Monday, May 08, 2006

Julian Barnes – Arthur & George

One of the things I’ve discovered about fighting election campaigns is that fiction helps. Preferably fiction that doesn’t feature elections - I’m not sure though that this is what Barnes would want his latest work to be remembered for, but I’ll never be able to see the rather charming Victorian styled cover again, without imaging I’m off to canvass some antiquated east London tower block.

Based on true events, the novel follows the lives of two unusual characters, one, the off-spring of an Indian Parsee, turned vicar in central England, the other, whose identity I will protect to avoid spoiling anyone’s read, a man who became on of the period’s most famous writers.

The first character becomes embroiled in a miscarriage of justice to do with the maiming of livestock. The other finds out about the case and turns it into a cause celebre.

The novel though is much more than a detective story, though. It’s also a story about justice (or lack of), class, racism and an England slowly shrugging of the past and heading towards a period of major change – heralded by the first world war.

Since it was short listed for the Man Booker Prize last year, I won’t go into more detail – plenty has already been written about the work. One thing I do want to bring up is the nature of fictional writing about real people and actual events. The “Great Wyrley Outrages” and the miscarriage of justice that occurred made huge headlines at the time, and provoked public and parliamentary outcries. This fictionalised account must of course embellish that story for dramatic effect, at the same time as making the events famous again.

I occasionally wonder how good a thing this is. After all, at a time when tourists wander around Rome clutching Dan Brown, doesn’t all history as fiction promote a jaundiced view of the world? But on the other hand, how many historian’s careers were started by the excitement of a Flashman novel? How many physicists began their quest for knowledge while breathlessly watching Star Trek?

But too often I found myself wondering ‘is this a real bit’. ‘Is this the fiction’? This sort of questioning probably spoils the enjoyment of the novel and it certainly wouldn’t be a good thing if all anyone these days ever knew about the “Great Wyrley Outrages” was based on this book, because it is a work of fiction after all.

It is however, a very good work of fiction, drawing as it does from a minor but wonderfully illuminating bit of English history.


Walker said...

Well, Dan Brown hasn't created a historical novel to date, so the tourists he's created must be a bit silly. A Historical Novel like Arthur & George should have *some* degree of truth at its base however, but in my opinion, Barnes' research falls over too easily. So...Arthur & George is best read like a Dan Brown novel I guess.

I'll be hunted down and shot by some ardent, Barnes worshipping housewives for saying that. ;-)

Poplar Reader said...

I'd prefer a Barnes worshipping housewife to one who worshipped Dan Brown any day. But I can understand your fear.

I'd recommend readers follow the link in "walkers" profile to read more about problems with Barnes' research into the history around Arthur & George.