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2006_01_28_Arthurandgeorge.jpg I remember telling a friend, after finishing Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, that Wonder Boys had not prepared me for this brilliance. I think I’ll be saying the same thing about Julian Barnes’ latest novel, Arthur & George. I’ve read A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters. I’ve read Flaubert’s Parrot. What’s more, I loved them both very much (which is more than I can say about the slightly anemic Wonder Boys). Nonetheless, I wasn’t prepared for the mature, measured force of Arthur & George.

Any novel that’s titled with two first names is going to give you a good sense of the players involved – but a small caveat, if I may. Barnes has created a work of historical fiction out of the lives of real people. Don’t do what I did – don’t go looking up their identities and connection to each other before Barnes unravels it for you, in the brilliant way he does. You’ll only render moot the slow care with which Barnes reveals his intent throughout the first half of the novel. Suffice it to say that the Arthur in question is none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and the George is a young, serious man named George, from the Midlands, and his life becomes inseparably linked with Conan Doyle’s.

We begin with both Arthur and George in childhood, and a curious trick of Barnes’ – setting Arthur’s narrative in the past tense while George’s lingers vividly in the present – sets them apart immediately, making Arthur’s story seem like a thing of history while George’s feels like we’re following alongside, heart in throat about the troubles we can feel up ahead. We follow Arthur as he becomes the Conan Doyle of legend, from success to success, starting with that shadowed companion of his, Sherlock Holmes. Only when Arthur’s literary creation is named does Barnes let his famous last name slip, but Barnes knows he’s not fooling us – he let us see who Arthur was beforehand.

This is in subtle contrast to George. Barnes doesn’t hesitate to reveal George’s Parsi origins and teach us quickly about his duality, simultaneously set apart from his rural surroundings by his skin, and yet as English as the Queen herself. Indeed, the whole novel, when viewed from a great distance, isn’t just about the extraordinary circumstances in which Arthur Conan Doyle and a humble solicitor from the Midlands came to know each other. It’s also about being English - even if Conan Doyle is Irish and Scottish, and George's father is Parsi. If Conan Doyle is the official Englishman who shirks his country’s status quo in everything from shaking up Parliament to leading the Spiritualist movement, then George is the unofficial Englishman, differentiated by his physicality but English in temperament and carriage to the core. The confluence in their lives is taken and shaped by Barnes into a commentary on origin, race, and what it means to be English. And it’s not a debate that has faded in England from Conan Doyle’s days to Barnes’.

Above and beyond the message that George and Arthur bring to the table, there’s Barnes’ writing. He’s always been a master of wit and words, one of Wilde’s heirs, able to shift perception of any character with a few unexpected angles. There are moments where Barnes is, for lack of more American terminology, taking the piss out of Arthur. It’s rare to find a writer who can present a scene from the perspective of one character while allowing the other characters’ words and actions to act as a snarky aside to our protagonist. Barnes does it brilliantly. In exchanges with the other leaders of his day, Conan Doyle remains blissfully self-assured, his posture and confidence not at all affected by how Barnes manipulates the scene to make Conan Doyle seem ridiculous. It’s nothing short of puppetry, and I loved it. For all his affection for Conan Doyle, Barnes takes the cynic’s approach to the great man himself, giving him the humanity of vanity and error. Most of all, it draws the novel into a realm of original commentary about a figure long doomed to being acknowledged with perfunctory nods to brilliance.

The novel just works, on all these levels and more. It has a weight and seriousness to it, and it feels like a book that has been roosting in Barnes for ages, a work he threw himself at with a vigor and dedication like the detective at the heart of it. Readers shouldn’t be fooled by the bygone time period, either – the books themes resonate loudly today in England and elsewhere. And most of all, like Barnes surely thought when he stumbled upon the connection between the great Conan Doyle and the quiet solicitor named George, it is an absolutely wonderful story.