Elizabeth Finch
by Barnes, Julian






After taking a class, "Culture and Civilization," with the commanding, exacting Professor Elizabeth Finch, Neil develops an obsessive, intellectual crush on her in a novel of platonic, unrequited love by the Booker award-winning author of The Sense of an Ending.





JULIAN BARNES is the author of twenty-four previous books, for which he has received the Man Booker Prize, the Somerset Maugham Award, the E. M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Prix Médicis and Prix Femina in France, and the Jerusalem Prize. In 2017 he was awarded the Légion d'honneur. His work has been translated into more than forty languages. He lives in London.





The latest work of fiction from prodigious, award-winning Barnes focuses on Elizabeth Finch, a charismatic, unusual, and unerringly assured university lecturer. The narrator is Neil, a student in Finch's "Culture and Civilization" course in which she beguiles and enthralls her students with her thought-provoking takes on history. Neil is enraptured by her class, and continues to meet with Finch for lunch for 20 years after it is over. Neil's two divorces and many careers stay in the background as he focuses on Finch and those in her orbit. Once Neil acquires her notebooks, the novel takes a W. G. Sebald-like detour through the historical depictions of Julian the Apostate, whom Finch admired. Merging the ear for voice, language, and character Barnes displays in his fiction with the exhaustive research he conducts for such works of nonfiction as The Man in the Red Coat (2019), this is a lyrical, thoughtful, and intriguing exploration of love, grief, and the collective myths of history. Barnes adds yet another remarkable title to his astoundingly remarkable body of work. Copyright 2022 Booklist Reviews.





A man processes his crush on a former teacher and the impact of what she taught. Late-period Barnes novels have either been tales of doomed love (The Only Story, 2018) or intellectual persecution (The Noise of Time, 2016). This slim, contemplative, modestly successful novel blends those two themes. The Elizabeth of the title is a professor teaching a continuing education class called Culture and Civilisation, with a particular focus on the conflict between Greco-Roman and Christian philosophy. Neil, the narrator, is her eager pupil, entranced by her intellectual rigor and self-possession. What kind of past and inner life produced, as he puts it, "the most grown-up person I have known"? Upon her death nearly two decades after the course, he has an opportunity to find out: Though their relationship since the class was limited to occasional lunches, she's bequeathed him her library and papers to puzzle through. Neil's investigations send him deep into the life of the Roman emperor Julian, a fierce critic of nascent Christianity, and the book's middle section is consumed by a somewhat drowsy contemplation of Julian's life. Whether all this philosophy makes Neil a better person is an open question; he mentions two divorces, but the exes, and the reasons for the splits, are entirely off-screen. But Barnes plainly wishes to elevate Elizabeth to a moral leadership role he feels British society is sorely lacking. (She causes a brief furor when anti-intellectual conservatives seize on a lecture she delivers on Julian's critique of Christianity.) Barnes renders all this with his trademark grace and equipoise but at a low boil; the story has few of the fireworks or twists of The Only Story and The Sense of an Ending. Elizabeth is an intriguing character, but one is left wondering if Barnes, like Neil, has saddled her with more import than she deserves. An engaging if slight tale of intellectual romance. Copyright Kirkus 2022 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.





ONE

She stood before us, without notes, books or nerves. The lectern was occupied by her handbag. She looked around, smiled, was still, and began.

"You will have observed that the title of this course is 'Culture and Civilisation.' Do not be alarmed. I shall not be pelting you with pie charts. I shall not attempt to stuff you with facts as a goose is stuffed with corn; this would only lead to an engorged liver, which would be unhealthy. Next week I shall supply you with a reading list which is entirely optional; you will neither lose marks for ignoring it, nor gain them by relentless study. I shall teach you as the adults you undoubtedly are. The best form of education, as the Greeks knew, is collaborative. But I am no Socrates and you are not a classroom of Platos, if that is the correct plural form. Nonetheless, we shall engage in dialogue. At the same ?­time-­and since you are no longer in primary ?­school-­I shall not dispense milksop encouragement and bland approval. For some of you, I may well not be the best teacher, in the sense of the one most suited to your temperament and cast of mind. I mention this in advance to those for whom it will be the case. Naturally, I hope you will find the course interesting, and, indeed, fun. Rigorous fun, that is. The terms are not incompatible. And I shall expect rigour from you in return. Winging it will not suit. My name is Elizabeth Finch. Thank you."

And she smiled again.

None of us had taken a note. We gazed back at her, some in awe, a few in puzzlement bordering on irritation, others already half in love.

I can't remember what she taught us in that first lesson. But I knew obscurely that, for once in my life, I had arrived at the right place.

Her clothes. Let's start at ground level. She wore brogues, black in winter, brown suede in autumn and spring. Stockings or ?­tights-­you never saw Elizabeth Finch with bare legs (and you certainly couldn't imagine her in beachwear). Skirts just below the ?­knee-­she resisted the annual hemline tyranny. Indeed, she appeared to have settled on her look some time ago. It could still be called stylish; another decade, and it might be antique or, perhaps, vintage. In summer, a ?­box-?­pleated skirt, usually navy; tweed in winter. Sometimes she adopted a tartan or kiltish look with a big silver safety pin (no doubt there's a special Scottish word for it). Obvious money was spent on blouses, in silk or fine cotton, often striped, and in no way translucent. Occasionally a brooch, always small and, as they say, discreet, yet somehow refulgent. She rarely wore earrings (were her lobes even pierced? now there's a question). On her left little finger, a silver ring which we took to be inherited, rather than bought or given. Her hair was a kind of sandy grey, shapely and of unvarying length. I imagined a regular fortnightly appointment. Well, she believed in artifice, as she told us more than once. And artifice, as she also observed, was not incompatible with truth.

Though ?­we-­her ?­students-­were between our late twenties and early forties, we at first responded to her like kids back at school. We wondered about her background and her private life, about why and whether she had ?­never-­as far as we ?­knew-­married. About what she did in the evenings. Did she make herself a perfect fines herbes omelette, have a single glass of wine (Elizabeth Finch drunk? only if the world turned upside down) while reading the latest fascicle of Goethe Studies??? You see how easy it was to stray into fantasy, even satire.

She smoked all the years I knew her. And again, she didn't smoke like anyone else. There are smokers who patently enjoy every burst of nicotine; others who inhale with a sense of ?­self-?­loathing; some display it as a style habit; others again, annoyingly, claim to have "only one or two a day," as if they were in charge of their addiction. ?­And-­since all smokers ?­lie-"one or two" always turns out to mean three or four, even half a pack. EF, on the other hand, displayed no attitude to her smoking. It was something she did which required neither explanation nor ornamentation. She decanted her cigarettes into a tortoiseshell case, which left us playing Guess the Brand. She smoked as if she were indifferent to smoking. Does that make sense? And if you had dared to ask her, she wouldn't have fallen back on excuses. Yes, she would have said, of course she was addicted; and yes, she knew it was bad for her, and also antisocial. But no, she wasn't going to stop, or count how many she smoked a day; such matters were very low on her list of concerns. And ?­since-­this was my own personal deduction, or rather, ?­guess-­since she had no fear of death and nowadays judged life somewhat overrated, the question was really of no interest to her, and therefore shouldn't be to you either.

Naturally, she suffered migraines.

In my mind's ?­eye-­my memory's eye, the only place I can see ?­her-­she is standing before us, preternaturally still. She had none of those lecturer's tics and tricks designed to charm, distract, or indicate character. She never waved her arms about or supported her chin in her hand. She might occasionally put a slide up to illustrate a point, but that was mostly unnecessary. She commanded attention by her stillness and her voice. It was a calm, clear voice enriched by decades of smoking. She wasn't one of those teachers who only engaged with their students when they looked up from their notes because, as I said, she didn't lecture from notes. It was all in her head fully ?­thought ­out, fully processed. This also compelled attention, reducing the gap between her and us.

Her diction was formal, her sentence structure entirely ?­grammatical-­indeed, you could almost hear the commas, semicolons and full stops. She never started a sentence without knowing how and when it would end. Yet she never sounded like a talking book. Her vocabulary was drawn from the same ?­word-?­box she used for both writing and general conversation. And yet the effect wasn't archaic in any way, it was intensely alive. And she ?­enjoyed-­perhaps to amuse herself, or to surprise ?­us-­throwing in the occasional phrase of a different tonality.

For instance, one week she was talking to us about The Golden Legend, that medieval assemblage of miracles and martyrdoms. Gaudy miracles and instructive martyrdoms. Her subject was St. Ursula.

"Cast your minds back, if you will, to ad 400, a time before Christian hegemony had been established on our shores. Ursula was a British princess, daughter of the Christian King Nothus. She was wise, dutiful, devout and ?­virtuous-­all the usual moral accoutrements of such princesses. Also beautiful, that more problematic accoutrement. Prince Etherius, son of the King of Anglia, fell in love with her and asked for her hand in marriage. This placed Ursula's father in a dilemma, since the Angles were not only very powerful, but also worshippers of idols.

"Ursula was a bride to be bartered, like many before and since; and being wise, virtuous, et cetera, she was also ingeni­ous. Accept the offer from the son of Power, she told her father; yet attach conditions which will impose delay. Ask to be granted three years of grace, so that Ursula could make a pilgrimage to Rome, during which time young Etherius was to be instructed in the true faith and then baptised. Some might judge this a ?­deal-?­breaker, but not the ?­love-?­struck Etherius. The views of the King of Anglia are not recorded.

"When news of Ursula's planned spiritual escapade got out, other ?­like-?­minded virgins flocked to her side. And here we hit upon a textual nub. As many of you will know, Ursula was accompanied by eleven thousand virgins; those of you familiar with Venice might recall Carpaccio's sequential representation of the story. Such a package tour to organise, and Mr. Thomas Cook had yet to be born. The textual nub I mentioned concerns the letter M, and what the original scribe meant by it. Was it M for Mille, thousand, or M for Martyr??? Some of us might find the latter reading more plausible. Ursula plus eleven virgin martyrs makes twelve, also the number of Christ's Apostles.

"Still, let us allow the story to proceed in Technicolor and CinemaScope, techniques which Carpaccio did much to popularise. Eleven thousand virgins set off from Britain. When they reached Cologne, an angel of the Lord appeared to Ursula, with the message that after leaving Rome she and her cortège were to return via Cologne, where they were to acquire the holy crown of martyrdom. News of this endgame spread through the eleven thousand, to be greeted with staunch rapture. Meanwhile, in Britain, another of the Lord's ubiquitous angels appeared to Etherius, instructing him to meet his intended bride in Cologne, where he would also acquire the palm of martyrdom.

"Everywhere she went, Ursula attracted more and more followers, though the total is not recorded. In Rome, the very Pope joined this female host, and in doing so brought upon himself calumny and excommunication. Meanwhile again, two villainous Roman commanders, fearing that the hysterical success of the expedition would further the spread of Christianity, arranged for a Hunnish army to massacre the returning pilgrims. Conveniently, a Hunnish army happened to be besieging Cologne at that very time. We must allow for such narrative coincidences and angelic interventions: this is not, after all, a ?­nineteenth-?­century novel. Although, as I say that, ?­nineteenth-?­century novels are full of coincidence.

"And so Ursula and her vast entourage reached Cologne, whereupon the Hunnish army turned away from their siege machinery and began slaughtering the Eleven Thousand Plus ?­with-­and the phrase was a banality even in ad ?­400-­ 'the savagery of wolves falling upon a flock of sheep.' "

Elizabeth Finch paused, surveyed the room and asked, "What are we to make of all this?" And into the silence she gave her reply: "I propose: Suicide by Cop."

