What if what if what if what if what if… What if Christianity had never triumphed? What if it had just remained a weird cult? A footnote in the long and varied history of the Roman empire? What if we hadn’t exchanged many gods for one?
There would have been no Crusades, no Joan of Arc, no Reformation – nothing to reform! – no Sistine Chapel, and no Cliff Richard, or at least not as we know him. And, there would be no Elizabeth Finch. The baffling new novel by Julian Barnes is another blend of fact and fiction embellished with aphorisms about history, religion and love – only without any of the playfulness of his previous works Flaubert’s Parrot (1984) or A History of the World in 10½ Chapters (1989).
The eponymous heroine, an enigmatic teacher of “culture and civilisation” at the University of London, is convinced that the world would have become a better and more tolerant place were Julian the Apostate, the last pagan emperor of Rome, not thwarted in his attempts to suppress Christianity. This was “the moment history went wrong”, she believes.
“We must always bear in mind what might have happened but didn’t, as well as what did,” she tells her students. This is not “a jolly game of counterfactuals” but “serious enquiry”. Had Julian the Apostate not lost out to St Augustine, she speculates, then subsequent European generations might have flourished without their “unassuageable guilt about sex”.
Barnes, like his contemporaries Ian McEwan and Martin Amis, relishes these exercises in the historical subjunctive. “The present is the frailest of improbable constructs. It could have been very different,” McEwan wrote in his last novel Machines Like Me (2019), in which Alan Turing does not die in 1954 and artificial intelligence arrives in the 1980s. Amis inserted a made-up girlfriend, “Phoebe”, into his near-memoir Inside Story (2020), as well as the peculiar conjecture that Philip Larkin was his father.
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Counterfactuals can serve as serious enquiry, a way of rousing us from what John Stuart Mill called “the deep slumber of decided opinion”. But whatever Barnes says, they are a jolly game too – fun to swirl around the mouth after a dinner party – and perhaps also an excuse to indulge a few might-have-beens (imagine the sex we could have had were it not for those pesky Christians!). But it’s hard to avoid the sense that these writers, now in their 70s, are simply no longer interested in the present day. Their centre of gravity is elsewhere.
“Ideas come a little more slowly at my age,” Barnes said in a recent interview. But Elizabeth Finch is less a “novel of ideas” and more a novel of knowing winks. It does not attempt to flesh out a world in which Christianity remained an obscure Roman-era sect – the result of such an exercise would perhaps be closer to (shudder!) science fiction or fantasy. Instead, the counterfactual acts as a framing device, designed to exhibit the brilliance of Barnes’s heroine.
Elizabeth Finch, or EF as she comes to be known, is a “high-minded, self-sufficient, European” night-school teacher who in many ways resembles Anita Brookner, the late novelist, art historian and polymath. Brookner was a friend of Barnes’s, and there are several anecdotes and exchanges that are taken directly from the fond tribute he wrote to her after her death.
Here are further echoes of Amis’s Inside Story. Both books are male fantasies about very different kinds of fascinating women – one saucy, the other serious – who may or may not have existed in the authors’ lives. Both women are two-dimensional teases, luring us down blind alleys of speculation, only to leave us in a fog of ambiguity.
We first encounter EF through the hagiographic account of her former student Neil, now a washed-up actor and sometime waiter. Neil is entranced by “the shimmer of her phrasing, the lustre of her brain”. He rhapsodises about her rigour and candour, her ability to direct the class away from “obvious thinking”. He confesses that he might have had a few sexual fantasies about his “kittenish” teacher in her kiltish skirts, silk shirts and brogues – but these were fairly mild. It was his intellect she aroused, especially when she railed against anything that began with “mono” – monotheism, monomania, monogamy, monotony: “[she] shook my mind around, made me constantly rethink, burst stars inside my head”.
By the time the year-long course is over, Neil has failed to submit any essays, yet he feels bold enough to ask EF to lunch. And so begins a rather stilted friendship where the two meet several times a year (the same pasta, the same wine, never for longer than 75 minutes) until two decades later, EF dies and bequeaths Neil her notebooks, whereupon he starts looking for clues to her secretive life.
