Julian Barnes: The Noise of Time

Julian Barnes’ last novel, The Sense of an Ending, won the Man Booker Prize and, almost as significantly, is one of the most commented-upon books on this blog. Barnes, as one of the enduringly big names of the 1980s literary fiction surge – see also Amis and McEwan in particular – has always been prominent, but his Booker win took him to a much wider readership. His first novel since then will be examined with more attention than ever before. I think it will withstand such scrutiny.

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The Noise of Time takes its title from a collection of writing by Osip Mandelstam, a poet and essayist who fell foul of the Soviet regime in the 1930s. (You can read Mandelstam’s The Noise of Time along with a detailed introduction to him here. [PDF link]) This is apt enough for a novel about Dmitri Shostakovich, the composer who fell foul of the Soviet regime in etc etc. It gives us three periods of Shostakovich’s life in Barnes’s usual cool, analytical style.

In the first part, Shostakovich waits repeatedly by the lift in his apartment block, a small case by his side, awaiting capture – or collection – by the authorities. It is 1936, and he has come to the attention of Stalin and the regime for his opera from Leskov’s tale, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. His work is denounced in Pravda as “Muddle instead of Music”, in an atmosphere where “bureaucrats assessed musical output as they did other categories of output; there were established norms, and deviations from those norms.” Needless to say, Shostakovich’s opera – and retrospectively, his other music – is deemed wanting, of “[tickling] the perverted taste of the bourgeois with its fidgety, neurotic music.” Music, it is declared, should be “authentic, popular and melodious.” Art belongs to the people, said Lenin. But for Shostakovich, “art belongs to everybody and nobody. Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time.” Soon, inevitably, the focus broadens from Shostakovich’s work to the man himself: he becomes an “enemy of the people”, and he knows his days are numbered.

But the pages of the book are numbered too, and we are only a third through, and Shostakovich does not die. He waits by the lift with his small case: “was it brave to be standing there waiting for them, or was it cowardly?” But they do not come, and he does not die, and he later regrets that he does not, as he is rehabilitated by writing new music in compliance with the demands of the authorities – by Power, as Barnes puts it. It was not enough to appear to comply: he had to “actually believe in them”, to, as Orwell put it, win the battle over himself. And so in 1948 Shostakovich becomes part of a Soviet delegation to the USA where he publicly condemns his own works in the crucible of capitalism: “a place of the purest humiliation, and of moral shame.”

But with Power, “however much you gave, they wanted more,” and in the third part of the book, we have Shostakovich’s further rehabilitation in the 1950s and 60s after Stalin’s death, under “Nikita the Corncob”. With this comes his greatest shame yet, the hardest challenge to his self-described cowardice: Khrushchev wants Shostakovich, the Soviet Union’s most famous composer, to be appointed Chairman of the Russian Federation Union of Composers. This honour requires him, of course, to join the Communist Party: and so, “finally, after the great fear was over, they had come for his soul.” Here, as elsewhere in the book, we get circular dialogues where no one says quite what they mean because (for one interlocutor) they fear saying it, or (for the other) they know their meaning will be understood because of their power. It provokes also one of a series of reflections on power, honesty and cowardice, and analysis of conscience via, among other literary references, Yevgeny Evtrushenko’s poem ‘Career‘. (“In Galileo’s day, a fellow scientist / Was no more stupid than Galileo. / He was well aware that the Earth revolved, / But he also had a large family to feed.”) For Shostakovich,

to be a hero, you only had to be brave for a moment … but to be a coward was to embark on a career that lasted a lifetime. You couldn’t ever relax. You had to anticipate the next occasion when you would have to make excuses for yourself, dither, cringe, reacquaint yourself with the taste of rubber boots and the state of your own fallen, abject character.

The Noise of Time is a short book, and I admire Barnes’s seeming desire, as with Roth and Bellow before him, to devote himself to short works in his late career. As Chekhov, put it: “Odd, I now have a mania for shortness. Whatever I read – my own work, or other people’s – it all seems to me not short enough.” That could be a sly slap, but Barnes’s book is just as long as it needs to be: early on I found myself marking most of the passages on most of the pages as relevant, notable or otherwise interesting. Chekhov would surely have approved.