Elizabeth Finch was not in any way a public figure. You will google her with little result. If asked to characterise her professionally, I would say that she was an independent scholar. That may sound like a euphemism, even a truism. But before knowledge became officially housed in academe, there used to be men and women of the highest intelligence who privately pursued their own interests. Mostly, of course, they had money; some were eccentric, a few certifiably mad. But money allowed them to travel and research what and where they needed, with no pressure to publish, colleagues to outperform or heads of department to satisfy.

I never knew Elizabeth Finch's financial position. I im­agined she had family money, or an inheritance. She had a West London flat in which I never set foot; she appeared to live frugally; I assume she arranged her teaching to allow her time for private, independent scholarship. She had published two books: Explosive Women, about female anarchists in London between 1890 and 1910; and Our Necessary Myths, about nationalism, religion and family. Both were short, and both out of print. To some an independent scholar whose books are unavailable might seem a laughable figure. As opposed to the scores of tenured dolts and bores who would have done better to keep silent.

Several of her students subsequently made their names. She is acknowledged in some books of medieval history and female thought. But she was not known to those who did not know her. Which may sound ?­self-?­evident. Except that nowadays, in the digital landscape, friends and followers have come to mean different, ?­watered-?­down things. Many people know one another without knowing them at all. And are happy with that superficiality.

You might think me ?­old-?­fashioned (but my case is not relevant). You might think Elizabeth Finch equally, if not more, ?­old-?­fashioned. But if she was, it was not in the normal way, that of embodying a previous generation whose truths had now proved wan and withered. How can I put it? She dealt in truths not from previous generations but from previous eras, truths she kept alive but which others had abandoned. And I don't mean anything like "she was an ?­old-?­fashioned Tory/liberal/socialist." She was outside of her age in many ways. "Do not be taken in by time," she once said, "and imagine that ?­history-­and especially intellectual ?­history-­is linear." She was ?­high-?­minded, ?­self-?­sufficient, European. And as I write those words, I stop, because I hear in my head something she once taught us in class: "And remember, whenever you see a character in a novel, let alone a biog­raphy or history book, reduced and neatened into three adjectives, always distrust that description." It is a rule of thumb I have tried to obey.

The class soon shook down into groups and cliques, by the usual method of hazard and intent. Some of it was based on the choice of drink after class: beer, wine, beer and/or wine and/or anything else in a bottle, fruit juice, nothing at all. My group, which shifted easily between beer and wine, consisted of Neil (i.e., me), Anna (Dutch, so occasionally outraged by English frivolity), Geoff (provocateur), Linda (emo­tionally labile, whether it came to study or life itself ) and Stevie (town planner looking for more). One of our bonds was, paradoxically, that we rarely agreed about anything, except that whatever government was in power was useless, God almost certainly did not exist, life was for the living, and you could never have too many bar snacks in noisy packets. This was a time before laptops in class and social media out of it; when news came from newspapers and knowledge came from books. Was it a simpler time, or a duller one? Both or neither?

"Monotheism," said Elizabeth Finch. "Monomania. Monogamy. Monotony. Nothing good begins this way." She paused. "Monogram-­a sign of vanity. Monocle ditto. ?­Monoculture- ­a precursor to the death of rural Europe. I am prepared to acknowledge the usefulness of a monorail. There are many neutral scientific terms which I am also prepared to admit. But where the prefix applies to human business . . . Monoglot, the sign of an enclosed and ?­self-?­deluding country. The monokini, as facetious an etymology as it is a garment. ?­Monopoly-­and I do not refer to the board ?­game-­always a disaster if you give it time. Monorchid: a condition to be pitied but not aspired to. Any questions?"

Linda, who often seemed to be suffering from what she quaintly called "heart trouble," asked anxiously, "What have you got against monogamy? Isn't it how most people want to live? Isn't it what most people dream of ?"

"Beware of dreams," Elizabeth Finch replied. "Also, as a general rule, beware of what most people aspire to." She paused, ?­half-?­smiled at Linda and addressed the class through her. "Enforced monogamy is as much to say enforced happiness, which we know is not possible. Unenforced monogamy might seem possible. Romantic monogamy might seem to be desirable. But the first normally collapses back into a version of enforced monogamy, while the second is liable to become obsessive and hysterical. And thereby lies close to mono­mania. We should always distinguish between mutual passion and shared monomania."

We were all silenced, taking this in. Most of us had had the average sexual and amatory experience of our gener­ation: that's to say, far too much in the opinion of the preceding generation, and pathetically little in the view of the next, pressing generation. We were also wondering how much of what she said was based on personal experience, but none of us dared ask.

Linda, to her credit, pursued the matter. "So are you saying it's all hopeless?"

"How does the witty Mr. Sondheim put it?" And Elizabeth Finch actually ?­half-?­sang: " 'One's impossible, two is dreary, / Three is company, safe and cheery.' Which is one way of looking at the matter, to be sure."

"But do you agree with that, or are you just avoiding the question?"

"No, I am merely offering you the alternatives."

"So are you saying that Etherius was wrong to go to Cologne?" Linda, as we were learning, took classes very personally, even those on medieval religion.

"No, not wrong. We all pursue what we think is best for us, even if it means our extinction. Sometimes, especially if it means that. By the time we attain it, or don't, it is usually too late anyway."

"That's not much help," said Linda, with a kind of whiney fierceness.

"I am not employed to help you," replied Elizabeth Finch, firmly and yet not rebukingly. "I am here to assist you to think and argue and develop minds of your own." She paused. "But since you ask about Etherius, let us consider his case. As Ursula's betrothed, he accepted her conditions: that while she undertook her pilgrimage to Rome, he would study the Christian texts, be convinced of their truths, and be baptised into her religion. How much this must have enraged his father, the King of Anglia and a most notorious pagan, we are not told. But in any case, an angel of the Lord appeared to Etherius, instructing him to meet Ursula in Cologne, where they would suffer glorious martyrdom together.

"What are we to make of this? On the emotional level, we might regard it as an extreme, indeed fanatical example of romantic love. In other hands, it might have a Wagnerian aspect to it. On the theological level, his behaviour might be regarded as a gross form of ?­queue-?­jumping. Also, we must consider the effect of enforced chastity on the young human ?­male-­and, for that matter, on the young human female. It can manifest itself in all forms of morbid behaviour. Were Ursula and Etherius, betrothed now for three years, allowed a nuptial night in advance of bending their necks before Teutonic swords and offering their breasts to lances and arrows? We must rather doubt this, for indeed, the conjugal thrill might have changed their minds."

Afterwards, at the student bar, some of us started straight in on the hard stuff.

I trained as an actor; that's how I met my first wife, Joanna. We both had the same inchoate yet unshakeable optimism, at least for the first few years. I got small parts in telly and did ?­voice-?­overs; together, we wrote scripts and sent them off into the howling winds. Our repertoire also included doing ?­two-?­hander gigs on cruise ships: comedy, patter, a bit of song and dance. My most consistent source of income was playing a mildly sinister barman in a ?­long-?­running soap (no, not a famous one). Every so often, for years afterwards, people would accost me with, "You know, you look just like Freddy the Barman in, what was it ?­called-­NW12???" I never correct them to SE15, just smile and demur: "Strange, isn't it, quite a few people have told me that."

I worked in restaurants when the jobs dried up. That's to say, I was a waiter. But I had, or could assume, a presence, so got promoted to front of house. And gradually I stopped resting and then stopped being an actor. I knew some food suppliers, Joanna and I decided to live in the country. I grew mushrooms and, later, hydroponic tomatoes. Our daughter Hannah no longer said, with childish pride, "My dad's on the telly," and bravely tried putting the same verve into "My dad grows mush­rooms." Joanna, who was more successful than me at acting, decided it would be better for her career if she lived in London. And if I didn't. So that was that, really. Yes, you can still spot her on telly, she's often in . . . oh, sod it.

When I told Elizabeth Finch that I had been an actor, she smiled. "Ah, acting," she said, "the perfect example of arti­ficiality producing authenticity." It made me feel rather pleased, indeed valued.

EF, as we now privately referred to her, stood before us, handbag on the lectern as usual, and said: "Be approximately satisfied with approximate happiness. The only thing in life which is clear and beyond doubt is unhappiness." And then she waited. We were on our own. Who would dare to speak first?

You will note that the quotation was unattributed. This was deliberate on her part, a useful trick to help us think for ourselves. If she had identified the source, we would start thinking about what we knew of the life and work of the person quoted, and about received opinion. We would bow in reverence accordingly, or the opposite.

And so we had a lively discussion, pitching ?­still-?­youthful hopefulness against mature ?­scepticism-­at least, as we saw ?­it-­until she chose to reveal her source.

"Goethe, than whom few of us can hope to live a fuller or more interesting life, stated on his ?­deathbed-­he was ?­eighty-?­two at the ?­time-­that he had only ever felt happiness in his life for one quarter of an hour." She didn't raise a physical eyebrow at ?­us-­it was not one of her ?­gestures-­but she raised a metaphorical, or even moral one. And so, as a class, we took that on board and started discussing whether to be a ?­great-­or even ?­minor-­intellectual was to be doomed to unhappiness, and whether people on their deathbeds made such remarks (which sounded patently untrue to us) either because they couldn't remember, or because downplaying such a major aspect of their lives made them less reluctant to die. At which point Linda, who was always fearless about saying things the rest of us found naive, if not embarrassing, suggested:

"Perhaps Goethe never found the right woman."

In the presence of another lecturer, we might have felt free to snigger. But EF, while rigorous in her own thought, was never dismissive of our ideas and offerings, however meagre, or sentimental, or hopelessly autobiographical. Instead, she would transform our paltry thoughtlets into something of fuller interest.

"We must certainly consider, not just in this class, but outside it, in our own turbulent and fretful lives, the element of chance. The number of people we deeply meet is strangely few. Passion may mislead us furiously. Reason may mislead us just as much. Our genetic inheritance might hamstring us. So might previous events in our lives. It is not just soldiers in the field who later suffer from ?­post-?­traumatic stress disorder. It is often the inevitable consequence of a seemingly normal sublunary existence."

At which Linda could not help looking a little content with herself.

Obviously, I can't promise that those were exactly EF's words. But I have a good ear for voice, and in reconstructing how she spoke, I hope that I do not caricature her. I probably paid more attention to what she said and how she spoke than I did to anyone else in my life, before or since. Maybe at the start of both my marriages; but then, as EF had just advised, "Passion may mislead us furiously."

The ease with which she talked about the life of the heart, and included it naturally in a course of "Culture and Civilisation," made her a target for satire in the first weeks of term. ?­Boys-­even ?­thirty-?­year-?­old ?­men-­being always boys, there were whispers and guffaws.

"Guess what? Her handbag fell open and there was a James Bond novel inside."

"I saw her being picked up last week in an ?­E-?­Type Jag. Driven by a woman!"

"Took old Liz out last night and showed her a good time. Had a drink or two, quick bite, down a club, turns out she's a hot dancer, then back to her place, she gets out her stash, rolls us a couple of joints, and then"-­whereupon a smirk might cross the ?­boy-?­man's ?­face-"and then, no, sorry, a gentleman never tells." As you may imagine, there were other, more baroque versions in which a gentleman did indeed tell.

Such reactions came from those uncertain how to deal with her poise, and disconcerted by her authority. Their fantasies may have been misconceived; but at the same time there was something racy about Elizabeth Finch. If not actual and present, then potential. And when I set my own mind to wander, it might easily throw up an image of EF, say, in a ?­first-?­class sleeping compartment on a train crossing a darkened landscape; standing at the window in silk pyjamas, stubbing out a last cigarette, while a mysterious and now unidentifiable companion lets out a soft nasal whistle from the upper couchette. Outside, beneath a gibbous moon, she might discern a canted French vineyard or the dull shimmer of an Italian lake.

