Penguin Worlds

Readers of this blog (if there are any left after months of inactivity: sorry, and hello again) will know that I’m a sucker for a series design. If something in me aligns with what Trinny and Susannah would have called matchy-matchy, then I justify it on the basis that it’s less judging a book by its cover than allowing my eyes to be opened to new things. And the Penguin Worlds series is just that: a mixture of science fiction, horror and urban fantasy from across the 20th century, chosen and introduced by Naomi Alderman and Hari Kunzru. And they come in aptly garish stylishly retro covers by La Boca. These are genres I’ve only ever dipped a toenail into, but the curated approach – and the enthusiasm I heard when I tweeted about them – won me over. I’ve read three of them so far, which I’ll whip through below.


Joanna Russ: We Who Are About To… [1976]
I started with the slimmest of the series (old habits), which also turned out to be perhaps the oddest, and certainly the most subtly unsettling, of the three I’ve read. If the title is the first I’ve seen that contains a cliffhanger, then the opening words of the novel contain its own spoiler: “About to die. And so on.” The we who are about to die (“We’re nowhere. We’ll die alone”) are a group of five women and three men, around the year 2040, whose spaceship has failed and stranded them on an Earth-like planet. “Goodbye, everybody,” continues our narrator, who has less faith than the others that the eight of them can survive on and even colonise their new home (“‘O pioneers,’ I added rather sourly”). She is recording her experiences on a vocoder (“This will never be found”), which enables a certain amount of ‘As you know, Bob’ explanatory dialogue. But Russ’s interest is not in detailing the nature of the new world, but exposing the fault lines underlying society that are exposed in extremis.

The unnamed narrator tries to warn her fellow shipwrecked sailors that the planet may not support life just because it looks like Earth (“like the Australian outback, which looks like New Jersey and can kill you in two hours”). “Civilization must be preserved,” says one, to which she replies, “Civilization is doing fine. We just don’t happen to be where it is.” There are hints that Earth has moved beyond a patriarchal society, only to find it returning among the eight travellers. It’s not long before it all gets pretty Shakespearean, and the teaser in the title proves well-founded. But amid the florid violence there are lighter moments, as when Lori, daughter of two of the other travellers, talks about her love of “serial music. You know, the late-twentieth-century stuff where it goes deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle for half an hour and then it goes doodle just once, and you could die with excitement.”

We Who Are About To... looks inward and outward at the same time: at damage in society, at the troubled self, and the connection between the two. In particular, it looks at the role of women. One of the survivors suggests that our narrator and one of the men should start work on populating the planet. “‘I can’t see why you and Victor can’t start now, if you like.’ Victor said politely that he certainly wouldn’t mind as long as I wouldn’t mind. I said I would mind.” For Russ, politics, and feminism in particular, were not just present in her writing but essential to it. Her most famous novel was The Female Man, a satire of multiple parallel universes, and her story ‘When It Changed’ won a Nebula Award in 1973. This new edition of We Who Are About To…, uniquely in the Penguin Worlds series, contains introductions by both Alderman and Kunzru, which gives some measure of its value to both editors of the series. And it’s hard to argue with Alderman’s analysis of the book as simultaneously “bonkers” and “brilliant”.


John Christopher, The World in Winter [1962]
I’ve previously written about John Christopher’s novel The Death of Grass, which was conceptually interesting and a bit slapdash in the writing (it took him “a matter of weeks”, and it showed). The World in Winter is, broadly, more of the same. Christopher’s output, under different names, of about 50 books in 25 years tells us that agonising over le mot juste wasn’t his way.

The World in Winter‘s high concept is in its title: a scientist named Fratellini has observed a decline in solar radiation, and the temperature of the Earth is falling. Fanciful as this seems now, when the book was published global cooling had been a fear for some years, and as late as 1970 the Washington Post was reporting “Colder Winters Herald Dawn of New Ice Age.” So, as with The Death of Grass, Christopher shrewdly used real concerns as a springboard for his fantasy. When Britain begins to freeze and fails to thaw, there isn’t much terror: more a very English tutting and eye-rolling. “Once over the initial shocks and discomforts, people got used to the new conditions.”

