Today’s Hindustan Times has carried a heavily cut version of my Arthur & George review. Now there are roughly two ways in which an 800-word review can be chopped down to 350 words. The first is by simply pasting the first 350 words of the piece on the Quark file – which is what HT has done. The second is the creative rewriting way, wherein an enterprising sub-editor with too much time on his hands picks one or two sentences out of every para and magically strings them together, often aided by his own improvisations.
If one of the two evils has to be practiced at all, I prefer the first method – at least it ensures that what does go in stays more or less in the same form that you wrote it: even if it cuts off the piece at exactly the point where it’s beginning to gather momentum. So will steel my heart now.
(Btw, the HT version ended at “…many uncertainties of the real world” in the fourth para.)
Here’s the full thing:
Julian Barnes’s new novel starts by giving us, in parallel narratives, the early years of two young boys in the second half of the 19th century. George grows up in the parish of Great Wyrley, Staffordshire, the son of a vicar. His father, unusually, is Parsi, and from an early age George has to contend with fellow students’ taunts: “You’re not a right sort,” they say. But beyond correcting the pronunciation of his family name – Edalji – he has no sense of an identity other than that of an Englishman, living in “the beating heart of the Empire”. He studies law and begins a career as a solicitor in Birmingham.
Arthur, meanwhile, comes to maturity in a very different social setting in Edinburgh, a member of a large family that doesn’t take Church teachings at face value. He is marked out as a future Captain of Cricket but he also learns the art of storytelling from his mother, honing the talent to the point where he can tell classmates tales in exchange for a piece of pastry or an apple: “thus he learnt the essential connection between narrative and reward”. This lesson will serve him well; he will become one of the most respected authors of his era, the creator of the Sherlock Holmes stories.
In the early 20th century the paths of these two men briefly crossed in a case that made headlines in Britain: The Great Wyrley Outrages. George Edalji was convicted (on flimsy evidence made to appear conclusive by officials handling the case) of mutilating farm animals, and spent three years in prison; on his release he appealed to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who turned detective himself and helped clear the young solicitor’s name. In Julian Barnes’s accomplished hands, this story becomes not just a solidly entertaining yarn but also a thoughtful examination of the ambiguities that govern human actions, the interior lives of two very different men and the conflicts between faith and knowledge.
Be warned this is no Sherlock Holmes mystery – in fact, Barnes repeatedly contrasts the facile workings of detective fiction with the many uncertainties of the real world. (“Holmes was never obliged to stand in the witness box and have his suppositions and intuitions and immaculate theories ground to fine dust…”) And though there is a certain amount of courthouse drama, the focus is on the lives and motivations of the two men, presented in alternating chapters. Arthur’s personal life is in disarray at the time George’s case comes to his desk: for 10 years, as his consumption-afflicted first wife slowly wasted away, he had maintained a clandestine, “platonic love affair” with another woman, Jean Leckie; now, after becoming a widower, he realises that making his relationship with Jean public will entail a new set of deceptions. In Barnes’s (slightly simplistic) treatment of this sub-plot, the Great Wyrley case gives the distressed author the opportunity to plunge full-bloodedly into a cause that will help him conquer his own self-doubt.
Arthur & George is a fictionalised account of actual events, and it’s difficult to know where fact ends and storytelling begins – but in a sense that’s apposite to this novel. What can one ever truly know? -- this is the question that rears its head repeatedly in this narrative. It arises in the subtle, almost invisible, workings of racism and discrimination that may have played a part in George’s conviction (though interestingly enough, he himself strongly resists the idea). It comes up when Arthur agonises over his relationship with Jean, defends his position to his disapproving brother-in-law and wonders whether his first wife, on her deathbed, suspected anything. And it occurs, most strangely and movingly, in a passage towards the end when George reflects that Sir Arthur’s positive descriptions of him in articles weren’t necessarily accurate -- even though they helped clear his name. “He did not smoke. This was true. He judged it a pointless, unpleasant and costly habit. But also one unconnected with criminal behaviour. Even Sherlock Holmes famously smoked a pipe…”
This uncertainty is also reflected in the conflict between the irrationalities of organised religion and the rationalities of reasoned thought. “How peculiarly repellent were the perversions of an institutional religion once it began its irreversible decline,” thinks Arthur to himself bitterly at one point. “The sooner the whole edifice were swept away the better.” But even here there is ambiguity: Arthur, a renowned rationalist, pledges his troth to “Spiritism” and participates in séances, which many others dismiss as mere charlatanry. Haunted by a childhood image of his grandmother’s dead body (only the “sloughed husk” left behind), he searches for the elusive truth that lies behind superficial religious practices. These questions along with many others, he believes, will be answered in the more enlightened century that is to come.
But a hundred years on, the answers are still elusive.