Elizabeth Finch by Julian Barnes | Book Review

“We must certainly consider, not just in this class, but outside it, in our own turbulent and fretful lives, the element of chance. The number of people we deeply meet is strangely few. Passion may mislead us furiously. Reason may mislead us just as much. Our genetic inheritance might hamstring us. So might previous events in our lives. It is not just soldiers in the field who later suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. It is often the inevitable consequence of a seemingly normal sublunary existence.”

Elizabeth Finch by Julian Barnes tells a story of Neil, a former unsuccessful actor with two failed marriages behind him, who recalls a friendship with his former teacher, Elizabeth Finch (referred in the book as EF), who taught him a course on culture and civilisation for mature students when Neil was in his mid-30s. Following a one-year course, Neil continued his friendship with Elizabeth Finch for 20 years, meeting her twice or thrice per year for a lunch at a small Italian restaurant in West London. Their meeting lasted exactly 75 minutes where they discussed literature, history. and events from Neil’s life.

The book is not so much about Elizabeth Finch, plot or a character study. It is more of a philosophical treatise concerned with the ambiguity of ideas, collective and individual history, its impact and evaluation on our understanding of the reality and who we are, how it can affect our course of life. The issue of how and by whom history is written and based on EF’s journal the history is often written by “those who are better organised and wave bigger guns; those who are better at killing.” The issues of cultural wars, identity politics, the meaning of history and its interpretation as well as of collective and individual memory and a comfortable myth of the past or historic figure are explored throughout the book.

“There are people who prefer books to life, who are wary of deeper, more unquiet involvements. (…) I preferred loving Elizabeth Finch to loving anyone else I’ve known, before or since. I don’t mean I loved her more (…), but I loved her carefully: with care, and fully.”

Elizabeth Finch is also a loving ode to teachers, and the idea of exploring our own assumptions about the world we live in.

“She had been my friend, and I had loved her. Her presence and example had made my brain change gear, had provoked a quantum leap in my understanding of the world.

The character of Elizabeth Finch was probably inspired by Julian Barnes’ friend, a wonderful writer and professor of history of art, Anita Brookner.

Elizabeth Finch was a Romantic-Stoic, an inspiration to her students according to Neil, full of warmth, empathy, and with uniquely inquisitive mind and timeless intellectual curiosity, “unfit for the world”, with her high-mindedness often making her vulnerable. As Neils recalls, she examined things deeply, more widely, with various approaches. She encouraged her students to read books by authors with whom they ideologically disagree, to familiarise themselves ”with those who oppose us, and whom we oppose, whether it be a living or a dead figure , whether it be a religious or political opponent , or even a daily newspaper or weekly magazine”, “to know thy enemy (…) even thy dead enemy, for he may easily resuscitate”, “to seek and find within [themselves] a centre of seriousness”, and “to see history as a kind of Darwinism”.

Following the death of Elizabeth Finch, Neil was bequeathed the papers, journals, and library of his former teacher which encouraged him to reconstruct EF’s life. He realised that the portrayal of Elizabeth he always had in his mind was fragmentary and elusive despite knowing her for over two decades. Elizabeth Finch left ‘an idea to follow’ for Neil to explore.

“Elizabeth Finch who stood before us was the finished article, the sum of what she had made herself, what others had helped her make, and what the world had provided. The world not just in its contemporary manifestations but also in its long history.”

Elizabeth Finch’s journals contained fully composed arguments, quotations, private jottings, memories, scribbles from intimate to formal, from personal reflections to lecture notes on the meaning and misinterpretation of history, perception of individual life and historic events, connection between history and memory, mythologization of the past and people, otherness, diversity, identity politics, cultural wars, euthanasia, a place of women in the contemporary world, philosophy, ethnic cleansing, persecutions, death, family relationships, love, reductive understanding of woman’s life when it comes to marriage, solitude versus loneliness, and friendship.

The second section of the book includes an essay on Julian the Apostate written by Neil which he failed to hand in when he took the course with EF decades earlier. Julian the Apostate was EF’s soulmate, someone who challenged the monotheism of the Abrahamic religious beliefs, in this case of Christianity, and its impact on accepting the Otherness and social diversity. In one of the journal entries, Elizabeth Finch wrote that monotheistic nature of the Abrahamic religions led to creating monocultures reluctant to learn from the Otherness, and susceptible to divisions. Based on the papers and journals of EF, Neil decided to write this essay to explore the idea of mythologization of history. Neil’s essay shows how over the centuries the mythologization of Julian the Apostate has evolved. The essay provides many examples of historians and philosophers such as Milton, Anatole France, James Joyce, Henrik Ibsen, Edward Gibbon, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Montaigne, Samuel Johnson and others to prove how the understanding of a historic figure or event can depend on when and who writes about the past – it is often based on mythmaking.

As Neil explores the life of EF, we understand that his perception of his teacher can be also based on myth, rather on fact. He asks himself how we remember the life of people we know or used to know. One of the former students who also took the course taught by EF decades earlier calls the sentiment expressed by Neil that EF was an inspirational teacher – a comfortable myth. Another former student, Geoff, who often argued with EF tells Neil that he made EF into a harmless myth, but a myth, nevertheless. This exploration of EF’s life by Neil shows that our perception of a historic event or a person is a sum of our own assumption, empathy, our own life and our past in relation to the history that affected our life.

“I sometimes wonder how biographers do it: make a life, a living life, a glowing life, a coherent life out of all that circumstantial, contradictory and missing evidence. (…) Or maybe consistent narrative is a delusion, as is trying to reconcile conflicting judgments.”

Elizabeth Finch by Julian Barnes is a wonderful book which I have enjoyed immensely. However, it might be a challenging book due to its nonconventional structure. In my view and following the example of Elizabeth Finch, I would encourage everyone to read this book and take time to reflect about the ideas explored in this extraordinary novel.

“Be approximately satisfied with approximate happiness. The only thing in life which is clear and beyond doubt is unhappiness.”

I read some reviews in The Guardian, The Times, other newspapers and literary journals which were not very positive for the latest book by Julian Barnes but I strongly believe that this kind of book is a literary feast if you are eager to take your time to reflect more deeply on the ideas explored in Elizabeth Finch.

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