Monday 18 April 2022

Elizabeth Finch by Julian Barnes

Brookner's second novel, Providence, published in 1982, has several extended scenes set in Kitty Maule's tutorial room. For Kitty Maule read Anita Brookner, a lazy but inevitable parallel. The tutorials focus on a nineteenth-century French novel, Adolphe by Benjamin Constant, about a young man's affair with an older woman.

Now in 2022 we add to the mix a third slim volume, Elizabeth Finch by Julian Barnes. Elizabeth Finch is a tutor, not in French literature (like Kitty Maule) or art history (Brookner) but in 'Culture and Civilisation'. The viewpoint in the tutorial room isn't Elizabeth/Kitty/Anita's, but rather a Julian Barnes substitute, a student named Neil who soon becomes fascinated by his inspirational teacher.

Finch shares many of Brookner's peculiarities: her appearance, her clothes, her big eyes, her hair, her smoking, her voice, her diction, her handwriting, her high seriousness, her lunch habits (seventy-five minutes max.). Or rather she shares almost all of the idiosyncrasies Julian Barnes set out in his Guardian obituary piece about his friend in 2016: 'There was no one remotely like her'. It was a fine tribute, as is Elizabeth Finch, but our representations of others can sometimes become caricatures; at all events they're more often than not more about ourselves than anything approaching a truth.

But Barnes knows this, knows Finch will always remain 'exotic and opaque'. She dies less than a third of the way through the novel, which then becomes a sort of Aspern Papers, as Neil inherits her private notebooks. A lengthy investigation into one of Finch's pet projects, the life of Julian the Apostate, follows. Brookner celebrates paganism throughout her novels, notably in A Misalliance. But Finch is perhaps a Brookner who never, so unexpectedly, and so late in her life, wrote fiction:

'Perhaps she'd even tried to write a novel,' I ended.
'I very much doubt that.'
'No, you're right.'

Elizabeth Finch is a mainstreaming of the Brookner myth, and a bonne bouche for Brooknerians, all the more for the fact that Anita Brookner herself isn't referenced once. But she's there on every page.


  1. Je suis en train de le lire en ce moment avec bonheur.

  2. How nice to hear from you and that you are enjoying the book. Nice too for me to challenge myself to read French!


Questions and comments are always welcome. (Please note: there will be a short delay before publication, as comments are moderated.)