No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Saturday, January 05, 2008

#3: Arthur and George -- Julian Barnes

"Suggested we try using bloodhounds."
"Bloodhounds? You're sure he didn't say native trackers?"
"No, sir, bloodhounds. The odd thing was, listening to his voice -- it was an educated voice, a lawyer's voice -- I found myself thinking at one point, if you shut your eyes you'd think him an Englishman."(90)


This is the story of two very different Victorian / Edwardian gentlemen, whose lives affected one another in unexpected ways. By the time I got around to reading the book, I had forgotten the original reviews so was able to relish Barnes' pacing and the gradual way in which he revealed the identities of 'Arthur' (Conan Doyle) and 'George' (Edalji, a second-generation Anglo-Indian).

George, the son of an Indian vicar and his Scottish wife, encounters a level of everyday racism that he accepts stoically: he defines himself as English, and is keen to be the very model of a provincial solicitor: he proudly publishes Railway Law for the "Man in the Train". Arthur, meanwhile, is becoming known for his stories and novels about the great detective Sherlock Holmes; nursing a sick wife; and engaged in a platonic, apparently hopeless affair with Jean Leckie. When George is convicted and imprisoned for a gruesome series of cattle-mutilations, and for sending poison pen letters -- he's innocent of both, but is sentenced to seven years' penal servitude, of which he serves three -- Arthur takes an interest in his case, and publicises the miscarriage of justice.

George is stoic: stolid. He bears his imprisonment with dignity. Though he's a character whose misfortunates attract sympathy, he is not a character I warmed to. Arthur, on the other hand, is a passionate man, bringing his passion to bear on his writing, on cricket (he bowled W. G. Grace), on Jean, on spiritualism. His sheer enthusiasm for life is infectious. It's easy to believe that, if anyone could come back after death, it'd be Arthur Conan Doyle. And it's also perfectly credible that his heart will lead his head: that his statement to George, "No, I do not think you are innocent. No, I do not believe you are innocent. I know you are innocent" bespeaks a certain innocence. Arthur sets out to solve the case as Sherlock Holmes would have solved it, and leaps to a conclusion for which there's no real evidence. "It was all, George decided, the fault of Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur had been too influenced by his own creation."

It's not just in George's case that Arthur lets imagination overcome him. Visiting Captain Anson, the Chief Constable, Arthur eyes his house approvingly: "What story did it all tell? one of money, breeding, taste, history, power. The family's name had been made in the eighteenth century, by Anson the circumnavigator, who had also laid down its first fortune." Within a page, we learn that Anson merely leased the house.

Barnes does some interesting things structurally. The novel is in four parts, each consisting of narrative sections headed 'Arthur' or 'George'. (Oddly, there are a couple of other narrative voices that appear and disappear very quickly: I can't help thinking that the novel would be stronger without them, because they don't say much that couldn't be conveyed by other means.) This narrative technique seems quite ordinary to me, but perhaps not to the author, who is quoted on the RandomHouse website as saying: "I did wonder how long I could sustain interest in a divided narrative. So I started with short sections to get both men to the action. Then, I titled a section 'Arthur and George' to say 'Look, this meeting happens. Keep reading. I know where I'm going.'" The chapter Barnes mentions features neither of the men -- but could be said to be the point at which their connection begins.

There are other stylistic oddities. George's chapters are in the present tense, until he's arrested. Arthur's are in the past tense, until he meets Jean. Once the two men meet, there are apparently random changes of tense. There's a general sense of restraint, of dignity, that fits the period well but doesn't let the reader engage as closely with the characters as he or she might wish.

There's a recurring theme of racism, from police harassment of teenaged George when poison-pen letters are sent to his father, to comments such as Anson's "a mixing of the blood produces a ... tendency to revert to barbarism". But George defines himself as English and believes that it's English nature, and nothing to do with himself as an individual, that has hastened his descent into obscurity: "the name of Dreyfus had increased in fame, and was known around the globe, while that of Edalji was scarcely known in Wolverhampton." It's clear, though, that Barnes believes there was more than a hint of racial discrimination involved -- even if Arthur argues against Anson's racism, even if George is blind to it.

The RandomHouse site, with a Flash memory game and some interesting remarks from the author, can be found here: Arthur and George.

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