Anita Brookner & The Accidental Emperor: “Elizabeth Finch,” by Julian Barnes

Aficionados of Julian Barnes may have read his new novel,  Elizabeth Finch,  based loosely on the life of the subtle writer, Anita Brookner. (Both are Booker Prize winners.)  I read it in an afternoon,  completely absorbed but astonished.  I had expected an imitation of a Brookner novel, with a spinster heroine, afternoons at The National Gallery,  and unexpected friendships with surprising characters. 

Of course, Julian Barnes does not do the expected thing. This short book, divided into three parts, is part traditional novel, part essay, part biography. The narrator, Neil, a former student of Elizabeth Finch, takes her class “Culture and Civilization” in his thirties.  She warns the class that, though she does not pretend to be Socrates, she may not be the right teacher for all students:  they will engage in dialogue.  She speaks precisely, without notes, in  perfectly formed sentences, recounting the controversial history of Julian the Apostate, the Roman emperor (362-363) who tried to save paganism by quashing the Christians.  Julian’s death in battle, in her view,  hastened the end of paganism and the rise of fanatical, book-burning Christianity.  History would have been different had Julian lived.   She gives equal time to the legends of Christian martyrs, among them St. George and St. Ursula.
Neil, a twice-divorced actor-turned-vegetable farmer, feels his mind expanding in response to her rigorous interpretations of history.  He idolizes and, indeed, loves EF, as he calls her, and at the end of the semester asks her out to lunch.  The two become lunch companions, but their relationship is never sexual. Barnes writes,

Our lunches continued for nearly twenty years, a still and radiant point in my life….  As she grew older – well, as we both got older -she was beset by the usual ailments and mishaps, of which she always made light.  But to me she was unchanged:  in dress, conversation, appetite (small), smoking (determined).

In an essay by Julian Barnes on Anita Brookner in The Guardian, Brookner seems very much like EF. Well, she is EF.  Barnes writes that he  knew her for thirty years – “not well” – and at their lunches, “Anita, who was always in situ, however early I arrived, greeting me with her usual unsettling opener: ‘So, what have you got for me?’”

Elizabeth is a charming, unknowable friend.  And she clearly loves Neil.  After her death, the novel takes an unexpected turn when Neil inherits her library and papers.  Poring over her short notes, he decides to write an essay on  Julian the Apostate, thinking this would please her.    And I loved this essay, which includes a short biography of Julian and a compendium of literary and political reactions by poets and essayists through the ages.

Neil writes, “Julian was a Roman emperor who never set foot in Rome.  He was an accidental emperor – though accidents led to imperial power more often in those days.  He spent his life as a scholar, far from court, far from military duty.”  

 I like that phrase, “accidental emperor.”

In the last part of the novel, Neil is still obsessed with EF.  He continues his investigation of her life by visiting his former lover, Anna, who had also been EF’s student, to pick her brain. But Anna, who startles him by admitting she was  a close friend of EF, does not give away much information. 

Do we get closer to EF in the process of Neil’s musings and writing?  We certainly get closer to Neil, who is desperate not to lose the memory of EF.  If our mentors had combined the best qualities of the Romantics and the Stoics, we, too, might have considered writing about Julian the Apostate. But then they were not Elizabeth Finch/Anita Brookner.

How I miss Brookner’s novels!

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