Thursday, November 08, 2007

Damn puzzling bliss

I’ve spoken before about my concerns with writers’ biographies – that they tend to place too much emphasis on the Real Events and Real People who influenced a writer, denying the possibility that authors often Make It Up.

But there’s a flipside to this; the stories can influence the writer. Something you invent in your brain can then become something real. You might find yourself quoting one of your characters, or doing something that’s more them than you. Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle would apparently use phrases he’d created for Sherlock Holmes – “the game’s afoot” etc. And later in his life he even played the detective.

Arthur and George is a novelised version of Conan-Doyle’s first major investigation. Geroge Edalji has been in prison for three years for mutilating livestock. Conan-Doyle doesn’t just believe but he knows the man to be innocent; the mild-mannered, meek and myopic little solicitor could never do such a thing. But George, whose Dad was from India before he became a Church of England vicar, refuses to believe that the police and the jury may have been biased by the colour of his skin.

The book is not merely about this miscarriage of justice, the appeal and the search for the real culprit. Arthur and George don’t even meet for the first 300 pages. We follow their separate lives developing, from their earliest memories to the strange circumstances that ultimately have them collide. Along the way, we learn something of their view of the world, their expectations and aims. George, for example, has a rather serious, cartesian outlook that does not easily entertain fantasy.
“George finds himself increasingly preoccupied by the civil connection between passengers and the railway company. A passenger buys a ticket, and at that moment, with consideration given and received, a contract springs into being. But ask that passenger what kind of contract he or she has entered into, what obligations are laid upon the parties, what claim for compensation might be pursued against the railway company in case of lateness, breakdown or accident, and answer would come there none. This may not be the passenger’s fault: the ticket alludes to a contract, but its detailed terms are only displayed in certain main-line stations and at the offices of the railway company – and what busy traveller has the time to make a diversion and examine them? Even so, George marvels at how the British, who gave railways to the world, treat hem as a mere means of convenient transport, rather than as an intense nexus of multiple rights and responsibilities.”
Julian Barnes, Arthur and George, p. 70.

Barnes is good at creating distinct and convincing characters. Though sections are marked “Arthur” and “George” by turns (and occasionally given over to other characters), he flits between perspectives in adjacent paragraphs. This would confuse and irritate if done by a less-gifted author; it’s vexing to note that we never once lose track of whose eyes we’re looking through.

Of at least equal importance to the criminal mystery is the matter of life after death. We see Arthur’s first inclinations to and growing interest in the spiritist movement, and the final section of the book deals with a particular séance.
“What she makes of it is that her brother is confusing religion with his love of fixing things. He sees a problem – death – and he looks for a way of solving it: such is his nature.”
Ibid., p. 273.

Barnes touches on Conan-Doyle’s need to believe in the spirits, as much as his need to believe in honour and chivalry. It also alludes to a nation’s need to believe after the impact of World War One. At one point there are thousands of people in the Albert Hall, all desperate NOT to grieve.

This plot element doesn’t entirely connect to the horse-ripping stuff, other than in the general sense of protagonists struggling to find answers despite the weight of people’s ideological prejudice.

That’s not to say it doesn’t work. (There’s some good advice on writing sitcoms, that you can have two plot-lines running concurrently that don’t need to tie up together). It’s more that the book doesn't have the same neat and convenient structure as the stories Conan-Doyle himself wrote. He started with an ending and worked backwards. This is more rambling, and we’re not sure where it might take us.

What links Arthur and George then is that they both see a self-evident truth and are baffled that others do not share the view. With George it’s his innocence, with Arthur it’s Geroge’s case, his own noble behaviour and the truth of a soul’s survival after death.

Like quite a few writers I could mention, Doyle often can’t fathom that people might not agree with him; that they still might think differently after he’s explained it to them. He is a passionate and able ally to George, but George also finds him a little reckless and over-confident. Doyle only once considers that he might have acted wrongly (in his behaviour while conducting an affair), but soon dismisses the very possibility.

But we finish with George and his scepticism, despite the allure of what’s claimed. The book finishes on questions that have been asked all along. What do we know and how do we know it? And can we admit when we’re wrong?

1 comment:

Leslie said...

I've never really understood the obsession with all things Conan Doyle.