to see England from the outside. And he needed at least one character whose inner life he could hope, respectfully, to convey.

Instead he got two, Arthur and George. Their solid reality gave him grounds for respect; their placement in time gave him the necessary distance; and their eccentric combination of merits and shortcomings (different merits and shortcomings in each case) gave him the room he needed in which to create believable characters. But none of this fully accounts for the gift that Barnes has given us in Arthur & George, and that is why it is such a gift—surprising and yet characteristic in the way only the best gifts can be.