A mirror on life: the novelist and art historian Anita Brookner, a likely inspiration for Julian Barnes’s Elizabeth Finch. © Jonathan Player / Alamy Stock Photo

The failures of Elizabeth Finch

Julian Barnes’s new novel suffers from a lack of clarity
May 12, 2022
Elizabeth Finch
Julian Barnes
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Julian Barnes once claimed that novelists tend to start by using material at a distance from their own lives before turning back to more autobiographical sources. It was an odd contention, an attempt to celebrate the supposed distinctiveness of Penelope Fitzgerald who, in Barnes’s telling, was unusual in following four novels drawn from personal experience—owning a bookshop; working at the BBC—with four others drawn from imaginative reconstruction, culminating in her novel about German Romanticism, The Blue Flower

In reality most fiction writers, including Barnes himself, start with veiled memoir: he emerged in 1980 with Metroland, about a suburban Francophile who attends a private school in central London. But he has since fulfilled his own description of the novelist’s later habits. Since turning 65 in 2011, he has published, among other works, a pair of slender, first-person novels drawing on his adolescence, in one case responding to his discovery that a schoolfriend had committed suicide in his twenties (The Sense of an Ending), in the other returning to his relationship with a troubled older woman (The Only Story). Now he has written a curious and even inscrutable fictional elegy to his friend, the art historian and late-blooming novelist Anita Brookner, which offers a reflection on the biographical impulse, and perhaps also a reflection on that reflection.

As was the case with Barnes and Brookner, the narrator of his new novel, Neil (a failed actor, twice divorced) used to meet the older, unmarried, west London-dwelling Elizabeth Finch for lunches that lasted for 75 minutes. Finch would say to Neil, as Brookner did to Barnes, “what have you got for me?” and looking at his food say, “how is that?… Disappointing?”

Like Barnes, Neil emphasises his friend’s wit, reserve, rigour and stoicism. “You can see, I hope, why I adored her,” he writes. And though Elizabeth Finch isn’t quite so confined to fond reminiscence as Barnes’s 2016 obituary-memoir of Brookner in the Guardian, it’s not a very novel-y novel, being thin on drama but thick with statements about life, love and history offered by Elizabeth at the lectern or the dinner table, or by Neil in his narration.

Finch isn’t an exact match for her model. Both had associations with the University of London, but whereas Brookner was a reader in art history at the Courtauld Institute, Finch is an extramural lecturer teaching a course on culture and civilisation for mature students. Finch’s two works of non-fiction have fallen out of print by the time Neil turns up at her class, whereas Brookner had a devoted following as an interpreter of Romantic painting and a portraitist of lonely women.

The biggest disparity, though, is that Barnes’s novel contains no trace of the engagement with French culture that provided the basis for his bond with Brookner—and that was so evident in her novels such as Hotel du Lac, which beat Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot to win the 1984 Booker Prize. Elizabeth Finch, by contrast, quotes Goethe and, to the discomfort of one student, Hitler. Her regular lunches with Neil take place at an Italian restaurant (Barnes and Brookner would go to Le Caprice). The substantial research project on which Neil embarks by way of tribute—and which he shares with us in its entirety—concerns the life and “posthumous reputation” of the Roman apostate emperor Julian, the beneficiary of attention, we learn, from Ibsen, Joyce and Schiller. It seems possible that Fitzgerald—a Europhile who set her novels in Italy, Russia and Germany but displayed no particular interest in France, and who was a teacher revered by her students—is somewhere in the mix, and that “Finch” deliberately echoes “Fitz.”

Barnes’s tendency to withhold detail damages the novel’s clarity. We are never told the year an event is happening or how old Neil is—only that members of his class were all between their late twenties and early forties. (Even the word “university” doesn’t appear until page 141.) The tone is similarly enigmatic. Is Neil a buffoon? Is Barnes mocking his rapture over Elizabeth? She could be intended as an unremarkable windbag impressive only to academic also-rans. Yet her table-talk and demeanour are borrowed directly from a figure for whom Neil’s creator has expressed admiration. Neil certainly goes further than Barnes into fetishism: “she didn’t smoke like anyone else”; “were her lobes even pierced? now there’s a question.” But if his historical account of Julian the Apostate, based on notes made by Elizabeth, is supposed to be excessive, an act of love-drunk worship, it’s a folly the reader is asked to engage with for almost 50 pages.

Perhaps the key to Barnes’s intentions lies not in his tribute to Brookner or his essay about Fitzgerald, but in the book eclipsed all those years ago by Hotel du Lac. Neil’s act of homage recalls the epigraph to Flaubert’s Parrot, which quotes the author of Madame Bovary: “when you write the biography of a friend, you must do it as if you were taking revenge for him.” It emerges in that novel that Geoffrey Braithwaite’s research into Flaubertian apocrypha is a means of displacing a personal bereavement. At points, that seems to be what’s going on here, with the balance moved from sublimation to the reckoning itself—two parts on Elizabeth Finch to one on Julian the Apostate. 

But there could also be a more pervasive irony at play—not Neil engaging with a long-dead emperor to channel or deny feelings about a departed friend, but obsessing over his sometime lecturer as a way of avoiding his own misspent life. Neil asserts on more than one occasion that this is “not my story.” And so perhaps it is Elizabeth—the subject of Neil’s “not exactly a biography”—instead of Julian the Apostate who stands in for Flaubert. Or more properly, perhaps she stands in for the parrot, a close relation of the bird after which Barnes names his maybe-heroine.