Elizabeth Finch “is about the most un-self-pitying person I have ever met. She knew the world to be unfair, and thought it naive of anyone else not to see that. She was, in her deepest self, a stoic.” This is not a line from Julian Barnes’ novel Elizabeth Finch, but from an obituary he wrote about his friend, the art historian and novelist Anita Brookner. She died in 2016. But it is a precise description of the fictional Finch from the eponymous novel. Julian Barnes’ novel is an homage to his intimidating friend, citing her intellect, poise, fascination and oddness.
Finch is the lecturer on culture and civilisation on an adult-education course that Neil, the narrator, is taking. She expects dialogue with her students, telling them that collaboration is the best way to teach. She also says this: “Be approximately satisfied with approximate happiness. The only thing in life which is clear and beyond doubt is unhappiness.”
It is the 1980s, and afterwards the class goes to the pub. Without their teacher. Elizabeth in a pub is unimaginable. Unimaginable or not, she is with them because she is the essential topic of conversation. “We responded to her like kids back at school,” notes Neil.
Elizabeth Finch, romantic pessimist, does not suit everyone in the class, but for Neil she is the real, remarkable thing. Finally, he has arrived at the right place. Ghastly pun, but Neil does metaphorically kneel before his teacher. His humility is appealing.
Later he and Elizabeth become friends and meet a few times a year, in London, for lunch; she remains mysterious, he remains beguiled. When she dies she leaves Neil her papers, diaries and some projected work.