Thursday, February 11, 2010

Arthur and George (Julian Barnes)

By any yardstick of literary measurement (except experimentally, I guess), Arthur and George is superb. Setting the novel in early 20th century England, Julian Barnes simply follows that era's writing style: smart, ironic, unobtrusive, and in the habit of peering into his characters' psyches. The linear plot, taken from actual events, is propelled by a mystery—which fits, since the titular “Arthur” is Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes. It's George, however, who's the center of the book. Half-Indian by blood and yet completely English by nature, he's accused of a gruesome series of cattle slayings. The case turns into a Dreyfus-like miscarriage of justice, which, in the telling, gives you a visceral reaction of disgust. It's also what makes the novel so forward-looking: by placing racism within the context of history, Barnes not only shows how provisional definitions of race and culture are but how complex the factors are that define individuals. Excellent reading.