Of course, such fantasies define the fantasisers more than their subject. Either they presumed a glamorous past, or an imaginary present in which she sought compensation for the life she actually had; and further presumed that, like everybody else, she was needy and dissatisfied in some way. But this was not the case. The Elizabeth Finch who stood before us was the finished article, the sum of what she had made herself, what others had helped her make, and what the world had provided. The world not just in its contemporary manifestations but also in its long history. Gradually, we understood, and cast aside our clumsy musings as early, otiose reactions to her uniqueness. And without appearing to make any effort, she subdued us all. No, that's not quite right: it went deeper. Rather, she obliged ?­us-­simply by ?­example-­to seek and find within ourselves a centre of seriousness.

Linda came to seek my advice. This isn't something that often happens to me: I don't appear to be the counselling type. And as it turned out, she wanted to ask my advice about asking EF for her advice. I deliberately didn't quiz her, because with Linda it was bound to be some emotional drama. Besides, I thought approaching EF was a bad idea. She might be willing to discuss Goethe's love life in class, but that didn't mean she would be able, or willing, or even permitted by the college to give a student advice outside the lecture room. But I soon realised that Linda didn't really want my input; or rather, she wanted my input as long as it coincided with what she'd already decided to do. Some people are like that; perhaps most. So, to make her feel better, I shifted my position and approved her intention.

A day or two later, I was sitting by myself in the student bar when she appeared and sat down opposite.

"EF was wonderful," Linda began, already welling up. "I told her my heart trouble, and she was very understanding. She put out her hand and put it down like this close to where I was." Linda now did the same, laying her hand ?­palm-?­down on the table. "And she told me that love is all there is. It's the only thing that matters." And then ?­she-­Linda, that ?­is-­burst into tears.

I'm not at my best in situations like this, so I said, "I'll get us another drink."

When I got back from the bar, she was gone. All she left behind was a damp ?­palm-?­print halfway across the table, where she had laid her hand in imitation of Elizabeth Finch. I sat there and thought about Linda, probably for the first time. And the fact that EF never patronised even her most blurted opinions made me think about her more seriously as well. There was something urgent in Linda's glance when she looked at you. Urgent about what? Or just urgent generally? But as the imprint of her palm died, so did my concentration on her.

"One hundred and seven years ago, this very spring, a great painter is waiting for death; not immediately, but soon. He knows ?­it-­he has known this would be his end since the final stage of the disease declared itself. He is already confined to a wheelchair. Tertiary syphilis presents in many punitive ways, but he has at least been spared what for a painter would have been the most punitive: blindness. Each morning, they bring him a large bunch of fresh flowers in a crystal vase. He takes pleasure in arranging them. On some mornings, he merely looks at them, imagining them into paint. On better days, rearrangement is followed by depiction. He works quickly, for obvious reasons.

"He is capturing the evanescent, holding on to that moment before cut flowers begin to fade. By cutting them, we make them die sooner; by painting them we preserve them long after they have been thrown out. At which point the art becomes the reality, and the original flowers merely brief, forgotten simulacra.

"We might consider what he might have been considering. For instance, that old question which has become known as the Mozart dilemma: is life beautiful, but sad; or sad, but beautiful? Or maybe he found an answer to bypass the question. Such as this: life is beautiful, tout court.

"On the other hand, you might condemn such imaginings as both fanciful and sentimental. I await your judgement."

All of a sudden, her trail of words had stopped, and the questions were returned to us. Yes, what did we think? And soon we were discussing whether art was a depiction of reality, a concentration of it, a superior substitute for it, or just a beguiling irrelevance. And Geoff was demanding to know the social and political purpose of painting a jug of flowers. Many of us merely repeated our ?­already ­formulated opinions, or quoted pet lines once again ("Poetry makes nothing happen" versus "We are the movers and shakers / Of the world forever, it seems"); some of us actually began, in real time, to think for ourselves. You could watch it happening. And if, in retrospect, I acknowledge what EF would have seen at the ?­time-­that in many cases, "thinking for yourself" resulted less in truer, deeper thought than in the replacement of one idée reçue by ?­another-­even so, the process was to be valued for its own sake.

I never had one of those favourite, ?­well-?­remembered schoolmasters when I was a boy, one who showed me the excitements of mathematics, or poetry, or botany, and perhaps interfered with me sexually at the same time. So I was the more ?­grateful-­though the word is insubstantial compared to the ?­reality-­for having met and known Elizabeth Finch. As she said, we must always consider the element of chance in our lives. I don't know what the average allotment of good luck in a life is or should ?­be-­it's an unanswerable question, and doubtless there is no "should" in it ?­anyway-­but I do know that she was part of my good luck.

Years later, over lunch, I asked her about the ?­so-?­called Mozart dilemma. Is life sad but beautiful, or beautiful but sad? I felt, as I sat across from her with two plates of the day's pasta between us, as if I were consulting the oracle. "Life is both necessary, and unavoidable," she replied. I think she was telling me that the famous question was no more than a beguiling delusion. Or maybe not.

I never knew anyone with less ?­self-?­pity than Elizabeth Finch. She would have considered ?­self-?­pity ?­vulgar-­an adjec­tive she only ever used in a moral, never a social, sense. As for herself, the lack of ?­self-?­pity was part of the stoicism with which she faced life. She had ?­known-­and here I am only partly ?­guessing-­romantic disappointment, loneliness, the betrayal of friends, even a public shaming (which we'll come to in due course), but she faced them with calm indifference. "Faced" might suggest a facade, or at least a strategy; but her stoicism went to the core of her being. For EF, it was the only ?­mental-­and ?­temperamental-­approach to life. She bore pain implacably, and she never asked for ?­help-­moral help, that is. She once quoted to us, at dictation speed, words which I find in one of my student notebooks:

Some things are up to us and some are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, ?­aversions-­in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor are our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices, or, that is, whatever is not our doing. The things that are up to us are by nature free, unhindered, and unimpeded; the things that are not up to us are weak, enslaved, hindered, not our own. So remember, if you think that things naturally enslaved are free or that things not your own are your own, you will be thwarted, miserable and upset, and will blame both gods and men. But if you think that only what is yours is yours, and that what is not your own is, just as it is, not your own, then no one will ever coerce you, no one will hinder you, you will blame no one, you will not accuse anyone, you will not do a single thing unwillingly, you will have no enemies, and no one will harm you, because you will not be harmed at all.

I imagine that when she first read Epictetus, she found his truths ?­self-?­evident rather than revelatory.

When I tell people that she was the most ?­grown-?­up person I have known, I suppose what I mean is that there were principles very close behind, if not actually embedded in, all her actions and thoughts. Whereas for ?­me-­for most ?­people- ­our principles have a more glancing effect on what we do and what we say.

We tend to associate romanticism with optimism, don't we? She, I think, was a romantic pessimist.

Here's another thing: the dead can't tell you that you are wrong. Only the living can do ?­that-­and they may be lying. So I trust the dead more. Is that bizarre, or is it sensible?

And further to this: why should we expect our collective ?­memory-­which we call ?­history-­to be any less fallible than our personal memory?

"We must always bear in mind what might have happened but didn't, as well as what did. Why, you might ?­enquire-­what happened, happened, and that's what we have to deal with. Perhaps not. And this is not just a jolly game of ?­counterfactuals- ­what if Stauffenberg's bomb had killed Hitler?-­it is also a serious enquiry. We are too apt, I would propose, to see history as a kind of Darwinism. The survival of the fittest, by which, of course, Darwin didn't mean the strongest or even the ­cleverest, merely those best equipped to adapt to changing circumstances. But it is not like this in actual human history. Those who survive, or excel, or overmaster are merely those who are better organised and wave bigger guns; those who are better at killing. Peaceable nations are rarely ?­victorious- ­in ideas, to be sure, but ideas rarely prevail unless backed by the muzzle of a gun. It is lamentable, we would all agree, but it would be indolent not to recognise it. Because otherwise we merely have to sit on our ?­hands-­sit on our brains as well, and admit, To the victor the spoils, which also means, To the victor the truth.

"Do we really think that, say, the Etruscans were inferior to the Romans? Would they not have been a better influence on the world? Can we not see that the Albigensian heresy was more enlightened and more just than the medieval Church of Rome which crushed it so ruthlessly? Do we imagine that all those white settlers who exterminated all those indigenous tribes across the world were morally superior to their victims? Consider also that what we used to call the Dark Ages are now recognised as being full of Light. Consider the cases of the two ?­Julians-­two conspicuous examples of what might have been. Julian the Apostate, the last pagan emperor of Rome, who attempted to turn back the disastrous flood tide of Christianity. And the ?­lesser-?­known Julian of Eclanum, who was relaxed, not to say celebratory, about the sexual ?­instinct-­indeed, reverential, since he thought it natural, and therefore implanted by God. ?­Furthermore-­and even more gravely in the eyes of the ?­Church-­he did not ascribe to the doctrine of original sin. The Church, you will recall, ?­required-­and still ?­requires-­the ceremony of baptism in order to purge the babe of original, and necessarily inherited, sin. Julian of Eclanum did not believe that God intended this to be the case. Alas, he lost out to St. Augustine, who affirmed and insisted upon the notion of an eternal taint handed down the generations, and therewith, an unassuage­able guilt about sex. Imagine the consequences of this doctrinal dispute and imagine what the world would have been had Augustine not prevailed."

Elizabeth Finch paused, and read the minds of some of her students. "And no, I do not think it would have been like what are humorously termed the Swinging Sixties."

This class resulted in a rather less ?­high-?­minded discussion in the bar afterwards, with a facetious exchange of squalid episodes. But this was in the second term, and our little group, as often happens, was beginning to fracture. From my own point of view, Geoff was becoming a bore, and I was tired of what I saw as his ritual animus against EF. There was also something awkward between Linda and myself, which I couldn't fathom: as far as I could ascertain, it was one of those cases where A confides in B, and then blames B for having accepted the confidence. Something like that? And then there was a third factor: Anna.

She was Dutch, as I think I said. About five feet four, with hair cut short and flat across her head, a variety of anoraks, and a way of looking at you which wasn't exactly challenging, but suggested that you might want to raise your game a little when talking to her; and that if you did, she would both note and appreciate it. I was between marriages (though obviously I wouldn't have put it like that at the time), a weekend father still being reminded by minor jibes and manipulations of why I was no longer married. I wasn't especially looking for anyone or anything. I liked women as friends. Particularly when they didn't manipulate me in any way. Particularly when they expected more of ?­me-­in an unthreatening ?­way-­and were Dutch.

Anna once told me that the first time she'd seen the phrase "casual sex" in English, she thought it was a misprint.

"How's that?"

"The S and the U."

I still didn't get it.

"Causal sex."

"What's that?"

"Sex for a cause."

"Isn't sex always for a cause? Even if the cause is, well, the cause of having sex?"

"I thought it meant sex for a reason other than the reason of just having sex. Sex for a cause, a greater purpose. Sex because you are in love, obviously, or sex because you want to explore the world. Sex because your country's population is in decline."

Sex as travel? Sex as civic duty? I thought, somehow, this was very Dutch. Also, sort of adorable.

We moved softly into a kind of complicity, drinking after class with one another rather than the group; a movie, a walk, an art gallery, a bookshop; simple small steps.

A few weeks of this, and I said, our heads close together, "Do you think it might be a good idea to have causal sex with one another?"

She turned her face to mine. "Is that a misprint?"

"No."

"Well, only if you really mean it."

I said that I did, even if I wasn't sure what I was signing up to.

Elizabeth Finch didn't view classes as discrete allotments of time in which a set amount of information was to be conveyed, discussed and settled upon. She liked us to continue processing the ideas she had laid before us. So our time together became more ?­free-?­form, more ?­open-?­ended.

"You mentioned monocultures," Geoff said a few weeks after she'd given us her ?­mono-?­list. "I can't see what you've got against them. They're surely a sign of efficiency, of successful central planning."

