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Personally, as a Julian Barnes fanatic, every book release of this cerebral author is for me a special event. A celebration. A unique and inclusive moment to savour and preserve. Hence it was with untold enthusiasm and longing that I waited to lay my hands on his latest offering, Elizabeth Finch. But much to my horror, chagrin and incredible disappointment, the patented ‘Barnes enchantment’ was totally absent. Just non-existent. Invisible. Incomprehensible. A short book which makes one feel and wish was shorter, Elizabeth Finch is an ambivalent and blurry blend of fact and fiction. Even though Barnes is known for his ability to enmesh fact and fiction seamlessly in his works, a 50-page trip – that makes up Part 2 of the book – about the character of Julian the Apostate – Roman emperor, warrior, scholar, pagan and foe of Christianity, leaves the reader in some state of induced confusion.
Elizabeth Finch is both the title and the protagonist of Barnes’ book. Neil, a student smitten by Miss Finch, indulges in an unabashed hero worship as he waxes lyrical about his teacher’s iridescent qualities. ‘EF”, as her keeps referring to her is almost asexual in her dressing. Brown Suede brogues, perpetual stockings and below-the-knees skirt make up for her preferred ensemble. But it is EF’s unconventional method of teaching that catches Neil by the scruff of his neck and gives him a godawful shaking. A shaking to which he relents himself willingly, submissively and euphorically. On her very first day of teaching, EF lays down the lay of the land for her students. “I shall not attempt to stuff you with facts as a goose is stuffed with corn; this would only lead to an engorged liver, which would be unhealthy.” Neil is smitten. The student is consumed by his teacher and every word that escapes her lips is nothing short of a sermon. “You could almost hear the commas, semicolons and full stops. She never started a sentence without knowing how and when it would end. Yet she never sounded like a talking book. Her vocabulary was drawn from the same word-box she used for both writing and general conversation. And yet the effect wasn’t archaic in any way, it was intensely alive.” There is no stopping, Neil.
Even after the completion of his academic tenure, Neil a twice divorcee, a father and an unsuccessful actor, continues meeting EF with frequent regularity. The meetings are always for lunch, at the same restaurant and every time they consume the same item from the menu and EF always pays for the lunch. For two decades this lunch meeting progresses with a great deal of precision and an even greater degree of prosaicness. Neil seems to take immense glee in being outwitted every time and on every subject which he hazards to bring up in their conversation. Upon EF’s passing, Neil to his great surprise is designated the trustee of EF’s library. A perusal of her papers spurs him on to complete his unfinished thesis on Julian the Apostate. This is the 50 pages of throwback to Roman times that is hurled at the reader with a vengeance by Barnes.
Is the martyrdom of Julian akin to the life of EF? IS Neil equating the expositions of the Roman pagan with the bold and unconventional beliefs of EF? Some critics and reviewers have concluded that the pithy, unruffled and composed character of EF is more than just loosely based on Barnes’ own late friend and fellow Booker Prize-winner Anita Brookner. I personally can recollect a much milder version of EF from my own academic years. Suffering from a myopic vision and equipped with a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles, DPR used to amble into the classroom, armed with a textbook on The Principles of Financial Management. Akin to EF, DPR used to launch into a monologue on principles, practices, preferences and perfection. His convictions were his hallmark and his notions the very bulwark preserving the last vestige of the subject of management. However, the similarity ended in terms of stoicism. There was a limit up to which DPR could bear the sick scrutiny of a set of uncontrollable vagrants who were intent upon making any classroom the personal playpen of Satan. Unlike EF who upon being challenged on an uncomfortable bit relating to the holocaust, strode away from the class but not before lashing out at the offending questioner, DPR silently used to slide away to the confines of his cramped teacher’s cubicle and mull over the mayhem, occasionally with involuntary tears dribbling out his owlish eyes.
Barnes’ 25th book is a study in contrasts. Ambivalent in parts and alluring in bits, it is something which I am yet to wrap my head around in terms of approbation, appreciation and approval.