The usual Julian Barnes novel is a slim and elegant gem, containing provocative and illuminating perspectives on the human condition. From the linguistically playful, formally sophisticated Flaubert's Parrot to the compelling meditation on obsessive jealousy in Before She Met Me, to amusing cultural essays on France and Britain and urbane accounts of the vissitudes of erotic love, Barnes's work refuses to be catagorized. However, no matter the subject matter he displays a delightful dry wit, devastating intellingence, and an innate sense for the human condition in all its permeatations. Perhaps Joyce Carol Oates put it best when she said he has the imagination of a 'quintessential humanist, of the pre-postmodern species.'
In his tenth novel, Arthur and George, Barnes has taken us by suprise again, with his gorgeous, epic retelling of a true story, that of the famous Arthur Conan Doyle and the largely forgotten George Edalji. Conan Doyle was an imperialist, a Knight of the Realm, and the creator of Sherlock Holmes. George Edalji was the son of a Parsee country vicar, a solicitor, and author of the 1901 pamphlet, Railway Law for the "Man in the Train." Their characters could not be more different— Conan Doyle is robust, an effusive romantic, and fascinated with the emerging cult of Spiritualism, while Edalji is modest, punctilious, pragmatic, and endearingly earnest. When Edalji is accused of maiming livestock and sent to jail on the scantest of evidence, there is a public outcry. He appeals to Conan Doyle for help to correct this gross miscarriage of justice. The novel explores the relationship between them and the relationships between Conan Doyle and the women in his life, as well as focusing on the trial and the stifling, prejudiced society within which they lived. As the Independent wrote, "The legal drama at the book's heart is a showcase for Barnes's effortless-seeming literary powers. It's like seeing Henry James turned loose on The Shawshank Redemption."
Many critics are hailing Arthur and George as Barnes's best work yet, which is saying a lot. As the Times Literary Supplement wrote, "Barnes's suave, elegant prose—alive here with precision, irony and humaneness—has never been used better than in this extraordinary true-life tale, which is as terrifically told as any by its hero Conan Doyle himself."
Georgie: How do you go about recreating a character based on a real one? This is probably the first time you have done this in a novel—is that right?
Julian Barnes: In a novel, yes. I have used real people in short stories before, and I've written Flaubert's Parrot which has a real writer in it, although he's not a fictional character in the book. So it was new, yes.
So, how you go about it: You read enough but not too much. That's to say, you read one or two biographies, you read Conan Doyle's autobiography, and bits and pieces. You need enough to get your imagination going but not enough to clog the wheels. But it's difficult to write about a character as famous as Conan Doyle because you don't need all of him, so it's a question of constantly deciding which bits to chop off and leave behind.
Georgie: I was wondering if you did leave things out that you discovered about him.
Barnes: You are constantly making decisions like that. For example, he was a great imperialist and at a certain point he went to the South African war. He goes on to write a multi-volume history of it, and is knighted for it. As a fiction writer, do you need him to go to South Africa? If you were a biographer, he would have to go there because he did. But then you think, "I'm not a biographer. If I send him to South Africa there has got to be a purpose." So things could go either way. And obviously, yes, there are chunks of his life that you leave out.
Georgie: I would presume much more material was available about Doyle than about... Edalji... [Georgie makes a terrible attempt at pronunciation here and Mr. Barnes corrects her with a word that sounds like the beginning of edelweiss, pronouncing it AY-del-ji].
Barnes: Parsee names are stressed on the first syllable. But even so, it's a mouthful of consonants to follow, isn't it?
Georgie: It is! Actually I was doing a bit of research of Parsees after reading this novel. I was surprised to learn that it is estimated there are only 100,000 of them in the world.
Barnes: There are not very many, no. They were a favored race of the British. That is one of the ironies of the book: he was persecuted for his color.
The Parsees were regarded as a pretty top quality sect in the British Empire. They were the merchant class. Highly educated. And indeed in the late 19th century there were two Parsee members of the British parliament. The first Indian cricket team that came to Britain was a Parsee team, and they were looked upon, partly because they were pale-skinned and partly because they were a mercantile and lawyerly class, as sort of bridging the gap between the "dusky races" and the white man. And so, in fact, George's father, Shapurji, would have been welcomed into the Church of England as sort of new blood. And yet it redounded on his son.
Georgie: I had read that the Parsee is an adherent of the Zoroastrian religion.