The narrative focuses on a handful of people framed by a love triangle. Being among society’s fortunate, they manage to leave England and fly to Nigeria, where the climate is still hospitable. This sets up the central thread of the book, where Africans hold the economic and social advantage, and white Europeans are beholden to them. As one local says: “Nigerians have nothing against whites, as long as there are not too many of them, and as long as they keep to their place. You have perhaps heard something like that before?” This seems a relatively progressive satire, though as Hari Kunzru says in his introduction, the book is nonetheless “animated by a sense that racial difference is a kind of abyss, and between black and white there can be no complete understanding or identification.” The plot itself is admirably bleak and uncompromising to the end, which is consolation of a sort.


E. Nesbit, Horror Stories
The most attention-grabbing element of the Penguin Worlds series is the discovery that children’s writer E. Nesbit – The Railway Children, Five Children and It – also published, between 1893 and 1910, four collections of horror stories for adults. This volume collects fifteen from throughout her career.

These are traditional spooky fireside tales, and in every single one, I think (they do tend to blend into one another when read sequentially), someone dies. Sometimes, however, the twist is that they have been dead all along. There are strange drugs, mysterious models and plenty of sinister buildings. Love, thwarted and determined, is a regular visitor.

Similarly frequent is the sort of framing introduction that we might expect from stories like these. In ‘The Violet Car’ our narrator begins by admitting that “I do not know how to weave a plot, nor how to embroider it.” In ‘The Shadow’, we are warned that “This is not an artistically rounded off ghost story, and nothing is explained in it…” This ‘who, me?’ approach both adds verisimilitude and takes it away, because it’s such a common feature. But if all stories require a level of submission, of submergence, by the reader, perhaps none depend on this more than traditional horror stories like these. The reader must approach them willing to be spooked, and is unmovable if they are not willing to meet the author halfway. Come to think of it, that’s a good lesson in how to read generally.

Also in the Penguin Worlds series are Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks [1987], which Naomi Alderman’s introduction describes as a pioneering work of urban fantasy which is also “really good fun”, and Vernor Vinge’s True Names and the Opening of the Cyberspace Frontier. This is the most structurally unusual of the five books, comprising a 320-page book of which Vernor Vinge’s True Names [1981] makes up only 85. The rest is a series of thirteen essays, stories and afterwords emphasising the significance of Vinge’s novella. Rather predictably, the reason I haven’t read these two books yet is that they’re longer than the other three; but if you have, please comment below.

Mihail Sebastian: For Two Thousand Years

Mihail Sebastian was a Romanian writer best known for his plays and his journal of 1935-44 (“The Fascist Years”) which recorded Jewish persecution and the antisemitism that even his friends displayed toward him. One handy example arose when he asked the playwright Nae Ionescu to write a preface to this novel, and his friend included antisemitic passages – which Sebastian published anyway. The reception to the book and the preface was such that, when Sebastian later published a collection of essays summarising the experience, he called it How I Became a Hooligan. Having been made homeless by antisemitic laws, he nonetheless survived the Second World War and, the author bio in this first English translation briskly tells us, was hit by a truck and killed in early 1945, at the age of 38, as he was crossing the road to teach his first class. Having read this book, that strikes me as a loss to literature as great as that of Bruno Schulz or Jiří Weil.


For Two Thousand Years (1934, tr. 2016 by Phillip Ó Ceallaigh) is one of the most unusual, seductive and beautiful books I’ve read in years. It has lightness of touch coupled with astonishing range. The epigraph, from Montaigne’s ‘On the Art of Conversation’ (“I not only dare to talk about myself but to talk of nothing but myself…”), tells us what we are in for: a discursive, digressive, circular account of a time in a man’s life. And I admit I was taken by the opening paragraph, which exemplifies Sebastian’s style:

I believe I’ve only ever been afraid of signs and symbols, never of people or things. My childhood was poisoned by the third poplar in the yard of the Church of St Peter, a tall, mysterious tree, its shadow on summer nights falling through the window, over my bed – that black band slashing across my bedcovers – a terrifying presence I could not understand and did not try to.

Here it all is: the transport from higher thought to direct experience; the attention to detail which sounds like life (“the third poplar”); the heights of emotion (“poisoned … terrifying”); the sense overall of a real literary intelligence. The passage also, to me, has a classical feel to it: the opening sentence in particular sounds like something you’ve heard before, like a thought that has been circling for a long time before Sebastian plucked and pinned it for us.

