Elizabeth Finch is a fictional character. But, having read the eponymous book by Julian Barnes, I could swear that this impressive protagonist really existed. In his new work, the British author returns to his subtle game of concepts—life, truth, memory—challenging our understanding of the past. The novel is only two-thirds successful, but it’s enough to delight the reader.
Anyone with a little bit of luck has encountered a person like Elizabeth Finch. Someone who—even if we are only in touch with them for a moment, at work, at university, in public life—forever endure in our memories. They remain there as an authority, unquestioned and timeless, because they are deliberately at odds with the present. This person wishes to be outmoded. Highly principled, unyielding, and loyal to their convictions—somewhat inflexible, and hence more credible in their steadfastness. Such a person is occupied with permanence, in defiance of the roiling everyday. Their calm is stoical, not only in name, and they are indifferent to current issues. Their whole self expresses a specific philosophy of being and they are dignified about their outsider status. Someone like this embodies their beliefs and reflections. They don’t only express them, but also live by them, accepting the consequences, ready to be liked only by a few. Such is the novel’s Elizabeth Finch, an adult education teacher in London who runs a course called “Culture and Civilization.” As is her story—it won’t appeal to everyone, because it wasn’t written to please.
By writing it, Barnes puts a spoke in the wheel of modernity. He creates a subtle act of defiance, leaving behind a literary mark of dissent, which—in form and content—suits the writer that he is: one who doesn’t follow fads and is also unable to feel at home in today’s world. He is masterful at describing the discreet areas of life: the realm of gestures, tones of voice, slight hesitations between words, intentional phrasing, which carries hidden meaning. He nourishes his dialogues with a philosopher’s care; the triviality of the present and the media noise, which drown everything out, must bother him. Perhaps, then, Elizabeth Finch is a defense of people of his ilk—those practicing subtlety, consideration, seriousness.
Here is a perfectly artificial biography (that is, a carefully-constructed fiction); a life, which should count for nothing today. Still, even though Finch doesn’t exist outside of literature, she seems utterly real. What’s more, through her otherness she illustrates our times excellently. By portraying her, Barnes opposes the times of mediocrity and contempt. He does so with the knowledge that he will not be successful—indeed, the book has not been well-received by critics in the UK.
Brought to literary life, Elizabeth Finch doesn’t fit in with any of the personality types we currently value. She is more not there, than there. She isn’t superficial or hasty. She’s neither young nor beautiful. As a lecturer, Finch is not pragmatic or predictable. She doesn’t use unambiguous statements and is never satisfied with her students’ answers. She won’t let herself be pigeonholed and doesn’t stick to university curriculum. She doesn’t behave or speak like everyone around her. She has no family and doesn’t talk about herself. To a large extent, Elizabeth Finch is a mystery, not because she wants anyone to be intrigued by her, but rather because she doesn’t consider herself an object worthy of attention. And because she regards artificiality (that is, an extract of beliefs and reflections that can’t be encountered in nature) as the highest form of truth, the pose she has adopted—from her attire to her dialogues with students—is in pursuit of some higher purpose, not plaudits.
Elizabeth Finch is an old-fashioned person: she wears skirts that reach past the knee; the language she uses is precise and non-judgmental; her privacy remains protected, and her research interests concern distant history. More specifically, the origins of Christianity and the life of Julian the Apostate, a Roman emperor from the fourth century CE who never visited Rome and rejected Christianity. The appellation “Apostate”—dissenter—was given to him by biographers describing his outsider status. Emperor Julian renounced the faith with which he was raised, and returned to Roman beliefs. In them he saw the sum total of the wisdom and achievements of contemporary civilization. He couldn’t comprehend how his era could replace them with the novel, catchy and accessible myth about the Savior’s Resurrection and Ascension. He continued to follow the cult of the Sun and other deities in spite of the times, when faith in Christ was conquering the world. According to Finch, the religion did not bring with it a shred of enlightenment—much like the railway or the internet, which she by no means considers noteworthy successes either.
Like Barnes, Elizabeth does not fit in with the times in which she lives. She too pays the price of rejection and public shaming for her beliefs—even though she’s not an empress, but an underpaid educational worker. The omnivorous tabloids once pounced on an excerpt of her work (she used to write for an influential periodical), whipped up a humiliating little scandal around it, tarnished her reputation, and then moved on. What to readers was a mere mention in the newspaper for readers was deeply insulting to Elizabeth Finch—a person of gravitas. And although she weathered the storm with class, she never wrote again. Without a word, she disappeared from the public sphere—that firmament which, today, is lit with the dubious glitter of innumerable stars. The only witnesses of her impressive stature and the strength of her intellect were now her students of the academic course. Among them, Neil, a man of a certain age, already a little battered, divorced, and called the “King of Unfinished Projects” by his daughter. It’s him that Barnes makes the narrator of the Elizabeth Finch story, who was already greatly impressed by her from the very first lecture. After he graduated, they continued to meet regularly for lunch: three times a year, at the same place, on a Thursday at 1 p.m. She would start every encounter with the question of a person hungry for fresh thought—“What have you got for me?”—and finish it by paying the bill. Neil loved her—platonically, ineffably, and without doubt. He became her beneficiary, inheriting her book collection, her notes, her reflections.
Now, among the scraps of her life, this amateur biographer searches for some axis or foundation stone, traces of love and happiness. However, he won’t be able to fully render the life of this modest, yet hyperreal figure. Elizabeth Finch comprises three parts, as if the spirit of the unfinished project possessed Barnes himself. The author split the novel and in the very middle, inserted a historical essay on Julian the Apostate. Conceptually, this is understandable, but it spoils the pleasure of the splendid Barnesian prose—focused sentences with no excess, perfectly conveying the transience of life and pitfalls of memory. Julian Barnes is unparalleled when it comes to understanding and justifying our recollections—that fallible art of preserving our personal and collective history. Elizabeth Finch is, first and foremost, a book about memories that are born from the imagination, not from facts, and about the reality that it is human to be mistaken about one’s own past. If historians and biographers create fictions, that means only authors can offer the truth.
Penguin Books, London 2022
Translated from the Polish by Marta Dziurosz
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