The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Julian Barnes is back. But where’s the magic?

(Elizabeth von Oehsen/The Washington Post)

Here is one of those reviews — all too common lately — in which I struggle to delay as long as possible the sad news that you should skip this novel.

Such contortions feel especially awkward, given that the novelist, Julian Barnes, is one of the world’s finest English writers. In addition to winning a shelf of awards, including a Booker Prize in 2011 for “The Sense of an Ending,” Barnes has published elegant, daring and often witty books that people enjoy reading — “Flaubert’s Parrot,” “England, England” and “Arthur and George” among them. Indeed, there was always something magical about Barnes’s ability to make exceedingly erudite subjects deeply engaging.

But now comes “Elizabeth Finch,” whose magic involves making a short book feel like a long one. It isn’t so much a story as a late-night hagiography drunk on distilled irony. Indeed, the only motion through most of these pages is generated by Barnes aggressively winking at us.

Review: 'The Sense of an Ending,' by Julian Barnes

This is a tale of idolization, specifically the idolization of a teacher, which should suggest something about the arc of the plot. The narrator, Neil, was once a student in an adult education class called “Culture and Civilisation.” Neil is an actor. He’s bungled two marriages and fathered three children, but those dear ones receive less attention in this story than you might shower on a philodendron.

Instead, Neil remains consumed with his onetime professor, an independent scholar named Elizabeth Finch. “I probably paid more attention to what she said and how she spoke than I did to anyone else in my life,” Neil confesses. She lectured without notes because, supposedly, she didn’t need them. “Her diction was formal, her sentence structure entirely grammatical,” Neil gushes. “You could almost hear the commas, semicolons and full stops. She never started a sentence without knowing how and when it would end. Yet she never sounded like a talking book. Her vocabulary was drawn from the same word-box she used for both writing and general conversation. And yet the effect wasn’t archaic in any way, it was intensely alive.”

Barnes captures the language of adoration with exquisite poise, the devoted student’s endless cycle of qualifications and special pleading. “She was corrective but not diminishing,” Neil says. “You may think Elizabeth Finch equally, if not more, old-fashioned. But if she was, it was not in the normal way.” On and on, he rhapsodizes until: “Like some ancient goddess — yes, I know what I’m saying — she seemed to stand aside from time, or perhaps above it.”

Of course, Neil doesn’t know what he’s saying, but Barnes certainly does, as when he makes his narrator claim — twice — “This is not my story.” Sure. Even students goofing off in the back should catch on that Neil is still enchanted by the frisson of deification that sometimes descends from heaven into a classroom.

I bet most of us can remember a special teacher like that: an extraordinary individual who, in the tumultuous alchemy of youth, made us feel as if we were receiving occult wisdom. For me, it was a Puritanical woman at my Christian prep school who taught theater and sex ed by reminding us, in both disciplines, that “pain is merely an excess of pleasure!”

But the real drama of such one-sided, largely imaginary relationships is in their evolution over time: the student’s gradual — or disorientingly sudden — realization that the lionized teacher is not what she appeared to be.

Not so for Neil, who, years later, redelivers Elizabeth Finch’s zirconian observations one after another, page after page, as though he were laying down diamond bracelets on a velvet pad:

“Do not be taken in by time.”

“Beware of what most people aspire to.”

“We should always distinguish between mutual passion and shared monomania.”

And when Neil inherits his teacher’s journals, well, you’ll want to catch up on your favorite podcasts.

Throughout this slavish accumulation of her too-clever aphorisms, her sweeping historical generalities and her arch cultural observations, Neil remains wholly devoted to polishing his devotion. “At first I thought Elizabeth Finch a Romantic pessimist; now I would call her a Romantic Stoic. Are the two conditions compatible?” Are we meant to care? Whatever is cringingly funny about this obsessive admiration gradually curdles under the suspicion that Barnes might share it.

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But, believe me, you’ll eventually feel nostalgic for the opening section of teacher-worship. In part two, Neil decides to pay the ultimate tribute to Elizabeth Finch. “To please the dead,” he composes and presents a biographical essay of her ancient hero: Julian the Apostate, “the last pagan emperor of Rome, who attempted to turn back the disastrous flood tide of Christianity.”

Julian is certainly a rich subject for biographical — even fictional — treatment. There have been many such books, from Ammianus Marcellinus’s “Res Gestae” in the 4th century to H.C. Teitler’s “The Last Pagan Emperor” in the 21st. But what nobody needs now is the 48-page student essay about Julian that sits at the center of “Elizabeth Finch” like a lump of undigested potato in the throat.

On the other side of that ordeal, the novel picks up a bit as Neil tries to delve further into Elizabeth Finch’s past and begins to entertain, at least for a moment, that there was an element of pretense about this woman. But the effort is another feint, another pose. Even a foreshadowed scandal — the novel’s one promised scrap of action — fizzles upon presentation.

“I sometimes wonder how biographers do it,” Neil confesses, “make a life, a living life, a glowing life, a coherent life out of all that circumstantial, contradictory and missing evidence.” But it feels late in the history of modern literature to present such an ironic interrogation of the biographer’s task. Indeed, A.S. Byatt did it more effectively two decades ago in “The Biographer’s Tale.”

When Neil suggests, “Maybe consistent narrative is a delusion,” that hardly stops us from craving some.

Ron Charles reviews books and writes the Book Club newsletter for The Washington Post.

Elizabeth Finch

By Julian Barnes

Knopf. 192 pp. $26

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