Barnes: Yes, and also, you cannot become a Parsee. Even if you marry one you don't become a Parsee, so their numbers are always diminishing. And also, they have a problem with the vultures, which is almost semi-comic. Parsees can't be burnt and they can't be put into the water when they die. They have to be exposed on the tops of columns and their flesh picked off by vultures. Which is a problem at the moment in India because all the vultures are dying from the chemicals they have been using in the fields. So they have even been using solar panels to try and rot the corpses on the tops of these towers. Oh, dear—is this acceptable subject matter for Powells.com?
Georgie: Oh, absolutely. And most fascinating too. So you knew a lot less about George as a person, but what did you know?
Barnes: He was more a predicament than a personality when I started. He was a case; this was what happened to him. There was a little character description of him in Conan Doyle's newspaper about the case, which sort of contradicted descriptions of him from the provincial press articles of the trial. I really had to create him from the ground up, as I had to do with almost all the characters, except for Conan Doyle's mother whose life is quite well documented, and to a certain extent his wives, although there was work to be done there, as well.
Georgie: You have said that you fell upon this case after researching the Dreyfus Affair which occurred in France just a few years earlier. It seems from your novel that Britain was not quite as bitterly divided around the time of Edalji's case, as France was during Dreyfus, although the matter of class and religion was terrifically apparent. Britain just didn't seem quite the tinderbox that France was. Am I correct in this? What similarity do you think George Edalji's case had with the Dreyfus Affair?
Barnes: I think the Dreyfus case did identify a deep political divide within France. It was about left and right, it was about Catholic versus Jewish but also, Catholic against... against the absence of religion, the non-religion. The idea of a non-religious state. It was also about treason, and it was about the honor of the army. Partly it was about larger matters, and partly France is a country much more likely to split and have violent conflicts at the political level. Whereas Britain has always been rather more sleepy in its divisions, I think. The British are quite good—and you can charge them with many things, hypocrisy included—but they are rather good at forgetting. Something was bad in the country and it sort of got fixed, and so we forget about it. Whereas in France they like to keep old wounds open, so to speak, and they like to remember the past in a way that the English certainly don't. The Scots, the Irish and the Welsh will have longer memories because on the whole they were not treated terribly well by the English.
Georgie: I have seen the same difference moving here from Australia and witnessing the very short memory of American politics versus the longer memory of Australian politics.
Barnes: I think it is partly to do with power. When you are the most powerful country in the world, as Britain used to be, you tend to celebrate only your power; you don't appreciate difference or otherness, you only see it as inferiority. And you don't see your history as a moral, exploited, or inferior power does. But I think America is a special case, as opposed to Britain, in terms of having short-term memory.
Georgie: Yes, I think you are right. And on the subject of American politics... It could be said that your book is very timely—the subject being a miscarriage of justice involving a person who looks "different" and who is accused of terrorism of a kind. I was just looking at a press release from the US Department of Defense that said, to date, over 14,000 detainees have been released from coalition detention facilities in Iraq, and yet Haliburton subsidiary KBR has been handed yet another contract for $385 million to create more detainment camps for suspected terrorists. At the risk of asking you to comment on politics, do you think there are parallels?
Barnes: Yes, there is the thing in common in regards to racial profiling. There is an assumption nowadays that if you are traveling on the London underground and there is a guy of, say, Arab appearance with a large rucksack, possibly reading a Koran, that you keep an eye on him. Now on the one hand you could say that is good sense, but on the other hand it is racial profiling, and you could find that the next wave of bombers could come from East Africa, or indeed from Huddersfield, or wherever. And the fact remains, even if you look at someone's passport, the guys who blew themselves up were all British, so where do you start? And so yes, it certainly does have echoes to what is happening nowadays. I can't claim remotely—even though I certainly have been asked as I've been going around the States—that this was written as a post-9/11 novel or a post-7/7 (referring to the London bombings), though it couldn't possibly be a 7/7 novel because my publication date was 7/7.
Georgie: Oh no! Like the poor author...
Barnes: Ah, yes, poor author, lost his publication party. That was the least of the losses that day, I can assure you!
Georgie: Er, point taken. Actually, I was thinking of Incendiary, another British novel that was written about a mythical London bombing whose publication date was around that time.
Barnes: Yes. I did hear about that. It is also true that sometimes books pick up resonance and energy from things that have happened subsequently. For instance, the classic recent example being Philip Roth's The Plot against America. When it came out everyone immediately started saying, "Oh, this is an allegory of the Bush years and the Bush seizure of power," when in fact he didn't write it in that sense at all. He was, I know, staggered; he thought it was a phenomenon, what had happened to the book. But you know, that's fair enough, because lots of works of literature are subsequently reinterpreted or reseen through other eyes. Shakespeare describes a tyranny in a particular way and then the play can be interpreted in Poland under Soviet domination and it has absolute one hundred percent resonance. And you say to Shakespeare, "I hear you are writing about Poland in four hundred years time," and he's going to say, "Of course I'm not!"
