Getting history wrong

This uncompromising novel denies its readers many of the pleasures of fiction. More concerned with the ambiguity of ideas than with clarity of plot or character, it is a heartfelt celebration of the life of the mind – though its defiance is qualified by the wryness we would expect from Julian Barnes. Neil, the narrator, is something of a loser. He lives alone, with failed marriages and a lackluster acting career behind him. The story of Neil’s life – his only story – turns on his experience of a year-long course for mature students on “Culture and Civilization” that he once took, and its enduring legacy through years of reflection. But, as Neil often tells us, “this is not my story”. It is the story of Elizabeth Finch, the enigmatic woman who delivered the course.

Neil loved Elizabeth Finch (“I adored her”), though he was never her lover in any conventional sense. He loved her largeness of mind, her calm stoicism, her austere intelligence. An independent scholar with the resources to live modestly without an academic post, unmarried and childless, EF (as Neil has come to think of her) was not easy to approach, or to understand. Such difficulty was emblematic of her life and thought.

At the center of EF’s teaching, and of her appeal, it was her refusal to advocate any single route to historical insight, or any specific model of the good life. As EF understands the past and interprets its lessons for her students, shifting multiplicities are what define culture and civilization. Monogamy and monocultures (agricultural, social, national) are all seen to diminish human possibility, but its principal target is monotheism. Running through Neil’s account of his long relations with EF is the matter of religion, as he broods on her sceptical challenge to the legacies of the monotheistic faiths with origins in the Middle East. She is especially distrustful of Christianity. A third character, embedded in the ambiguities of textual record and legend, becomes prominent in the narrative: Julian the Apostate, the philosophical Roman emperor (331–63) who, during his two-year reign, attempted to replace Christianity with the practice of a polytheistic Hellenism. Julian is not the hero of this book (EF has no truck with heroism), but his elusive example, intertwined with the lives of Neil and his fellow students, leads the reader from a personal narrative to the broader framework of history.

We will get this history wrong. We get every history wrong. This is at least in part the point of what EF has to teach. She quotes the nineteenth-century French scholar Ernest Renan: “Getting its history wrong is part of being a nation.” Renan’s phrase becomes a leitmotif of the novel: “getting its history wrong is part of being a religion”; “getting our history wrong is part of being a person”. Julian was an enemy of Christianity, but he refused to persecute Christians. He was tolerant, thoughtful and deeply cultured; he was also extravagantly devoted to the practices of animal sacrifice, the reading of omens and the consultation of oracles. Our historical memory of Julian has been ceaselessly interpreted and reinterpreted through the centuries. He is “like a man walking across a stage pursued by different-colored spotlights. Oh, he was red, no, more like orange, no, he was indigo verging on black, no, he was all black.”

This is, as Neil comes to see, what happens when we look at any life, “memory after all being a function of the imagination”. We cannot know who Julian was, though we might understand, to a limited extent, why he mattered. Neil cannot know who EF was, nor can he fully understand why she was such a formative presence in his life. Years later he learns that other students remember her differently. Geoff, politically motivated and obnoxiously sure of himself, saw EF as amateur and self-indulgent: “She wouldn’t be able to get away with all that nowadays”. Anna wonders whether “the inspirational teacher is a bit of a comfortable myth”. The childhood of Christopher, EF’s brother, was weighed down by the presence of his intimidating sister. No single point of view is allowed to claim Elizabeth Finch.

Several features of this novel are located in recognizably Barnesian territory. The story turns on a long relationship, which changes through the decades; it focuses on moments of evocative return (to memories, places, ideas); it is not much concerned with the sort of men and women who find fame and fortune. EF proposes that “failure can be more interesting than success, and losers tell us more than winners”. Neil agrees; so does Barnes. The early death of Julian the Apostate, and the defeat of his Hellenistic ideas, make him all the more attractive. The book is divided into three interlocking sections, a pattern that echoes the structure of Metroland (1980), Levels of Life (2013) The Only Story (2018). The first part focuses on Neil’s evolving relations with EF. An expository essay on the life and fluctuating reputation of Julian the Apostate follows. The final section draws together reflections on Julian and EF. In this sectionNeil sounds very like Barnes, as he ponders the challenges he has only partially overcome in making sense of his jumbled material. “I sometimes wonder how biographers do it: make a life, a living life, a glowing life, a coherent life out of all that circumstantial, contradictory and missing evidence. They must feel like Julian on campaign with his retinue of diviners.”

So far, so familiar – yet it would be a mistake to think that Barnes is simply repeating old tricks in Elizabeth Finch. Alongside the characteristically self-deprecating tone of Neil’s hesitant ruminations stands something more steely. The novel is in part a fierce defense of the intellectual values ​​that have directed the course of Barnes’s writing from the first. In a further moment of speculation (Neil often sets his mind to wander), the narrator asks himself “whether, beneath the calm, controlled face EF showed to the world, there might be an undercurrent – ​​no, more like a howling watercourse – of rage.” No one could accuse Barnes of unseemly fits of wrath, but there are glimpses of something other than resigned by observation in Neil’s description of EF’s self-effacing career as a writer and teacher. As a consequence of a public lecture on the corrosive consequences of monotheism, EF happens to catch the attention of the popular press, and she is mocked and attacked for her liberal views. Though EF is apparently unmoved by what Neil calls “The Shaming”, she is further marginalized by it.

After this eruption, EF’s only comment is that “they choose to understand nothing”. This takes us to the heart of a book that is, among its many layered identities, a manifesto. The difficulty of understanding something does not absolve us from the responsibility of making the attempt. Nor is it simply the case that Barnes is using the example of an outstanding teacher to urge a return to old-fashioned values ​​of enlightened rationality. He knows, quite as well as do EF and Neil, that human history has never been free from self-interest and deception, the inclination to violence, the suppression of liberty and repression of joy. What EF represents is the impulse to step outside the largely undecipherable linear movement of personal or cultural history, and to identify and defend the values ​​that give us the capacity to attain, as far as possible, freedom and happiness. This is a novel that rejects the rigid convictions of cultural polemics while constructing a qualified but resolute polemic of its own.

Elizabeth Finch has a clear sense of purpose, more open and more urgent than we might expect to emerge from Barnes’s customarily subtle approach to the business of fiction. But this novel is not a clarion call to action. One of its recurrent reference points is the Stoic philosophy of Epictetus: “Some things are up to us and some are not up to us.” Will EF’s teaching, or the tribute that Neil pays to her in his unpublished work on Julian the Apostate, make any serious difference to a world that has no wish to understand? Probably not. Thinking of Julian’s legacy, and EF’s influence on his own life, Neil is content to leave chance or fortune to have its way. The consequences of this story, if there are any, are not up to him. The achievement of freedom or happiness hardly seems likely, or even possible, in a life marked by repeated disappointment and loss. This does not deter Neil from persisting in a soberly muted optimism. As he has learned from his years in the company of EF’s thinking, there is a great deal that we don’t know.

Dinah Birch is Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Cultural Engagement and Professor of English Literature at the University of Liverpool

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