Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Booker Review: Arthur & George, Julian Barnes

I'm yet to finish Arthur & George, but unless it takes a dive in the final seventy pages, or Zadie Smith's On Beauty turns out to be particularly good, or the judges do something stupid like award the Booker to John Banville, Barnes has got it won. Arthur & George is brilliant, and I'm not just saying that because I can't think of a more original superlative. Other nominees might be flashier, or more politically engaged, or not unfashionably middle-class white males, but Barnes wins (in my mind, at least) by virtue of sheer talent.

The effect of Barnes' quiet genius has been enhanced by the fact that I am currently attempting to write an essay on H.D.'s HERmione, offered up by my university's literature department as a paragon of American modernism, when in fact it is a paragon of excruciating unreadableness. After a day at the coalface of H.D.'s obscurantist prose, it has been nice to open Arthur & George and read something comprehensible, intelligent, and very well written. Call me a philistine if you must, but I like a story, I like characters, I like to be able to read without pausing every few seconds to slap my forehead in pained disbelief. Barnes delivers all this and more, and for that I am eternally grateful.

I appreciate Barnes' subtlety. He knows he's got a top-notch story - briefly, it's an account of Arthur Conan Doyle's involvement in assisting a victim of wrongful imprisonment - and he tells it with assurance and style. But he's not constantly in your face, pointing out how clever he is - and he is clever. For example, the story is mostly told by alternating between the two protagonists. Yet where most authors would employ styles that were either wildly differing or exactly the same for the two narrative strands, Barnes uses the same cool, ironic voice for both, but with a crucial differentiation. George's story is told in the present tense, Arthur's in the past; at a key point, this arrangement is reversed. It sounds simple, and it is, but without this shifting tense, Arthur & George would suffer. If you take a moment to mentally translate a random passage into its opposing tense, you realise how neat this trick is, and what it means for the texture of the novel.

Arthur & George is a very good book by a very good writer. The only Booker nominee to rival it (that I've read), is The People's Act of Love, but James Meek lacks Barnes's polish, and isn't in contention anyway. Barnes has never won a Booker, despite being shortlisted for Flaubert's Parrot and England, England. 2005 might just be his year.


Blogging about the Booker longlist has inspired me to begin another reading project that I've been putting off for some time. The plan is to read through Proust's In Search of Lost Time and blog about it as I go. I don't kid myself that it will be of interest to anybody but myself, so I've created another blog for the purpose. If for some reason you are interested in my ill-conceived, undergraduate opinions on this classic novel, you'll find them here.

UPDATE (30/9): Actually you won't find them anywhere. Less than a week in, and I've decided to forgo the blogging aspect of my Proust-reading. I'm still reading it, but I don't have the time to blog about it in the depth I would like. I'm a bit disappointed, but there's only twenty-four hours in the day, so something's got to give.


Matthew said...

Less than a week in? The original post is the 28th and the update is the 30th. Two whole days!

Beth said...

God, I wouldn't even bother reading it. But then I may be jaded.

So glad you loved Barnes! I won't be at all sad if he wins. I agree with your assessment of non-flashy, assured brilliance. And a story, huzzah.

I'll let you know when I finish Zadie - not the most promising opening, but who knows...

Tim said...

Ah, well I love Proust. But that's just me.

Matthew: Actually the Proust blog had been up for six days. So still under a week, but long enough for me to judge it too much work for the moment.