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An Evening with Julian Barnes

Vintage_Arthur_&_George_250JUSTICE “Law and Literature” event – 28 October 2014, Inner Temple Hall, London

Last Wednesday the London-based human rights organisation, JUSTICE, held the first event in its “Law and Literature” series: ‘An Evening with Julian Barnes’.  It began with a presentation by Lord Justice Laws, followed by Julian Barnes reading from his novel, Arthur & George, and then a conversation between the author and Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws QC.  Unsurprisingly perhaps, but unbeknownst to me at the time, the novel was chosen because it revolves around an early twentieth century miscarriage of justice known as the Edalji case.  The case concerned the prosecution and conviction of an Anglo-Indian solicitor, George Edalji, for numerous incidents of ‘horse-ripping’ (the apparently random mutilation of horses), known as the Great Wyrley Outrages, that occurred in Staffordshire in 1903.  The proceedings were drawn to national attention when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, already a major celebrity writer, took it upon himself to campaign on Edalji’s behalf, having become convinced that no man as short-sighted as Mr Edalji could possibly have committed the crimes himself.  The campaign was ultimately successful in turning public opinion in favour of the convicted man, and a commission of inquiry into the case was ordered by the government, which granted Edalji a pardon in 1907.  The case was also an important driver for reform of the criminal justice system in England, including the creation of the Court of Criminal Appeal.  Interestingly, the Edalji case was almost exactly contemporaneous with the Dreyfus affair, a sort of more celebrated older brother, which sharply divided public opinion in France at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Barnes explained that he had first stumbled across the Edalji case completely by chance, and had investigated it with a writer’s “predatory” instinct, that is, in the hope of being able to turn the source material into some sort of fictionalised account of the episode.  He quickly became aware, upon researching the case, that his biggest challenge would be successfully balancing the lives of his two protagonists, Arthur Conan Doyle and George Edalji, so that the latter would not be totally eclipsed in the novel by the adventures, success and renown of the former.  This balancing involved drawing out the character of George so that it could become more interesting and nuanced than first impressions might indicate.  To this extent, Barnes actually read Edalji’s one book as a solicitor, Railway Law for the “Man in the train”, published in 1901, which he found surprisingly funny.

The use of real figures from the past as the basis for fictional characters was also discussed later on in the evening, with Mr Barnes declaring that he treated real people with as much seriousness in his work as he treated fictional individuals.  He did, however, concede that it was sometimes necessary to embellish a character in fiction, often for want of sufficient information on the original person – he remembered once being challenged at a book festival by a descendant of one of the characters in Arthur & George, who complained that the physical appearance of his relative as described in the novel did not match reality, before noting bitterly that “I suppose he’s your character now.”  To which Mr Barnes was tempted to reply: “yes, he is.”

This exchange, and in fact the evening as a whole, led me to reconsider two slightly hackneyed but nevertheless important and related issues in literature.  Firstly, the issue of artistic licence when it comes to exhuming and attempting to resuscitate incidents from history.  There is a well-founded concern, on the one hand, that figures from the past should not be posthumously slandered in any way.  On the other hand, there is a belief that significant episodes from our collective history should not be confined to non-fiction accounts and sterile textbooks.  In certain situations the two positions cannot be reconciled; opinions about what happened in the past frequently differ, and we therefore inevitably find ourselves entering a slippery debate about objectivity and the nature of ‘truth’.  However, the fact that writers of fiction cannot avoid causing some offence when adopting positions vis-à-vis history should never preclude them from embarking on artistic reinterpretations of the past.  I would argue that an author has some responsibility to be sensitive to what he believes to be true (perhaps an obligation to take characters “seriously” at all times), particularly when dealing with lesser known figures, but that is all.

This leads directly into the second issue referred to above, which is the responsibility of writers generally.  It is often claimed that literature and politics or social responsibility do not sit well together: the necessary ambiguity of the former clashing horribly with the black-and-white dogma of the latter.  This is true insofar as literature as art should endeavour to convey an experience of reality that is self-aware and not bound to rigid ideological structures, which is perhaps why Milan Kundera once remarked that “what Orwell tells us could have been said as well (or even much better) in an essay or pamphlet.”  Even accepting this, it is still nevertheless the case that writers wield significant influence outside their fictional output: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used his celebrity clout at the dawn of the twentieth century to secure the pardon of an innocent man, whilst only last week Julian Barnes put his name to JUSTICE’s most recent fundraising campaign.