There are many paragraphs like this in For Two Thousand Years, though it’s worth adding that they don’t always give themselves up so easily. This is a scattered, loose book, a novel in the form of a fictional diary, and it flips and leaps to and fro. The unnamed narrator (he’s not unlike Sebastian) doesn’t always explain who people are when he first mentions them, which is truthful – a real diary wouldn’t explain – if challenging. “I’d like a big, clear, severe book with ideas that challenge all I believe in,” he says early on. The plot, such as it is, describes the drift toward social unrest in Romania, beginning in 1923 when laws granting citizenship to minorities led to nationalist protests and ultimately the rise of the fascist Iron Guard. At this point our man is a student, and we get plenty of evidence of the crawling antisemitism among his contemporaries. “I received two punches during today’s lectures and I took eight pages of notes. Good value, for two punches.” Back at home, one Jewish businessman offers assurance: “It’s nothing, lads, keep your chins up, God is good, it’ll pass,” but another, with a longer memory, murmurs, “For two thousand years…” Sebastian’s narrator is not without conflicts himself.

I have an immense longing for simplicity and unawareness. If I could rediscover some strong, simple feelings from somewhere centuries back – hunger, thirst, cold – if I could overcome two thousand years of Talmudism and melancholy, and recover – supposing my race has ever had it – the clear joy of life…

The status, identity and role of the Jew in his society is the central thread of the book. Most of the episodic chapters are taken up with our man encountering new and old people in his life. There’s Ghiță Blidaru, the professor who persuades him to change his studies from law to architecture. “He is the only man to whom I have ever felt it necessary to submit myself, but I do it with a sense of fulfilment and reintegration rather than of surrender.” There’s his sometime girlfriend Marga Stern. “I re-read what I wrote above and laugh. Dear girl! What is left of you in this writing that complicates you, comments on you, changes you?” There’s the “dissident Zionist” Jabotinski and the narrator’s friend S.T. Haim, whose opposing views give us thrilling oratory on Zionism. “Great Britain needs a right-hand man to guard the Suez Canal, so it’s invented this myth of a ‘Jewish homeland’. ‘Homeland’ is too nice a word. No doubt some Quaker or Puritan came up with it. But millions of sentimental Jews have taken it at face value.” There’s Marjorie Dunton, whose status with the narrator (“yes? no? yes? no?”) keeps us guessing. Sebastian even manages to give a satisfying and insightful angle on sleeping next to a stranger (“He’s the first person ever to enter my life without knocking”).

This is what I meant by ‘wide-ranging’. There are passages on town planning, Yiddish v Hebrew, poetry (the poet Arnold Max, whose “passion for poetry [is] half-simulated in order to give some sense to the terrible void in which he lives and from which he flees”), and of course icy, furious antisemitism, even by those friends and acquaintances, such as Maurice Buret. “I detest the agitated, convulsive, fevered aspect of the Jewish spirit. […] A clearheaded Jew is a phenomenon. The majority are sleepwalkers.” This cornucopia aspect doesn’t make For Two Thousand Years easy to follow, though it’s not a strongly plot-driven book anyway, other than a general progression toward social and political anarchy and dissolution. But its subject matter doesn’t stop it from being bright-eyed, relentlessly vivid and often funny.

The abundance of beards in period of social unrest, times of revolt or upheaval, should be noted. It’s the handiest way people have of making themselves mysterious.

There is a conflict sometimes between the beauty of the individual passages and the failure – or refusal – of these to flow more easily into one another. But finally my sense on For Two Thousand Years is that, like any classic of a type we’ve not seen before, it is a book which needs to be read and re-read and which, over years, will become a reliable friend for life.


On reading

I found this the other day. It is the start of an essay I was asked to write for an anthology, plans for which came to an abrupt halt when the publisher went out of business. So it was never finished, but I thought it worth sharing as a snapshot and a reflection. It was written 3 years ago, hence references to my second son (now 4) being 16 months old. (Plus: remember Sudoku?)


Before I sat down to write this piece about my reading has changed, I went to the bookcases in our living room and dining room to see how many unread books I have. I have so many unread books that those are the only kind that are displayed now. The ones I read go ‘to the charity shop’: mostly, in fact, to the loft when my wife is out. Because I review books and get sent many which I never read and do give to the charity shop, this fiction about my fiction can be maintained.