"They might appear so," she replied, "and their advantages seem seductive. But let us go back to what we rather patronisingly call the good old days, when most people travelled small distances; often they never left the village in their entire lives, except for going to market in a nearby town. They saw a few people from ?­outside-­travellers, pedlars with gaudy goods, recruiting officers, brigands and so on. They were ?­self-?­sufficient, and obliged to be; they stored food against hard winters. They were not independent: there was governance over them, of ?­course-­the priest, the magistrate, the squire. I do not sentimentalise: they could be cruel masters. No one should believe in Merrie England and suchlike tomfoolery. But life continued like this for centuries.

"Then the railways arrived, all over Europe. And what was their main function? It was, as both Ruskin and Flaubert pointed out, to allow people to get from A to B so that they could be equally stupid with one another in a different location. I paraphrase their words. It was widely assumed that technological advance would bring moral benefit; the railways brought none. Any more than the Internet is going to. No moral benefit at all. Nor do I mean an increase in immorality; rather, such technological wonders are morally neutral. A railway train could bring food to the ?­famine-?­struck; equally, it could bring cannon, and cannon fodder, more quickly to the front.

"But you asked about monoculture. Let us begin with the word in its agricultural sense. Those old enclosed villages and towns produced the food, the clothes, the goods they required. The railway brought different food and clothes and goods at different prices. Very ?­quickly-­and since the law of the market is also morally ?­neutral-­they found they could buy more cheaply things they had traditionally produced themselves. And so, the countryside became increasingly monocultural. Take those charming Provençal villages and towns. All of a sudden, wine cost less when produced elsewhere; contrarily, their grain might be worth more if sent to another region. They ceased to be ?­self-?­sufficient. And so when the vineyards were struck by phylloxera or the fields by blight or hurricane, the neighbourhood starved. And became dependent upon the goodwill or the ?­self-?­interest of others. Who might have been distracted or negligent or, indeed, actively hostile. I tell you nothing you do not know."

She often overestimated us like this; it was flattering. In retrospect, it may have been knowing and calculated; but it was still flattering.

"And then we may take a wider view of the term monoculture. The monoculture of nations. The old nation states of Europe and ?­beyond-­what defined them? Race and geog­raphy, of course; conquest and empire; also, insane ideas about purity and exceptionalism. Remember that line from the 'Marseillaise,' and I translate: 'Let an impure blood sluice through the furrows of our fields.' Purity, blood. Plus religion, of course, and all the competing monocultures therein. I happened to be reading Hitler's Table Talk the other evening, and as he puts it, there ?­are-­or ?­were-­one hundred and sev­enty important religions in the world, all of which claimed to be the sole repositories of the truth. One hundred and ?­sixty-?­nine of them must therefore be in error."

Geoff, who was always alert and suspicious when EF approached anything political, asked, "Are you putting Hitler on our reading list?"

"You will remember," replied EF calmly, "that my list was entirely optional. The course of each lesson will, I hope, suggest to you certain books with which you are unfamiliar and that you might wish to read."

"But are you suggesting," Geoff continued, with a touch of aggression, "that we read Hitler?"

"I am suggesting that we familiarise ourselves with those who oppose us and whom we oppose, whether it be a living or a dead figure, whether it be a religious or political oppon­ent, or even a daily newspaper or weekly magazine. Know thy ?­enemy-­it is a simple and cogent ?­rule-­even thy dead enemy, for he may easily resuscitate. Also, as a great writer once put it, 'These monsters explain history to us.' "

But Geoff would not give up. "My dad was killed in the war and you're telling me to read Hitler?"

It was the only time I saw Elizabeth Finch lose her composure. And ?­yet-­and of ?­course-­she did it her way. She turned very slightly, until she was facing Geoff, and replied: "I am sorry for your loss. ?­But-­without in any way wishing to pull ?­rank-­I think we would find that Hitler destroyed far more of my family than he did of yours. That will be all for today."

And she walked out, picking her handbag from the lectern as she passed. No one wanted to be the first to speak. Eventually, more bewildered than belligerent, Geoff said,

"How was I to know she was Jewish?"

None of us answered.

I can't say that we ever attained the Socratic ideal she invoked in her first address to us; but we felt ourselves being drawn out, able to exercise our intelligence, able to theorise without fear of scorn. Not that she dealt in theory (or, for that matter, scorn); the nearest she got was a kind of epigrammatic generalisation. If I say that she used charm and wit in her teaching, that might make her sound manipulative, even knowingly seductive. Well, she was seductive, but not in any conventional way.

One evening, she was talking to us about Venice, and explaining a sequence of paintings by Carpaccio. She broke off:

"Of course, we should, all things being equal, be on the side of the underdog, the victim, the defeated, the obliterated, should we not?" She looked back up to the screen. "In the case of George and the ?­Dragon-­an encounter in which the dice were theologically ?­loaded-­any morally sentient human being must surely sympathise with the poor dragon."

We gazed at the painting, in which the lance of a heavily armoured George pierces the beast's mouth and exits through the back of his skull, while the pious princess, whom the future saint has come to rescue, prays on a rock behind him. The dragon, while fearsomely scaly, is in fact no bigger than the saint's horse.

"You might agree that this is more a demonstration of superior weaponry than of superior piety."

Geoff, always keen to stir, said, "But it's St. George-­that's not very patriotic of you, if I may say so."

"You may indeed, Geoff. But please consider that there were many St. Georges, patron saints of many countries and cities, and that the desert landscape in which this encounter takes place is hardly the garden of England. The wider point is that our purpose here is to transcend mere patriotism. We might analyse the words of 'Land of Hope and Glory,' but we shall not be singing them."

Do you see what I mean? She was corrective but not diminishing, as she directed us elegantly away from the ob­vious.

"Consider too that the poor dragon who has been terrify­ing the city in the ?­background-­witness the dismembered body parts of previous victims in the ?­foreground-­is not just some extreme example of wildlife, one even scarier than those rogue elephants which run berserk in India. The dragon is symbolic. He lives in, and represents, Cappadocia, a pagan country until St. George arrived to demonstrate the power of muscular, or rather military, Christianity. And if we continue on with this spiritual storyboard, we shall see how the taming of the dragon leads directly to the conversion of the whole country to Christianity. So what Carpaccio gives us here is both a ?­freeze-?­frame from an action movie and a compelling work of propaganda. One secret of the Christian religion's success was always to employ the best moviemakers."

If she taught us one thing, it was that history is for the long haul; further, that it is not something inert and comatose, lying there and waiting for us to apply a spyglass or telescope to it; instead, it is active, effervescent, at times volcanic. I suppose her "formative years," as they say, took place in the Fifties, yet she no more embodied them than she embodied the Age of Enlightenment or the fourth century ad. Like some ancient ?­goddess-­yes, I know what I'm ?­saying-­she seemed to stand aside from time, or perhaps above it.

"I would like to suggest that failure can tell us more than success, and a bad loser more than a good loser. Further, that apostates are always more interesting than true believers, than holy martyrs. Apostates are the representatives of doubt, and ?­doubt-­vivid ?­doubt-­is the sign of an active intelligence. I have previously mentioned Julian the Apostate. Given who we are, we might take as our point of entry the poet Swinburne. Algernon Charles Swinburne, himself an apostate in revolt against Victorian values. Though it has to be said, a melodramatic, even hysterical one. Another example of the English public schoolboy marked in both senses by the cruel, yet to some enjoyable, practice of flagellation. He pursued traditional British paths of dissolution, from which he was rescued by the lesser poet Theodore ?­Watts-?­Dunton, who took him to live soberly at The Pines, number 11 Putney Hill, Putney, a ?­semi-?­detached suburban villa. Fate can be such an ironist, would you not agree? The reformed sinner was of course a ?­well-?­used Victorian ?­trope-­and none the better for it. But I am a little astray.

"Swinburne in his poem 'Hymn to Proserpine' has the following memorable couplet:

Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath;

We have drunken of things Lethean, and fed on the fulness of Death.

The pale Galilean is of course Jesus of Nazareth, and that phrase was supposedly uttered by Julian the Apostate as he lay dying on the battlefield. Famous last words admitting the victory of Christianity over paganism. And indeed, Julian turned out to be the last pagan emperor. What the ?­papers- ­the pagan newspapers at ?­least-­might have called a 'hold-out hero.' He was a ?­scholar-?­soldier: when he set off to campaign in Gaul, the empress Eusebia gave him a library so that he could philosophise between battles. Strangely Swinburne does not name him. He names, however, in the poem's title, Proserpine, who in the ancient world was, among other ?­things-­the gods being famous ?­multitaskers-­Goddess and Defender of Rome. She was now about to be replaced by a different protectress: Mary the mother of Christ, who has presided over that city ever since.

"We might conceive that Julian's words are meant to be read as a gracious concession of spiritual defeat. Julian the good loser. Not a bit of it. Swinburne, like many distinguished predecessors, is identifying this as the moment when European history and civilisation took a calamitous wrong turn. The old gods of Greece and Rome were gods of light and joy; men and women understood that there was no other life, so that light and joy had to be found here, before nothingness encloses us. Whereas these new Christians obeyed a God of darkness, of pain and servitude; one who declared that light and joy existed only after death in His confected heaven, progress towards which was filled with sorrow, guilt and fear. 'We have fed on the fulness of Death,' indeed. On such matters, both Julian and Swinburne agreed.

"Of course," EF went on, "we should always seek to avoid ­self-?­pity. To imagine that it all went wrong in the Persian des­ert in ad 363, and sixteen centuries later we discover at birth that we have been dealt a hand stacked against us, allowing us to cry, 'It's not my fault, Guv.' It is better to believe that everyone else feels like this, and that a stacked hand is normal. Historical ?­self-?­pity is no more attractive than personal ?­self-?­pity."

Of which no one could accuse Elizabeth Finch.

Another of her techniques was to start a class just by asking what we knew about a particular subject. These could be scary moments. What did we know about whatever? We were hardly experts on anything. Yet her approach was encouraging: "There are no wrong answers, even if all the answers are wrong." This was how she put it when announcing the subject of that particular day: "Slavery and its abolition."

I shall amalgamate our answers. William Wilberforce, father of Soapy Sam. Harriet Beecher Stowe. The Thirteenth Amendment, Abraham Lincoln. Slave traders in Africa who first sold slaves to the British for transportation. Some traders were African, some Arab. ?­Slave-?­owning common throughout the world. The Royal Navy patrolling the high seas, ?­stop-?­and-?­search vessels enforcing the ?­anti-?­slavery laws. Slave owners compensated for losing their "property," no compensation for having been a slave (Geoff).

"Yes," said EF. "Very good." By which she meant our answers were roughly what she expected. A few dates, please. Date of Thirteenth Amendment. No? 1865. Declaration of Independence. Yes, 1776. Date when the Pilgrim Fathers landed at Plymouth Rock? A little eager discussion, as among students at a college quiz night. 1620, very good. A final question: date when the first slaves were brought to an En­glish colony, landing at the ironically named Point Comfort? No? Still no? She paused. "1619."

She said no more for the moment, leaving us to our own reflections and calculations: for instance, that slaves and the British arrived together, and the British held slaves on that continent for almost twice as long as Americans did.

"Which brings me to the wider point." With EF, there always was one. "Ernest Renan, the great ?­nineteenth-?­century French historian and philosopher, once wrote the following: 'Getting its history wrong is part of being a nation.' Note, if you please, what he did not say. He did not say, 'Getting its history wrong is part of becoming a nation.' This would also be a true remark, but one considerably less provocative. We are familiar with the foundation myths on which countries rely, and which they furiously propagate. Myths of heroic struggle against an occupying power, against the tyranny of aristocracy and Church, struggles which produced martyrs whose spilt blood waters the delicate plant of liberty. But Renan is not talking about this. He says that getting its history wrong is part of being a nation. In other words, in order to believe in what we think our nation stands for, we must constantly, every day, in small acts or thoughts and large, deceive ourselves, as we constantly rehearse our comforting bedtime stories. Myths of racial and cultural superiority. Belief in benign monarchs, infallible popes, and honest government. Assumptions that the religion into which you are born, or have chosen to adopt, just happens to be the one sect which is true among hundreds of heathen creeds and apostasies out there.