Just when you think some kind of narrative might emerge from this inert character study, Barnes abandons it and devotes the book’s middle section to a 50-page biographical essay about Julian the Apostate, who died in battle in the Persian desert in 363 AD. The essay is supposed to be Neil’s attempt to distil his teacher’s beliefs about Christianity, as sketched out in her notebooks, and to fulfil his essay assignment from 20 years ago. But Neil is not a writer, nor an interesting thinker. “It had interested me, and that was enough,” he remarks, and the result of his efforts is teeth-grindingly tedious. At least, however, he doesn’t expect anyone else to read it – unlike Barnes.
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The final third of the novel tries to recover some momentum by delivering scraps of faintly intriguing information, hitherto withheld. The first is that one of EF’s students, now an academic himself, considered her an amateur and a dilettante. We also discover that EF suggested she was Jewish, perhaps falsely, seemingly to win sympathy.
The second revelation is a foreshadowed scandal, known as “The Shaming”. It amounts to a small public lecture that EF once gave about how the dominance of Christianity led to “the closing of the European mind”. This was picked up by the Times with the headline: “CRAZY LADY PROF CLAIMS ROMAN EMPERORS RUINED OUR SEX LIFE”, causing a national outcry that is so implausible Barnes hastens to add that this took place during “silly season for journalists”. At which point, you sense that he is playing dot-to-dot with the death of polytheism, the frothing right-wing media and our present-day “cancel culture”. And the lines feel very shaky indeed, partly because the anti-Christian views that EF is expressing are really quite beige.
Elizabeth Finch is essentially a disappointing roman-à-clef attached to an austere essay loosely broken up with fictional dialogue. I spent the first third wondering when the book was going to begin, the second third feeling like I had been heavily sedated and the final third wondering why it kept trying to end itself only to splutter on. What makes it so exasperating is that above its many false starts and constant diminuendos, there hovers the ghost of a more interesting novel – or novels.
The world of adult learning is intriguing. The ambiguous lifelong student-teacher relationship has potential, too. But what’s absent from this story is a sense of felt life. “Meet one of literature’s most memorable heroines,” says the book’s strapline.
But Barnes cannot conjure EF as a living presence without resorting to overwrought superlatives. Neil believes she was among “the most grown-up” and the “most original people I had ever met”, and “the least manipulative, the least self-pitying”. Yet she is, curiously, most vivid after she dies. When he is let into her flat to pick up her books, he gets a glimpse of her meagre possessions: a tiny fridge, a Baby Belling cooker, a single bed and an underpowered bedside light.
As for her dazzling insights, her aphorisms range from the unremarkable to the trite. Acting is “the perfect example of artificiality producing authenticity”. And “there are not degrees of truthfulness. There are degrees of lying.” As for love, it’s “all there is. It’s the only thing that matters.”
It doesn’t help that Neil is the archetypal Barnes male – a bit wry, a bit twerpish and a bit divorced, with the emotional intelligence of a cheeseboard. Barnes has some fun at his expense, relishing the irony of such a dull man paying tribute to such a brilliant woman. And yet, the fact that much of Neil’s gushing is taken word-for-word from Barnes’s tribute to Brookner muddies the waters. And the punchline of this little joke is… a boring essay? Truly, we are spoiled.
I started playing my own game of “what if”. What if, in all that time we were wasting listening to Neil, Barnes had actually been considering the ways in which he claims Christianity has damaged and diminished humans? But no, he would prefer to distract us with layers of irony, evasions, misdirections, hypotheticals, parallel truths and endless qualifications.
That Elizabeth Finch blends fiction, essay and obituary is not the problem, it’s that knowingness has replaced narrative. It feels – to return to EF’s Baby Belling – like Barnes is trying to heat three cast-iron pans on a two-ring hob that won’t light.
Jonathan Cape, 192pp, £16.99
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This article appears in the 27 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Sturgeon's Nuclear Dilemma