A UK Exclusive Q&A with Julian Barnes on Elizabeth Finch

Posted on 24th March 2022 by Anna Orhanen

In his new novel Elizabeth Finch, the Booker Prize-winning author of The Sense of an Ending introduces the reader to a wholly remarkable teacher - the titular heroine Elizabeth - whose philosophy leaves a lasting impression on her students. In this Q&A, the author discusses the novel and how Elizabeth Finch came to being. 

Please tell us about your book, Elizabeth Finch.

It's two-thirds fiction and one third non-fiction. The fictional strand is about the wise, clever woman of the title, a university lecturer who teaches mature students, and her inspirational effect on the life and thinking of the male narrator. The non-fictional middle part concerns a fascinating historical figure whom Elizabeth Finch teaches her students about: Julian the Apostate, the last pagan emperor of Rome. After he was killed in the Persian desert in 363 AD, Christianity remained more or less triumphant and unopposed for the next 15 or so centuries. Some might conclude that this was a bad idea.

Where did the idea for this novel come from? Why was it important to you to write it?

The two parts started separately and slowly drifted together. I'd first heard a famous quote by the poet Swinburne some fifteen years ago: 'Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean' – the Galilean being Jesus Christ, and the words supposedly Julian's last as he lay dying, admitting the triumph of Christianity. (Which was, in Swinburne's view, the point at which the history of  Europe went badly wrong). The idea of Elizabeth Finch was of a woman not of her time – somehow, almost outside time – who takes the longer view, sees things more clearly than those she teaches. 

Elizabeth Finch is described in the blurb as ‘a loving tribute to philosophy’. Where did your own interest in philosophy come from?

Well, my interest is only amateur. My brother Jonathan is a proper philosopher, and knows all about Aristotle, the Pre-Socratics, and so on. I tried studying philosophy at university for two terms but was told (correctly) that – like most people - I didn't have the right sort of brain for it. But you can enjoy music without any technical understanding of it, and I approach philosophy in the same lay manner - ill-equipped yet enthusiastic. And I try to understand its explanations of, and application to, life.

The titular character of Elizabeth Finch is a teacher who inspires her students to alter their worldviews. As a writer, what interests you about the dynamics of the relationship between student and teacher?

Well, it's a subject I've not treated before (when I was starting out there was a vogue for The Novel of Academe, so I swore not to write one myself). I think part of it is the mixture of intimacy and formality in teaching (though it's probably much more informal nowadays), and the question of what sticks in a student's mind and what doesn't, and how long-lasting that 'sticking' is.

Who did you write this book for? Who do you wish would read it?

I only have a circular definition to offer: I wrote it for the sort of people who would enjoy reading it! Some will probably be my long-term readers, and some, I hope, new ones. But I don't try to tailor my books to a specific audience – that would be stultifying, I think. I let the book go and find its own audience.

Can you tell us a little bit about your journey towards becoming a writer?

Well, it certainly didn't feel like a 'journey' at the time. I messed up my university years, constantly changing subjects, then scrabbled around for a number of years. I was a lexicographer, then read for the bar, did freelance journalism and reviewing, started writing a novel with no sense that I was permitted to do so (who does feel that?), and after about seven years, it was accepted for publication. If it had been turned down, I expect I would have been so discouraged that I would have gone back to journalism. A career always looks more inevitable from the outside – and looking back – that it does at the time.

What is the last book you read and loved?

I first read Konstantin Paustovsky's multi-volume autobiography back in the 1960s, when it first came out in English. It's about growing up in the turbulent pre-Revolutionary years and the even more turbulent Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary ones, full of astonishingly vivid scenes and memories. It made his reputation when it came out in Russia, and the first three volumes have just been retranslated as The Story of a Life.

What do you hope readers will discover in Elizabeth Finch?

A book that interests them, perhaps amuses them, and even makes them wonder about the past, and how we got here from there, and whether there might have been a different destination available. And I hope they'll discover a central character in Elizabeth Finch whom they warm to and admire.

And finally, what’s up next for you?

Well, after I've got through promoting this novel, a nice rest. I haven't got anything I am eager to get down and write. Ideas come a little more slowly at my age...


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