"And this disjunction between who we are and who we believe we are leads naturally to the question of national hypocrisy, of which the British are a famous example. Fam­ous, that is, in the eyes of others who are inevitably blinded by their own national hypocrisies."

Strangely, it was after this class that Anna and I had our first row. For once, we stayed with our group in the student bar. Which made it public, and so more corrosive. And she began it.

"All I'm saying is, I don't feel personally responsible."

"But you had an empire as well, you had slaves."

"So did every other European country. Even focking Belgium."

I laughed at the wonky vowel which at other times I would have found endearing.

"They were the worst, Belgium," I agreed. "Conrad. Heart of Darkness."

"But I'm not a focking Belgian anyway."

"Well, don't you think there's such a thing as collective responsibility?"

"Yes," Geoff interrupted, "like with the German people as led by Elizabeth Finch's favourite diarist."

This intervention annoyed both of us.

"I do not feel, and am not, responsible for what the soldiers and merchants of my country did centuries before I was born. And when my ancestors were the equivalent of slaves in one of the poorest parts of Holland."

"A) Your ancestors weren't slaves, bought and sold and raped and tortured and killed on a whim. And B) Isn't it up to the descendants of slaves to tell us whether they feel that a terrible crime was committed against their ancestors, the pain of which is still with them?"

"Go for it, Neil, we'll make a lefty of you yet."

"Fuck off, Geoff."

But I didn't look at him. I looked only at Anna. The others were silent.

"You can't make me feel responsible. Or guilty. I'm not. Sorry. That's that."

"I'm not trying to make you do or be anything. You are what you are."

"Thanks for reminding me. Thanks for allowing me to be myself. What's that thing your sainted Elizabeth Finch likes to quote? 'Some things . . .' "

Christ, now she was attacking EF as well. "Some things are up to us and some are not up to us. Epictetus."

"I know it's focking Epictetus. So what I'm saying is that Dutch slavery, of which I expect you know very little, is not up to me, and you can't make it so."

"I wasn't trying to."

"Of course you were."

We left, our drinks unfinished, and went our separate ways. Maybe all quarrels are really about something else, as they say. But in retrospect, it was a turning point.

At the end of our year with Elizabeth Finch, we were asked to submit an essay. It was to be of our own devising, but ?­could-­indeed, ?­should-­relate to a subject arising from our time together. I remember her adding, wryly, "And you may show your workings if you so wish." We didn't discuss it much, perhaps fearing ideas theft. While EF's way of teaching excited us, it also laid clear how few original thoughts our own brains were producing.

I failed to turn anything in. I mooched scrappily around with a few vast ?­notions-­the frailty of historical truth, the frailty of human character, the frailty of religious belief, and so ?­on-­but I can't remember writing more than a paragraph or two. What was taking up my attention instead was the frailty of human relations and the frailty of marriage. I'd been divorced now for a couple of years, and was discovering that the notion of a clean, legal break is delusional. Hurt, resentment, financial ?­suffering-­they all continue. And it's easy for the sanest human being to become obsessive, revengeful, ?­self-?­pitying-­insane, in other ?­words-­often prompted by a simple lawyer's letter, a single session with a new therapist, or a supposedly adult discussion about the future of a child. I'll spare you the details, because I want to spare myself the details.

I went to EF and explained, as best I could, how my brain, as well as a slice of my heart, had absconded in the recent weeks.

"I'm sorry," I said in conclusion. "I feel I've let you down."

I somehow expected her to console me. Instead, she said quietly, "I'm sure it is only temporary."

Solipsistically, I thought she was referring to my ?­post-?­divorce crisis. Later, I realised she was referring to my letting her down, and to that being temporary. That somehow, in the future, I would justify her belief in me. This often happened: she said things, you didn't understand them, but remembered them, and years later they made sense.

I am not a bold person. Those decisions in my life which might be mistaken for boldness (marrying, divorcing, having a child out of wedlock, living abroad for a while) would be better ascribed to either nervous overexcitement or cowardice. If, in our lives, as the philosopher decreed, some things are up to us and some are not up to us, and freedom and happiness depend upon recognising the difference between the two categories, then my life has been the opposite of philosophical. I have ?­see-?­sawed and zigzagged between thinking myself in control and realising that everything was hopeless and way beyond me, both the understanding and the living. Well, like most people, I suppose.

I had failed EF. I had been asked to do one thing by her and had failed. She had been forgiving in a way particular to her. She had not made me feel bad. So as I turned to go, I stopped, and in a moment of nervous overexcitement (caused by the fear I might never see her again), found myself saying, without looking at her,

"This may be quite out of order . . ."

"Yes?"

"But would you . . . I mean . . . might we have a drink sometime . . . or even . . . lunch?"

Now I looked at her, and she was smiling.

"My dear Neil, of course. And lunch, I think, would be the more enjoyable."

And so another part of my life began. We would meet twice or three times a year, at a small Italian restaurant in West London, near where she lived. The rules were clear, without ever really being explained. I would arrive promptly at one; she would be sitting there, smoking. We would have the pasta of the day, a green salad, one glass of white wine and black coffee. Once, early on, I went off-piste and ordered the veal escalope. "How is that?" she asked, leaning eagerly across the table. "Disappointing?" Lunch would last ?­seventy-?­five minutes; she would always pay. As I sat down, she would say, "And what have you got for me?" putting the initial onus on me; but that was all right. And because I knew I had only ?­seventy-?­five minutes with her, it concentrated not just my choice of subject, but also, in a ?­way-­no, ?­absolutely-­my intelligence. I was cleverer in her presence. I knew more, I was more cogent; and I was desperate to please her.

As I said, she was not in any way a public person; nor would she have wanted to be. She had neither the temperament nor the aptitude for fame. I doubt it was a matter she ever considered. I remember her once remarking that Clio was the Greek muse of history, usually portrayed with a book or scroll in her hand, "whereas in our more enlightened age the Clio Awards are distributed in the United States for excellence in advertising." Also, that Clio was the muse of lyre playing, but doubted that those showing excellence in advertising would be seren­aded by a bank of lyre players. Her manner was droll and wry, and ?­thus-­to us, ?­anyway-­neither patronising nor snobby. It was also a way of saying: don't be taken in by the proclaimed values of your own age.

I asked her, during one of our lunches, why she preferred teaching adults.

"I am not excited by incuriosity," she replied. "Para­doxically, the young are more certain of themselves, while their ambitions, if objectively nebulous to the outsider, seem clear and achievable to them. Whereas with adults . . . it's true that some enrol as a kind of ?­self-?­indulgence but most come because they feel a lack in their lives, a sense that they might have missed something, and that they now have a ?­chance- ­perhaps even a final ?­chance-­to put things right. And I find that profoundly affecting."

I thought back to how the class had first reacted to her: with a certain awe, much preliminary silence and awkwardness, some unspoken amusement, all quickly replaced by a genuine warmth. Also, by a kind of protectiveness, because in a way we sensed that she was unfit for the world, and that her ?­high-?­mindedness might make her vulnerable. And this was not meant to be patronising either.

I also ?­realised-­later ?­on-­that the way she had described her adult students applied exactly and absolutely to my case; which was doubtless why I wanted to hang on to her after I had taken my degree. Also, perhaps, why she allowed me to.

I would sometimes bend to please her; she would never modify a thought or opinion to avoid disagreement. I got used to ?­this-­I had to. Once, we were talking about public reaction to some political scandal, and I suggested that it was normal for people to need someone to blame.

"Normal doesn't mean it's a good idea," she answered.

"But if there's someone you can blame, then you can do something about it."

"Like what?"

"Vote them out of office."

"It's a recurrent delusion that a change of government will make a difference."

"That's a counsel of despair."

"No, it's a counsel of realism. Do you see me despairing?"

"No. But I also bet you have voted in every single election."

"In the sure knowledge that it will effect little."

"Then why do it?"

"Civic duty. It is expected."

At which point I slightly lost it. "That sounds incredibly patronising."

"To whom?"

"To . . . well, the rest of the electorate."

"You mean that I am meant to share fully in their hopes and dreams and subsequent disappointments? A politician's main function is to disappoint."

"And that sounds incredibly cynical, you know."

"I disagree. I am not a cynic."

"What are you then?"

"I am not vain enough to attach a label to myself."

She was, as ever, preternaturally calm. Which sometimes unnerved me. Was she just toying with me? Still teaching me?

"So you're not a cynic. Are you . . . an anarchist?"

"Intellectually, I see the attraction. Realistically, it would never work, given the crooked timber of humanity."

"So you accept that we need some organising power?"

"I accept that we shall have one, ?­willy-?­nilly."

"And that constitutional democracy is the least worst sys­tem we've so far discovered?"

"It would have been a democrat who said that, wouldn't it?"

"So you're not a cynic or an anarchist. Are you . . . an Epicurean?"

"He was certainly a very wise psychologist."

"I think you're a Stoic."

"It is indeed an attractive position."

"Because it lets you off the hook?"

"My dear Neil, you're getting a little close to insult."

"I'm sorry. I . . ."

"Oh, I wasn't in the least offended. I was just pointing out how insults most often occur when an argument is being lost. And you are trying to stick labels on me. I am not a steamer trunk."

Undaunted, I gave it a last try. "OK, then, well, are you a feminist?"

She smiled at me. "Naturally-­I am a woman."

You see how hard it was to have a straightforward conversation with her? No, that's another insult, I realise. I mean: you see how hard it was for me, and those like me, ever to be in charge of a conversation with her, or even be on equal terms? Not because she manipulated ?­it-­she was the least manipulative woman I've ever ?­met-­but because she examined things more widely, with a different horizon and focus.

You can see, I hope, why I adored her. And I adored the fact that she was much cleverer than me. When I put ?­this-­in so many ?­words-­to Anna, she called me an intellectual maso­chist. And I didn't mind that label either.

A question worth asking, even at this late stage. At first I thought Elizabeth Finch a Romantic pessimist; now I would call her a Romantic Stoic. Are the two conditions compat­ible? Can they coexist, or is one the consequence of the other? It's tempting to posit that EF started off as a ?­high-?­minded Romantic, and then, after life had inflicted its inevitable disappointments on her, she became a Stoic. Not that I had any actual evidence. But what if it turned out that she was once engaged to be married, but was jilted when on the way to the registry office? Or one might imagine a long infatuation followed by sudden betrayal and violent disillusionment. Such a narrative might offer a logical, indeed "natural," explanation, but it would also, psychologically, be banal; and banality was rarely a key when it came to EF. I prefer to believe that, as her heart and mind developed she became a Romantic and a Stoic in parallel. Uncommon, implausible? Yes, but so was she.

My affair with Anna lasted a year and more, then succumbed to its inbuilt asymmetry. Those characteristics which first attracted us to one ?­another-­her intensity, my ?­calmness-­came to be seen differently: as melodrama on the one hand, emotional indolence on the other. No real harm was ?­done-­though that is what one accused of emotional indolence would say, I suppose. But we were fond of one another and stayed so.

I didn't at first tell her about my lunches with EF ?­because-­well, because. Some friends we are possessive of, others not. But one day, I mentioned it, since I was seeing EF shortly. Anna didn't seem particularly interested as I described what it was like, how it was structured, where we met, what she ate and drank.

"That must be nice for you," said Anna. "For both of you."

