Julian Barnes has always looked more like a French philosopher than an English novelist. With his latest novel, Elizabeth Finch, about an exceptional teacher (or is it?), he lives up to his looks. More than (or perhaps less than – certainly different from) a novel, this is a philosophical treatise on almost everything: monotheism v paganism, life after death, censorship, monogamy, romanticism, stoicism. We touch upon Montaigne, Milton and – above all – Julian the Apostate.
The book is divided into three parts. In the first we are introduced to the eponymous heroine, Elizabeth Finch. There are many great evocations of teachers in literature. From Mr M’Choakumchild in Hard Times through Jean Brodie to Roald Dahl’s Miss Honey (good) and Miss Trunchbull (bad), and Zoe Heller’s (Notes on a Scandal) impossible pair of women, teachers provide a rich fictional seam. Elizabeth Finch is straight from that mine. A mature student (EF, as he calls her, is a university rather than schoolteacher) narrates the novel. The opening sentence gives us an immediate sense of the kind of teacher she will be: “She stood before us, without notes, books or nerves. The lectern was occupied by her handbag. She looked around, smiled, was still, and began.” EF is a source of mystery to her students. They try to imagine her home life, but even after Neil (the narrator) starts having regular lunches with her, he discovers no more about her than he knew that first day. Because her life is not the point of her, and certainly not the point of this novel. She is there to encourage wide, deep, philosophical thinking. Her course is called Culture and Civilisation, but the reading list is “entirely optional”. No Gradgrind she: “I shall not attempt to stuff you with facts as a goose is stuffed with corn; this would only lead to an engorged liver, which would be unhealthy.” In all of this, in her stillness, in the way she listens and corrects without snubbing, in the way she clearly guides her students to be what modern educators like to call “their best selves”, she follows in the steps of the great Jean Brodie. She is all about ideas, not about curriculum.
Neil, surprised to have been left EF’s papers on her death, discovers her passion for Julian the Apostate went much deeper than even her frequent references to the emperor would suggest, and he feels that the way he can pay homage to her is by writing up her notes. Why Julian the Apostate, whose last words may or may not have been “thou hast conquered, oh pale Galilean”? Much of the book is concerned with EF’s views on “the disastrous flood-tide of Christianity”. With Julian’s death, the last pagan emperor died and the Pale Galilean, Jesus, was victorious.
This is EF’s prime concern. For the reader, perhaps particularly the Catholic reader, much of EF’s thinking on the subject of Julian and Christianity is unsettling (is it really such an unrelentingly negative force, destructive of free and creative thinking?), but it is never uninteresting. However Neil’s essay on Julian, written from EF’s notes, makes the novel barely a novel. Like Miss Finch it is thoughtful, interesting, but lacks either story or, more importantly, heart.
“We are a narrative animal, aren’t we?”, Barnes said in an interview. “We live by stories. Sometimes true, sometimes false. We want the news to be turned into stories. We want a narrative even when there’s no narrative. We want our human life on this planet to be turned into a narrative.” It is perhaps puzzling that an author who understands this human drive, and who has so successfully fed this drive in other novels, fails to provide much narrative in this latest book.
After Neil’s essay, we return to some sort of narrative. We discover a little more about EF, and we realise that this novel is, after all, in many ways about love. About EF’s love for Julian the Apostate, Neil’s love for EF, and Julian Barnes’s love of ideas. Neil writes that EF left him “something far more real and far more elusive [than an unfinished masterpiece]: an idea to follow.” Through EF, Barnes gives us much food for thought and on that level it is a book to be re-read and reconsidered.
But, as a novel? Ceci n’est pas un roman. Give me Miss Jean Brodie.
Sophia Waugh is an author and teacher.
This article first appeared in the Easter 2022 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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