From the author of The Sense of an Ending comes a tale that centers on the presence of a vivid and particular woman, whose loss becomes the occasion for a man’s deeper examination of love, friendship, and biography.
This uncompromising novel denies its readers many of the pleasures of fiction. More concerned with the ambiguity of ideas than with clarity of plot or character, it is a heartfelt celebration of the life of the mind – though its defiance is qualified by the wryness we would expect from Julian Barnes ... The story of Neil’s life – his only story – turns on his experience of a year-long course for mature students on 'Culture and Civilization' that he once took, and its enduring legacy through years of reflection. But, as Neil often tells us, 'this is not my story'. It is the story of Elizabeth Finch, the enigmatic woman who delivered the course ... A third character, embedded in the ambiguities of textual record and legend, becomes prominent in the narrative: Julian the Apostate, the philosophical Roman emperor ... His elusive example, intertwined with the lives of Neil and his fellow students, leads the reader from a personal narrative to the broader framework of history ... Several features of this novel are located in recognizably Barnesian territory. The story turns on a long relationship, which changes through the decades; it focuses on moments of evocative return ... Yet it would be a mistake to think that Barnes is simply repeating old tricks in Elizabeth Finch. Alongside the characteristically self-deprecating tone of Neil’s hesitant ruminations stands something more steely. The novel is in part a fierce defence of the intellectual values that have directed the course of Barnes’s writing from the first ... A book that is, among its many layered identities, a manifesto ... This is a novel that rejects the rigid convictions of cultural polemics while constructing a qualified but resolute polemic of its own.
Barnes’s new novel Elizabeth Finch—though novel seems a curious category for what is essentially a thoughtful essay lightly draped in novelistic garments—raises perennial questions by reflecting on the life and legacy of Julian the Apostate ... A certain Mozartian lightness has been replaced by stolid earnestness. The novel’s title seems in part a nod to J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, a similarly essayistic novel, and while less dry than the work of Coetzee (whose great gifts do not include a sense of humor), the book is less engaging than, well, much of Julian Barnes ... Ultimately, this is perhaps an exploration of the very notion of legacy, of what lives on after a person’s death, of the slippery and mutable details that might shape their memory ... It is certainly wise. One might wish only that Barnes had chosen a rather livelier and more compelling protagonist than stolid Neil alongside whom to journey toward this illuminating truth.
... characteristically cerebral ... Longtime fans won't be surprised to learn that the English author's Elizabeth Finch is erudite yet accessible ... Now in his mid-70s, Barnes is an elder statemen of English letters, a winner of all the major literary prizes his country can offer. If the wit of his early novels is seldom seen these days, he's no less observant, no less dogged in his pursuit of intellectual clarity. He'll keep after an idea until he — and his readers — gets it. In this way, he's a lot like the lead character of this elegant novel.