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Julian Barnes' new novel: History Readings from the Ashes of Life


Julian Barnes' new book is about a history teacher who worships a Roman emperor. The narrator inherits her notes and continues the work of his teacher. Unfortunately, the work lacks coherence.

Is this book really a novel?

Perhaps the closest you can come to him is to think of it as a tribute.

Neil, a man of advanced years - he has gray hair and has been through two failed marriages - remembers the woman with whom he attended an adult seminar on "Culture and Civilization" decades ago - after the first marriage and a failed acting career. has occupied.

She appears right on the first page of the book.

She steps up to the podium, announces to the audience that she will "not stuff them with facts like a goose with corn", but expects "rigor" and gives her name: Elizabeth Finch.

Andrew Kilb

Feature correspondent in Berlin.

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Then follows what could be considered a longer stage direction in a play.

Mrs Finch wears sturdy loafers with striped silk blouses and knee-length skirts, "box-pleated in summer, usually navy, tweed in winter".

She smokes.

she has migraines

Her language is formal, her sentence structure grammatically perfect.

And – here description turns into action – she loves to deconstruct myths.

Religious myths, national myths, myths of everyday life.

The eleven thousand virgins of Saint Ursula?

It was probably only eleven.

The historic British mission to humanity?

In America, they kept slaves longer than the Americans themselves. Elizabeth Finch struggles most violently with the sexual morality of Christianity.

"Monotheism, monogamy, monotony" form for them the unholy triad of hostility to life.

Neil's writing project would have been enough for a book of his own

Most seminar participants are moderately enthusiastic about Elizabeth Finch's teaching.

Different Neil: He remains loyal to his lecturer even after the end of his second degree.

He meets her two or three times a year in a restaurant and they talk about the things in life.

At some point Mrs. Finch has to cancel the meetings due to illness.

Shortly thereafter, she is dead. After her funeral, Neil learns that he has inherited her papers and library, and meets her brother Christopher, a plump, white-haired man who is as average as he is. He then reads the notes of the deceased .

Almost a hundred pages have passed and one still wonders what Julian Barnes is getting at with this story.

In The Man in the Red Coat, the book that predates Elizabeth Finch, Barnes used a historical figure, the French gynecologist Samuel Pozzi, to sketch with elegant ease the portrait of an age.

Before that, in “The Only Story” he had just as virtuously described the love affair between a younger man and an older woman.

"Elizabeth Finch" contains elements from both books without necessarily connecting them narratively.

As his girlfriend Anna quickly guesses, the newly divorced Neil not only has an intellectual crush on his history teacher, but a relationship does not develop from it.

It follows from the records that

left by Elizabeth Finch, a writing project that could very well have become an epochal picture from far off times.

But with her student Neil it is only enough for an essay.

It fills the middle of the book.

It's about Julian the Apostate, the last pagan emperor of the Roman Empire, and if you know that the early Christians saw the tolerance politician Julian as the most dangerous enemy of their faith, you're right in the middle of Elizabeth Finch's world of thoughts.

The emperor, who died on a campaign against the Persians in 363, wanted to incorporate the old local cults into a universal syncretic belief system and thus defeat Christianity's claim to truth.

Montaigne, Voltaire, Gibbon and Ibsen praised Julian, Swinburne dedicated a famous lamentation to him, and even Hitler bragged about the apostate in his headquarters, whose ancient wisdom should be "spread among millions".

Barnes' narrator captures all this and many other reading and thought fruits on almost sixty pages.

The problem is that during this time, Neil and Elizabeth Finch's story seems to have come to a standstill.

When it starts again in the third part of the book, it seems like an addendum to the consummate love work of the Julian essay.

A touch of narrative tension rises again as Neil travels to Anna, who now lives in a small Dutch town, to share memories of the seminar and possibly rekindle old passions.

But no more embers rise from the ashes of life, and even the trace of a lover with whom Christopher Finch once saw his sister at the train station ends in nothing.

Finally, we learn that Elizabeth was once the victim of a press campaign

This is so unbelievable that it almost offers material for a story of its own.

Above all, it shows how desperately the author Barnes tries to make his heroine interesting for the reader.

But it doesn't work: Elizabeth Finch is no Flaubert, and the brave Neil is at least two sizes smaller than the country doctor Geoffrey Braithwaite from Julian Barnes' most famous novel.

At the end of his Julian essay, the narrator admits that he unfortunately did not get very far in the novels by Michel Butor and Gore Vidal about the late Roman emperor.

In the case of Vidal's "Julian" one has to regret this reading laziness.

Because from the American, who based his 1962 historical panorama on an exchange of letters between the Syrian rhetorician Libanios and the Athenian philosopher Priscos, Neil and his author could have experienced what a modern historical novel can look like.

It's the book that Elizabeth Finch didn't become.

Source: faz

All news articles on 2022-12-19

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