So I counted them and the total is around 750. I didn’t count the ones in the bedside cupboards. Immediately I wondered how long it would take me to read 750 books: that is, if some event prevented me from acquiring any more (a strain of bubonic plague which affects only publishers, perhaps; or Amazon’s final success in becoming the world’s only book supplier). Julian Barnes rejects as “weird” the idea of “hav[ing] around you only as many books as you have time to read in the rest of your life.” Yet my sense of order means I find it impossible not to measure out my life in books, and my books as slivers of my life. Writers do it as well as readers. Kazuo Ishiguro publishes a work of fiction on average every five years, and observed on publication of his last book, Nocturnes, in 2009, that this meant he had “only four left.”

How many do I, as a reader, have left? A few years ago, it would have taken me around 5 years to get through 750 books, though ‘getting through’ is probably not the best way of paying tribute to them. Now, it is more likely to take me 10-12 years . What happened? How did I get here and where am I going?

As a child I didn’t read books much. I could read a bit before I went to school, squeezing in beside my father in his armchair and pointing to words in his Daily Express, but there weren’t many novels around: the only ones I remember seeing were Henri Charriere’s Papillon, and Spike Milligan’s Puckoon, books which have not much in common other than slightly chiming titles. In my teens, I became shortsighted and began wearing glasses, and a lifetime of being considered bookish was on. Even then, I read only a couple of reliable favourites, imitating my friends: for a long time it was my personal conviction that I had no personality of my own but simply, like a cushion, adopted the shape of the last person to leave an impression on me. These early adoptions were Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett, authors at extremes of productivity but with something in common, not least their appeal to geekish boys. I had no exposure to classic novels (still an omission in my reading), and didn’t study English literature beyond GCSE level.

It was in the summer of 1990, mid-A-levels, aged 17 and working for £9.50 a day in a fashion store on a declining side of Belfast city centre, when I bought my first book of what is generally termed literary fiction. (In fact the shop in question shelved such books under the even more offputting label of Discerning Novels.) It was A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving: not a bad first choice, and clearly a book with legs, as affirmed by its appearance in the BBC’s Big Read poll of popular books in 2003; it was one of the few books there without an adaptation, award or school syllabus to its name, whose popularity had spread without artificial enhancements. Conscious as I am of Forster’s comment that “one always tends to overpraise a long book simply because one has got through it,” I loved Owen Meany – even now I can recite its opening and closing sentences – and soon made my way through Irving’s backlist. I would sneak upstairs, hoping my mother wouldn’t notice under my coat the fat paperback on which I had spent more than half my day’s earnings. (Now, I sneak books past my wife. Plus ca change.) I also read a couple of Irving’s later books, but found myself getting less and less pleasure from them; he has been for me the opposite of an acquired taste.

Shortly afterwards, I read two other authors for the first time: Julian Barnes, whose novel A History of the World in 10½ Chapters had come out in paperback, and Iain Banks, whose novel Walking on Glass was lent to me by a schoolfriend. These were revelatory texts: fractured stories, told in parts which may or may not align if the reader made the effort to meet the author halfway. Almost before I knew what a ‘normal’ novel was, my understanding of what a story could do, and the form it could take, was disrupted. Around the same time, I discovered Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry, a book which doesn’t fit with anything else, a literary firework that didn’t so much expand my mind as explode it. It seems obvious now, though it didn’t then, that these early reads forged my taste for novels which are not straightforward: for the structurally crooked, the stylishly substantial, the satisfyingly odd.

Most of all I wanted, and still want, novels that meet the reader on the level. I tried a little genre fiction – a Michael Crichton here, a Thomas Harris there – but didn’t enjoy them. It’s not that I disdain plot, though there is an element of that. One author – I want to say Terry Pratchett but can’t find any trace of the quote online – spoke of books where “the last 90% of the action takes place in the last 10% of the pages,” and my feelings on finishing a book whose main purpose is to get you from A to B is similar to the sensation when I finish a Sudoku: Right. What now? It’s not just the pull of a strong plot, or the sense that a book which makes you turn the pages quickly isn’t making you linger and think, but the requirement for elements to fit together at all, and the insistence on causation. I was disappointed by the Thomas Harris (Red Dragon), for example, not just because the book sought to explain the killer’s mindset, but that it thought explanation was even possible. Compare that with, say, Patricia Highsmith, who sets the reader sail in the company of the dangerous and disturbed, not only without a map but without the desire for one.

