Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Q&A with Julian Barnes on "Arthur & George"

Q&A with Julian Barnes, author of "Arthur & George"

By Edward Nawotka

Julian Barnes is a quintessential English novelist, albeit one who is also an unrepentant Francophile. It's only appropriate that he of all the writers in the U.K. would come across a British equivalent to the infamous 1896 Dreyfus Affair in France and make it the pivotal event in his new book: "Arthur & George" (Knopf, 386 pages, $24.95), Barnes' tenth work of fiction is a densely detailed historical novel that re-imagines an obscure episode from the life of Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, when in 1903, George Edalji, a half-Indian lawyer was tried and imprisoned for mutilating farm animals in Great Wyrley, Staffordshire. Doyle, sensing a miscarriage of justice, investigated the accusations and eventually secured Edalji's release and pardon.

The echoes to the Dreyfus Affair, in which writer Emile Zola rose to the defense of the Alsatian Jew Alfred Dreyfus who'd been mistakenly convicted of treason, are unmistakable.

"Arthur & George" was last year shortlisted for the Booker Prize -- Barnes's third time on the shortlist -- but lost out to John Banville's "The Sea."

Barnes, whose Oxbridge accent makes his speech sound as if his vocal chords have been marinating in cognac, spoke with Edward Nawotka by phone as he began his North American book tour. Barnes will read at A Clean Well Lighted Place for Books at 601 Van Ness Avenue on February 10 at 7 p.m.

Nawotka: How did you find this story that seemed to have been lost to history to all but avid Sherlockians? Were you much of a Sherlockian to begin with?

Barnes: I came to it from a different direction: by reading about it in a book about the Dreyfus case. I began investigating and Conan Doyle came attached to the case. I read Sherlock Holmes as a boy and didn't know much about his life at all, so in writing the book I was discovering Conan Doyle as much as I was George Edalji. Had Kipling come attached I would have been just as happy.

Nawotka: Have you gotten a blizzard of letters from Sherlockians critiquing your portrayal of their hero? They tend to be fanatical about detail.

Barnes: True. Conan Doyle is the only writer that I know of who has three different literary clubs devoted to his memory. And there is a radical difference between the Sherlockians and the Doyleans. Some believe that Doyle was only the literary agent and Sherlock wrote the stories. Other true believers won't even mention Watson's name in public. It's all a form of literary fundamentalism. But this is not one of those books that has subtle allusions to Holmes or Doyle and I haven't heard from a single Sherlockian...perhaps they are the reviewers that didn't bark in night?

Nawotka: Why did you choose to write the story as a novel instead of a nonfiction account?

Barnes: The problems of doing it as a nonfiction book were twofold. First, very little is known about George and his family background. There are some photos and he wrote a couple of articles himself, but his character and nature are lost. As to what his life was like, I had to invent 95% of it.

Likewise, the period I'm covering in Conan Doyle's life is an emotional black hole, one which he lies about in his autobiography. I could have done it as nonfiction, but I would have had to say things like, "At this point in his life, Conan Doyle must surely have felt..." I hate the conditional tone. Prose fiction is the best way to describe how people think and feel.

Nawotka: Were you pleased to discover that Conan Doyle had a robust life outside his study? It makes him a more dynamic character.

Barnes: That, and he was also a very admirable man, generous and chivalrous. He believed action should be taken and wrongs be righted. Conan Doyle came from that generation of publicly involved writers who had influence with politicians. That has disappeared. If you ask Tony Blair who he rather be photographed with, Ian McEwan or Bob Geldoff, I doubt he would choose McEwan.

Nawotka: Are you envious of that time when writers had more influence?

Barnes: If you're asking if I'm a frustrated man of action, I'm not.

Nawotka: Why is it that interest in Conan Doyle, who was a lesser writer than some of his contemporaries, has endured?

Barnes: He created an archetypical character in Holmes. Mostly, I think people are intrigued by the idea of using the power of the intellect to work out crime. There's also a sort of nostalgia for that late-Victorian world, which translates so well into television.

Nawotka: It's something you can see by the popularity of the various BBC adaptations of Dickens novels and the like. The serialization of "Bleak House" has just started running on public television starring Gillian Anderson from the X-files.

Barnes: Ohhh, I thoroughly enjoyed that one! It's one of the best adaptations from Dickens I've ever seen. That woman really can act.

Nawotka: Though the true story of "Arthur & George" is over 100 years old, there are significant contemporary echoes. In particular, the case is largely about racism. Why has it largely been forgotten until now, while the Dreyfus case remains well-known.

Barnes: The Dreyfus case was about bigger issues and was about treason. French anti-Semitism was stronger than the Henny-penny racialist feelings in Britain. Maybe the British have a greater tendency not to discuss things and make a principle out of them like the French do? Though the Edalji case was sensational and instrumental in setting up the court of criminal appeal in Britain, even criminal lawyers, some of eminence, don't remember it.

Nawotka: It's been nearly a year since the book was published in Britain. Do you still look forward to your tour? To visiting San Francisco in particular?

Barnes: I look forward to meeting readers. I like going to cities where I've never been, such as Houston, Cincinnati and Columbus. It's not just a grind. In San Francisco, I'm looking forward to my first visit to a proper Californian vineyard. I'm just going to stare at the vines.

Nawotka: Are you a collector?

Barnes: I'm a wine drinker. Collector is a dubious term. It usually means you just sit around and stare at the labels. I'm a collector of what's inside the bottles.

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