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Man on Top


The Observer profiles Julian Barnes, the odds-on favorite to win the Booker this year.

Barnes's longlisted novel is Arthur & George. It is a story about Sherlock Holmes's creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but it does not, like the myriad of other books and plays with this starting point, draw on Doyle's texts or on the deductive techniques of his great detective. ‘I deliberately didn't want to write a book that bounces off his work,' Barnes has said.

The George in the title is George Edalji, a Birmingham solicitor and the son of a country vicar from Bombay who was a converted Parsee. In the normal course of life, the two men would never have met, but in 1903, Edalji was convicted of maiming horses in his father's parish of Great Wyrley in Staffordshire. The ‘Great Wyrley Outrages', as they were known, became a cause célèbre when Doyle took up the cudgels in order to correct what he regarded as legal injustice and racism. Doyle became to Edalji what Emile Zola was to Dreyfus. Barnes's telling of the near-forgotten tale focuses on our appreciation of guilt, a guilt that the Victorian novelist also feels over his fading love for his dying wife, Louise, and his growing, unconsummated passion for his wife-to-be, Jean Leckie.

Barnes threw himself into research on the Edalji case and confronts his version of Doyle with the same documentary material that he uncovered in trying to piece together the truth. He chose to write the novel, he has said, partly because the case has almost vanished from British history. ‘It makes not a ripple anywhere. It's gone. I wrote about it because I couldn't read about it.'

Given Barnes's reticent nature (he decries the “Oprahfication of emotions”), it's not surprising that he is the least well known of the favorites this year. The profile discusses a little bit of controversy surrounding Barnes, and if you know your Rushdie, you'll react the same way I did: “Why is this controversial again?”

Barnes lives in north London with his wife, literary agent Pat Kavanagh, and it is this close association with the cannibalistic publishing scene that has drawn Barnes into controversy or, at least, into the gossip columns.

When Amis junior decided to leave his agent Kavanagh after 23 years so that he could throw in his lot with American agent Andrew Wylie, known as ‘the Jackal', his old friend Barnes severed all links, sending a letter in January 1995 which contained a phrase that Amis has described as ‘a well-known colloquialism. The words consist of seven letters. Three of them are fs'.

I sure hope his books are spicier than the controversies he finds himself in.

PS : Talking of Sherlock Homes and Arthur Conan Doyle, The New Yorker carried a fascinating article a while back by David Grann, where he talks about the death of “the world's leading Sherlock Holmes expert” under mysterious circumstances. The article isn't online, but there are interviews where the author discusses the story here and here.