"Yes. It's something special."

"So why didn't you tell me about it before?"

"Oh well, I don't know. Some things you keep to yourself, don't you?"

"You do," she replied with a familiar edge to her tone. But I wasn't responsible for her emotions any more, so I changed the subject.

Two days later, EF was just finishing her pasta when a chair was pulled up to our table.

"Mind if I join you?" said Anna, joining us anyway.

"Anna, how very pleasant," said EF calmly, as if this sort of intervention was always happening to her, and always welcome.

"I just thought it would be good to see you again. You look very well."

"Thank you, Anna. And so do you."

A few more meaningless niceties were exchanged, and EF rose to her feet.

"I'll leave you two together." After a brief consultation with Antonio, she left the restaurant without looking back.

"What the fuck do you think you're up to?"

"Wanted to set eyes on her again. It's a free country, isn't it?"

"Not always."

At which point, Antonio came over. "Signora Finch says order what you like, she will pay for it all tomorrow."

I was furious, yet embarrassed by my anger. Anna reacted as if I was being absurdly possessive and ?­tight-?­arsed, whereas she was remaining her normal, warm, spontaneous self. Furthermore, she made it sound as if her relationship with EF was somehow as valid as mine. At least I restrained myself from saying "Don't ever do that again," or "So there is such a thing as a free lunch." Instead, I just sulked, and she futilely tried to tease me about sulking, which I futilely denied, and . . . oh, you know how it goes, don't you?

I wrote EF a letter, apologising and explaining that Anna's arrival had nothing to do with me (though I suppose it had). In reply, I got a brief note making no comment on anything I'd said. She merely wrote: "We shall continue the conversation." Which we did, to my great relief.

Our lunches continued for nearly twenty years, a still and radiant point in my life. She would propose a date; I would always make myself free. As she got ?­older-­well, as we both got ?­older-­she was beset by the usual ailments and mishaps, of which she always made light. But to me she was unchanged: in dress, conversation, appetite (small), smoking (determined). I would arrive, she would already be there, I would sit down, and she would ask, "So what have you got for me?" And I would smile, and do my best to gratify her curiosity, to make her laugh, to report from a world of failed marriages, successful children and a peripatetic career. Her intellectual interests were timeless. And she always paid for lunch.

She cancelled, or rather deferred, twice in a row, "given the unforeseen yet unignorable depredations of the human envelope," as she put it both times. I failed to understand that she was dying. There was no farewelling, no summons, no final message. I imagined that she had died uncomplainingly, stoically, in silence, almost in secret. I received an invitation to the funeral from one Christopher Finch, apparently her brother; until this moment I had always assumed she was an only child. Some thirty of us assembled in the smaller chapel of a chilly brick crematorium in South London. There was Bach on a CD, readings from Donne and Gibbon, then the brother spoke some simple, touching words, mainly about their childhood; he looked at the coffin and wept. I recognised a few faces and nodded at them, shook hands with Christopher Finch on the way out, and declined to go on to an upstairs room in a nearby pub, where there would be sandwiches and wine. Somehow, I wasn't ready to discuss her with others, ask the conventional questions and get the conventional answers. Also to observe, as a wake progresses, how voices become raised, how awkward laughter starts, spreads, then becomes raucous. Laughter which means well, we're still alive today, and Liz wouldn't disapprove, would ?­she-­no killjoy, that's one thing you can say about our Liz. Why, do you remember when . . . No, none of that. I also wanted to avoid those moments of competitive grief, always a danger on such occasions. Who knew her best, who mourned her most. I wanted Elizabeth Finch to myself, and so I took her home in my head.

A lawyer's letter informed me that Elizabeth Finch had left me "all my papers and my library, to do with as he wishes." I was flattered but baffled. The two books she had written were long out of print. The dreamer in me wondered if she had left some sudden, late masterpiece which I might have the honour of ushering into the world. The voyeur in me wondered if she had left a laceratingly ?­self-?­revealing diary; at times, my tawdry imagination was no better than those of the loucher students she had taught. I somehow wanted there to be a secret to discover, even if it was no more than, say, a mild addiction to gambling on the horses (EF in a betting shop! Or telephoning someone she might describe as "my turf accountant"!). But the sensible part of me judged all such suppositions improbable. I expected that EF, just as she had controlled her life, would also have controlled her posterity. There would probably be a brief, lucid note instructing me what to do.

I went to the block of ?­red-?­brick flats in West London to which I had never previously been invited. It looked as if it had once had uniformed porterage; nowadays the porter was diminished to an entry code by the front door. Waiting for me was Christopher Finch, only sibling and sole executor. He was cheery, ?­white-?­haired, ?­pink-?­cheeked and plump in a short car coat, blue suit and ?­quasi-?­regimental tie; seemingly as unexotic and unmysterious as his sister had been exotic and opaque.

"I don't really know what this is about," I said.

"Me neither. But then I'm not a literary chap in any way. Though I like a good yarn. Something to distract me."

"Yes, we all need that."

"Ah, but I read the sort of stuff my sister would have scorned."

"I think she was much less scornful than people assumed," I said, then felt I had gone too far. "Sorry-­you were her brother."

"Yes, but you're not telling me she would have approved of Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley and Dick Francis."

"I wish I'd seen her trying to read one of them."

He chuckled. "Like you couldn't imagine her wolfing down a full English breakfast."

Her flat was immaculately tidy, beige and brown in tone, books and small prints on the wall, a ?­heavy-?­shaded standard lamp. There was no television in the sitting room, and no microwave in the kitchen; just a tiny fridge, an antique gas range and a Baby Belling; on the floor a cardboard box filled with carrier bags. A single bed, fitted wardrobes, and an underpowered bedside light. There was no plant life anywhere. A very old portable record player stood on its side near a rack of LPs. The Roberts radio was original, not a vintage remake. Flats and houses left empty by death can often feel abandoned and depressing; it's normal, in our grief, to anthropomorphise such places. Yet somehow, this didn't apply ?­here-­perhaps because EF had never embraced and loved the place, merely occupied it. And in return the ?­flat- ­how can I put this without more anthropomorphism?-­felt indifferent, even superior to our presence.

I scanned the bookshelves. "A distinct shortage of Desmond Bagleys."

Christopher Finch laughed.

"When did you last see her? I mean, if I may . . ."

"A few days before she died. But before that it'd been a year and more. I'd come up to town every so often, and we'd have lunch. In a ?­non-?­alcoholic tea shop. And as you can imagine, it wasn't easy getting her to come down and visit."

"Where do you . . . ?"

"Essex. Now that's a whole train journey away."

He said it ironically, but without resentment, merely an acknowledgement that this was how his sister was.

He went on, "I used to see her every few months. Less frequently as time went on."

"She was good at putting people off," I said. "Politely but firmly."

"That was my sister for you. She never told me she was ill until near the end. I suppose she wanted to keep it to herself."

We looked at one another. It was hard to imagine a more dissimilar brother and sister. They even had different ways of being well mannered.

"I suppose you'd better be about your business. I'll just check out the unlikely notion that there's some wine in the fridge."

An unlocked filing cabinet contained everything to do with banks, lawyers, accountants, house insurance and so on. Her will had been straightforward.

Her desk was an Arts and Crafts item in English oak, the only piece of furniture that was more than just functional. It too was unlocked. Files, notebooks, papers, typescripts.

"I'm not sure how to proceed," I said.

"Why don't you just take it all away? Anything that prop­erly belongs to the family you can bring back."

It was nice to be trusted. I said I'd report in due ?­course- ­perhaps I could take him to lunch.

"You could always come down to Essex," he replied. "It's only a train journey away."

"By the way, when did she make her will?"

"Oh, quite a while ago. Fifteen or twenty years? I can check for you."

"Yes, please."

We shook hands. I took the contents of her desk away with me. A week or so later, all her books, carefully boxed up, arrived in my flat.

For quite some months, they stayed in their boxes, while the contents of her desk went unexamined. It wasn't the weight of responsibility that held me back; more, superstition. Her body was gone, cremated according to her instructions; her memory, kept by family and friends and ?­ex-?­students, would burn intermittently. But here, in my flat, was something between body and memory. Dead pieces of paper which were somehow capable of giving off life.

Tentatively, and with mixed moral feelings, I took out a few of her notebooks. They were squat, ?­red-?­and-?­black hardbound items, cheap imports from Flying Eagle of Shanghai. This surprised me: I would have expected elegant doeskin in subtle hues. But then I remembered the same kind of surprise when I found out what cheap cigarettes she elegantly stowed in her tortoiseshell case. The notebooks were numbered by EF; some were missing, and none was dated. Nor were they internally sequential; she clearly went back to add comments and corrections. They were written in a hand I would call bastardised italic; or personalised italic. Always in pencil, as if to say: all thought is provisional, and may be rubbed out. And her handwriting varied, though whether this was caused by age, tiredness or mood, I cannot guess.

I poured myself a glass of wine and let my eye dodge here and there.

-?­To be a stoic in an age of ?­self-?­pity is to be judged standoffish; worse, unfeeling.

-?­The personal is ?­political-­such has been the mantra of the day for decades. An easy complaint. Rather, the personal is historical. (And the personal, lest we forget, is also hysterical.)

-?­Strange how there are men who convince themselves that lust is an emotion. Indeed, one of the primary ones.

-?­And there are many others who confuse feeling guilty with being absolved. They are less aware that there are stages in between.

-?­A woman described herself recently as "preternaturally truthful." Which is melodramatic nonsense. There are not degrees of truthfulness. There are degrees of lying, but that is another matter.

-"The philosophers are not agreed on the number of the passions." AC.

No, stop. I had barely started, and was already turning this into The Wit and Wisdom of Elizabeth Finch. She would have hated that: like another ?­three-?­adjective misdescription. I'm anthologising her against her will. And I can't even be sure these are her own thoughts. That last one, for ?­instance-­about the number of the ?­passions-­is clearly by someone else.

And what about this: "The task of the present is to correct our understanding of the past. And that task becomes the more urgent when the past cannot be corrected." This might be EF's voice; equally, it could be a translation from some European ?­philosopher-?­historian of the past two hundred years.

Some entries were ?­paragraph-?­length, some ?­page-?­length, some attributed, many not. Some seemed scraps, or whimsicalities:

-?­St. Sebastian//hedgehog.

Here, at the top of a page, all alone, were a pair of initials:

-?­PG

Wodehouse? Parental Guidance? PG ?­Tips-­perhaps her favourite brand of tea?

And here was another solitary entry at the top of a page:

-?­J, dead at ?­thirty-?­one.

This intrigued me much more. Simple, plangent words. What had I said about the voyeur inside me? Unhesitatingly, I imagined a young man of particular interest to EF. I made him well formed, and taller than her. A cousin, perhaps, or a friend of Christopher's? Her first lover? But why did I immediately assume it was a man? In any case, someone she was deeply in love with. Definitely a few years older. And dead at ?­thirty-?­one? A sudden rare cancer, a motorbike ?­smash-?­up, drug overdose, perhaps even suicide. EF griefstruck, her heart paralysed, frozen for many years . . . or, indeed, for ever?

I was ?­shocked-­mainly by the novelettish banality of what my freewheeling mind threw up. How embarrassed EF would have been by her disciple. And yet . . .

A few days later, Christopher rang up.

"She made her will eighteen years ago. No codicils. A simple probate, the solicitor assures me. Knowing them, that'll mean at least a year."

"Thank you. And may I ask . . ." I didn't know how best to put it.

"Fire away."

"Well, this may sound a bit odd. But did she, as a young woman, have a friend called J?"

"Jay? As in ?­J-?­A-?­Y?"

"No, no, just J the initial. I don't know what it stands for. Someone who would have known Elizabeth. Perhaps a friend of yours."

