Arthur & George
Brilliantly imagined and irresistibly readable, Arthur & George is a major new novel from Julian Barnes, a wonderful combination of playfulness, pathos and wisdom.
Searching for clues, no one would ever guess that the lives of Arthur and George might intersect. Growing up in shabby-genteel nineteenth-century Edinburgh, Arthur is saddled with a dad who is a disgrace and a mum he wishes to protect, and is propelled into a life of action. To his astonishment, his career as a self-made man of letters brings him riches and fame and, in the world at large, he becomes the perfect picture of the honourable English gentlemen.
George is irredeemably an outsider, and has no hope of becoming such a picture. Though he’s dogged and logical, a vicar’s son from rural Staffordshire, he is set apart, and he and his family are targeted in his boyhood by a poison-pen campaign. George finds safe harbour in the reliability of rules, and grows up to become a solicitor, putting his faith in the insulating value of British justice.
Then crisis upsets the uneasy equilibrium of both men’s lives. Arthur is knocked for a loop by guilt and other dishonourable emotions. George is put to the sorest test, accused of a horrible crime. And from that point on their lives weave together in the most profound and surprising way, as each man becomes the other’s salvation.
Arthur & George is a masterful novel about low crime and high spirituality, guilt and innocence, identity, nationality and race. Most of all, it’s a profound and witty meditation on the fateful differences between what we believe, what we know and what we can prove.
George and his father pray together, kneeling side by side on the scrubbed boards. Then George climbs into bed while his father locks the door and turns out the light. As he falls asleep, George sometimes thinks of the floor, and how his soul must be scrubbed just as the boards are scrubbed.
Father is not an easy sleeper, and has a tendency to groan and wheeze. Sometimes, in the early morning, when dawn is beginning to show at the edges of the curtains, Father will catechize him.
"George, where do you live?"
"The Vicarage, Great Wyrley."
"And where is that?"
"And where is that?"
"The centre of England."
"And what is England, George?"
"England is the beating heart of the Empire, Father."
"Good. And what is the blood that flows through the arteries and veins of the Empire to reach even its farthest shore?"
"The Church of England."
And after a while Father will begin to groan and wheeze again. George watches the outline of the curtain harden. He lies there thinking of arteries and veins making red lines on the map of the world, linking Britain to all the places coloured pink: Australia and India and Canada and islands dotted everywhere. He thinks of blood bubbling though these tubes and emerging in Sydney, Bombay, the St. Lawrence Waterway. Bloodlines, that is a word he has heard somewhere. With the pulse of blood in his ears, he begins to fall asleep again.
—excerpt from Arthur & George
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