A novel which poses questions is more interesting than one which provides answers. Another way of putting it is that a book should be a dialogue between reader and writer, rather than a monologue. It is unlikely, of course, to be an evenly-balanced conversation, if you also subscribe to Martin Amis’s idea of the perfect read (in his case Saul Bellow) as being “a transfusion from above.” Everyone reads upwards, right? For reading a book by an author only as intelligent as I am would be about as sensible as voting for a president because he’s the kind of guy you could go for a beer with. The play between reader and writer is what makes the book different for each person who reads it, and the more the author gives, the less the reader has to contribute.

I want a novel with something hidden in it, but not necessarily for it to be revealed in the end. I want the draw of a novel to come not so much from the story as from the voice; a long, unbroken monologue that you can’t pull yourself away from. For a long time this meant a particular treat for me was the unreliable narrator, as perfected by authors like Patrick McGrath and Kazuo Ishiguro. There is much more satisfaction to be had for me from the uncertainties and frustrations of The Unconsoled or When We Were Orphans, than from the neat perfection of The Remains of the Day or Never Let Me Go. I never viewed books as a source of escapism. Literature, as Jeanette Winterson said, “isn’t a hiding place. It’s a finding place.”

Running through backlists and “modern classics” like the late starter I felt myself to be – though rarely venturing earlier than the 1920s (Waugh yes, Woolf yes) – I began to feel that time spent not reading was time wasted. Finally I seemed to fit the mould that others had made for me, of a bookish young man (I already had the look: pale, skinny, sportless). Finding something that I was good at, I ran with it. My rate of reading began to describe a J curve. I became, in short, someone who reads a lot.

I am still someone who reads a lot. I know this because everyone I know thinks so, even though it’s no longer true. I read hardly at all these days. But I know I read a lot also because nobody ever buys me a book as a gift, even though they think books are what I love more than anything. And I know it because friends, family and colleagues, most of whom also don’t read much, ask for my advice on bookish things. (What could I take on holiday? Have you read Fifty Shades? Where in Belfast could you buy books by Julio Cortazar?) When I say ‘friends’, naturally I am using the word in its twentieth-century meaning: I have come to accept that, just as a friend of mine has a six-year-old son who doesn’t believe you couldn’t rewind live TV until recently, my own children will not understand my definition of a friend as someone you have at the very least met. Now that I have an endless network of online ‘friends’ all of whom love books at least as much as I do, I have hardly any time to read as a result. The J curve has become a bell curve, a normal distribution, for very normal reasons.

In his 1938 book of memoir-cum-criticism, Enemies of Promise, Cyril Connolly wrote of the perils to the writer of domesticity.

If, as Dr Johnson said, a man who is not married is only half a man, so a man who is very much married is only half a writer. Marriage can succeed for an artist only where there is enough money to save him from taking on uncongenial work and a wife who is intelligent and unselfish enough to understand and respect the working of the unfriendly cycle of the creative imagination. She will know at what point domestic happiness begins to cloy, where love, tidiness, rent, rates, clothes, entertaining and rings at the doorbell should stop, and will recognise that there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.

The last line is well known, but the whole paragraph shows that Connolly had a very different view of marriage, 75 years ago, than we do now. (And of artists: his writer is by definition a man.) He seems to see gradations of marriage, with “very much married” the worst option of all. But as far as “good art” is concerned, his comment holds true for reading as well as writing. A parent is a willing player in the project of being pushed into a corner of their own life, even more so now than in Connolly’s time, but that doesn’t make one any less bouleversé when it happens. For Connolly, fatherhood – which is strictly what he was talking about, rather than parenthood – meant being a breadwinner and staying put, and that seemed to him to be challenge enough. Now fathers wish to have an active role in their child’s upbringing, and it’s not incompatible with good art, provided you have nothing else to do. J.G. Ballard balanced the domestic blitz not only of fatherhood but of single parenthood with writing original and interesting fiction: but writing was his job. Could he have done it while holding down another full-time job?

