Sunday, September 11, 2005

Arthur & George review

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.


  1. Gosh - Never even realised it was the same person- I so liked your online review but ended up glossing over the HT page which seemed to look like a story summary - actually the HT page is also rather uninspiring

  2. nice review! fortunately or unfortunately, (i favour the former ;) HT hasn't arrived in chennai yet so i havent seen the truncated version.

    im not referring to your work when i say this, but in response to your editing remark, i'd like to pose this question: say before you is a pretty monstrously written article (syntax errors, wildly inappropriate diction, the works) and its your job to sub it. Do you 1. clean it up quickly and make it from messy to quietly mediocre or 2. sneakily put in your own adjectives and little phrases here and there to try to make a bo derek out of this one-legged elephant??
    how do you resist option #2?!

  3. I guess I've been on the other side of the fence.. I was once given RWW's golf update story to sub and apparently slashed it completely beyond recognition.. Beat RWW to venkat's room the next day to demand WHY the hell was I given a sports copy to sub in the first place! Worked :)

  4. Sonya: thanks.

    Cowlick: I think I remember that - no one fumes quite like RWW does! (Btw, speaking of Today days, did you see the Tin Fish post before this one?

    Shruti: Option 1, every single time. And there’s no question of having to resist option 2, because it simply doesn’t hold any attraction for me. As many of my dismayed bosses have discovered over the years, I’m notoriously lazy when it comes to “creatively rewriting” someone else’s copy, especially when I could be using that time to write something of my own (and get my own byline for it).

    On the other hand, I do know many people in the profession who have a reputation for being able to effect the Cinderella transformation you describe, and who apparently enjoy doing work of that nature. I can’t relate to that at all, but best of luck to them.

  5. I did.. and shuddered.. Though I'd definitely like to read it.

  6. an astonishingly bad review. your verbosity, my friend, hides your incompetence well. but do remember that not everyone is as easily fooled.

  7. Hi, I really like reading your blog where the writing seems very relaxed and accessible. But it seems like your review writing gets a bit -- how should I say this without sounding rude? -- self-conscious. Why can't the non-blog writing be just as friendly? Tanya

  8. Thanks Tanya. Yes, it’s very difficult to strike a balance between structure and informality, and I often struggle with that. Of course, the official review writing is done for newspapers and is perforce different from the writing I do purely for the blog - it tends to be less friendly. But like I said, I’m always looking for that vital balance...

  9. Typically, HT should have given you a word count.
    When the review is 500 words over the mark, there's little a sub can do. If there was time, they should have sent it back to you for a rewrite. You can't cut 850 word story to 350 words without letting down the author and the reader
    The sub's ultimate responsibility is to the reader, not the voice of the author. And that's where the editing of your review fails. It is incomplete.
    And, finally, without the skills of a rewriter much of the copy you read in newspapers would be unreadable. And rewriting is not about adding adjectives and spicing up an article.

  10. Anonymous: They did give me a word count, and it was 800 words. I'm not silly enough to file something 500 words over the limit, and then get all precious about my copy being cut. There was a page-planning goof-up at their end and the page-in-charge has apologised, so that's that where I'm concerned.

    I agree about most copy in newspapers being unreadable without sub-editing - and it pains me when a journo whose skill lies in reportage, NOT writing, gets compliments of the "very well written article" variety after a sub has cleaned up his/her copy. However, I am egoistic enough to believe I don't fall in that category, and I certainly wouldn't stand for one of my book reviews being rewritten (in the sense of being restructured). At least not with my byline attached.

  11. For thos interested in a non-fiction account of the George Edalji case a new book entitled 'Conan Doyle and the Parson's Son:The George Edalji case, researched and written by Gordon Weaver, is to be publishd by Pegasus Elliot macKenzie on the 6th March 2006.For an overview of the book visit

  12. So, did you actually like the book?
    I did.

  13. Thank you for your review.

    I overwhelmingly disliked the book....I thought that the author was overwhelmingly and unnecessarily racist himself in his language.

    As a Canadian in the 21st. Century, I think that modern writers can and should be more thougthful.

    Thanks again for your thoughts....I wish you had written a longer review.

  14. John: I'm surprised you thought it was racist. What parts specifically - any examples you can provide, or was it a general impression?