The book raises interesting questions too about popularity and art. Here Power, being blunt and forceful, resents the subtlety and sharpness of art. Some of the accusations levelled against the “formalist” (i.e. non-populist) music in the book, presumably from real sources, are similar in content if not in effect to the cries of ‘pretension’ that ring out on Amazon reader reviews against books that don’t plough a familiar furrow. (I’m always surprised when people suggest that because they didn’t get anything from a book, there’s nothing to get, and that those who enjoy it are just pretending.) When Shostakovich, in The Noise of Time, writes a Power-pleasing oratorio The Song of the Forests including praise for Stalin, its “thunderous banality had ensured its immediate success.” Does success in the arts generally require such appeal to the lowest common denominator? It is impossible to say what kind of book will be successful (otherwise every thunderously banal book would sell shedloads), but easy to identify the sort of book which will not. The formally experimental, for example: as one independent publisher put it recently, rueing the failure of one of his titles to break through to wide readership, “politically engaged Russian prose poetry is never going to go mainstream.”

And what of Barnes’ own work? Earlier in his career he played joyfully with narrative conventions: a novel in short stories, a novel in encyclopaedia form, two novels where different narrators offer competing accounts directly to the reader. Recently he has become more conventional in form, and The Noise of Time shows a weakness for too-neat repetition of motifs (the Belomory cigarettes! the grabbing hands! the leap years!), but the prose still simmers with cleverness and precision. Barnes works phrases around his head and around the page rigorously:

‘He could not live with himself.’ It was just a phrase, but an exact one. Under the pressure of Power, the self cracks and splits. The public coward lives with the private hero. Or vice versa. Or, more usually, the public coward lives with the private coward. But that was too simple: the idea of a man split into two by a dividing axe. Better: a man crushed into a hundred pieces of rubble, vainly trying to remember how they – and he – had once fitted together.

No, you never know what kind of book will be successful, either in commercial or artistic terms. When I was talking about The Noise of Time on Twitter, one writer said: “Well. Now I may have to send that ‘not sure there’s a market for a book about Soviet composers’ email back to a certain agent.” That, I suppose, is a measure of the Booker effect on Barnes, and an indicator of the caprices of literary Power.

Rachel B. Glaser: Paulina & Fran

I passed over Paulina & Fran when I saw it in Granta’s catalogue last year, but a flurry of praise on Twitter made me reconsider. I’m glad I did.

Rachel B. Glaser: Paulina & Fran

Paulina & Fran is a sharp and arch tale of two friends – though frenemies might be more apt. Paulina Hermanowitz is a cool, formidable arts student in New England, though her reputation may exceed her and exist mainly in her own mind. “Paulina expected cheers when she walked in. ‘I have arrived,’ she said loudly. ‘Straight from my bed.'” In her bed she left behind her lover Julian – reader, keep an eye on him; he’ll be crucial in the plot. Paulina is vaguely dissatisfied with Julian. “She knew that curly hair was the hair of creative geniuses. It was a mark of originality in a woman, though she found it frivolous in a man.” Keep an eye on the curly hair too – it’s increasingly symbolic as the story proceeds.

How do others see Paulina? She is, Julian puts it frankly, “a benevolent monster who fucks well.” “A sociopath,” says someone else. On a student trip to Norway, Paulina meets Fran Hixon, and the two hit it off, even if Fran understands that friendship with Paulina tends to be intense and exclusive. “She couldn’t visibly socialise with others on the trip.” Also, “being with Paulina was like being under Soviet rule […] but it was worth it.” For Paulina’s part, Fran’s attention means she no longer needs her old friends, Sadie (who “loved pictures of cats and dogs but not the creatures themselves”) and Allison.

The book proceeds by way of social situations, from parties where “everyone was inside the same big mood” to brittle one-to-ones between the recurring trio of Paulina, Fran and Julian. Everyone is self-centred in the most obvious way, never thinking about anything directly outside their own lives, and feelings are only expressed in order to further selfish ends. “Sincerity felt queer.” Glaser, in other words, has no desire to make her characters likeable, and this is what gives Paulina & Fran its astringency and edge. It also observes acutely its characters’ worst flaws, which chime so strongly only because they seem recognisable to us. “Paulina didn’t just want their approval; she wanted them to be jealous.” Sometimes the most enjoyable passages of bad character are enjoyable because of, not despite, the cartoonish awfulness of the sentiments, as when Paulina attends the funeral of an acquaintance, Eileen:

If Paulina had to die one day, as every woman had before her, she liked to think her funeral would outdo this one in elegance and expense. There would be swans, and celebrities, and a river of tears. The gods would hover. Horns would sound. Just a glimpse of this eventual funeral left Paulina feeling ill. No event, no matter how impressive, could diminish the loss of Paulina’s existence. Tears filled Paulina’s eyes and she dedicated them to Eileen. Poor Eileen. If anyone wrote her biography, it would be very short.