As it happens, I managed pretty well to keep my reading up after our first son was born. The thing about two parents and one child is that you outnumber them: you can give your partner a break, and vice versa. My wife and I adopted a shift system for nights, many of which I spent reading and writing reviews while monitoring the Moses basket. With two children, the first thing you realise is how easy it was with one. Now there are no hiding places, no spare hands. Once they’re both sleeping through the night (and with our second, currently 16 months old, we’re still waiting for that), you have the evening free; but you’re too tired to concentrate on anything longer than a tweet. Most of all, with two young children, you’re never really alone. Connolly again: “In general it may be assumed that a writer who is not prepared to be lonely in his youth must if he is to succeed face loneliness in his middle age. The hotel bedroom awaits him.” I am trying right now to remember the last time I was truly alone: no family or children, no colleagues alongside, no passersby or surrounding traffic, no prospect of interruption. I think it was probably about 9 months ago, when I made a trip to London on my own to attend a literary event: the hotel bedroom awaited me.

Deeds of possession for property speak of the tenant or owner having “quiet enjoyment” of the premises. Those two words placed together will have most parents scratching their heads with quizzical eyebrows. Quiet enjoyment is not part of the deal. But it is essential if you want to read, or write, or write about reading. It is essential if you want to engage with a book that can’t be fully absorbed with Octonauts playing in the background. Perhaps books should come with a rating label, like the warning sign on a tail-lift truck which warns following drivers how far away they must remain. Do not read within 10m / two rooms / one landmass of other people.

That is, perhaps, a plausible point, but I wonder whether I am shamefully using my beloved boys as an excuse for a phenomenon which has at its source other reasons. For example, having 750 unread books – or rather, having 750 unread books and feeling that you really must read them all at some point – cannot be conducive to good reading. We love to have a go at the decisions of literary prize judges, but the need to make it through all the books is so demanding that, as Adam Mars-Jones said of judging the Booker Prize in 1995, “it was great to find a book so inept you could chuck it aside and get on to the next one.” What reader with a pile of books looking over his shoulder doesn’t recognise that? It may be no bad thing: ensuring that, in literary terms, you don’t suffer fools gladly. But it tends to enhance that other human desire to have an opinion about something, to make your mind up. Taking a view about a book, I’ve heard it said, is like a tree beginning to fall: once it begins to tilt one way, it is very difficult to change its direction. Everything that supports the forming opinion is enhanced – ears pricked for it – and those that counter it tend to be overlooked.

What hope is there, then, for thoughtful and mindful reading, for taking time over the sort of book which makes you pause for thought, and not just rush toward the exit? Rushing-toward-the exit books are, of course, satisfying in their own terms, and have the added bonus that I’m less likely to want to write a review of them for my blog or elsewhere. It’s hard, for me, to write about a book that I fully understand and have no need to wrestle with a little. The process of writing a review tells me what I need to know about it. It also, for better or worse, cements my thoughts on a book, so that when I look back at a review I wrote years before, I will be unable to think of anything else about the book other than what I have written. This is, I suppose, preferable to the alternatives of not being able to remember what I thought or – increasingly – whether I’ve read the book at all.

This project of writing about books is partly vain – I must think my thoughts are worth sharing – and partly altruistic – I want others to get the same pleasure from a favourite book that I do. It also appeals, I think, to a completist impulse in me – others may prefer a different term – where my experience of a book is somehow unfinished until I have reduced it to writing. Or, what better way to do tribute to a piece of writing than by writing about it? Writing, of course, takes even more time and effort (for me) than reading, so the problems above are intensified. When plucking the next book from my shelves, I am torn between a thin one (so I can make a faster start on the overall project to clear my shelves of unread books, to get rid of all that potent, potential pleasure; to wish, finally, my reading life away) and a fat one (so the delay is longer before I ‘have to’ write a review of it).

But if reading has changed for me in one crucial way in the last few years, it has changed for others too. A survey published for World Book Day this year said that 29% of people rarely or never read, and that they blame “pressure of time” for this. We readers typically scoff, and wonder what uses they have for their time that couldn’t be squeezed a little to accommodate a slim volume or two. Yet I just made a similar excuse myself – about my children, and about being too tired in the evenings to concentrate on anything longer than a tweet. Twitter, in fact, entered my life exactly one week before my elder son. Now, like so many readers, I am trapped the give and take of recommendations, the presence of the authors, the murmur of links, replies and retweets. I find it hard now to read more than five pages of a book without sharing my thoughts on Twitter – briefly, inarticulately – or quoting a passage, or sharing an image of the brilliant/terrible cover. It is a hall of mirrors from which I can see no escape.

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.

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.