Julian Barnes is three days away from the end of a lengthy US book tour. Winding down from an exhausting cross-country trip, he is more than ready to go back home to London. “The wheels are literally coming off,” he jokes, “United Airlines dropped my suitcase and broke the wheels yesterday.”Arthur & George (see review this page), is Barnes’ seventh novel, based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s first attempt to solve a real-life crime. Doyle sets out to prove George Edalji’s innocence and find the true perpetrator of a series of animal mutilations. As Arthur and George do not meet until they are middle-aged, Barnes decided to relate the first half of their lives in parallel.“There is the question of how you tell the story,” notes Barnes, “and where you start it, and whether you run it on parallel lines for a long time, and whether that will test the reader’s patience to the breaking point before they actually meet, or whether you start them off together and then start flashing back in a cinematic way, and I couldn’t see how a flashback approach would work.”When asked what initially attracted him to these real-life gentlemen as a subject for a novel, Barnes replies, “I didn’t, when I first came across the story, think ah, this is jolly good because they’re two such contrasted people. That wasn’t my way into the story. They just happened to be very different, and they became more so in the writing, and that’s often a good fictional starting point anyway. You have the bold character and the shy one, the experienced one and the naive one.”Arthur and George meet because Arthur finally decides to become a “Sherlock Holmes” type of person in real life. Arthur’s motivation to take such a risk fascinated the author. “Arthur had been asked to take on cases before and always refused,” says Barnes. “I think there were two things. I think what he told himself and what he told the world was that the case was a stain on the honor of British justice and he was going to set it right. I think he was genuinely shocked by the case.”Barnes also believes that it was Arthur’s conflicted personal life and not entirely George’s predicament that prompted him to finally take on Holmes’ mantle. He had been desperately in love with Jean Leckie during the final decade of his marriage to Touie, who had recently died after a long illness. “If he had not been in a position of grief and depression following his first wife’s death,” observes Barnes, “and in a rather curious emotional position regarding [future second wife] Jean, where questions of guilt and innocence were being played out in his private life, then if it hadn’t have been that case, maybe he wouldn’t have wanted to make a public demonstration of someone’s innocence – the innocence of someone who is presumed guilty. But I think that’s what’s going on really. “In evaluating Arthur’s emotional state, Barnes explains, “I don’t want to get too Freudian about it, but I think he had been in this state of extraordinary tension for a long time, and he was a very honorable and moral man caught in a terrible dilemma. Even his brother-in-law said, it doesn’t make any difference as far as I’m concerned whether you’re guilty or innocent…whether she’s your mistress or not, you’re not behaving in the proper way.”Arthur & George also delves into the complex race relations of turn-of-the-century rural England, but according to Barnes, his novel has a certain relevance to current events. “It felt like a contemporary novel that just happened to be set a hundred years ago,” he says. “One of the attractions of the story was there were constantly things which made me think, oh this could still happen today. That bureaucracy, police attitudes, institutional racism and so on, not to mention the question of expert evidence given in court…at various times we have our ‘expert’ evidence, and that’s one of the things that [convicted] George.”Barnes goes on to point out how little we may really know about current forms of institutionalized racism. “At various times we have our expert evidence… at the moment we think that DNA testing is rock-solid, unbreakable. We might discover in the future they’re always manipulating such evidence, or that might be possible to interpret it in a different way.” Indeed, Barnes’ social commentaries, along with Arthur’s romantic struggles, are the most engaging elements of Arthur & George, a novel which gathers most of its parts together in an entertaining whole.
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