This is a book of stormy circumstances, where the characters have more ups and downs than the stock exchange. It is a book also of the intensity of friendship and emotion in young adulthood, and of the difficulty of changing our lives. When Fran, late in the book, finds herself back in an old, familiar situation, she “felt relief. She’d found a loose thread to her own past and could follow it back to herself.” Furthermore, for a few hysterical moments it seems to mean to her that “the future was going to be easy! She didn’t need to meet a new person! She didn’t need to change!”

The downside of Glaser’s desire to create whiplash-inducing hairpin bends is that she indulges a weakness for swapping viewpoint between characters mid-scene, which has a destabilising effect on the narrative. But she holds her nerve for an admirably wintry ending, which means that after the dazzling sunniness of the opening scenes, this short novel can deliver four seasons in one day.

Twelve from the Shelves: My Books of 2015

Another year of diminishing blog activity. Please don’t plot it on a graph year by year, or I will have to rename this site Asymptote. As with last year, I’ve included a few titles that I really liked but haven’t reviewed. In a third tradition, titles are listed alphabetically by author. If these books have anything in common, it is probably strangeness and strength of voice.

EDIT: I somehow forgot to include Robert A. Caro’s The Power Broker, which is odd as it’s not just one of the best books I read this year, but one of the best books I’ve ever read. I keep meaning to write about it here, but this might have to do.

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Claire-Louise Bennett: Pond
Seductive, sinister stories told by a woman whose inner and outer life are often hard to tell apart, not least for her.

Lucia Berlin: A Manual for Cleaning Women
A wondrous discovery, like finding a new Jean Rhys or Raymond Carver with an intimate, funny tone that makes this a rare collection of stories that just gets better and better as you race through them.

Jeremy Chambers: The Vintage and the Gleaning
A strong debut novel that takes the slightly worn world of Australian men’s-men and makes it vital and surprising. I learn from his Twitter account that the author is living with CFS/ME; I truly hope he is well enough soon to write more.

Gavin Corbett: Green Glowing Skull
In a year of strange books, this is the most cracked of the lot. Funny and energetic and bold as hell, and almost impossible to describe without making it sound like the worst book in the world.

Vivian Gornick: Fierce Attachments
A funny, fizzy memoir of a parent (see also Adam Mars-Jones’s Kid Gloves), which reminds us that if it’s not one thing, it’s your mother.

Han Kang: The Vegetarian (tr. Deborah Smith)
The first book I read this year and one of the most memorable. Resistance, disappearance and manipulation in three linked stories. Can Han’s forthcoming Human Acts really live up to it as everyone says?

Kazuo Ishiguro: The Buried Giant
This book ruined weeks of my reading year, by making everything I read immediately afterwards seem thin and stupid. Ish is back on form after the (to me) slightly disappointing Never Let Me Go and Nocturnes.

Miranda July: The First Bad Man
A complete revelation and one of the most moving and disturbing novels I read all year. Definitely not quirky.

Marie NDiaye: Three Strong Women (tr. John Fletcher)
A trio of novellas that combine stories of women’s relationships with their families and sinuous sentences that I read and reread with delight.

Dorthe Nors: Karate Chop/Minna Needs Rehearsal Space (tr. Martin Aitken/Misha Hoekstra)
A collection of funny and brutal stories, and a novella written in headlines, which is much better than it sounds.

Paul Theroux: The Mosquito Coast
I’d never read Theroux before. Who knew he was this good? The Mosquito Coast has one of the great monstrous father figures in modern fiction; the story rattles along at a clip and flashes brightly.

Hugo Wilcken: The Reflection
I read this exceptional experimental thriller three times this year and, if other books weren’t forever making demands, would happily go back right now for a fourth.

Vivian Gornick: Fierce Attachments

From one child’s memoir of a parent to another. This one is from Daunt Books, which in five years has established itself as one of the most reliable and interesting publishers in the UK, particularly for its reissues. “The P&L” for the publishing business, says James Daunt frankly, “is shocking”, but perhaps that’s the secret of its success: supported by the Daunt bookshops, the books don’t need to be commercial hits, so the editors can follow their tastes. Here we have the first UK edition of a book published in the US in 1987.

