Book Look - Arthur & George, Julian Barnes

I enjoyed this book on a variety of levels: as a historic recreation of an obscure but interesting historical incident; as a biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the legendary author/creator of Sherlock Holmes; but also a thoughtful exploration of an enduring literary mystery: how Doyle, a man so dedicated to logic and scientific reasoning, could, in later years, have become infatuated with so infamous a pseudo-science as spiritualism.

As a historic novel/recreation, this is a worthy and highly readable effort. Barnes evokes, with seeming effortlessness, a sure and convincing sense of period: not just the "props" - the clothes , the manners - but the ways in which Victorians viewed the world, their role in the world, and themselves. Barnes is especially strong when recounting the role that circumstance, prejudice, ignorance and pride play in ensnaring Eydalji. These chapters - full of mounting suspense and menace - are among the best in the book and made me miss more than one meal. Moreover, Barnes uses the vehicle of the murder mystery as a chance to explore larger themes such as prejudice (conscious and unconscious), human resiliency, and the evolution of the English justice system.

The story also works as an incomplete but intriguing bio of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, exploring the role that his absentee artist father, his Scottish mother, and his "traditional" British upbringing shaped him into the man that he became, a simultaneous embodiment of the past (ex: his chivalric but rather clueless attitude towards women), the present (ex: he was an avid sportsman, numbered among his acquaintances most of the notable men of the period, and even dabbled in politics), and the future (ex: his Sherlock Holmes stories famously foreshadowed the use of forensic evidence to solve crimes). But make no mistake: this is no homage. Barnes' Doyle may be clever, accomplished, and driven by a sense of honor, but he is also crippled by intellectual vanity.

However, I believe Barnes' primary goal (and greatest achievement) is his exploration of how a man as rational as Doyle - not just the creator of Sherlock Holmes, but a trained medical doctor - can have developed so deep and (seemingly) irrational a fascination with spiritualism. How could the man who gave birth to Sherlock Holmes believe in ectoplasm, telepathy, mesmerism, ouija boards, spirit writing, and (perhaps most famously) fairies? Barnes' depicts Doyle as a man so tormented by rational doubts about organized religion, he finds himself seduced by spiritualism and its promise of providing scientifically verifiable evidence of an afterlife. Alas, however, Doyle's intellectual vanity prevents him not only from identifying the real culprit behind the crimes of which Eydalji is accused, but also prevents him from being able to rationally debunk the spiritualists who successfully manipulate him into believing what he wishes to believe.

Which eventually leads the reader back to the major theme of this story: that people will find a way to believe what they want to believe, no matter how irrational the conclusion. The way a normally "just" justice system came to believe Eydalji guilty of murder. The way Doyle convinces himself that he can love two women without compromising his honor. The way humans continue to believe that the spirits of their beloved dead still walk among us, just waiting for us to find a way to communicate with them.

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