Arthur and George by Julian Barnes
Published by: Alfred A. Knopf
Publication Date: July 7th, 2005
Format: Hardcover, 385 Pages
Rating: ★★ To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes and the second greatest writer of his age after Rudyard Kipling, and George Edalji, a half-caste solicitor from Birmingham whose Parsi father became a vicar in a small Staffordshire village, would unexpectedly change English law and bring about the court of appeal in England. As Arthur rose to fame, taking his family out of the gentle poverty of Edinburgh, getting married, having children, establishing his career, George had far smaller ambitions. He wanted to be a solicitor. He kept his head down and studied, being a decent, not excellent, student. Yet his life was full of strife. His family received hateful and horrible anonymous letters. The local police did nothing, and in fact suspected George of persecuting his own family. Yet George kept his life on track, going to college and then working for a firm in Birmingham, finally setting up his practice and even publishing a guide on railway law. The persecution eventually stopped and life seemed ready to go on as normal. Until the animal rippings started. Animals were attacked so viciously that they had to be euthanized due to their wounds. The local police decided that George was behind these crimes. They had no evidence, no logic, and yet George ended up spending three years of his life in prison. All he wanted was to be pardoned and for his simple life to begin again. Yet it wouldn't. Therefore George took the only drastic measure he ever did in his whole life, he wrote to the creator of Sherlock Holmes asking for his help. Arthur had just suffered the loss of his wife while also feeling guilty that during the past ten years he had loved another and was just waiting for propriety's sake till the day he could make Jean his bride. He was at the end of his rope with waiting and here came George with something to distract him. Arthur was willing to play the detective for the first time in his life, and hopefully George would get his name cleared when they were done.
Arthur and George is one of those books that have been sitting on my shelf for ages. Every time I reorganize my books I pick it up and think that now will be the time I read it, and it inevitably gets hidden in the back behind Barrie and Baum until the next reorganization. It might have taken me a decade, but I finally got around to Arthur and George, a book that I think is better in the abstract. There's lyrical and evocative prose, there's eventually a plot you connect to, but in the end I was more than a little dissatisfied. The book starts with little vignettes of Arthur Conan Doyle and George Edalji growing up. Quickly cutting back and forth between the two in a way that at first is interesting but almost a hundred pages in gets on your nerves for it's gimmickry. You're reading and reading and the one thought that keeps going through your head is "when is it going to start?" Because these little glimpses, no matter how many are piled on top of each other, do not a narrative make. When we finally move into the second part of the book you have had your fill of exposition and when you realize that Arthur and George have yet to meet you start to wonder why bother? There was even a part of me thinking Julian Barnes was using Conan Doyle as a lure and it's going to be a bait and switch all over again like P.D. James and Death Comes to Pemberley. I sincerely thought about just setting aside this book because I couldn't take another story supposedly about one thing and then being forced to endure something else. Luckily the historical record proves that these two men met, so I was willing to hold onto that and push through. And meet they did, and that part was good, that part was something, that part was an all too brief 122 pages that could still have used some editing. So in here, there is a story. It's short, there's too much fluff, but that little bit might just be worth it. Maybe.
Besides this constant tease of a plot hopefully emerging the writing has another serious flaw. It might be beautiful, but it is also flat. It's like the book is on a slow and even keel on every single page. There is nothing pushing the narrative forward and nothing to elicit interest, it just is. One reason I fear is this lack of focus. Barnes is so busy showing us just little glimpses of these two men's lives that he loses the ability to know what is and isn't important. There is no drama, no crescendo. George being set to prison is about as dramatic as his daily commute to work. Barnes dwells on weird and unnecessary details instead of those points which could build the story. For example, you'd think he'd spend time on the ripping of the animals, it is after all the major crime in the book. He might talk about the fear this infuses in the community, the importance of livestock in these people's lives, or the docility of pit ponies in particular, but he doesn't. Instead we get a far more detailed description of Arthur Conan Doyle getting an erection and having premature ejaculation issues the first time he kisses the woman who is to become his second wife. So in the context of this book the heinous crime of animal ripping is second to Arthur Conan Doyle's dick. So why did you write this book Julian Barnes? Because to me it seems that a miscarriage of justice wasn't as important as dragging down the legacy of a writer second only to Kipling in his time.