Vivian Gornick: Fierce Attachments

Fierce Attachments is a bright blaze of a book. Like Adam Mars-Jones’s Kid Gloves, it’s ultimately as much about the author as the parent, but Gornick’s style is blunter, jazzier. In its zippy to-and-fros between mother and daughter, it meets expectations for a certain kind of American writing. Take this exchange where Gornick’s mother is talking about her friend Bella, whose son never invites her to his home:

‘Ma, how that son managed to survive having Bella for a mother, much less made it through medical school, is something for Ripley, and you know it.’

‘She’s his mother.’

‘Oh, God.’

‘Don’t “oh, God” me. That’s right. She’s his mother. Plain and simple. She went without so that he could have.’

‘Have what? Her madness? Her anxiety?’

‘Have life. Plain and simple. She gave him his life.’

‘That was all a long time ago, Ma. He can’t remember that far back.’

‘It’s uncivilised he shouldn’t remember!’

‘Be that as it may. It cannot make him want to ask her to sit down with his friends on a lovely Saturday afternoon in early spring.’

At the time of writing the book, Gornick is 47 and her mother 80. Their relationship, she says, is “not good. We are locked into a narrow channel of acquaintance, intense and binding.” Too bad for her: but it does present the reader with plenty of zing. Indeed, the book and the writing is so lively and entertaining that it’s easy to overlook its sadness. When looking back to her childhood, Gornick recalls her mother as director of her own space – the home, a tenement flat in the Bronx. “Her running commentary on the life outside the window was my first taste of the fruits of intelligence: she knew how to convert gossip into knowledge. […] This skill of hers warmed and excited me. Life seemed fuller, richer, when she was making sense of the human activity in the alley.” But her mother doesn’t value her own skills.

She felt contempt for her environment. ‘Women, yech!’ she’d say. ‘Clotheslines and gossip,’ she’d say. She knew there was another world – the world – and sometimes she thought she wanted that world. Bad. She’d stop dead in the middle of a task, staring for long minutes at a time at the sink, the floor, the stove. But where? how? what?

Her problem is that she considers herself “developed” – “a person of higher thought and feeling” – and no good ever came of that. But she certainly lives at a higher level of intensity than others in Gornick’s life, particularly when she is widowed. Then, Gornick writes, not unreasonably “it was Mama who occupied the dramatic centre of the event while the rest of us shuffled about in the background.” Otherwise memorable incidents at her father’s funeral “pall in memory beside the brilliant relentlessness of Mama’s derangement.” Here is writing that matches its subject for life and scale. Gornick’s mother even finds that “in refusing to recover from my father’s death she had discovered that her life was endowed with a seriousness her years in the kitchen had denied her.”

It’s not all about Gornick’s mother – the title is in the plural – and we also get plenty of detail on friends of the family (particularly Nettie: “she’s slept with my father, I thought, and an immense excitement swept my body”) and Gornick’s various lovers. But it all returns to Mama in the end. When Gornick, in her youth, attends City College, she feels herself to be entering that world her mother wanted to: “most of us at City College … had begun to live in a world inside our heads where we read talked thought in a way that separated us from our parents, the life of the house and that of the street.” Gornick, not comprehending the fierce attachment that parents have to their children, doesn’t understand why her mother can’t approve vicariously. “I was the advance guard. I was going to take her into the new world. All she had to do was adore what I was becoming, and here she was refusing.” It’s tragedy in a minor key.

The main problem with Fierce Attachments is that it’s so readable – devourable – that it probably needs a more considered second run to take it fully in. And the other difference between this book and Kid Gloves is that Gornick’s mother was still alive when it was published. This could mean that Gornick needed to take more care in how her mother was presented than Adam Mars-Jones did of his father – but on the other hand, the parent who can’t answer back may deserve greater protection. In an interview about Fierce Attachments in 2010, Gornick spoke of a writer friend who said, “I write as though everyone is dead.” As for Gornick’s mother, the subject of this blast of a memoir, in the same interview we hear about what happened after publication – and it reads, inevitably, like something from the book itself. But guess what: “at the end, after a year, she got into the celebrity of the book,” Gornick reports, “and she was walking around New York signing it.”