Arthur and George
This blog was never intended as a long list of books I have enjoyed. It is a record of my impressions of the books I read in 2012, good bad and indifferent. This is the first occasion I have written on this blog about a novel I haven’t really enjoyed, and I don’t want to spend too much time taking it apart – that isn’t something I am interested in doing. If I didn’t enjoy it – and the reviews on Amazon make it clear I am in a small minority – make a brief note and move on.

Having said that, and having made it to the end of Julian Barnes’s fictionalisation of a minor event in the life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, I am still left asking – why? What was the point of that?

The story keeps reasonably faithfully to the known historical events, and is clearly the product of very careful if ultimately pointless research. Over 500 relentless pages we are taken through the parallel lives of Arthur Conan Doyle and George Eldjali, a victim of an injustice which led ultimately to the formation of the Court of Appeal, Criminal Division. Their lives do not intersect until more than halfway through the novel, by which time ACD is an established and famous novelist, and GE has been convicted, served his time, and released. Eldajli is a unsympathetic, cold character, who develops little in the course of his life. He is the classic little man who features in much Edwardian literature – see for example Well’s Kipps, or Mr Polly, or Grossmiths’ Diary of a Nobody. Novelists were beginning to explore and celebrate the ordinary, but 100 or more years on the interest remaining in such figure, even one with some drama in his life, is minimal. ACD is equally a well known figure about whom Barnes has little to add.

Describing how ACD became a spiritualist is one source of potential interest, but the key events in this journey – the series of personal tragedies he experienced at the end of the Great War – are passed over in a couple of paragraphs right at the end of the novel. The crime ACD investigates during the second half of the novel is mundane, and the explanation offered is routine and obvious.
This novel was shortlisted for the Booker, and Barnes has subsequently won that award, so I am obviously missing something.

Like most of us with the reading bug I have more than one book on the go at any one time, and while I was reading this I was also coincidentally reading The Lost World, which is by Conan Doyle. This was not planned, just a question of what came to hand at the time. The Lost World is a far more interesting read, almost a romp, albeit a period piece that comes across as both absurd and racist to a 21st century reader. Written in the early years of the 20th century, the Lost World establishes many of the features of the genre which have long become clichés. Dinosaurs and apemen roam an isolated jungle plateau explored by intrepid English journalists, adventurers and scientists. All problems can be solved by a biff to the natives jaw or a blast of the old elephant rifle at an oncoming stegosaurus. The handling of ideas about evolution is interesting, but apart from this there is little here that would trouble a pre-teen.