Book Review: Elizabeth Finch by Julian Barnes

“Getting its history wrong is part of being a nation. [..] In other words, in order to believe in what we think our nation stands for, we must constantly, every day, in small acts or thoughts and large, deceive ourselves, as we constantly rehearse our comforting bedtime stories.”

Julian Barnes

Barnes And His Obsession With History

Julian Barnes seems to be an author who is obsessed with history. He is very similar to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who is obsessed with uncertainty. Both of them write books around the topic they are obsessed about.

Just like he played with the subject in The Sense of an Ending, Barnes continues his quest with a different set of characters in Elizabeth Finch. Barnes’ story has a protagonist in professor Elizabeth Finch. The underachieving narrator Neil is similar to Tony in The Sense of an Ending.

Though I have not read all works of Barnes’, I would not say this book would figure among his top-five works. It is not meant for everybody. It is not a story that can capture everyone’s imagination. In fact, even an enthusiastic Barnes fan like myself felt a bit bored in the middle of the book. In spite of a tinge of disappointment, I enjoyed the book since Elizabeth Finch’s teaching style was quite similar to that of my history teacher from school.

Barnes, I believe, was focused on unravelling the misinterpretation of one’s own personal history in The Sense of an Ending. But in Elizabeth Finch, he expands the idea to the domain of misinterpreted histories of religions, nations and historical heroes.

The Structure of The Book

The first part of the book deals with the narrator’s experience as a student and a friend of professor Elizabeth Finch. Finch dies and leaves her notebooks to Neil, a student with whom she had developed a lasting friendship even after her course had concluded. Neil finds interesting snippets from her book and feels inspired to complete a college assignment that he had never attempted.

The second part covers a detailed story of the historical character Julian the Apostate, the last significant pagan emperor of present-day Europe and a significant enemy of the Christian faith.

As far as the story is concerned, it is an essay by Neil. He writes this essay in honour of his late professor. And it is also his attempt to lose the tag —King of Unfinished Projects— bestowed upon him by his children.

Neil’s essay captures the virtues of Julian, who was apparently a tolerant emperor. His name was besmirched by his religious opponents once they took over. Later, Christian intellectuals —now considered great minds— analysed his legacy with a slightly empathetic tone, though they never challenged the overall narrative around him.

The second part of the book (i.e Neil’s essay) criticises Christianity in particular and the idea of monotheism in general while highlighting how paganism (or Hellenism) is a far more sensible religion. It also gets into an interesting analysis that reveals how civilisation preceded religion in the case of Greeks, while Christianity was a religion without its own civilisation.

The final part deals with the narrator’s attempts to put together obscure pieces of information about his favourite professor’s personal life. Though it is a bit tedious and seems forced, this part of the book tells us that the protagonist, Elizabeth Finch was not as perfect as she seemed to the outside world. It manages to highlight that Finch was just like any other individual of her time.

The Undercurrent

The big idea of the book seems to be mired in a masala of trivial sub-stories. One that hints at a mysterious love life of the professor herself. Another sub-story points at the platonic love that the student had for his teacher. The fact that Neil is divorced twice makes one feel that he failed miserably in the domain of romantic love (and hence settles for one-sided platonic love). This feeling is captured in my favourite quote from the book:

“I don’t know what the average allotment of good luck in a life is or should be — it’s an unanswerable question, and doubtless there is no ‘should’ in it anyway — but I do know that she was part of my good luck.”

Julian Barnes

In addition, there are notes on politics, stoicism, monotheism and a press controversy that effectively ended Elizabeth Finch’s public career as an intellectual. The story heavily relies on Epictetus’ quotes. It is used as an excuse or a consolation to explain all failures of the characters involved in the story.

Though I have checked out Epictetus’ works in the past, I don’t think I had appreciated his thoughts as much as I would’ve wanted to. I particularly liked this part of the long quote.

“Some things are up to us, and some are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions — in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor are our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices, or, that is, whatever is not our doing.”

Epictetus

There seems to be an underlying parallel drawn between Elizabeth Finch and Julian the Apostate. Both were misunderstood and shamed by the public, despite being worthy and righteous till their last breath. The narrator, Neil, doesn’t have any lasting legacy or goal apart from digging into Finch’s books and past life.

What The Book Means To Me

The book underscores the importance of being a winner rather than a good person. The tactics used by those who seek power often misuse the goodness in others. If you are a loser or appear to be a loser, the world is capable of turning your virtues into vices. It is often eager to weave stories convenient to serve its purposes. Whether we like it or not, history is written by the winners.

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