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Arthur and George’ a satisfying success

Roque Strew | Tuesday, February 14, 2006

While Julian Barnes’ work is generally feted for its oh-so-clever innovations and clanging forward motion, his new novel is – both in milieu and manner – an august voyage backward.

Like “Flaubert’s Parrot,” Arthur and George enlarges and bedecks a moment of history with the ornaments of his imagination. But shorn of that book’s souped-up, highbrow experiments, “Arthur and George” gains a warmth and humility that radiates from its first pages.

Around the turn of the century, and considered its version of France’s Dreyfus Affair, a string of animal mutilations enveloped Britain in scandal. Named after the Staffordshire village in which they occurred, the Great Wyrley Outrages offer the spark for Barnes’ two tales – a narrative double helix twisting the lives of Arthur Conan Doyle and George Edalji into proximity.

Arthur is, of course, the famous creator of Sherlock Holmes. George is a humble solicitor and the casualty of a vicious miscarriage of justice – wrongfully convicted and incarcerated in 1903, he is the Dreyfus to Arthur’s Zola. On its face, the book examines the route by which Doyle came to Edajli’s rescue. To his credit, Barnes is something of a trickster and the book is much deeper, enriched by a larger investigation – the ugly psychology of the zeitgeist.

Cutting between the developments of the eponymous characters – Arthur on one page, George on the next – at times, Barnes gently choreographs the final collision of their fates. Where Arthur was raised Catholic in shabby-genteel Edinburgh, George was brought up in a Church of England vicarage. Arthur was a sporting ophthalmologist turned writer – an overnight success. George toiled in obscurity, a solicitor and author of a tract on railway law. The two men seemed destined never to meet.

The rhetorical question that runs through “Arthur and George” – how can you make sense of the beginning unless you know the ending? -sheds light on Barnes’ self-reflexive treatment of destiny, or the way an author’s hand can shape and reshape the past to suit his designs. Barnes threshed acres of research to accumulate the book’s raw material. The sturdy structure into which he transforms it gives the whole novel an air of inevitability – the Whig history of two desperate men.

All of the circumstances of their final meeting reveal the desperation of an age – the conflicted uncertainty of a country in flux. The pas de deux between Doyle and Edalji reflects many of the inner tensions that persist today – the unsolvable mysteries between the religious and the rational, race and identity and nationalism.

Doyle fancied himself an “unofficial Englishman” – not unlike Barnes, the dyed-in-the-wool Francophile – who was both like and unlike his fellow countrymen. Taking up Edalji’s cause meant picking sides amid a polarized public – the empire’s bigoted relics versus the outraged moderns.

This conflict is again invoked through one of Barnes’ pet themes – death. Death gracefully takes center stage in a great moment, when George, approaching a memorial, “was struck by the realisation that everybody was going to be dead.” This dual sense of finitude and fatalism, which pervades the entire novel, mirrors Britain’s own waning future, as new ideas and technologies steadily overwhelm the provincial minds of the old guard.

“Arthur and George,” Barnes’ less astute fans might grumble, lacks the wry wit, the resistance to classification and the postmodern playfulness of the writing to which they have grown accustomed. It is, to them, unbecoming in its straightforwardness. But they would be mistaken. Written with Flaubert’s formal purity, in a stately Edwardian mode, “Arthur and George” is a luminously unassuming return to form, solidly rooted in his motherland’s fraught past – the clash of entitled imperialism and the new century’s promise of a level, color-blind world.

Quoting Doyle at one point, Barnes recites his list of writerly imperatives – “Firstly, to be intelligible, secondly, to be interesting, and thirdly, to be clever.” While balancing the demands of the detective novel and double biography, “Arthur and George” elegantly pays homage not only to a writer, but also to a forgotten epoch and its sensibility.