Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Julian Barnes's "Arthur & George"

I have a deep affection for Julian Barnes, generally because I always enjoy his intellectually stimulating novels, more particularly because he taught me how to look at a painting. One chapter in The History of the World in 10½ Chapters muses on Géricault’s “The Raft of the Medusa.” I remember Barnes’s careful marshalling of evidence in the painting to decide whether the tiny ship in the horizon is approaching the desperate survivors of the shipwreck, or leaving them. I don’t remember the conclusion, but the approach has stuck with me: seeing is also interpreting.

His new novel Arthur and George begins with the desire to take a look:

A child wants to see. It always begins like this, and it began like this then. A child wanted to see.

This particular child who wanted to see is Arthur, who is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, the professional ophthalmologist, the champion of the weak, and, finally, the evangelist of Spiritualism. What the child Arthur saw was the corpse of his grandmother, and so is launched a great theme of the novel: after death, what survives of our loved ones, of us? If the answer is nothing, then we are comparable to the cattle and horses ripped mysteriously in the belly, in Wyerly, Staffordshire, a crime of which George is accused.

George Edalji is the local Vicar’s son, who made his parents proud by becoming a solicitor. His belief in the law of England subjects the institutions of Justice to a test. His half-Scottish, half-Parsee heritage questions traditional ideas of Englishness. Arthur, who champions George, compares his case repeatedly to the Dreyfus affair, seeing it as England on trial. George, meanwhile, stubbornly rejects Arthur’s assumption that race prejudice was and is at work against him.

In crucial ways, the novel is an anti-detective story. Inspector Campbell, who promised initially to be a hero, turns out to be a callow apparatchik. Arthur is an investigator more enthusiastic than expert. In the end, the cattle killer is not found, and the malicious letter-writer turns himself in. The ending follows the historical facts, and so underlines how inadequate the detective genre is to convey even the outlines of reality: how infantilizing its exaltation of a singular hero-detective, how deluding its denouement, how outdated its picture of moral and metaphysical certainty.

The sifting of evidence, during the investigations and the trials, is illuminated by the shifting points of view adopted in the novel, mostly between George and Arthur, two very different men from very different backgrounds. One of the great achievements of the novel is to flesh out fully both men. The personalities and the perspectives of the two men, deftly compared throughout the novel, are given equal space in the novel. If the novel begins with Arthur, it ends with George, attending an séance in Albert Hall, at which Arthur’s spirit is expected to appear.

The shift in perspective takes place not only between characters but also between past and present. Some of the sections, usually those describing the protagonists' personal lives, are written in present tense. Other sections, more to do with the public events, are in past tense. This formal device matches two other concerns of the novel. One is the power of memory, which can make the past seem present again, and smooth out the contradictions and ambiguities in repeated retellings, whether in a court session, or in an autobiography.

The other concern, illustrated by the switching of tenses in the very first sentence of the novel, is the generalizability of the particular. Which is truer: “A child wants to see” or “A child wanted to see?” Here, George functions as the particular other people wishes to generalize. For Captain Anson, the racist Chief Constable, George represents the Hindoo half-caste. For Arthur, George is the victim of race prejudice. George’s father, the Vicar, thinks of his son as a martyr for God’s mysterious purpose. George himself would like to think that his case, and others like it, pushed for legal reform, the setting up of a Court of Appeal. His thinking here is modest, cautious, practical, and empirical. The novel seems to think that we cannot help generalizing from the particular, but generalizations should bear George’s traits.

After the Albert Hall séance is over, George remains behind to look at Arthur’s chair on stage, where his ghost supposedly appeared and left.

When most of his section is empty, he reaches down again and presses the binoculars to his spectacles. He focuses once more on the platform, the hydrangeas, the line of empty chairs, and the one specific empty chair with its cardboard placard, the space where Sir Arthur has, just possibly, been. He gazes through his succession of lenses, out into the air and beyond.

What does he see?
What did he see?
What will he see?

In focusing on the platform, plants and chairs (“and the one specific empty chair”), George’s looking is empirical. This empiricism is capable of metaphysical speculation, as represented by the “space” where Arthur has been, and is open to possibilities and contradictions. It is also a kind of looking that is fully aware of the lenses through which it looks, the lenses that enable and distort. The last three paragraphs not only conclude one of the novel’s key techniques—the shift in tenses—they also pay tribute, I think, to the novel’s way of seeing, through time.

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