From the novelist’s point of view, reality all too often suffers from bad taste. The classic example concerns a true story that contains a perfect kernel of narrative but is fatally encrusted with the kind of events that reality, in its lax way, doesn’t mind, but which are horribly damaging to a work of fiction. Coincidence, for example, is rife in life but ruinous in fiction; ditto melodrama; ditto the more obvious kinds of hubris and dramatic irony. Henry James had the irritating habit, when someone was telling him an anecdote, of holding up his hand and stopping his interlocutor when he felt he had got the kernel of the story, before hearing the fatal extra details—a habit that must have been annoying, but that also makes sense. A novelist must have a strong intuition of when enough is enough. Reality couldn’t care less. In the words of Geoffrey Braithwaite, the sad, dyspeptic narrator of Julian Barnes’s wonderful novel Flaubert’s Parrot:
I don’t much care for coincidences. There’s something spooky about them: you sense momentarily what it must be like to live in an ordered, God-run universe, with Himself looking over your shoulder and helpfully dropping coarse hints about a cosmic plan. I prefer to feel that things are chaotic, free-wheeling, permanently as well as temporarily crazy—to feel the certainty of human ignorance, brutality and folly. “Whatever else happens,” Flaubert wrote when the Franco-Prussian war broke out, “we shall remain stupid.” Mere boastful pessimism? Or a necessary razing of expectation before anything can be properly thought, or done, or written? I don’t even care for harmless, comic coincidences. I once went out to dinner and discovered that the seven other people present had all just finished reading A Dance to the Music of Time. I didn’t relish this: not least because it meant that I didn’t break my silence until the cheese course. And as for coincidences in books—there’s something cheap and sentimental about the device; it can’t help always seeming aesthetically gimcrack.
There are, however, pieces of history that can give the novelist the feeling that they have been lying around impatiently waiting for someone to notice them and incorporate them into a work of fiction. The story at the heart of Julian Barnes’s highly satisfying new novel, Arthur & George, is the kind which causes other writers to smack their foreheads into their palms and wish that they had heard of it first. The novel can be summarized without too much betrayal: it tells the story of a (once) famous miscarriage of justice, suffered by George Edalji, a solicitor, in England in 1903, and overturned (or partly overturned) thanks in large part to the efforts of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Barnes has for years been interested in Englishness, and more generally in questions of national identity; it is one of his primary concerns in Arthur & George. He likes fictional structures with an underpinning …