Julian Barnes e-interviewed by Josephine Anna Kaszuba Locke (April, 2006)
Born in Leicester, England, in 1946, Julian Barnes is the author of two books of short stories, two essay collections, a translation of Alphonse Daudet's In the Land of Pain, and nine previous novels. In France, he is the only writer to have won both the Prix Médicis and the Prix Fémina, and in 2004 he became a Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. In England his honors include the Somerset Maugham Award and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize.
He has also received the E. M. Forster Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Barnes is renowned for literary works of fiction including The Lemon Table, England, England, and Flaubert's Parrot. His nonfiction includes Something to Declare : Essays on France and French Culture. Julian Barnes resides in London, England. His latest novel, Arthur & George, short-listed for the 2005 Man Booker Prize, is based on a true story involving Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and a half-Parsi country lawyer who fell 'prey to racism and class consciousness' in early 20th century Britain.
Q: You portray the victim of extreme prejudice, George Edalji, in the novel as an introverted man of high honour, forgiving, a pacifist, and highly intelligent. Did you idealize the character for the novel?
A: He was certainly intelligent, shy and honourable - this much I could glean from the few sources which refer to his character. I don't know why you say he was a pacifist - I have no evidence that he didn't support the Great War, for instance. Forgiving? Not exactly - he fights for his rights and even after freed doesn't want to give up. There is no sign that, for instance, he forgives the Chief Constable. He is well behaved in prison because he can see, logically, that the prison authorities had nothing to do with his conviction. he is everywhere logical. I tried to describe him as I thought he had been, rather than trying to idealize him. What would be the point of doing that? Actually, I also make him rather pompous and a bit boring and emotionally les than fully-functioning at times.
Q: An exchange between Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Edalji reflects that George did not believe that the perpetrators' or authorities' actions toward his family were based on race. That seems either naive or diplomatic. What did you intend to communicate?
A: George in a newspaper article said that he didn't think race was at the bottom of his case. He said that he himself had only come across minor instances of it when growing up. I disagree - as does Sir Arthur. But I think the idea of a victim who doesn't understand why he is a victim is (fictionally) very interesting. George would argue that nothing had held him back at school, law college, or in his profession - that British society had treated him largely as one of its own, until his great misfortune occurred. Again, I would disagree, but I'm not George.
Q: William Brookes (ironmonger) is reported as having received similar threatening letters at the same time frame as Edalji. Did this really happen?
A: Yes it certainly did.
Q: The book reveals that the Inspector and Chief Constable were never 'taken to task' for their mistreatment of Edalji, based on such minor evidence. Is this a fact, and if so, was this sort of miscarriage of justice common to the era?
A: No they weren't - the Home Office decided not to reopen the investigation. The evidence was, though, more than 'minor' - the evidence concerning the hairs on his coat and the handwriting of the anonymous letters seemed - at the time - to be utterly authoritative and incontrovertiable scientific evidence. Now we can see how unreliable it was. But I can imagine similar 'scientific' evidence given in court nowadays proving suspect - and looking obviously crooked - in 100 years' time.
Q: Your Author's Notes in the book mention that 'four years after the death of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a 57-year old labourer, pleaded guilty at Staffordshire Crown Court'. Do you know if any apologies were rendered to the Edalji family after the labourer's conviction?
A: None that I know of. But Knowles wasn't the main villain, as I explain. He was simply someone who joined in the campaign of anonymous abuse - a (minor) criminal opportunist. There is no evidence he was involved in the mutilations.
Q: Are you aware of any other families affected during the thirty years of Knowles' letter writing. Is it documented whether or not he acted alone? And what was Knowles' sentence?
A: Can't answer (have lost reasearch notes).
Q: Is Hindhead, 'the Little Switzerland of Surrey', a real place, and does Undershaw still stand today?
A: They both certainly exist; though when I visited Undershaw - then a themed restaurant/hotel - and stayed the night there, it was pretty run down. Now, the establishment has closed and I understand the house is falling into ruin. So if there's a rich American Holmesian out there ...
Q: Your representation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's arguments regarding the psychical world are impressive, stimulating, and convincing. Are they derived from records of Conan Doyle's life or the author's invention?
A: Thank you. Sir Arthur's interest in spiritualism is well documented - by himself and others. The difficult task was getting my head back into the time when such thinking seemed to be both scientific and cutting-edge.
Q: The book mentions that Conan Doyle preached spiritualism in Australia - do you know whether his work in this field influenced organizations existing today?
A: You'll have to ask spiritualists. I'm sure he is still one of their totem figures. The odd thing is that when he first became interested in the subject, he saw it is something which cut out the idea of a 'church', an established middleman between humanity and God. But he ended up laying foundation stones for spiritualist 'churches'. There was an auction here a couple of years back at which I could have bought a trowel with which he laid just such a stone. But it was too expensive.
Q: Philosophical passages are eloquently presented in the book. Do they reflect your own belief system?
A: No, not at all. That's what being a novelist is/ought to be about - convincingly presenting the minds & emotions of people who aren't you.
Q: When you take time to read, what authors do you admire most?
A: Oh, where to begin? Flaubert, Turgenev, Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, Evelyn Waugh, Ford Madox Ford, Penelope Fitzgerald, John Updike, Lorrie Moore ... will that do?
Q: Do you have another work in progress - if so, we'd love to hear something about it.