Barnes Julian

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.


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.

Julian Barnes: The Sense of an Ending

I’ve often thought that Julian Barnes is unfairly castigated as a middlebrow muddler of a novelist. (Don’t ask for citations, but it’s definitely a vibe I’ve picked up over the years.) True, he is the author of England, England, one of the worst novels I’ve read, but otherwise, with titles like Flaubert’s Parrot, A History of the World in 10½ Chapters and Talking it Over/Love etc., he shows some appetite for adventure in form. His last novel, Arthur & George, while a pretty straight story, was a credit to the much maligned genre of literary fiction, and earned him the modern book publicity double whammy: a Booker shortlisting and a seat on Richard & Judy’s sofa. After six years and nothing to show but a disappointing memoir on death (Nothing To Be Frightened Of), I wondered if we would ever get more fiction from him. Then, in quick succession, a new collection of stories, and this slim novel.

The Sense of an Ending is a memoir on death, again, but a fictional one this time. The title, and the sumptuously funereal appearance of the UK hardback edition, suggest that this is a subject on which Barnes has not yet written himself out. That may be inevitable: Barnes is 65 years old, and his former friend Martin Amis observed that intimations of mortality come so thick that after the age of forty, “it’s a full-time job looking the other way.” There may be another reason, indirectly connected to the former friend too, of which more later.

In the book, Tony Webster is looking back on his life, or one particular arc of it, to do with a gifted schoolfriend, a girl, and an everyday tragedy. Tony is an interesting study: retired, particular, clearly somewhat lonely: “I had wanted life not to bother me too much, and had succeeded – and how pitiful that was.” His only regular human contact is his ex-wife Margaret, with whom he continues to get on well: indeed, she seems to be his only friend. She, with apparent disinterest, offers him advice on what to do when his teenage experience with ex-girlfriend Veronica starts to trouble him again. Why worry now about something that happened forty years ago? Because it involves death, and Tony is not getting any younger. And because the past is never dead; it is not even past.

What this boils down to is a sort of quest for Tony. He wants to read his schoolfriend Adrian’s diary, which involves first tracking down Veronica and then persuading her. As we might expect from Barnes, all this is delivered in an analytical and discursive style; he moves the story on as an essayist works through his arguments. The clever-cleverness of youth gives way to the agnoticism of middle age. There are regrets, recognitions and renegotiations: “I thought of the things that had happened to me over the years, and of how little I had made happen.” What begins as a solvable mystery – how can Tony persuade Veronica to release Adrian’s diary? – turns into “something much larger, something which bore on the whole of my life, on time and memory. And desire.” Tony ends up unsure whether “my life had increased, or merely added to itself,” and there is a thick plottiness to the ending, or endings, which is surprising if not entirely satisfying.

The central character of the book is not Veronica, or Adrian, though their actions are central to it. The story is told by Tony and, as a consequence, is about Tony. He throws doubt on his own reliability (which led me to trust him implicitly), questions his own motives, and does his best to honour Adrian’s complaint from decades ago (which I suspect also reflects Barnes’s view): “I hate the way the English have of not being serious about being serious. I really hate it.”

Reading The Sense of an Ending, a thought kept coming back to me. With the book’s repeated motif of regrettably rude correspondence – such as Tony’s own toe-curling letter to Adrian and Veronica brought back from the dead – I wondered if it might have been inspired, in part, by Barnes’s well-reported rift with Martin Amis. This arose in January 1995 when Amis left his UK agent, Barnes’s wife Pat Kavanagh, and went all-in with his US agent, Andrew Wylie. In response, Barnes repudiated their friendship in a letter which Amis, in his memoir Experience, described as “blunderingly ugly,” and which ended with the words ‘Fuck off.’ How’s that for, as Tony describes Veronica’s identically worded email to him here, a “two-word, two-finger response”? (Amis tried to revive the friendship a year later, in vain: “It was said that I turned away – and I don’t do that. I won’t be the one to turn away.”) Could it be that Kavanagh’s recent death – the book is dedicated to her – has made Barnes feel how his character feels on reading his vicious old letter? “Remorse, etymologically, is the action of biting again: that’s what the feeling does to you. Imagine the strength of the bite when I reread my words.” Could it be? Perhaps, perhaps not; but it added piquancy to my reading.

Still, what cannot be in doubt is that this is Barnes’s most death-pervaded book since, well, his last one. Death, getting close every day, is always personal. In Frank Kermode’s work of literary criticism from which Barnes takes his title, “the sense of an ending” refers to apocalypticism, the end of the world. Barnes’s concern here is far more serious than that.