Book review

Julian Barnes’ characteristically cerebral new novel focuses on a chaste but ardent relationship between an adult student and his charismatic teacher, a bond that nourishes a perceptive rumination on the solitary rewards of scholarly work.

Longtime fans won’t be surprised to learn that the English author’s “Elizabeth Finch” is erudite yet accessible. Barnes’ 25th book is part of a long-running effort to portray the life of the mind. “Flaubert’s Parrot,” “England, England,” “The Sense of an Ending” — in these and other novels Barnes’ characters, by turns eccentric, bereft and extremely bright, are relatable players in vivid stories about artistic ingenuity, ideological conflict and the commodification of history.

“Elizabeth Finch,” which opens in an adult-education classroom in turn-of-the-21st-century London, is narrated by the title character’s most dedicated pupil. Neil, an underemployed actor, is there to better himself, but he quickly realizes he’s primarily interested in the instructor, an exceptionally composed woman who lectures “without notes, books or nerves.” EF, as he calls her, teaches a class that covers organized religion and the Roman Empire, specifically the Emperor Julian’s doomed fourth-century attempt to thwart Christianity’s rise.

As Neil tells it, she’s “rigorous in her own thought” but “never dismissive” of students’ input. “She would transform our paltry thoughtlets into something of fuller interest.” Immune to academic fads, EF is the author of two smart but seldom-read books. She never married, and her private life is off-limits. Neil idolizes her, especially her solitary commitment to rigorous study, and her tremendous poise. They lunch together for years after the class ends.

Illustration by Jenny Kwon

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Alas, Elizabeth is dead before page 50, and when Neil learns that she’s left all of her personal notebooks to him — no instructions attached — he’s bewildered. Should he write her biography? Finish her unfocused research project about Emperor Julian? Or would such an effort diminish her posthumous reputation?

Neil spends many hours with Elizabeth’s journals, which are filled with thought-provoking ideas about ethics and values, privacy and history. It’s a bittersweet experience, intensifying his appreciation for her mind but revealing that he didn’t know her as well as he imagined. A fellow admirer of EF helps crystallize his thinking, saying “that a life, much as we would like it to be, does not amount to a narrative — or not a narrative such as we understand and expect.”

Though Elizabeth’s unpublished thesis about Rome and Christianity is at once provocative and hopeful, it’s her approach to learning that changes Neil’s life. “She asked a tantalizingly easy question which set you off on a train of thought, alone,” he says. In short, a consummate teacher.

Now in his mid-70s, Barnes is an elder statemen of English letters, a winner of all the major literary prizes his country can offer. If the wit of his early novels is seldom seen these days, he’s no less observant, no less dogged in his pursuit of intellectual clarity. He’ll keep after an idea until he — and his readers — gets it. In this way, he’s a lot like the lead character of this elegant novel.

“Elizabeth Finch”

Julian Barnes, Knopf, 192 pp., $26

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