Georgie: I'm thinking of the Richard III film, set in a Fascist state.
Barnes: There was a great Polish critic called Jan Knott who wrote Shakespeare Our Contemporary, which was all about reinterpreting the tragedies in contemporary terms and was a very influential book at the time, in the sixties.
Georgie: Do you think artists have a responsibility to draw attention to political causes?
Barnes: I think artists have a responsibility to be true to their art. And the art will vary according to the artist. In some cases they are not made to be political artists and in other cases they are, and I don't think you should force anything into the wrong shape. My general view is that art is greater than politics and that art includes politics, rather than vice versa. And that art isn't at the service of politics; politics is instead a potential subject for art.
I don't think that it's my job to tell people how to live or to give them neat moralities or advice, or to necessarily rebuke the powers that be. It is my job to describe life as it is and put that description into a particularly pleasing form of a story. That's my job. But in the describing of life, there is inevitably, if it's accurate, an implicit description of what's wrong with some of it. And to that extent writers can end up being political, depending again on the circumstance of society in which they live. You know—a simple description of a man going shopping would be quite different if it was in a relatively free United States in a large supermarket and he had enough money, or the same man could be trying to buy the same stuff under a tyranny, with a collapsed economy in Eastern Europe. The same scene would have a different political impact.
Georgie: Yes. I also think that some people can become so successful with their art, and thus achieve a certain status, like Conan Doyle, or today like Bob Geldof or Bono, who can then go on to use this success and status to speak about political matters that mean something to them.
Barnes: I think one of the interesting things about Conan Doyle is that he was a famous author at a time when famous authors had the ear of presidents and prime ministers, as did Kipling, Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, people like that. Nowadays, and it is a melancholy truth, if you asked the current British prime minister who he would prefer to have sitting next to him at a press conference—Ian McEwan or Bob Geldof—he would say, "Bob Geldof, thank you very much!" I don't think it is that writers have lost their moral authority; it is more in the way that politics and the media currently interact. Politicians are canny enough to know where the votes lie. Ever since Harold Wilson gave O.B.E.s to the Beatles and had them around to Number Ten Downing Street, politicians have known there aren't many votes to be had by having P. D. James and Ian McEwan around to lunch.
Georgie: You mention P. D. James. I've read a couple of your Dan Kavanagh detective novels...
Barnes: Have you just? And survived to tell the tale!
Georgie: Oh yes—I liked them a lot. I am a bit of a British mystery addict, and a big fan of P. D. James in particular. Were there any memories of writing the Kavanagh mysteries when you wrote Arthur and George?
Barnes: Well, when you are writing a novel there are various things you are anxious about, and having written four mysteries twenty years ago— more than twenty years ago—I did think, well, I don't need to worry about that side of things. I can do an exciting narrative with the police and with a detective involving a crime and so forth, and as I did train as a lawyer I felt okay with the courtroom stuff.
Georgie: Did you? I didn't know that.
Barnes: Yes, I trained as a barrister once, never practiced. And so I thought, I've got enough to worry about elsewhere but I won't have to worry about that.
Georgie: You obviously had to read diaries or letters for Flaubert's Parrot. Did you have to for this book, and if so, how does it feel to use source material that may not have been intended for anyone else's eyes?
Barnes: Actually, there weren't really any private documents that I came across. There are some letters, but the Conan Doyle estate is a very curious estate. It has been very keen on milking money, as much as possible, and also very secretive, refusing to answer any approaches from any writers. I got a contact for the chief fellow—chief beneficiary or something—through a Conan Doyle biographer who was greatly approved of, and he said "this is the person to email" and "I will email the fellow in advance, follow up after that." And so I did, and got absolutely no response. In a way I thought, well that is fine, I can have my own Conan Doyle from now on. I don't have any authority and so therefore this is unauthorized. It is fiction anyway, so I'm just going to go on ahead. I am aware that there are in fact Conan Doyle letters to his mother in existence, but they haven't been published; they are being edited at the moment. Although from what I have seen of them it's not exactly hot stuff.
