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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.

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.

Twelve from the Shelves: My Books of 2014

This year, with fewer (I think) reviews published here than ever before, I’m going to include a couple of books I read but didn’t review, but which have left a good impression at the year end. What better recommendation could there be than that, anyway? Titles are in alphabetical order by author’s name.

(Some of) my favourite books of 2014

Martin Amis: The Zone of Interest
Who’d have thought the old enfant terrible had it in him? The Zone of Interest is, I think, the best novel Amis has written in fifteen years – which may not be saying that much when you consider the other novels he’s written in that period. It is grotesque and horrible, relatively austere in tone (more House of Meetings than Yellow Dog), inventive but faithful, and riddled with bitter wit. It is – I can put it no higher than this – the first Amis novel I’ve looked forward to rereading since Night Train.

Kate Chopin: The Awakening
This novel, first published in 1899, is a widely taught classic in the USA, but seems little read here, despite being readily available. A handsome reissue from Canongate this summer gave it a push, and how grateful I am for that. Chopin’s novel is thoroughly modern and exciting, telling the story of a woman who dares to break society’s taboos with an extra-marital affair. It’s all thrillingly downhill from there.

Mavis Gallant: Across the Bridge
Gallant is one of those names that I had heard of for decades as a virtuoso of the short story, and finally I discovered that they were right. Her work is traditional in form, but so distinctly detailed and beautifully put that her tales of families in Paris, down at heel and on their uppers, are delightful to read. She can challenge, too, with density: the reader daren’t take their mind off the page.

Jonathan Gibbs: Randall
What a surprise and a charm it was to discover that Gibbs, a terrific critic, was just as good a poacher as gamekeeper. Randall (subtitle The Painted Grape: wait! come back!) was full of sentences that pleased me with their combination of elegance and necessity, like Alan Hollinghurst’s before he bloated. The book is also a fascinating analysis of the not-always-bumpy relationship between art and commerce.

Cynan Jones: The Dig
A slight thing from the other end of the year, The Dig has stuck with me throughout. It’s nasty, brutish and short, with an uncanniness which steers it away from the lip of the pit marked Cormac McCarthy that it veers so close to at times. In the end Jones is his own man, making authentically British – Welsh – myths with plenty of horror and muted emotion.

Agota Kristof: The Notebook
When I first read that the trusty CB Editions was reissuing this title, I read about it and immediately knew it was my sort of thing. I practically ran towards it. In the end it was not in my comfort zone at all, and all the better for that. It is very stark and entirely new, and I can finally put it no better than Steve Mitchelmore, who described it as a novel that “runs through the streets screaming.”

Nella Larsen: Quicksand and Passing
Tricky to include a book so recently read, but I think Larsen’s two novellas – pretty much her life’s output of fiction – would have stood up in any event. They are books which tell us about the experiences of mixed-race women in America, but their strength is in the compact telling, which is efficient, affecting and unmistakably blunt.

Elizabeth McCracken: Thunderstruck and other stories
If only more feted short story collections – *cough*LorrieMoore*cough* – were as good as this. Brought together with an undercurrent – an overcurrent – of loss, these stories mccrackle with off-kilter life. They are full of character and charm but never wacky or winsome. Lines and people from them are still bouncing about in my head, months later.

Bernard Malamud: The Fixer
I had high hopes for this, often cited as Malamud’s greatest novel. I was surprised by it: whereas I’ve previously found him a writer who needs to be read slowly to take in his just-so details, I found The Fixer to be a page-turner, practically a thriller. It reports on a man who suffers more than anyone might expect to in antisemitic Tsarist Russia, and it feels like a bomb under your chair.

Ben Marcus: Leaving the Sea
God knows how many times I’ve begun Marcus’s first collection of stories, The Age of Wire and String. I managed to finish this, his second. In part that is because he has undoubtedly moved toward the mainstream with some of his recent fiction, but he retains an edge and a strangeness that sets him apart. The older stories in the collection, closer in spirit to his debut, are frequently baffling but surprisingly moreish.

Jona Oberski: A Childhood
This reissue from Pushkin Press – a little surprise – is simple and beautiful. A very controlled authorial viewpoint drops the reader into the life of a young boy in a certain place at a certain time. That gives it a power and directness that more substantial works on the same subject lack. I tease, and the setting is really no surprise, but this book deserves to be read fresh.

Jenny Offill: Dept. of Speculation
This is probably my favourite new book this year. Aphoristic, dazzling and inventive, Dept. of Speculation has more jokes in it than any other book I read this year, but doesn’t sacrifice resonance. Its approach – discrete paragraphs with no straightforward narrative flow – makes it sound a challenge, but purest pleasure is what I remember about it.