This flatness carries over into the characterization of these two men making me have problems with both. Firstly there's the problem with George. George Edalji is supposed to be the victim here. The man who lost years of his life for a miscarriage of justice. We should like him. We should feel his plight. We shouldn't be hoping that they just keep him locked up because he is an annoying pretentious ass. So the problem with George is that you don't like him. You're hoping that there's some twist, that he has a split personality, that he has some animus to him that doesn't make the highlight of his life writing a book on railway law! That he's freakin' Jekyll and Hyding us all and IS a cold blooded animal killers. But no. He is a shell of a person. And not in the, he endured great tragedy and there was only a shell left. No, he isn't a full person. He does his work, he gets decent grades, he blindly goes through life as a nobody. If it wasn't for someone taking against him he would have been born and died and no one would have noticed. I can't decide if making George this nonentity was a way in which Barnes is showcasing that the crime George was charged with needed to be judged on the evidence not on the man. But we still need to have some connection to this man. We have to care about his fate, not focusing on the criminal procedures of the day, and yes I'm experiencing some P.D. James flashbacks right now. But the worst characteristic, the ONLY characteristic of George is his naivety. He doesn't think that he will be convicted because he's innocent, he doesn't think he was persecuted because he's half-caste, because people aren't like that. Where did this blind optimism come from? Gaw, you're an idiot George, and for that you paid the price.
Yet the ignoramus that is George is nothing to how Barnes portrayed Conan Doyle. So now we're onto the Arthur problem if you're keeping score. If you know a bit about Conan Doyle a lot of his life story here will be repetitive. In order to break out of this Barnes makes the odd decision that he will tear down this legend. He will make Arthur human and fallible and the butt of jokes, re the premature ejaculation mentioned above. Arthur is obsessed with his image and Jean, the woman who will become his second wife. He comes across as three things, girl crazy, sports crazy, and honor crazy. Here's the thing though, Barnes stresses the crazy. He spends hundreds and hundreds of pages stressing the crazy, which, OK, if you have some weird vendetta against Conan Doyle, I can see doing that. But then in the final section of the book he then does a 180 and builds Conan Doyle back up. That he was a great writer, humanitarian, etc. etc. I just don't know what the point of the book was I guess. If it was insight into these two men, it's a fail. If it's insight into miscarriages of justice, well, it's a fail also. Why, ugh, I just don't get it. My mind is literally rebelling wanting to know the why of it. This could have been a cute and insightful book on the author of Sherlock Holmes taking up the mantle of detective and saving a man's reputation. Instead it's an overwritten mess about the author of Sherlock Holmes misguidedly playing detective to distract himself from the fact that he can't yet marry and fuck the woman he's lusted after for a decade. Crime solving as prophylactic! I really don't think Holmes would approve.
There is so much that could be forgiven though if Barnes had been willing to tie up loose ends. In particular, the hate mail and the ripping. But instead we get 40 pages of George's shallow reflections on the death of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In his brief afterward, Barnes states that there's a man never mentioned in this book who later claimed responsibility for the letters, no reason given, no analysis, nothing. Just a man years later who did this. Um, a little more please? Secondly, as for the ripping... we are given a very good idea of what could have happened with the Sharp boys, but no real answer. As George himself points out it's the same kind of circumstantial evidence that got him locked up. So yes, in life we have unresolved endings. Nothing is tied up nice and neat with a bow. But here's the thing about Arthur and George... it's FICTION! Barnes felt perfectly fine taking liberties with Arthur's dick, yet couldn't give us an ending worthy of Holmes? Instead we are left with this nebulous morass we have read that has left no real impression other then ew to the ejaculation. Was this some arty post-modern experiment to mimic the spiritualist belief of knowledge only after passing through the veil? Seriously, I could sit here all day making up reasons why this book is as it is. I could justify it, I could throw harsh vitriol on it, I could read so much into the text that it would make your head spin, because the book's narrative just lies there doing nothing that you could read whatever you want into it. But you know what? I've wasted enough time on this book and it wasn't worth it, so in the end, writing one more word...