Julian Barnes’s new novel has two main characters: Elizabeth Finch, quietly charismatic extramural tutor for mature students at the University of London, and Emperor Flavius Claudius Julianus, aka Julian the Apostate, the last non-Christian ruler of Rome. The framing narrative consists of Elizabeth’s life story – or, rather, the mostly unsuccessful attempts of her admiring student Neil to construct that story. In the middle, in the form of a biographical essay, comes Neil’s effort at piecing together Elizabeth’s scholarly notes on the much-maligned Emperor Julian. An unsuccessful actor, sometime waiter and intellectual striver, Neil joins a venerable line of Barnesian protagonists, men just about intelligent enough to grasp how limited their knowledge of others must be, but never quite sharp enough to realise how little they understand themselves.
Neil’s Platonic infatuation with Elizabeth, to whom he becomes a kind of protégé, serves as a counterpoint to his distinctly unsatisfactory romantic relationships. Twice divorced, he is oblivious to the advances of one fellow student while embarking on a brief fling with another. After Elizabeth’s death, he sets himself the double task of completing her unfinished or abandoned work on Julian while trying to reach some understanding of who she was. Who, then, is Elizabeth Finch? To Neil, she is a glamorous intellectual: ‘high-minded, self-sufficient, European’. To his more radical classmate Geoff, she is a classic British dilettante, ‘not so much old-school as antique-school’. She assembles herself, or Neil assembles her, out of a series of tics and poses: she smokes, dresses with unostentatious style, speaks with confidence and wit about European history, philosophy and culture. A touch of Miss Jean Brodie without the fascism; a touch of Mary Poppins without the magic. The picture he creates is an autodidact’s fantasy of the life of the mind.
It’s no accident that such a fantasy should seem compelling at a moment when higher education, particularly in the humanities, has been devalued: funding cut, departments shuttered. In a pointed moment, Barnes skewers the British media for their complicity in promulgating the kind of sulky philistinism that has