Sir Arthur investigates
Julian Barnes' new novel features an unlikely hero: the man who invented Sherlock Holmes
By CASEY SEILER, Entertainment editor
First published: Sunday, January 29, 2006
Gender (male), nationality (British) and vocation (literature) were about the only things Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Julian Barnes had in common -- until recently.
The world remembers Doyle (1859-1930) as the physician-author whose most famous creation, the brilliant detective Sherlock Holmes, remains one of the most durable characters in the history of movable type. Barnes, who turned 60 earlier this month, is still constructing his literary legacy, which includes such elegant postmodern novels as "Staring at the Sun" and "A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters."
It was true crime that brought these men together, although Barnes' masterful new novel "Arthur & George" (Knopf; 388 pages; $24.95) bears little resemblance to the average ripped-from-the-headlines potboiler. Scrupulously researched but richly imagined, Barnes' 12th work of fiction dramatizes Doyle's efforts to clear the name of George Edalji, a young attorney in rural Staffordshire who in 1903 received a seven-year sentence for mutilating a pony. The conviction, based on highly questionable evidence, took place in an atmosphere of silent but palpable small-town racism: Although Edalji is in all ways a proper British gentleman, his Anglican minister father is Indian.
Barnes, whose 1985 breakthrough novel "Flaubert's Parrot" spun an elaborate fictional web around the composition of "Madame Bovary," stumbled across Edalji's story in a history of the Dreyfus Affair, in which a cabal of anti-Semitic French officers railroaded a fellow officer to Devil's Island on charges of treason; the best-selling author Emile Zola championed Dreyfus' innocence in a scathing 1898 open letter that appeared under the banner headline "J'accuse."
The Edalji case, the historian suggested, shared several major themes with the persecution of Dreyfus: racism and wrongful imprisonment, a woefully credulous mass media and a crusading literary celebrity.
"I thought, 'But I've never heard of this,' Barnes said over the phone from his home in London. "There's always a page and a half in the Doyle biographies, but no one had written about it (in depth)." The author, embarked on a 3 1/2-week U.S. publicity tour for the book, visits the New York State Writers Institute at the University at Albany on Wednesday.
Man of action
Barnes wasn't dissuaded by his admittedly lukewarm affection for Doyle's fiction. "He came attached to the case," Barnes said. "... I didn't know much about his biography before I started, and I hadn't read him since I was 20, I suppose. But in the process of research and writing, I found him to be a very admirable and a moral and warmhearted person."
Perhaps more importantly, Barnes said, "He's very much not the sort of writer I am, which probably made it easier for me to write about him. He's the writer as man of action."
Which is not to say that "Arthur & George" is devoid of action, or the pleasures of a crackling mystery. The book is neither dry nor academic: The facts of the case form the axle around which Barnes spins the story of Edalji's imprisonment as well as Doyle's fascination with Edwardian-era spiritualism, and his chaste 10-year love affair with the young woman who would become his second wife. It is, to use a debased term, a galloping narrative -- and Barnes derives a certain pleasure from hearing it praised as such.
"Nobody ever said of 'Flaubert's Parrot,' 'I couldn't put it down,' he said with a laugh. " ... But it's nice with this one that people often say to me, 'You know, I often thought, "Oh, I'll just read another chapter tonight." '
"I hope they read for plot, and for character and for prose as well," he said. "The prose had perhaps a slightly different purpose in this book -- getting the reader into the story and getting the reader into the time."
Baker Street silence
There are a few things that Barnes insists the book is not. Sherlock Holmes fans, for example, shouldn't crack the cover expecting a Baker Street pastiche-puzzle.
"I very much didn't want it to be that sort of book -- where Sherlockians would discover hidden references to that almost forgotten short story. That wasn't the game," Barnes said. (One measure of his success in that regard is the virtual silence of Holmes aficionados after the book's publication in Britain last summer: "I haven't had a single letter from any of them," Barnes said. "... Maybe American Doyleians and Sherlockians will be more lively.")
Nor is "Arthur & George" intended to be taken as an allegory for cultural paranoia, in which the authorities' treatment of George Edalji stands in for modern Britain's covert anxieties about its large immigrant community.
The book's origins actually reach back several years before 9/11. "In my list of subjects and themes I was interested in and wanted to do something with, I had the submerged black population of Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries. ... It's been written about nonfictionally, but nothing else to my mind had been done with it," he said. When Barnes picked up the fateful study of the Dreyfus Affair and read about the Edalji case, "I'd actually forgotten that I'd been working on this idea five years previously."
The British publicity campaign for "Arthur & George" was scheduled to begin with a party on the evening of July 7; it was canceled after that morning's suicide bombings in the London subway system.
"People like the idea of analogies," said Barnes, who compares the post-terrorism analysis of "Arthur & George" to the similarly topical critical response to Philip Roth's "The Plot Against America" and Ian McEwan's "Saturday."
"Perhaps," he said, "a book takes on its own relevance as it leaves the author."
The worth of literary fame provides another major theme for "Arthur & George," and further highlights the differences between Doyle and Barnes.
Although Holmes' inventor views his celebrity with a mixture of pride and embarrassment, it serves as his key to the corridors of power, and enables him to put his fierce defense of Edalji on the front page of major newspapers. "Doyle could write to the Minister of Defense and say, for example, 'We ought to do more about rearmament -- we ought to have rifle clubs,' and his views would be taken seriously," Barnes said.
But "Doyle was pre-television, and in the early days of mass communication. Characters like Doyle and Kipling and Wells and Shaw were more famous than writers can be now in Britain, I think. The brute fact is that if there's a G-8 conference in Edinburgh, then the person who Mr. Blair would prefer to be photographed sitting next to is not, say, Ian McEwan or Kazuo Ishiguro -- let alone Salman Rushdie -- but Bob Geldof.
"And so the place of advisers to politicians is rather gone," he said. "... I don't think it's that writers have shrunk. It's more that politics is played differently.
"In those days, the politicians would be using the celebrity of the writers rather than necessarily their words. Nowadays, they know that it's smarter to cash in on the celebrity of actors and actresses and singers."
Casey Seiler may be reached at 454-5619 or via e-mail at email@example.com.
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