Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Arthur and George

I've not had much luck with Julian Barnes. I tried England, England and another volume with out much success. In this case, the third one was in fact the charm. I just devoured Arthur and George. Now, I must admit I am a fool for the setting, late Victorian to Edwardian England. The twin stories are what convince.

George is George Edjali, a man who just wants to live a quiet life as a Birmingham solicitor. No luck on that front, he ends up accused of animal slaughter. Arthur is a rather famous fellow, who deep in a funk, rallies to George's cause. Of the two, Arthur's is the weaker story. The details of his affair are well written, but certainly nothing we haven't read before. That said, they end up being of great import to the story. Be sure to read the author's note at the end about this. There is an unfortunate, but unsurprising sidebar.

In some ways, the two men are similar. Both are non-Englishmen who seek to be English. Society embraces one, but disdains the other. They both also have difficulty attaining their goals, a normal life for one, and literary stature for the other.

I found the critique of the English society well-balanced. While the coarser elements have their way, the better part of England pushes back and eventually makes right. To a degree at least. In the final resolution we see that perception rather than reality is more important for all sides. George ends up being the lonely voice for due process and reason, which I suppose is another level of Barnes's critique.

Themes aside, it is a well written story and portrait of the age. The parlor debate between Arthur and George's oppressor is excellent as are the descriptions of country life vs. Birmingham. This one was short listed for the Booker in 2005. That one went to the Sea, so it is fair to say Julian Barnes was robbed. If the Booker is true to form, his next novel will win to make up for this oversight.

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