Arthur and George by Julian Barnes
Any year, Arthur & George would be an interesting read – the creator of the world’s most famous detective doing some legwork on his own to save the country lawyer with the wrong last name sounds so attractive that it makes one wonder why someone hadn’t attempted this until now. In this particular year however, in the months after the London bombings, as England seems to be engaged in a self-introspection on whether she could have done anything to stop her own children from carrying out such monstrous acts, Arthur & George becomes particularly interesting. And this could be why it becomes important to remind oneself that this book is not an attempt at answering (or questioning) the issues of racism in Britain; instead it is a beautiful story about two very different men who meet under extraordinary circumstances for a brief period of time and then go on about their lives as usual. So if I feel vaguely unsatisfied because I think Barnes should have raised more questions about the bigger issues of the day, I really have only myself to blame.
The story starts with alternating narratives of young Arthur and George - Arthur, brought up in poor aristocracy, grows up listening to stories in his Mam’s kitchen; he is an imaginative child who effortlessly impresses his schoolmates with his narratives; he is a promising cricketer and a scholar. After a failed career as an ophthalmologist, he takes up full-time writing and soon becomes famous as the creator of Sherlock Holmes. George, on the other hand, grows up in rural England, son of an Anglican vicar, poor, friendless, stolid and completely devoid of imagination. He is taunted throughout his teenage years as he is visibly ‘brown’ but he remains steadfastly English. He becomes a solicitor in Birmingham whose only claim to fame is a railway manual on the rights of the traveling public.
In 1903, a series of horse maimings occur in the community of Great Wyrley and everyone wants a quick arrest. The police arrest George on what looks to be made-up evidence; he is tried and sentenced to prison. When he gets out of prison, he is bent upon clearing his name so that he can practice again. He writes to Sir Arthur asking for his help. Sir Arthur, who is going through a tough phase in his own life, caught between his dead wife whom he nursed for thirteen years and his lover of many years who he somehow could not bring himself to marry now that he’s free, finds George’s case a way out of his misery and he sets out to clear George’s name. He succeeds partly if it could be called that, what’s important is that Sir Arthur realizes that he is not after all his creation and that in real life, one would have to be content sometimes without finding the villain of the piece.
Arthur & George is a fast read and hugely entertaining. At times, one could almost imagine Barnes as Watson poring over his notes to see how he should present the case to his readers. His ability to make the reader believe what he writes as the gospel truth, as if he witnessed every scene in the flesh is inspiring to say the least. Given the characters of the story, it seems very easy to make Sir Arthur superior in both character and ability to George but Barnes misses this trap altogether. Sir Arthur’s rational skepticism draws him into “spiritism” while George’s simple Christian beliefs have a strong secular and rational streak. It is George, not Sir Arthur who makes some of the most interesting observations in the book. Like this instance where George ponders over Sir Arthur's involvement in his case - “And it was all, George decided, the fault of Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur had been too influenced by his own creation. Holmes performed his brilliant acts of deduction and then handed villains over to the authorities with their umambiguous guilt written all over them. But Holmes had never once been obliged to stand in the witness box and have his suppositions and intuitions and immaculate theories ground to very fine dust over a period of several hours by the likes of Mr. Disturnal” and this where he wonders why his affair never received the kind of attention that the Dreyfus affair did in France - "But more than this, he suspected that his obscurity was something to do with England itself. France, as he understood it, was a country of extremes, of violent opinion, violent principles and long memories. England was a quieter place, just as principled, but less keen on making a fuss about its principles; a place where the common law was trusted more than government statute; where people got on with their own business and did not seek to innterfere with that of others; where great public eruptions took place from time to time; eruptions of feeling which might even tip over into violence and injustice, but which soon faded into the memory, and were rarely built into the history of the country."
In conclusion, I'd say that Arthur & George is a highly engaging book which achieves perfectly what it sets out to achieve. And again, if I think it should have set out to achieve more, it is hardly Barnes's fault. So will it win the Booker? If you believe the bookies, it will. And not having read the other books on the short list, I really cannot say.
Jabberwock's review here.
And if you are wondering where Barnes got his inspiration from, Prufrock Two explains away.
PS - The reason why I sound a little skeptical of this book despite me actually liking it is this - In my mind, the Booker prize is given to one of the best books of the year, if not the best. And as much as I like Arthur & George, I cannot really see it being anywhere close to another book that I read recently (which I believe was released last year and anyway for obvious reasons, it wouldn't qualify for this particular prize). I realize that the comparison is completely unfair (to Barnes especially) but hey, who said I was trying to be objective here? Get on with it, you say? Okay, run along and read The Plot Against America and then come and tell me if you have read anything better in recent times.