Characters like Elizabeth Finch in Julian Barnes’ new novel do not come out of the blue

That’s the big team, as the main character in Julian Barnes’ novel Elizabeth Finch handle. While teaching a history lesson, she asks her students to imagine what the world would have been like if Saint Augustine had not won. ‘Saint Augustine’, who lived from 354 to 430 AD, stands here for Christianity, which gradually came to dominate the minds of Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire.

In Julian Barnes’ novel, Elizabeth Finch thinks it’s generally good to keep in mind what could have happened, but it did not. Suppose, she says, that Emperor Julian the Apostate (331-361 AD), the last pagan emperor, had lived longer, and that it was not Augustine, but his ideas had gained greater influence. Then we would not have been stuck in inherited sin, we would not have had hell, no crusades, no iconoclasms, no religious wars, no martyrs, no witch-burnings. The early death of the apostate Julian (he was 31 years old) was, according to Elizabeth Finch, ‘the moment when history took a catastrophically wrong course’: against Christianity and monotheism, against a religion with blinders on. At the expense of polytheism and pluralism.

historical anger

One would think that this Elizabeth Finch nurtures some kind of historical resentment for the course of history: that she still regrets that this is how it has come to be for the pernicious Christianity to which we have been subjected for about sixteen hundred years. But Finch, according to Neil, the narrator of the novel, is not one for any kind of resentment. It’s simply her idea of ​​the course of history. According to the necessary notebooks, she has thoroughly studied Julian the Apostate and has been charmed by his enlightened mind. Julian therefore had a number of fine qualities: he was sober, modest, chaste, learned, skilful, imperishable, and just. He was for Finch “an immortal hero”.

Julian Barnes takes it cleverly by using Neil as narrator, lover and heir to Elizabeth’s personal papers.

The short stories Elizabeth Finch is about Elizabeth Finch, a lonely woman, a professor of history who is retired but who still lectures to adult students about culture and civilization. Tells Neil had been friends with her for many years, which in practice meant he would have lunch with her three to four times a year. There it remained in all its heart. He was fascinated by her to the point of love. Mainly because of her ‘uncompromising’ way of thinking, her knowledge of Stoicism and especially Epictetus, the Stoic who believed that one should not worry about things one cannot influence.

Julian Barnes takes it cleverly by using Neil as narrator, lover and heir to Elizabeth’s personal papers. What he learns about her develops a superb and original character. She is strong, unpredictable, a sweet aunt to her nieces and unpretentious. She is an unusual, warm-hearted stoic. It eventually begins to form a contrast to Neil himself. He has been married twice, has studied, but above all had ‘many jobs’. By presenting himself as ‘not a daring person’, crucial decisions were always accompanied by ‘nervous excitement or cowardice’, something that would be unthinkable with Elizabeth. ‘I tossed and zigzagged between the idea of ​​having everything under control and the realization that it was all hopeless and intangible, both insight and life. Well, like most people, enough. ‘

One just has to consciously dare to invent a colorless, ‘most’ character, an elckerlyc. The color of the novel comes from what emerges from the notes he reads from Finch, though to his disappointment they are not about secret loves. To get to know her better, he decides to write a biographical essay about her, for which he will also dive into the life and historical significance of Julian the Apostate. From that essay, the second consists of the three parts of the novel.

It is not a punishment, for this Julian has left much in letters, orations, praises, satires and epigrams. For centuries he has also aroused the necessary sympathy among famous princes and writers, beginning with Lorenzo de ‘Medici, who wrote a piece about him in 1498, in which he made him a Renaissance hero.

In 1556 Hans Sachs wrote a ballad about him with the title Emperor Julian in the bath† After which it was Michel de Montaigne’s turn around 1580. He wrote the essay ‘On Freedom of Conscience’ about Julian and calls him ‘a truly great and eminent person’, exemplary in all areas of virtue: frugality, justice and wisdom.

In 1644, the Protestant poet John Milton called him ‘the most subtle enemy of our faith’ and offered an enthusiastic prayer for freedom of speech. The censorship Julian was subjected to in the seventeenth century compares Milton to the nobleman who thinks he can keep the crows out by closing the gates to his park. It was known that “Christian zealots” at that time tried to try all copies of Stories to destroy Tacitus. Julian became a key figure in the anti-pantheon of Christianity, nurtured by Montesquieu and Voltaire (who called his friend Frederick the Great “a new Julian”).

As a reader, you can not get hot or cold by one most people like Neil. But so does Elizabeth Finch, she becomes one in the hands of Children. It’s like he’s in Elizabeth Finch talks about a woman who is too fast to be seen as a spinster, but who is not at all.

Exciting characters like Elizabeth Finch do not come out of the blue.

To Neil, Finch said, “Being lonely is a strength, being lonely is a weakness.” That Barnes uses her name as the title of the novel means that she is clearly someone who stands out from ‘most’. Elizabeth Finch is gradually becoming a moral standard. “Grace,” she said, is not just a matter for Christians. England, too, had taken a wrong turn of monotheism, so that it is now a country with an aversion to people ‘who are not like us’. “Tolerance, liberalism, and carefree receptivity to others,” says her lecture notes, have often been overshadowed by unjustified conceit.

Exciting characters like Elizabeth Finch do not come out of the blue. It is based on Barnes’ girlfriend Anita Brookner, the art historian at the acclaimed Courtauld Institute of Art, art critic of The observer and last but not least the author of 24 novels, of which Hotel du Lac won the Booker Prize in 1984.

Upon her death in March 2016, Barnes entered The Guardian an elaborate in memoriam in which he called her ‘witty, sparklingly intelligent, reserved and unrecognizable’. During conversations with her over thirty years of friendship, he checked his word choice and grammar for a microsecond before something came out of his mouth. Meanwhile, she remained ‘calm, entertained, in control’ and revived when she could talk about painters she liked (Ingres, Greuze, Watteau, Delacroix). She was, according to Barnes, ‘one of the most brilliant sensory writers on art’. One of the last times Barnes spoke to her, she reread Stefan Zweig. She was enthusiastic about a novel with the Brookner title Beware of pity

Elizabeth Finch by Julian Barnes translated by Ronald Vlek and published by Atlas Contact

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