Synopses & Reviews
Brilliantly imagined and irresistibly readable, Arthur & George
is a major new novel from Julian Barnes, a wonderful combination of playfulness, pathos and wisdom.
Searching for clues, no one would ever guess that the lives of Arthur and George might intersect. Growing up in shabby-genteel nineteenth-century Edinburgh, Arthur is saddled with a dad who is a disgrace and a mum he wishes to protect, and is propelled into a life of action. To his astonishment, his career as a self-made man of letters brings him riches and fame and, in the world at large, he becomes the perfect picture of the honourable English gentlemen.
George is irredeemably an outsider, and has no hope of becoming such a picture. Though hes dogged and logical, a vicars son from rural Staffordshire, he is set apart, and he and his family are targeted in his boyhood by a poison-pen campaign. George finds safe harbour in the reliability of rules, and grows up to become a solicitor, putting his faith in the insulating value of British justice.
Then crisis upsets the uneasy equilibrium of both mens lives. Arthur is knocked for a loop by guilt and other dishonourable emotions. George is put to the sorest test, accused of a horrible crime. And from that point on their lives weave together in the most profound and surprising way, as each man becomes the others salvation.
Arthur & George is a masterful novel about low crime and high spirituality, guilt and innocence, identity, nationality and race. Most of all, its a profound and witty meditation on the fateful differences between what we believe, what we know and what we can prove.
George and his father pray together, kneeling side by side on the scrubbed boards. Then George climbs into bed while his father locks the door and turns out the light. As he falls asleep, George sometimes thinks of the floor, and how his soul must be scrubbed just as the boards are scrubbed.
Father is not an easy sleeper, and has a tendency to groan and wheeze. Sometimes, in the early morning, when dawn is beginning to show at the edges of the curtains, Father will catechize him.
"George, where do you live?"
"The Vicarage, Great Wyrley."
"And where is that?"
"And where is that?"
"The centre of England."
"And what is England, George?"
"England is the beating heart of the Empire, Father."
"Good. And what is the blood that flows through the arteries and veins of the Empire to reach even its farthest shore?"
"The Church of England."
And after a while Father will begin to groan and wheeze again. George watches the outline of the curtain harden. He lies there thinking of arteries and veins making red lines on the map of the world, linking Britain to all the places coloured pink: Australia and India and Canada and islands dotted everywhere. He thinks of blood bubbling though these tubes and emerging in Sydney, Bombay, the St. Lawrence Waterway. Bloodlines, that is a word he has heard somewhere. With the pulse of blood in his ears, he begins to fall asleep again.
—excerpt from Arthur & George
About the Author
Julian Barnes is the author of nine novels, including Flauberts Parrot, A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, and England, England, which was shortlisted for the 1998 Booker Prize. He is also the author of Something to Declare and Letters from London, as well as two collections of short stories, Cross Channel and The Lemon Table. He lives in London, England.
Reading Group Guide
1. One of the first things we learn about George is that “For a start, he lacks imagination.” George is deeply attached to the facts, while early in life Arthur discovers the “essential connection between narrative and reward.” How does this temperamental difference determine their approaches to life? Does Barnes use Arthur and George to explore the very different attractions of truth telling and storytelling?
2. What qualities does the Mam encourage in Arthur? How does Arthurs upbringing compare with Georges? What qualities are encouraged in George by his parents? What does the novel imply about ones parents as a determinant in character development?
3. To what degree do Georges parents try to overlook or deny the social difficulties their mixed marriage has produced for themselves and their children? Are they admirable in their determination to ignore the racial prejudice to which they are subjected?
4. Critic Peter Kemp has commented on Julian Barness interest in fiction that “openly colonises actuality — especially the lives of creative prodigies” (London Times, 26 June 2005). In Arthur & George, the details we read about Arthurs life are largely true. While the story of George Edalji is an obscure chapter of Doyles life, its details as presented here are also based on the historical record. What is the effect, for the reader, when an author blurs the line between fiction and biography, or fiction and history?
5. From early on in a life shaped by stories, Arthur has identified with tales of knights: “If life was a chivalric quest, then he had rescued the fair Touie, he had conquered the city, and been rewarded with gold. . . . What did a knight errant do when he came home to a wife and two children in South Norwood?”. Is it common to find characters like Arthur in our own day? How have the ideas of masculinity changed between Edwardian times and the present?
6. George has trouble believing that he was a victim of race prejudice. Why is this difficult for him to believe? Is it difficult for him to imagine that others dont see him as he sees himself? Does Georges misfortune seem to be juxtaposed ironically with his familys firm belief in the Christian faith?
7. The small section called “George & Arthur” describes an unnamed man approaching a horse in a field on a cold night. What is the effect of this section, coming into the novel when it does, and named as it is?
8. Inspector Campbell tells Captain Anson that the man who did the mutilations would be someone who was “accustomed to handling animals”; this assumption would clearly rule out George. Yet George is pursued as the single suspect. Campbell also notes that Sergeant Upton is neither intelligent nor competent at his job. What motivates Campbell as he examines Georges clothing and his knife, and proceeds to have George arrested?
9. Georges lawyer, Mr. Meek, is amused at Georges sense of outrage when he reads the factual errors and outright lies in the newspapers reports of his case. Why is Mr. Meek not more sympathetic?
10. Georges arrest for committing “the Great Wyrley Outrages” causes a sensation in England just a few years following the sensational killing spree of Jack the Ripper that sold millions of newspapers throughout England. Are the newspapers, and the public appetite for sensational stories, partly responsible for the crime against George Edalji?
11. How does Barnes convey the feeling of the historical period of which he writes? What details and stylistic effects are noticeable?
12. England was extremely proud of its legal system; Queen Victoria had expressed her outrage against the injustice in the trumped-up case against Alfred Dreyfus, which had occurred a few years earlier in France. Yet the Edalji case seems to present an even greater outrage against justice, and again because of the race of the accused. Why might the Home Office have refused to pay damages to Edalji?
13. For nine years, Arthur carries on a chaste love affair with Jean Leckie. Yet he feels miserable after the death of his wife Touie, particularly when he learns from his daughter Mary that Touie assumed that Arthur would remarry. Why is Arthur thrown into “the great Grimpen Mire” by his freedom to marry Jean? Why does he believe that “if Touie knew, then he was destroyed?” Has he, as he fears, behaved dishonorably to both women? What does the dilemma do to his sense of personal honor?
14. Why is the real perpetrator of the animal killings never identified? In a Sherlock Holmes story the criminal is always caught and convicted, but Doyle gets no such satisfaction with this real world case. How disturbing is the fact that Edalji is never truly vindicated and never compensated for the injustice he suffered? Does Barness fictional enlargement of George Edaljis life act as a kind of compensation?
15. Arthur & George presents a world that seems less evolved than our own in its assumptions about race and human nature, and justice and evidence, as well as in its examples of human innocence and idealism. Does this world seem so remote in time as to be, in a sense, unbelievable? Or might American readers recognize a similar situation in a story like Harper Lees To Kill a Mockingbird, or more recent news stories about racial injustice?
16. The story ends with Georges attendance at the memorial service for Arthur. What is most moving about this episode?