Simon Crump: Neverland (introduction)

Below is an introduction I’ve written for a new e-book edition of Simon Crump’s Neverland, a novel I found bewildering when I first read it, but quickly came to love. The new edition has been issued by Galley Beggar – of Eimear McBride and Jonathan Gibbs fame – and also contains a new afterword by the author. You can buy it here.

Simon Crump: Neverland

“If I were born with a name like Simon Crump, I would spend the rest of my life trying to get all that anger and resentment out of me by being very rude about other people.”

– Chris de Burgh

*

At around 9:00pm on the evening of 25 June 2009, Simon Crump finished writing Neverland, his book – this book – about a fictional Michael Jackson. It had taken him three years. A few hours later, the real Jackson’s death was reported on gossip website TMZ.com. The internet went mad. Twitter crashed. CNN struggled. Crump’s publisher brought forward publication of the book.

The real Michael Jackson was – what? Funny. Eccentric. Pitiable. Exploited. So Crump’s Michael is a pixel-perfect replacement. He has “Disney music comin out of the fibreglass rocks in the rose bed.” He has an unpredictable relationship with his wife Lisa. “You’re going to put together a 1/32 scale model of Mac & Mike’s water forts whether you want to or not! Don’t fight me, baby, I’ve got a wicked temper and you are liable to get hurt.” He has long circular conversations with best friend Uri (“His eyes grew a shade darker”), which are funny, then not funny, then funny again. Most of all, he is forever seeking, forever lost, forever trying to fill a hole: right from birth, really.

Michael was born with gold in his mouth.

He left his mom without too much trouble. He shimmied out. The midwife held him in her white-gloved grip. She struck his face and a shining nugget plopped onto the soiled sheets of the birthing table. He sang and he danced. He bit off his cord. He slipped on a white glove of his own and signed a few autographs.

‘We love you Michael,’ they all said.

‘I love you more,’ he said back.

They called a priest. After all, a minute-old baby isn’t supposed to act that way.

‘Where is the gold?’ he cried. ‘Where is the gold??’

For a while there was gold, lots of it, and there were cartoons and songs and dance and lunar walking and Motown and I want you back.

We fixed him though. Then we fucked him. And we took it all.

That is the entirety of the second story in the book, ‘Gold’. Crump, in editing Neverland, cut out 60% of the material: “get the stuff down on the page and then make it less worse.” This ruthlessness shows. Neverland is a short book but each story, or chapter, unfolds inside the reader’s head like an origami flower. Its lean and hungry look is welcome in a world where novels seem to be growing ever longer. Some stories recur or develop – Michael and Uri, Michael’s quest for gold – while others stand alone, isolated and seemingly unconnected to Michael except by a brotherly strangeness, such as a series of portraits of men which give just enough information to drive the reader into a flurry of imaginative empathy. Here is ‘Andrew’ (again, in its entirety):

I’ve been on six twelve-hour night shifts and sad as this may seem your party has been the end of my tunnel. Not everyone lives his or her life alone and for a little while it seems my whole world is all right.

He’s special and he doesn’t speak. Every day for sixteen years he leaves the flat and he gets a paper. One day he gets a paper and he also points at some mints.

The woman behind the counter finally cracks.

‘If you could talk, Andrew, what would you say?’

Unique, and uniquely odd, as Neverland is, it is not without precedent. Indeed, it is a natural(ish) progression from Crump’s first book, My Elvis Blackout, which drew the responses that top and tail this introduction. They are books of what Gordon Burn called the psychopathology of fame, or as Crump puts it, how “we all love our stars, but we much prefer them broken.” They are the cold shower after Heat-world. The bridge between the two books is Lamar, former Elvis lackey and “still 250lbs of fine-lookin hombre.” He is our guide to Michael’s world, having been “out cold” for sixteen years after Elvis’s death, and now gaining employment in Neverland. When they meet, Michael tells him, “I made love to Lisa in my Mickey Mouse pyjamas. And then I asked her to marry me. One day she’s going to give me a little boy of my own.” This nudge-nudge stuff is as close as Crump gets to mocking Michael: elsewhere, the vision is of sad-eyed sympathy, perhaps with an occasional shake of the head.

Neverland is a book of contrasts. It is both absurdly silly and a work of serious artistry. It is a product of frightening imagination and originality, which turns whole pages over to extracts from Wikipedia. Its subject is all-American but it is full of quintessentially English cultural reference points, from Pulp’s ‘Common People’ to Cannon and Ball. Its author refers to it as a collection of stories, yet it is clearly much more coherent and unified than that. But it is the beautiful clashing sound made by silly jokes overlaid on a sadness that pervades every page that makes the reader marvel at Neverland’s starkest polarity, and ask: was there ever a book simultaneously so dark, and light?

*

“We do not know who is this Simon Crump but he is not welcome in our town.”

– German Elvis fansite