Barnes: I think that it was the first modern novel in that it brought realism to its... well, the first realistic novel was started in France by Balzac, really. Although you could say the realistic novel was started by Don Quixote, the first great novel... and all these general remarks are filled with holes of course... But in rough terms Madame Bovary brought the realistic novel to a state of perfection. And more than that: novels were rather written on the hoof before that; they had been written for serial publication. You would start a novel, write a bit of it, publish a bit of it, you'd write a bit more, and publish that, and so on. Flaubert was the first person who said a line of prose can be, and should be, as beautiful as a line of poetry, and as immutable. So it was the quality of the prose.
Also then, it was the structure. He said you have got to plan a novel from beginning to end, and all the sub-themes must chime in with the main themes, and it must all be a tremendous mechanism apart from anything else. A piece of machinery. Apart from being a representation of life, it is a brilliantly working piece of machinery. Plus, he was writing a realistic description of modern life and was not a moralist, was not saying, "Here's a novel with a piece of advice on how to live." All those things, I think, make it the first modern novel.
Georgie: Well, you've convinced me! Some of my favorite novels, including some of your own, have been written by your contemporaries—Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, and if I can include the slightly younger Kazuo Ishiguro in there, too—as well as some written by some British authors whom, to my mind, have been influenced by your contemporaries—Jonathan Coe, Rupert Thomson. What writers have influenced you, and do you think the same ones influenced your peers?
Barnes: That's tricky. I could give you a list of writers I read when I was growing up, and it would include people like Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, but I'm always very unclear as to what actual effect they had on my writing. I don't know—Shakespeare, Flaubert are there. You can make a huge list of people you admired but often the writer is the last person to see what he or she has taken from someone else.
What's characteristic of my generation of British writers is that they look in different directions, and that they look in different directions from the previous generation of writers—although there are exceptions like Anthony Burgess or William Golding, and lots of one-offs. Martin Amis looked very firmly to America, and I looked very firmly to the continent—my work is as much by way of French and Russian as it is British. And then there are Salman Rushdie and Ishiguro and others who came to Britain at a young age, from a different racial background, and brought that with them. You know, Salman Rushdie talks about "The Empire Writes Back," and he said it as a joke but people have taken it seriously. I think my generation looks out a lot but also includes a lot of people who have come in, so it is quite hybrid and I think we write very differently from one another and I don't think we're a school. There may be too many boys! And I think that is one trouble, but that is not my fault! I never stopped any woman writing. I might want to stop a few boys writing. But that's another matter.
Georgie: You worked as a journalist (and still do) in Britain as well as for the New Yorker. And I've heard you chatting with Clive James about New Yorker fact checkers and admitting to not knowing about the difference between that and which. (God, I loved you for that!) I also remember a while ago there was a review by Louis Menand about Lynne Truss's book on grammar in the New Yorker that skewered Truss (an Englishwoman) and her editor's sloppy editing of a grammar book. Do you think there is a difference between the American and British editing of journalism?
Barnes: I think there is. There aren't really any fact checkers in Britain. It's not a profession in Britain. And when you write an article for an American magazine you run up against the fact checkers, who quite a lot of the time save your bacon and quite a lot of the time just bug you to hell. But you also run up against what I call the "style police," which are (who are? that are? whatever!) who are dedicated to changing the rhythm of your prose for the sake of grammar and messing it up, basically. That is my attitude towards them. I never knew the difference between that and which although it has been explained to me many times. My rule was always if there was that in the sentence already I'd use a which. Seems pretty safe to me. I do think there is much more grammatical interference in American journals or magazines than there is in British. I think we are much sloppier in Britain with our editing, especially nowadays. I have written for newspapers for many years. Nowadays, if you email something in, the next thing that happens is you see it in the paper. Whereas in the old days you would mail your hard copy off, in the post, and the next thing is that you'd get a telephone call and it's your editor and he's saying, "Do you think we can change this? What do you think of this?" I think that there is something to do with receiving it in email form and it is there on the screen; it looks ready to print, and so they just print it.
Georgie: Right—just copy and paste. You see really obvious errors in the Observer and the Guardian all the time.
Barnes: Exactly. And that's regrettable, actually. I don't want to sound like an old fart but it is true that the quality of literary editing has declined in the last thirty years. People used to spend a great deal of time making copy better and making suggestions whereas now it just gets shoved in and sent out.
Georgie: It's ironic that in American journalism there is a great deal of time fact checking and editing grammar, and yet they miss something huge such as journalists like Jayson Blair and Judith Miller sending in stories that are made-up or misleading.