"Hmm, J's a pretty common initial. John, Jimmy, Jack. Well, there was my old pal Jack Martin, bit of a ladies' man. Always used to say, 'Never trust a man with two Christian names.' Ha ha. Now, did Jack know Liz? Well, I can phone him if you like."

"No, no, that's not necessary. The J I'm after died at the age of ?­thirty-?­one. Do you remember anyone in your circle, or your family's circle . . . ?" I didn't like to add the possibility that it might have been a woman. It seemed a bit early in our acquaintance.

He thought for a bit. "There aren't many people you know who die at that age. There was Benson, of course, he must have been about thirty. Went out into the woods and hanged himself, poor devil."

"Did he know Elizabeth?"

"Oh no, he was part of, what shall I call it, a chaps' drinking club. And now I remember, his name was Toby."

"Well, if anything occurs to you . . ."

"Yes, of course. Come down and see us sometime. It's only a train journey away."

From EF's notebooks:

-?­There can be a complacency to failure as much as a complacency to success.

Needless to say, she had neither. And I doubt she ever thought of herself in terms of success versus failure.

And me? My favourite child, Nell, aged thirteen, once said of me, "Dad is the King of Unfinished Projects." I smiled at the memory of this sudden truth; also, at the pleasure of being examined by a ?­sharp-?­minded teenager. But was I being ?­complacent-­that's the question.

Do marriages count as "projects?" I suppose so, even if it rarely feels like that at the start. And both of mine went "unfinished" in the sense that they were terminated, if neither by me. As I said, I've had a lot of jobs, especially in what is now called the "hospitality sector"; I even ?­half-?­owned a restaurant at one point. And if that went "unfinished" I would blame the economic recession of the time. I spent a year or so refurbishing vintage cars and selling them on. I have a lot of energy and enthusiasm; as an actor, I was a quick study. But I am often restless. I tried to educate myself above the level I was at when I left college, even if to the outsider (or wife) it merely looked as if I was reading a lot of books. Who knows, when my hair is white, I may even take up pottery; I hear it can be very satisfying.

But I don't regard all this chopping and changing as failure; nor do I feel complacent about it. What's the opposite of complacent? ?­Guilt-?­ridden? ?­Self-?­hating? Are such emotions meant to be proof of integrity? Of course I feel guilt about my marriages and accept, in both cases, approximately ?­forty-?­five per cent of the responsibility. But should I feel guiltier than that to avoid the label of complacency? Well, I doubt there are too many people interested in the answer to that question.

The strange thing was, that despite many invitations from Christopher, I never did get down to Essex. Perhaps I was unconsciously siding with his sister. But when he came up to town, I always made sure to take him to a restaurant which served wine. He had already put the flat on the market and received a couple of offers. In reply, I told him that his sister's papers were interesting, but had left me a little confused. He laughed sympathetically. I said that there might be something publishable there, but couldn't be sure. Privately, I thought a small book of aphorisms and observations, printed in a hundred copies, might be the way to go.

"Well, I leave it all to you. Elizabeth obviously trusted you, so I shall too."

I felt ?­encouraged-­by his straightforwardness as much as his promise.

"It's strange how differently the two of you turned out."

"That's putting it mildly."

"And your parents?"

"Somewhere in the middle. Which means that both of us disappointed them. Oh, not obviously, and I 'gave them grandchildren' as the saying goes. But I think they wanted Liz to be more conventional, and me to be more . . . ?­go-?­ahead, I suppose."

After school, he'd taken a ?­short-?­service commission, then trained as an accountant. He ended up combining the two and doing the books for some regiment. I'd never thought about the army having accountants before.

"Safe," he said, as if in ?­self-?­rebuke. "Safe."

"No one's ever called her Liz before," I commented.

"Used to call her that when we were kids, until she stopped me. I would have been about ten, so she must have been seven. Told me her name was Elizabeth. And I was Christopher, not Chris. Naturally, I obeyed her. But I've always called her Liz to myself. Massive rebellion, eh?"

"Were you close?"

"Hard to say. I was her big brother. Mum and Dad said it was my job to look after my little sister. But she didn't want any looking after. She never followed me around. I followed her around."

"Did you play games together?"

"Why are you asking me all these questions? You're not planning to write something about her, are you?"

"No, not at all." (Was that true?) "It's just that I was ?­too- ­scared, I ?­suppose-­to ask her stuff like that when she was alive. And I never even knew she had a brother. I guess I'm trying to catch up on knowing her. Even though it's obviously too late in one sense."

"Join the club," he replied, raising his glass to me.

"You have how many children?" (Why was I asking this? I was hardly going to write a biography of him.)

"Two. One of each. And she was a good auntie. In her own particular way."

"Of course. How else?"

"She never forgot their birthdays. Or Christmas. If I sent them up to town she'd always be at the barrier waiting for them. They knew they could trust her absolutely. They'd go to a museum or gallery, but she'd always make it fun for them. Not 'This is a great painting by a great master,' but she'd stand them in front of it and after a while say something like, 'Can you spot the squirrel in the background?' Then there'd be lunch. And she'd buy them ice cream and chocolate and so on. Of course, she didn't exactly take them to the funfair, if you know what I mean."

Elizabeth Finch on the ?­dodgems-­now that would be a sight.

But his mood had suddenly shifted.

"She said a funny thing to me when she was in hospital. Strange, I mean, not funny. It was awful to see her, all thin and bony. Not that she had much flesh on her at the best of times. Though I must say she managed to make a hospital gown look elegant. I was pretty wound up, as you might imagine. But I knew she wouldn't have wanted me to break down, or tell her all the things I'd never told her before. So all I said was, 'It's a bastard, cancer, it's such a fucking bastard, Liz, a fucking bastard.'

"She turned her head towards me, and I saw those eyes of ?­hers-­you remember how big they ?­were-­and now they looked huge in this shrunken, ?­skull-?­like head. She smiled faintly and whispered, 'Cancer, my dear Christopher, is morally neutral.' What do you think she meant by that?"

I paused. I was taken back to her teaching. I could have mentioned railways and monoculture, but I didn't think this would have been any help. So instead I just said, "I think she was agreeing with you. In her own way."

He didn't ask me to explain, just smiled and said, "That's nice."

We both sat in silence for a while. I ordered another bottle of wine.

"Did you . . . can I ask you . . . did she ever talk about her private life?"

"What do you think?"

"I think she didn't."

"She could have been married for all I knew. Several times. To a succession of Buddhist monks." There was a posthumous ?­irritation-­even ?­resentment-­in his voice.

"You never saw her with a man?"

"No, never. Actually, yes, once, by chance. We were meeting somewhere, not a station, but some kind of public concourse, and I was early. I suddenly saw her, about fifteen yards away. She was saying goodbye to a bloke. Tall, ?­double-?­breasted overcoat, that's all I noticed. Because I was looking at her. She had put her hands out, flat in front of her, palms down, and he took them in his. Or rather, he put his hands underneath hers, palm to palm, so that she could press down. Then, when she had this support, she raised herself on one leg. I thought they were going to kiss, but they didn't. It was like she was climbing up to look at his face more closely. And her other leg, the one she wasn't standing on, she sort of stuck out backwards, at a right angle. It looked . . . peculiar, like a stork or something. Flamingo." He seemed embarrassed by the memory, even at this distance of time. His cheeks were normally ?­pink-­the pink of a countryman, or at least someone who sits long hours in a pub ?­garden-­but were they pinker now? It didn't matter: his unease was ?­clear-­as clear as if he'd caught her in bed with her overcoated companion. "Then she lowered herself back on both heels, took her hands from on top of his, and watched him walk away."

"Did she spot you looking?"

"No, and I knew I wasn't meant to do or say or see anything. I mean, that was obvious from all our previous life. But something got into me. I don't know how to describe ?­it-­righteous indignation, something like that. I walked up, kissed her on both ?­cheeks-­but formally, as we always ?­did- ­and said, 'So who's your feller?' She looked straight back at me, as only Liz could, and said, 'Oh that? That was nobody.' Case closed, witness dismissed."

I could well imagine it. "And at the time she would have been . . . ?"

"Early forties."

When she was alive, I would have thought: that's Elizabeth Finch for ?­you-­what more did you expect! Now that she was dead, I could see how painful the moment must have been for Chris. A door might have been opened, but then his sister slammed it in his face, as if to say: back to your hutch, and your conventional life.

And the strange thing was that later, whenever I imagined, or reimagined, the scene, I found that I was embarrassed, as if I'd been there on that public concourse. And Chris's description somehow turned into one of my own memories. And I reacted to it as Chris had ?­done-­feeling that EF didn't have the right to behave as dismissively towards me as she had.

From EF's notebooks:

-?­I asked my GP if, when the time came, and the patient was beyond hope and unable to bear the pain, he or someone else would euthanise me. I added that I was clearly of sound mind when making this future request. He sympathised, but regretted that such an action was not permitted. I replied that, either way, I was hardly going to sue him, was I?

-?­The stylisation of the funerary address or newspaper obituary. The virtues have their boxes ticked. This is overt. But it depends on the less visible stylisation of memory.

-?­And then there is the inevitable third ?­stylisation-­of posthumous memory. Leading to the moment when the last living person to remember you has their very last thought about you. There ought to be a name for that final event, which marks your final extinction.

-?­None of the above should be mistaken for ?­self-?­pity.

-?­I do not make the mistake of thinking that before the Expulsions and Persecutions of religious or ethnic groups there was social harmony. Evidently not: the very aim of an Expulsion was to make the state more peaceful. Get rid of the Troublemakers, even if it is we who visit Trouble upon them. Make the state monoracial and monotheistic, and all shall be for the best in this best of all possible worlds. Natur­ally, the plan never worked out, for two reasons. One, the animosity continued, so that instead of persecuting The Other within your own borders, you went abroad to persecute him within his. And secondly, reducing the diversity between people didn't result in harmony within. The narcissism of small differences ensured this.

Needless to say, her files contained no love letters. I imagine her reading them until she had fully absorbed all they had to say, and then throwing them away. Or perhaps she threw them away en masse. Obviously, I can't know. But she had a wonderful memory and a great dislike of clutter, so this is my conclusion. And naturally her definition of clutter would have been broader than most people's.

I used to send her postcards from my occasional travels. She never mentioned receiving them, and clearly kept none of them. One year I was in a provincial French museum and bought a card of a Bernard Palissy dish. You may know his stuff. He was sixteenth century, I think, and made fantastical pottery, highly coloured, often with trompe l'oeil fruit and salad leaves baked into the platter, perhaps with a lizard crawling over it. I imagine they were table decorations rather than actual serving dishes: talking points, as some would say. I've always found them great fun. Anyway, at my next lunch with EF, and against my better judgement, I asked if she'd received my Bernard Palissy postcard. Her answer was I suppose what I deserved: "There's far too much of him around."

Of course, I never sent her another postcard. And I'm also aware that I'm making her sound severe. She wasn't. Yes, she was. But she would have given that verdict with a light, ironic cadence to her voice. "Against my better judgement" yes, I should have thought about it before posting my card from Aurillac. Also: "great fun." Elizabeth Finch did "rigorous fun," as she had told us, but didn't do "great fun" any more than she did sentimentality. If, or rather when, her niece and nephew sent thank-you notes after their trips to London, as I'm sure they did, I imagine their words would have been carefully read, but not survive the day. I imagine Christmas and birthday cards might have had an even shorter lifespan. Perhaps EF believed herself above (or beyond) sentimentality. No, that's unfair, as it implies she might once have pondered the matter. She probably hadn't. She lived, and felt, and thought, and loved (here I'm guessing) in her own way, and at her own level. And it was also about clutter. Most of us hold on to our emotional lives tenaciously, revelling in detail whether good or bad, glory or humiliation. EF knew that these lives also contain clutter, which needs to be expunged so that you can again see, and feel, more clearly. Again, I'm only guessing.