But returning to the fiction itself, there is also a responsibility inherent in the act of writing, albeit one that is not immediately obvious.  I think Mr Barnes put it best in the preface to his book of essays Through the Window:

Novels tell us the most truth about life: what it is, how we live it, what it might be for, how we enjoy and value it, how it goes wrong, and how we lose it […] Fiction makes characters who have never existed as real as your friends, and makes dead writers as alive as a television newsreader.”

As applied to the fiction of Julian Barnes, I can safely say that without Arthur & George it is extremely unlikely that I would ever have heard of the Edalji case, let alone have become interested in it.  More importantly, I would never have put myself in George Edalji’s shoes as he faced the injustice of a world intent on punishing him for being different.

The Editors

Reading as (True) Travel: Part 1

Dante

in our mad flight we turned our oars to wings

Inferno XXVI

It has been suggested elsewhere on this website, somewhat unoriginally, that every time a reader picks up a book he or she embarks on a journey, often of intellectual discovery, but potentially also of the emotional, imaginative, or even spiritual variety (see Roomful of Mirrors). Indeed, J.M.G. Le Clezio, chief inspirer of this series of posts and author of the original essay “Reading as True Travel”, argues that reading offers a form of departure that extends far beyond the limits of physical travel:

The world’s mystery cannot be found through exploration: mystery resides rather in the world’s imaginable power.”

Certainly, it must be accepted that seeing more of the world will not necessarily open the traveller’s eyes to the infinite subtlety of the human mind (unless perhaps said traveller is the 17th Earl of Oxford on a controversial visit to Verona) and, to this extent, any parallels we may seek to draw between reading and travelling are limited: the results we can hope to achieve from each activity are distinct, albeit potentially overlapping. However, in this piece I would like to focus more on the similarities between what it is that drives us to pick up books, on the one hand, and book plane tickets, on the other.

Apologies for digging up Dante for a second week running, but I find it difficult to attempt to comprehend these underlying urges without referring to the Florentine poet’s conception of man as Ulysses preparing to embark on a final expedition, this time to the “unknown” half of the world that was thought to lie beyond the Pillars of Hercules (dividing Europe and north Africa). Dante sees Ulysses as the ultimate traveller, a hero perpetually and tragically in search of more. More what, exactly? More of everything, but most importantly more knowledge – “all men desire to know” – which is why he is a sort of anti-hero in the Inferno: he embodies both the desire for knowledge (always a delicate area where faith is concerned), and humanity’s inherently unsatisfied and restless nature.

There is no doubting the fact that the search for discovery and the pursuit of knowledge drive, to a large extent, our desire to read as well as our desire to travel. We read books to find out what happened and how things work, to marvel at other people’s imaginative creations, and, above all, to marvel at beauty (see Why Read? No.17). We travel for similar reasons. Moreover, we may return to books and places, but there is nothing quite like the joy of the new, of experiencing the hitherto unexperienced. As such, there is a large element of risk-taking in both reading and travelling – not in terms of physical danger, obviously, but in terms of whether or not we ultimately find what it is we set out to discover. After all, it is one thing to seek the contemplation of beauty, for example, but another altogether to strike gold in a way that is distinctly subjective and personal to us. We may be recommended books to read or places to visit, and yet it is almost impossible to foresee what it is that will move or impress us. It is not uncommon to put down a book or return from a holiday thoroughly uninspired by the preceding ‘journey’. Invariably, however, we trust that there is something out there for us, even if it is hidden away on the other side of the world. Something that would be good to see, something we must see.

