Elizabeth Finch by Julian Barnes review – the problem with ambiguity | Fiction


“What is it about ambiguity,” asked Tim Parks in 2015, “that it has to be praised to high heaven by all and sundry? Above all, how did it come to take on, at least for some, a cloak of liberal righteousness?” Reading Julian Barnes’s new novel, the question feels especially apposite. This is a work that both uses and abuses ambiguity. In doing so, it undermines itself.

Elizabeth Finch, the novel’s eponymous subject, teaches an adult education course in culture and civilisation. The narration comprises the recollections of Neil, her former student and would-be hagiographer. Her class, he tells us, “shook my mind around, made me constantly rethink, burst stars inside my head”. Students were awestruck by “the shimmer of her phrasing, the lustre of her brain”. Under her tutelage they “actually began, in real time, to think for ourselves”.

There’s a sense of daring in depicting the impact of an inspirational teacher. If Finch and her teaching fall short, our faith in the novel will falter. Early on, we sense Barnes’s hesitancy. Straining to burnish Finch’s aura, he deploys, then redeploys, a reliable novelistic cliche – charisma through immobility. In the first paragraph, Finch is “still”. By page six she’s “preternaturally still”. “She commanded attention,” says Neil, spelling it out, “by her stillness.”

So Finch doesn’t move much. But that’s just the start of what she doesn’t do. Finch, we’re told, “didn’t smoke like anyone else”. “She had none of those lecturer’s tics and tricks designed to charm, distract, or indicate character. She never waved her arms about or supported her chin in her hand.” She was “not in any way a public figure”. She “wasn’t interested in football or celebrity chefs or the ever-changing dictates of fashion, or box sets or gossip”, but “she wasn’t in any way a snob” either. Sounds a bit mysterious, doesn’t she? But no: she “had no ‘mysteriousness’ about her” either.

This is ambiguity not as subtlety, but avoidance: Finch simply isn’t there. Hoping to make a virtue of her absence, Barnes lays down a fog of negation. But this only deepens the problem. The reader feels distanced from Finch; the novel feels distanced from its subject.

Finch’s impact, then, must come from the work to which the novel forms a tribute: her teaching. According to Neil, she “directed us elegantly away from the obvious”. A quick scan of her aphoristic wisdom, however, suggests that she did so exclusively by stating the obvious. Acting is “the perfect example of artificiality producing authenticity”. “Failure can tell us more than success.” “Insults most often occur when an argument is being lost.” Voting is a “civic duty”. Anarchism has a certain intellectual appeal but “realistically, it would never work”. And love, would you believe, is “all there is … the only thing that matters”. “If she taught us one thing,” says Neil, further diluting the thin gruel of Finch’s thought, “it was that history is for the long haul.”

Finch’s studiously bien-pensant truisms, coupled with Barnes’s via negativa characterisation, leave the novel in search of a centre. Barnes, it seems, senses this: 44 pages in, he cuts his losses and kills Finch off – a move which, tellingly, brings the novel to life. Bequeathed Finch’s journals, Neil becomes a historian of his history teacher. The fragmentary, elusive portrait of Finch that emerges feels far more intimate and interesting than the one glimpsed through Neil’s coursing admiration. Freed from the narrative responsibility of investing Finch with energy, meanwhile, Neil softens, expands, and becomes a fuller figure in his own right.

Barnes is in his element here – investigating with subtlety and gentleness the quiet mysteries that make up a life. So it’s all the more mystifying and disappointing that, just as the novel Elizabeth Finch could have been moves tantalisingly into view, Barnes self-sabotages, devoting the book’s entire middle section to Neil’s stolid student essay on Julian the Apostate, the “Roman emperor who never set foot in Rome”, known for his “persecution by methods of mildness”. As Neil labours away at one of the novel’s many undercooked and unintegrated ideas – the shortcomings of monotheism – the narrative flounders, never to recover.

In Barnes’s tripartite structure, each new section must compensate for the shortcomings of the last. With a motionless middle on his hands, Barnes works in the final third to recover some sense of momentum. In his search for compelling incident, though, he finds only implausibility. Returning to Neil’s recollections, we learn of Finch’s public “shaming”. Invited by the London Review of Books to give a small public lecture, Finch (who, let us recall, was “not in any way a public figure”) finds that her historical perspective on monotheism has, ludicrously, become the subject of a furious national outcry.

It’s here that we’re reminded of Parks’ “cloak of liberal righteousness”. Barnes has depended too heavily on ambiguity as a substitute for clarity. Consequently, Finch and her ideas lack force. In order to bring about her cancellation, therefore, Barnes must distort the world in which those ideas are received. The result is neither a critique of a reactionary culture nor a defence of nuance and free thought. Instead, it’s a bourgeois intellectual fantasy – an England where the LRB is seriously regarded by its detractors as “a nest of leftists, subversives, pseudo-intellectuals, cosmopolitans, traitors, liars and anti-monarchist vermin”; where perfectly bland ideas are magically imbued with the power to unsettle; and where a talk in a bookshop gets you doorstepped by the red-tops.

Finally, Barnes returns to the ambiguity with which we began. Perhaps Neil’s memory and impressions can’t be trusted. Perhaps no memory can be trusted. Perhaps history, as a result, is nothing but interpretation and speculation. Coming as the conclusion to a novel that had begun on firmer ground, this loosening of certainty could have passed for daring subversion. Here, though, it feels like just another evasion – vagueness layered on to vagueness. Elizabeth Finch is a work stubbornly determined to deny us its pleasures, even as it hints at what they could have been.

Sam Byers’ latest novel is Come Join Our Disease (Faber). 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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