Christopher and I became friends. Is that the right word? He would come up to town every six to eight ?­weeks-"teeth collapsing again," "present for the wife," "see a man about a dog"-­and we would have lunch. From my point of view, he was my link to EF; from his, I was, I suppose, someone new in his life who was easy to get on with. And I always paid the bill. He protested, of course, but I said it was only fair, given all the lunches his sister had bought me. But ?­friends-­when does that word start applying?

At one point, Christopher asked ?­me-­sounding not hostile, but mildly ?­suspicious-­what I was up to.

"Up to?"

"Yes, still asking me questions about Liz."

It seemed our obvious point of contact. But it was more than that. "As I said, I don't want to let her go. And I don't want her to congeal in my memory to a settled run of anecdotes."

He grunted quietly. "And are you planning to"-­here he did ?­air-?­quotes-" 'write her biography'?"

"I'm honestly not sure. There were so many gaps and ?­no- ­go areas when she was alive."

"Too right."

"And I expect she would have hated the idea. Having someone 'crawling all over your life,' as an American writer once put it."

"Who was that?"

"John Updike."

Christopher shook his head to indicate benign ignor­ance. "And did someone write his biography?"

"Oh yes. Pretty soon after his death. Five years or so."

"Well, there's your answer," he said firmly. He looked dir­ectly, pale blue eyes out of a pink face. I couldn't tell whether he was approving or disapproving.

"You mean . . . ?"

"She's dead, you're alive, it's your call."

He made it sound obvious, even brutal. Later, I wondered about such certainty. In their lifetimes Elizabeth, though younger, had always been the senior sibling. Had death now reversed the hierarchy? Could it be as simple as that?

I've often puzzled over the relationship between men and women. (Men and men to a lesser degree, women and women hardly at all: the latter pairing seems obvious and sensible, not just as a matter of taste, but of necessity, given how the world has been fucked up by men.) Men and women: the misunderstandings and the misreadings, the false or lazy agreements, the ?­well-?­meant lying, the hurtful clarity, the unprovoked outburst, the reliable geniality which conceals emotional in­dolence. And so on. The expectation that we can understand another's heart when we can scarcely understand our own. For myself, I have had two divorces and three children by different women. But does this mean I understand things better, or worse? It certainly means I am reluctant to give advice. But then, as I said, very few people come to me for advice, so I am rarely tested.

I knew a man once, seemingly happy in his life and marriage, a good father, secure in his profession, who always showed a generous and laughing face to the world. He started an ?­affair-­whether it was his first or not I cannot ?­know- ­with, well, the sort of woman that sort of man might start an affair with. Ten years younger than his wife, but not dissimilar in social class and bright outgoingness. Maybe she drank and smoked a bit more than his ?­wife-­and who knows about the sex?-­but she didn't have children. She was approaching forty, he was approaching fifty. There were the usual matters to discuss: what to do about the children (late teenagers, both problematic)? He was by nature ?­clear-?­minded, but this was fresh territory for him, and so he vacillated. Yes, he would tell his wife, definitely, this weekend, promise; yes he would leave her, definitely, this weekend, promise; she must be patient, all this was new to him, yes of course he loved her. Several such deadlines came and went. Finally, he decided to be decisive. Yes, definitely, this weekend, cross my heart and hope to die; he'd tell his wife, and come to her on the Sunday evening. So, over the Friday and Saturday and most of Sunday, he broke the news to his wife and children: both the affair and his departure, and how he had so far imagined the future. Then he packed two suitcases, called a minicab, and arrived on the doorstep of his lover. Who did not even take the chain off the door, and through the crack told him to go straight back to his wife.

That's all I know. I heard it at second hand, and maybe retellings have ?­over-?­rounded it into a story. I cannot quantify the damage, or trace any path of forgiveness, or think myself further into the participants' hearts. Of course, it is in some ways a banal story, but it was not banal to them as it happened.

I live alone, and have done for some years. You probably guessed. Though, as I may have said, this is not my story.

From EF's notebooks:

-"The world is poorly ordered, because God created it by himself. He should have consulted a few ?­friends-­one on the first day, another on the fifth, another on the seventh, and the world would have been perfect." AC.

Her notebooks contained some fully composed arguments, pertinent quotations, private jottings, memories, and mere scribbles. "Brown Eggs" is one such item, which might be the title of a poem by Elizabeth Bishop, or the first entry of an unfinished shopping list. Textually, it was what EF might have called an olla podrida, a phrase which would have had some of us scurrying to the dictionary afterwards.

I found this in Notebook Seven, divided into two neat columns:

Voltaire    Montaigne

Gibbon    Hans Sachs

Cavafy    Thom Gunn

Ibsen    Schiller

Samuel Johnson    Lorenzo de' Medici

Anatole France    Swinburne

E. Waugh?    G. Vidal?     Hitler?

I looked at it for a while, and remembered how in her first address to us EF had said she would be giving us an optional reading list. If this had been it, I think I would have felt a little disheartened.

Here are some more personal entries:

-?­My mother, dying, told me that she would soon be looking down at me, and waiting for the day I joined her. She did not express anticipation of rediscovering her husband in whatever form she might find him. I smiled and patted her arm, which was the best I could manage in the circumstances. And since her death I have never felt either her actual or her theoretical eye upon me, not even in moments some, and certainly she, would consider embarrassing or shameful. She is mere ash, and my father older ash. I have always known this.

And:

-?­When I was young, there were "maiden aunts" around, who, by their very name, were held to be innocent of all to do with the body, transporting their virginity safely to the grave. Spinsters, a word now fallen into desuetude. The unmarried daughter keeping house for the widowed parent. Two sisters living together year after year, each fearing that some man would take the other, and each perhaps hoping that some man would come for them. (Chekhov.) Their separateness gave them social status of a kind, even if coloured by pity as much as admiration. I belong to neither of these categories. I have no desire for a sister with whom to share my life, and I declined (without being asked, it's true) to support my widowed mother except from a distance, and with money. As for the life of the heart, speculate as you will, but pity would not be appropriate; indeed, it would be insulting. Not that I can do anything to prevent it. But such is not my concern.

-"For a woman, fidelity is a virtue; for a man, it's hard work." AC. Ah, the facetiousness of the male epigram. To which I would reply:

-?­For a woman, love has historically been a matter of possession followed by sacrifice: that's to say, of being possessed and then of being sacrificed. And still it goes on, around the world. Better disguised, better "rewarded," but always there. My generation was in revolt against this (not the first revolt, by any means). We looked at our mothers, aunts, grandmothers, and saw women ?­defined-­also ?­self-?­defined-­at the point of their marriage (or ?­non-?­marriage). A few had boldly resisted this, but most submitted for the rest of their lives. And for all my principles, I recognise that I am not immune.

And here are two jottings, clearly made at separate times, both in pencil, one darker than the other:

-?­M: Whither?

and then, beneath it:

-?­M: Why?

Somehow ?­this-­even if it was only two initials, two words and two question ?­marks-­sounded exactly like EF's voice to me. But if you ask the next two ?­questions-­M: When? and M: Who?-­then I cannot answer.

I realise I am making her sound like a "woman of mystery." She wasn't: she had no "mysteriousness" about her. She was always exceptionally lucid. What she told you was always true, and made the truer by her exact choice of words. But when she didn't want to tell you something, she made it clear that she didn't and wouldn't. There was no middle ground, no sly hint or convenient evasion. "Oh, that? That was nobody." Nothing mysterious there. It was a lie, but she said it knowing that you would understand, and therefore it would become a truth.

When we had our student fantasies about her, they always tended to the louche or the glamorous. Why did we never have the opposite kind of dreaming: fantasies about austerity, discipline and withdrawal from the world? I can easily imagine her as the abbess in charge of a medieval convent: ?­ivy-?­clad stone walls, silence, obedience, prayer and sacrifice . . . But no, such a speculation immediately collapses. EF was no abbess, and no St. Ursula, let alone one of her eleven, or eleven thousand, virgins.

Her notebooks show no principle of organisation. They range from intimate to formal; from personal reflections to lecture notes. Here, for example, are a few successive entries:

-?­Artifice, rigour, truth. Artifice in civilisations as much as in clothes. Artifice not the opposite of truth but often its very embodiment, what makes it irresistible.

-?­Pity as a form of aggression. Beware of Pity indeed.

-?­Of course, my kind of woman is out of fashion. Not that I have ever sought fashionability, or indeed ever had it. Sustainability is more what I sought.

-?­Oh, they say, she never married. Such a reductive way to describe and contain a life.

-?­I have quite as many friends as I need. They do not, on the whole, interconnect. Which makes some of them imagine that they are more central to my life than they are. Others, the opposite.

-?­It always used to be the case that when a relationship broke down, it was the woman's fault. If the man ran off, the woman didn't have the skills to keep him; if the woman ran off, she was flighty, or incapable of compromise, or lacking in stamina. Whereas in fact she was probably bored out of her skull.

-?­The student who told me, in all seriousness, that she did not like Madame Bovary "because Emma was a bad mother." Ye gods.

-?­And do not make the mistake of thinking me a lonely woman. I am solitary, and that is quite a different matter. To be solitary is a strength; to be lonely a weakness. And the cure for loneliness is solitude, as the wise MM once pointed out.

-?­People say, and I know so without hearing it: "Oh, things didn't work out for her. I wonder why. Perhaps she was too unbending, too uncompromising." What do they know? And what, I often wonder, does this famous "working out" consist of? A shared life of unspoken thoughts and cowardly conciliations, when part of you wants to take a breadknife to his throat as he snores complacently beside you.

-"Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean." The moment when history went wrong. Romans inclusive of local gods. Monotheism v Plurality. Their connection to the life of the heart. Monotheism/Monogamy. "But love grows bitter with treason." Love dooms its adherents to "approximate happiness." Monotheisms always impose sexual orthodoxy.

And then I read the next entry, and knew immediately what I had to do:

-?­They say things are determined by genetics, by parenting, by heredity, by climate, by diet, by geography, by time spent in the womb, by nature, by nurture. They fail to hear the elephant in the room, trumpeting away: history. And if they do, they think history is what happened in their own or their parents' lifetimes: an invasion, a genocide, a plague of locusts. And that any history further back is inert, and has no chemical reaction with the present. Instead of looking at Hitler and Stalin, I suggest we look at Constantine and Theodosius. And if you want someone to admire, try Julian. What the newspapers would call "a ?­hold-?­out hero."

And there he was, suddenly before me. "J, dead at ?­thirty-?­one." Julian the Apostate, the last pagan emperor of Rome, killed in the Persian desert, conquered by the pale Galilean. I picked up the notebook with the reading list and went back to the boxes of books in the hallway. Swinburne, of course. Anatole France, an essay on Julian. Volume Five of Ibsen's Collected Works, entirely devoted to a ?­480-?­page play (how did they perform that? If they ever did?) called Emperor and Galilean. I looked up the index to Hitler's Table Talk, and there he was again.

I had let her down, distracted by my piffling divorce problems. I had apologised, and she had replied, "I'm sure it is only temporary," words which I had solipsistically misinterpreted. And she had done two things. She had left me a reading list in her notebook, and she had given me her library, ?­rather-­no, ?­exactly-­as the empress whose name currently escaped me had done with Julian, when he set off to campaign in Gaul. These seemed like the clearest of signals. Not some spooky "posthumous message," just a matter of me remembering and getting things straight and working them out. This was one task the King of Unfinished Projects was determined to complete.

To please the dead. Naturally, we honour the dead, but in honouring them, we somehow make them even more dead. But to please the dead, this brings them to life again. Does that make sense? It was right that I wanted to please EF, and right that I would keep my promise. And so I did. And this is what I wrote.






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