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elizabeth finch

5 may 2024

Elizabeth Finch is sort of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie meets The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Although Elizabeth Finch's students are adults, and returning students at that, so it's not quite as hothouse a school experience in Julian Barnes' novel as in Muriel Spark's. The first-person narrator is one of those students, looking back on the courses he took with Elizabeth Finch, on the way to earning his degree, as the watershed of his life.

The narrator keeps insisting that the story isn't about him at all. His marriages, his children, his ramshackle careers don't matter. And they don't, but in the course of telling us about Elizabeth Finch, the narrator gives the strong impression that nothing but Elizabeth Finch ever really mattered in his life. So the novel becomes as much his life story as hers. Since he never learns a lot about her, it really is mostly about him.

Elizabeth Finch is an utterly composed, vastly knowledgeable lecturer with apparently no personal life. She exerts a magnetic influence on most of her students (though a few remain immune, as exist in even the most enthralled classrooms). She becomes a model none can fail to live up to, a source of wisdom that is inexhaustible but rarely seems to do much practical good in her students' lives. She exists mainly to offer the hope that wisdom can exist, much as we inevitably ignore it.

Improbably, the narrator befriends Elizabeth Finch, has a regular lunch date with her for decades, and on her death, becomes her literary executor. She doesn't leave any amazing manuscripts behind; she doesn't leave much of anything at all. She leaves hints that the life of Julian the Apostate (331-363), the last pagan Roman emperor, is a key to her ethereal thought. Or rather, again, she inspires the narrator to write his own essay on Julian the Apostate, convinced that he is carrying out Elizabeth Finch's intellectual program.

The central section of Barnes' novel is that essay on Julian, much in the style of the author's early book A History of the World in 10½ Chapters. It's interesting stuff, a rumination on how the spiritual drive in humans collides with the body and its needs. Julian is a touchstone for lots of thinkers, admired and reviled by turns. Whatever we think about western religion, we project onto Julian, as sinner or hero.

His literary task done, the narrator proceeds to befriend Elizabeth Finch's surviving brother, Chris. Chris is a blunt fellow, amiable but not much of an intellectual. He is as much at a loss to explain his sister as anyone else. She never seemed to have a lover, never seemed to have whims or needs or serious doubts. Yet she also attracted controversy. That controversy, a sort of 15 minutes of ill fame, is the only false note in the book. Barnes doesn't set it up well. There is some question about whether the Finches are Jewish, an idea that Elizabeth had at times suggested, but Chris dispels out of hand. The problem is that Chris also seems unaware of the controversies surrounding his sister, controversies that the narrator describes as a tabloid fury. It doesn't add up. The issue is never resolved. I think Barnes could simply have plotted this aspect of the book better.

Or left Elizabeth Finch obscure. There's an everybody-is-famous imperative in some contemporary fiction, as if readers won't be satisfied unless the characters they imagine are also imagined to be notorious. But the appeal of Elizabeth Finch is its mystery, the satisfaction of seeing one unfamous life impinge on another. (The narrator himself has been an actor and appeared in a TV series, but to so little acclaim that even one-time fans now barely recognize him.) It's a consistently intriguing, offbeat story that repays the brief time it takes to read its less than 200 pages.

Barnes, Julian. Elizabeth Finch. 2022. New York: Vintage [Penguin Random House], 2023. PR 6052 .A6657E45