Reading and travel are often viewed as activities of leisure, to be taken up in spare time away from the harsh reality of working life. I would suggest, on the contrary, that both are in fact often motivated by an underlying sense of urgency. See, for example, the frequency with which both inspire bucket-list discussions: “100 books/places to read/visit before you die”. That reading and travel might both reflect humanity’s consciousness of mortality is an idea that seems to surface frequently in Julian Barnes’ novel A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters, not explicitly perhaps, but it lurks behind some of the more central themes. In particular, the story of Noah’s ark, which Barnes uses as one of many ‘pillars’ around which to base his 10 ½ narratives, connects the idea of salvation through physical travel to that of salvation through literature. That may seem a stretch but bear with me – the story of Noah is intended (in the Bible) both as a literal account of humanity’s survival by taking to the seas, and as an allegory for humanity’s salvation through faith. That faith is accessed and understood, at least doctrinally, via books, and the story of Noah appears in the first book of the Bible, Genesis

Medusa

So should we be more inclined to see readers (ourselves) as intrepid physical and spiritual adventurers rather than as armchair navel gazers? Probably not, but there is undoubtedly a desperate yearning at the root of much of our literary activity, a yearning caught between despair at the inadequacy of what we know is true, and the hope of what might be true in the as yet unexplored landscapes of some distant reality. Barnes once again manages to convey this exquisitely in his assessment of Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa – a painting painfully split between an overwhelming sense of foreboding doom and a glimmer of hopeful expectation (see the tiny ship on the horizon). It is easy to imagine that Ulysses experienced something similar as he sailed beyond the boundaries of man’s earthly realm, glimpsing the mountain of Purgatory as he did, before being sucked down to the eighth circle of Hell.

The Editors

Zombie

Through the Window – Julian Barnes

It might seem odd for a literary website to review what is essentially a collection of literary reviews, but that is what it is going to do.

Perhaps the single greatest problem with writing about literature, particularly well-established, widely acclaimed literature is the feeling that one should write objectively, or at the very least with an overriding awareness of and respect for the academic literary criticism surrounding your chosen subject.  This seems reasonable enough, after all, academics specialise in writing about literature, they do it all the time, they’ve read a lot more than you have, and they weren’t promoted and published by accident.  In short, they are very good at what they do.  And yet, literary criticism is not a science; it can’t and shouldn’t be left to the professionals and forgotten about by the rest of us, however tempting that might be.  This applies to Shakespeare as much as it does to Hemingway.

Julian Barnes is not an academic in the true sense of the word, but nor is he an amateur, having published eleven novels and won the Man Booker Prize in 2011 (so the sleeve of this book tells me).  Similarly, his collection of essays, Through the Window, is not academic in the sense that the essays do not approach their subjects with a desire to break them down and rigorously lay out an authoritative interpretation.  Instead, each essay attempts to capture something about an author, novel or series of novels – something that can’t really be discerned objectively but only by a well-read, perceptive reader.  In this way, the title of the collection is appropriate because what Barnes offers in each essay is a window into the world of a particular novelist, whilst implicitly recognising that what is revealed is only a partial glimpse of the whole, and a glimpse that also reflects back on the viewer (Barnes in this case).

This gives the book a thoroughly personal dimension which might in some circles be seen as detracting from the insight it offers.  Regardless, these essays are extremely enjoyable, and the fact that they are coloured by anecdotes from the author’s experience makes them all the more vivid.  The first essay, for example, opens with an account of how Barnes once met Penelope Fitzgerald on a panel at York University, and shared a train back to London with her.  Rather than make the essay less “serious”, this personal detail brings the subject to life, not in a name-dropping, “look at my famous mates” way, but because it reveals a willingness to view novelists as human beings (albeit highly skilled and intelligent human beings), and not part of an incomprehensible literary sect.  Perhaps this reflects the fact that Barnes himself is a highly successful novelist, thereby breaking down some of the barriers between the essayist and his subjects – and maybe this is the intention, to act as a gateway between layperson and literature.

Whatever the case may be, it is exhilarating to read a reader like Barnes because he succeeds in bringing the written word out of the past and into the present, and in doing so manages to shatter what is one of the greatest myths surrounding literature in the modern world – that it is an antiquated medium for dead people.  As Barnes tells us in the preface:

“Fiction makes characters who have never existed as real as your friends, and makes dead writers as alive as a television newsreader.”

The Editors

You can download the book here.