Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

Arthur & George — Julian Barnes — A book review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on July 18, 2008

It is my view that there is no such thing as pure fiction from a sense of it being a product of pure imagination or a creation of mind which does not have an approximate precedence. However tenuous it may be, all fiction has to be rooted in reality. Some hook, link or connection has to exist between a writers imagination and what plays out actually on the ground. The only exception for this can be some extreme form of the genre of science fiction. Probably that explains my limited appetite for the SF genre. Real life incidents, events and people – all past and present — have been the most preferred raw material employed by writers for their writing. Infusing this raw material with a writers imagination in terms of providing a structure, narrative style, pace, characterisation has been an age old approach to writing novels. As an approach to writing  this will never go out of fashion. Nor it should. If it does, then reading will become a much less enjoyable passtime than it is now. In that sense all fiction is a form of peeping and knowing more about someone else’s life – as it is or augmented with degrees of imagination

Julian Barne’sArthur and George” is one such novel based on real life events and people involving the famous writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and George T Edalji. George is the son of a christian parishoner who is born a parsee. George’s mother is a scotswoman. The parish itself is located Greater Wyrley (near Birmingham). George goes onto become a provincial solicitor and makes a minor name for himself by writing a monograph on Railway laws. He is also about ensconce himself into a comfortable life of a provincial solicitor. It is around this pivotal period that he and his family become victims of a focused hate mail campaign. George also gets accused of horse mutiliations in and around Greater Wyrley. After an extensive but farcical trial, George is sentenced to 7 years of rigorous imprisonment. George’s incipient career is in tatters and this has a huge impact on the fabric of the family which stands by him though the difficult period. This is one parallel thread of the narrative in the novel. The other thread is that of Conan Doyle’s life itself — his own formative years, training as a doctor, sports, literarture, rise to fame, knighthood, dabble with spiritism, death of his first wife Touie and his affair with Jean Leckie

The book gains real momentum once Arthur and George’s paths intertwine and Arthur spurred by the dual needs for action and snapping out of bereavment of Touie’s death, decides to take up the cause of George to set right the wrongs done to him. The book in essence is a brilliant reconstruction of the case of George Edalji. A historical equivalent to Edalji’s case was the case of Dreyfus in France where Dreyfus is accused of treason in an elaborate set up and his case too is championed by another giant in world literature – Emil Zola

As a book “Arthur and George” has many wonderful aspects to consider. First and foremost is Barne’s meticulous research to reconstruct the whole episode and England of the time of Conan Doyle. Barnes leads the reader into an England that was throbbing with vitality, energy, advancement. It is also at the same time an England where there are shameful instances of official apathy, miscarriage of justice, race bias and class taking precedence over equality of ordinary citizenry

Second is the characterisation. Both Arthur and George are the central characters and they are no doubt marvelously done. Both are diametrically opposite personalities. Arthur — full of energy, modernity, daring, courage, intellect and industry while George is meek, diligient, honest, conventional and introverted — the texture of both these characters is well maintained till the end. In this world sometimes one gets to meet people who have varied capabilities and interests, know precisely what their capabilities are and relish in employing these capabilities in helping others. These are beautiful people spurred by the love for action and cause. Barnes portrays Arthur Conan Doyle as one of those beautiful larger than life people. One is never bored to read more about these characters. Consider the portrayalof Conan Doyle:  Irish by ancestry, Scottish by birth, instructed in the faith of Rome by Dutch Jesuits. Arthur has become English  ………..In this modern world of Birmingham factories and billycock hats the notion of chivalry often seemed to have declined into one of mere sportsmanship. But Arthur practiced the code whereever possible. He was a man of his word; he succoured the poor; he kept his guard against the baser emotions, he treated women respectfully; he had long term plans for the rescue and care of his mother

Third is the control on language: Barnes is clearly a master and makes every paragraph pleasurable to read. The language flows like a gurgling stream of clear water – cold, sweet, refreshing and evoking the freshness of a time where it was uncontaminated and pure. Consider some of the gems: “He had begun to find, during his medical training, there was often much promise in the faces of the dead – as if the strain and tension of living had given way to a greater peacefulness. Post muscular relaxation was the scientific answer; but part of him wondered if this was the full explanation. The human dead also bore in their gizzard pebbles from a land the maps ignored” or talking about Charles Doyle father of Conan Doyle : “He had been weak and unmanly, incapable of winning his fight against liquor. Fight? He barely raised his gloves at the demon. Excuses were occasionally made for him, but Arthur did not find the claim of an artistic temperament persuasive. That was self-indulgence and self-exculpation. It was perfectly possible to be an artist, yet also to be robust and responsible” or It’s plain as a packstaff,’ he is saying ‘The fellow’s no more guilty than that typewriter of yours. I ask you Woodie!. It’s a joke. The case of the locked room in reverse – not how does he get in but how does he get out? Its as shabby as shabby can be”  (one gets to see shades of Sherlock Holmes here)

Fourth what I found quite arresting through the book was Barnes depiction of Conan Doyle’s philosophical flights. On a trip to Egypt he at one time says ” Life. How easily everyone, including himself, said the word. Life must go on. Everyone routinely agreed. And yet how few asked what it was, how it was and if it was the only life or the mere amphitheatre to something quite different. Arthur was frequently baffled by the complacency which people went on with… with what they insouciantly called their lives, as if both the word and thing made perfect sense to them………………The demolition of antique faiths had been fundamental to human advancement; but now that old buildings have been leveled, where was man to find shelter in this blasted landscape? How could anyone glibly decide that the history of what the species had for millenia agreed to call the soul was now at an end? Human beings would continue to develop and therefore whatever was inside them must also develop…. Egyptians had indubitably raised the arts and sciences to a new level, their reasoning powers were in many ways contemptible. Especially in their attitude to death. The notion that the dead body, an old, outworn coat which once briefly wrapped the soul, should be preserved at any cost was not just risible; it was the last word in materialism. As for those baskets of provisions placed in the tomb to feed soul in the journey; how could people of such sophistication be so emasculated in their minds? Faith endorsed by materialism: a double curse. And the same curse blighted every subsequent nation and civilization that came under the rule of a priesthood” . The book is sprinkled with many such passages

Lastly, Barnes manages to give some glittering brushes of the character of British nation (I doubt if such a thing as a nation’s character exists and can be easily defined). I found two of those brush strokes especially wonderful:  “But more than this, he suspected that his obscurity was something to do with England itself. France, as he understood was 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 common law was more respected than Government statute; where people got on with their own business and did not seek to interfere 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 in the memory, and were rarely built into the history of the country. This has happened. Now lest us forget about it and carry on as before. Such was the English way… This was England, and George could understand England’s point of view, because George was English himselfor  “Ofcourse. But I disagree. The money is very important. Not just as a compensation for three years of your life. It is also symbolic. The British respect money. If you are given a free pardon the public will know that you are innocent. But if you are given money as well, the public will know that your completely innocent. There is a world of difference” 

In summary, “Arthur & George” is at once a biography of a great writer, adventure, reconstruction of a long forgotton historical incident and a love story. I think that above all it is a truly delightful and entertaining read

It was nominated for the 2005 Booker and sadly did not win it. This is sufficent enough to infer the quality of talent writing in UK and CommonWealth countries today

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