Barnes: That isn't usually the fault of the fact checkers; that is the fault of the people in charge of the journalists. A journo is likely enough to get out of control, and if you are a journo who is making up a story you are also likely to be making up quotes in your notebook which is being read back to the fact checker. I actually have always admired fact checkers. And the thing about fact checkers is that they are always tremendously polite. They call me Mr. Barnes all the time. Which means it is impossible to be short or rude with them. Actually, my favorite fact checker correction recently occured when I had interviewed someone about a Queen's committee that design the stamps and medals, and they meet at Buckingham palace. I asked my source, a British writer called Marina Warner, what the meetings were like and she said, "Oh, it's like the Mad Hatter's Tea Party!" I put this in as a quote, and the fact checker said, "Mad Hatter's Tea Party?" and I said "Yes," and he said, "Were you aware that it was actually the March Hare who gave the tea party?" And I said "But it's known as the Mad Hatter's Tea Party," and he said, "I know, but the March Hare gave the tea party." And I said "But that is what she said." And round and round we went. They nearly made me change it to the March Hare's Tea Party, which would have been completely meaningless. It was so funny. I found myself prolonging the conversation—it was that funny—because it is Lewis Carroll upside-down logic, isn't it?
Georgie: He would have loved it!
Barnes: He would have! Laughed his head off!
Georgie: You said earlier you had a lot of free rein, because of the estate and so on, but has anyone tried to "fact check" this novel? At readings or elsewhere?
Barnes: My readers are my fact checkers, I suppose. I have had one or two corrections. I've been told I'm not very good on the aristocracy, regarding when I say Lady Conan Doyle or when I say Lady Jean, and there are always lots of snobs who will correct you. I got one or two things wrong there. I think I also got something wrong about shooting wild birds because that is also not an area of my expertise. I think I put the wrong bird in the wrong wood or something. But I like that sort of stuff because it means people are reading carefully.
Georgie: And what about editing in fiction? I met Gary Fisketjon at Knopf a while ago and discovered he'd edited some of my favorite writers— Jonathan Coe, Ishiguro...
Barnes: And me!
Georgie: I was wondering about that! I had thought he'd worked with you, but then Sonny Mehta's letter came with my reading copy.
Barnes: Well, yes, I seem to be in the privileged position of having two editors somehow, both of whom I like and admire greatly. But I'm never quite sure who is in charge of me. I think Sonny Mehta signs the checks! And Gary Fisketjon provides the editorial suggestions.
Georgie: Lucky you! I have noticed that these editors don't seem to get mentioned on the finished books—perhaps in the acknowledgments if the novelist has written fifteen novels and they have run out of people to thank for something. But I wonder if it is whether they play a smaller role in fiction or whether it is just "not the done thing"?
Barnes: I think you thank them privately. This may sound a bit rough by saying it's their job, but well, that is what it is called. It's their job, you know? It can also become more complicated—sometimes an editor becomes a friend and it's a slightly more difficult transaction. You sometimes see those pages of thanks in books and absolutely everyone is thanked right down to the person who tied your shoelaces that morning. I think sometimes there can be over-thanking. I think a certain amount of thanking should be done privately at the time of publication.
Georgie: Perhaps it is an American thing—a certain effusiveness?
Barnes: Yes, there is that. Also my primary publisher is in Britain and he sees it first and does what he needs to get done. By the time it gets to America there is less to be done.
Georgie: Just all the removing of the "u"s in words like behaviour and humour.
Georgie: I've been asked to judge a book contest for the first time. Do you have an opinion on book awards? Have you been asked to judge on a panel, and if so what were your experiences?
Barnes: I was on a panel of judges for the Guardian First Book Award and voted successfully, along with many others, for Zadie Smith's first book. I do have quite strong views on book awards. My view is that as a writer you should regard them entirely as "posh bingo" and as utter luck and nothing more. And if you are a member of the judging panel you should regard them as the absolutely most objective and perfect example of literary decision-making there could possibly be.
I also think that judges of literary prizes should make their decisions in private and then absolutely shut up and never talk about it. One of the things that mars the Booker Prize is judges earning themselves another hundred quid by writing a tell-all piece, which is inevitably hurtful to some writers. I don't think they should even publish long-lists of books. I think they should publish a short list, and one winner and not comment on it. I think they should say "This is the best book, according to us. End of story." But that is because I've experienced the fallout of one or two things like this in the past.
Julian Barnes spoke to me at our Powells.com offices on February 13, 2006. I was absurdly nervous and he was ridiculously fabulous. And very funny.
Books mentioned in this post