Julian Barnes has always enjoyed blurring the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, writing novels that sound like works of history or criticism. His new novel, riddling to the point of reader-denying, devotes a third of its short length to a 50-page essay on historical views of the Roman emperor Julian the Apostate, who was thwarted in his attempt to ditch Christianity and return Rome to pagan worship.

The essay’s author is the book’s narrator, Neil, a twice-divorced soap actor turned mushroom grower, who writes in memory of Elizabeth Finch, a lecturer who taught a year-long evening class he attended in London on the subject of “culture and civilisation”. He never submitted his final essay, instead asking Elizabeth, whose hauteur arouses much intrigue among her students, out to lunch. So began a 20-year routine of biannual lunch dates that lasted until her death, when she left her papers,
among them notes for an essay on Julian, to our narrator.

As Neil sets out to finish the job, an early reference to The Golden Legend, “that medieval assemblage of miracles and martyrdoms”, puts the unready reader on notice (that presumptuous “that”). So too do the words of Elizabeth’s brother, “pink-cheeked and plump”, who tells Neil he’s “not a literary chap in any way. Though I like a good yarn.” It’s one of several hints that such a thing is far from Barnes’s goal: ditto Neil’s confession that “the voyeur in me wondered if [Elizabeth] had left a laceratingly self-revealing diary… my tawdry imagination was no better than those of the loucher students she had taught”.

The novel confuses the reader’s sense of what is and isn’t significant with a steady drumbeat of caveats – regarding Elizabeth’s romantic life or Neil’s divorces – that turn the narrative into a series of false starts; it’s typical when he begins a sentence by saying “In my case” only to cut himself off (“but my case isn’t relevant”).

As a reading experience, it’s akin to answering a cold call only to find yourself put on hold, which isn’t to say there aren’t funny moments. After a female ex-classmate says “life… does not amount to a narrative”, Neil tells us that he loves women “who are more intelligent, or more lucid, than me”; next minute, he’s asking if she’s ever slept with a woman, before trying to seduce her himself. Trouble is, the comedy inflicts collateral damage on our ability to gauge how reliable a guide Neil is to his overall subject, not least because Elizabeth seldom seems the purveyor of 24-carat wisdom she’s made out to be (“Life is both necessary and unavoidable”? “Constitutional democracy is the least worst system we’ve so far discovered”?).
One passage finds Neil on a train reading Michel Butor’s 1957 novel La Modification (A Changing Heart), whose narrator, also on a train, is reading about none other than Julian the Apostate. Neil’s growing impatience with Butor’s tricksy refusal to make the anticipated connections between narrator and subject echoes our own frustrations. In other words, Barnes couldn’t make it any clearer that he knows exactly what he’s doing; the question is, why is he doing it?

If you squint a bit, Elizabeth shares a shred of DNA with Barnes’s friend Anita Brookner, who died in 2016, and to whom Barnes paid tribute in terms that presage Neil’s discussion of Elizabeth’s high seriousness (“‘Anita, what do you think of Ireland’s chances in the Six Nations?’ was not a question that ever came to my lips”). Viewed this way, the novel’s in-jokes grow: Neil’s scorn for the “crude idea” of writing Elizabeth’s biography might amuse another of Barnes’s friends, Hermione Lee, currently at work on a life of Brookner, and his editors at the London Review of Books, where Barnes writes regularly, would probably enjoy Neil’s summary of the publication’s reputation as “a nest of leftists, subversives, pseudo-intellectuals, cosmopolitans, traitors, liars and anti-monarchist vermin”.

In the end, I couldn’t help wondering if Barnes had taken perverse inspiration from Martin Amis’s autobiographical novel Inside Story, having read it, perhaps, on high alert for a cameo of the sort he made in Amis’s memoir Experience, which reported their bitter, mid-90s falling-out. Here is a Julian-centred narrative likewise shaped by a woman’s enigmatic magnetism, albeit cerebral, not carnal, in a roman à clef that keeps the clef tucked firmly under a plant pot by the back door, rather than jangling it à la Amis. Pure projection, no doubt, but Barnes is smart enough to know that readers faced with so astringent a novel may well find themselves forced to make their own fun.

Elizabeth Finch by Julian Barnes is published by Jonathan Cape (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply



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