Review: Elizabeth Finch by Julian Barnes

The latest from Julian Barnes is this “old-fashioned thing, a novel of ideas,” said John Self in The times. It’s narrated by Neil, a former actor, but it’s really all about Elizabeth Finch, the “teacher on a course on culture and civilization that Neil took decades earlier.”

Finch, who was “probably” “inspired” by Barnes’ friend, the late novelist Anita Brookner, will be remembered as an inspirational teacher, someone “who, simply by example, committed us to being a center of seriousness within ourselves to seek and find”. Neil recalls their kind of friendship – they occasionally met for lunch – and describes his quest today to find out more about Finch after her death. A very “thoughtful” novel Elizabeth Fink may be “rather less fun” than most of Barnes’ books, but it “provides a lot to chew on”.

“Part of the challenge of making a brilliantly inspiring teacher is making them sufficiently brilliant and inspiring,” Sameer Rahim said in The Daily Telegraph. Despite Neil’s insistence on Finch’s originality, “what she actually says tends to fail.” “She told me that love is all there is. That’s the only thing that matters,” recalled one of Neil’s classmates.

The novel is further disappointed by its confusing middle section, which consists of Neil’s “persistent student essay” about the fourth-century Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate, whom Finch considered a kindred spirit, Sam Byers said in The guard.

It all adds up to a “work stubbornly determined to deny us its pleasures.” I don’t think so, said Peter Kemp The Sunday Times. As a teacher, Finch ‘blows with vibrancy’ and Neil’s essay is ‘a bravura exercise in nimble erudition’. Elizabeth Fink “celebrates the mindset” — subtle, skeptical, and wry — that “Barnes has the most awards.”

Jonathan Cape 192 pp. £16.99; Bookstore The Week £13.99

Elizabeth Fink

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