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.

Benjamin Wood: The Ecliptic

Why is the life and world of the visual artist such an appealing subject for novelists? Perhaps I’m overstating it, but I’ve seen or read several in the last year (Jonathan Gibbs’s Randall, Niven Govinden’s All the Days and Nights, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian) and have strong memories of others: Patrick McGrath’s Port Mungo, Patrick White’s The Vivisector. Could it be that writers like telling painters’ stories because it enables them to write about the creative process – so familiar to them – but in a slightly, well, sexier form? Benjamin Wood: The Ecliptic The Ecliptic is such a book and more. Its narrator is an artist, and in the second part of the book we get a full-blooded account of her development as a painter, but there is more to it than that. We are told this only after we already know that she – Elspeth Conroy – is blocked, can no longer paint, and has come to Portmantle, an artists’ retreat on Heybeliada off the coast of Turkey, to rediscover her muse.

At Portmantle, established “to rescue the depleted minds of artists like us”, everyone has a pseudonym. Elspeth is known as Knell, and she is one of the longest-staying residents there, along with Quickman, MacKinney and Pettifer. (They are, respectively, novelist, playwright and architect, so the four friends conveniently cover a range of creative forms.) Artists leave Portmantle when they have completed a new piece of work, so remaining there for years indicates serious stoppage. Reading this, we wonder whether the approach of going to special place to be an artist and nothing else is more likely to cement the blockage than dislodge it. Is seeking “to rid ourselves of external influence and opinion” a good idea? (Answers accepted from anyone who has tried to write anything while ping-ponging between Word doc and social media feed.)

At the time of the story, it is the mid-1970s and Elspeth, now in her late thirties, has been there for over a decade. Other guests (“transients”) come and go but the four friends seem permanent fixtures. They are intrigued by the arrival one day of a teenage boy, seemingly a musician, known as Fullerton. (The book opens in sturdy read-on fashion: “He was just seventeen when he came to Portmantle, a runaway like the rest of us.”) You might say that they needed something to disrupt their stasis. There’s something affected about them – Quickman smokes a pipe, Knell describes weather as “clement”, they play backgammon – and precious too, so it would take a heart of stone to read MacKinney’s complaint that “I can’t even put down a simple stage direction without questioning myself” without laughing. On the other hand she puts their struggles in perspective when she says:

Do you know how many plays I’ve written in my life? Thirty-six. Know how many of those were actually any good? One. One! If I had a market stall, I’d be in penury by now.

This perfectionism could be the root of their problem, or a corollary of it. “The making part is what we’re addicted to, the struggle, the day-to-day,” Fullerton observes. Or, when Pettifer complains that “I’m useless in every respect, but especially in the field of architecture”, it could be a version of Thomas Mann’s observation that a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for anyone else. But the clever thing is that the rest of the book makes such struggles feel vital and important, not silly and trivial, through immersing us in Elspeth’s past.

After a dramatic conclusion to the first part of the book (“One of Four”, it says here: geddit?), we get that entirely engaging and in-depth portrait of her birth and growth as a painter. She leaves her Scots upbringing and moves to London, where she has an informal apprenticeship with artist Jim Culvert, has early success, tussles (and more) with a critic, becomes sufficiently important through one series of work to be hung in the Tate, and then – stops. It is the ecliptic of the title that stops Elspeth, when she agrees to a commission to paint a mural for a new observatory, and cannot determine how best to depict the mysterious – well, what is it exactly?

ecliptic, n. a great circle on the celestial sphere representing the sun’s apparent path among the stars during the year.

All this is tremendous stuff, engaging, persuasive and full of life. And at its end it brings us back to when Elspeth – Knell – joined Portmantle, and so we skip back to the ‘now’ of the story. Here the book adopts a third form, after the Secret History-esque buddy drama of part one, and the life-in-full of part two. It turns into a mystery, which I can’t say much about to avoid spoiling it. It might be enough to say that it reminded me obscurely of Theodore Roszak’s underrated novel Flicker, which was a sort of mad conspiracy theory thriller about cinema. In The Ecliptic there is just as much eyebrow-raising implausibility, but the pages turn so smoothly – I rattled through its 465 pages in a couple of (bank holi)days – that quibbles flee. Indeed, its craziness is much of its appeal.

If there’s a weakness, it’s in the revelation that comes near the end, which makes things too rational (but at the same time, paradoxically, explains both the neatness and the implausibilities earlier). In particular it seems a stretch to compare The Ecliptic, as my proof copy does, with the work of Kazuo Ishiguro, for its “delight in playing with our perceptions”. It certainly has a wide range and an impressive capacity for turning things upside down, but there isn’t really that sense of existential rudderlessness that Ishiguro excels in. Then again, to say that a book fails to live up to one of the greatest writers of fiction in English is hardly a knock. Another comparison the blurb makes, to David Mitchell, is closer to the mark.

All in all The Ecliptic is a satisfying, irresistible novel with that combination of storytelling punch and literary sensibility which can, with luck, be the sign of a big commercial and critical success. I was going to say that it marks Wood out as a writer to watch, but that usually seems to me to be code for “this book isn’t all that good, but the next one might be.” Better instead to say that he’s a writer to read.

Gabriel Josipovici: Hotel Andromeda

I haven’t written about Gabriel Josipovici before on this blog but I have read him and felt his influence: he is a champion of Agota Kristof’s work and he himself is championed by critics like Steve Mitchelmore and Mark Thwaite – readers in whose opinions I have faith. More than that, I read Josipovici’s book What Ever Happened to Modernism? and found it impressive: one the one hand, revelatory, but also reassuring (that I wasn’t mad, or stubborn, to like some kinds of books more than others).

Gabriel Josipovici: Hotel Andromeda

Hotel Andromeda is Josipovici’s newest novel and came at just the right time for me. I had recently finished another new book – not yet published so no names – and had been unable to get my head clear of it. I started and abandoned two or three books, which just seemed thin or silly in its shadow. Then I tried Hotel Andromeda and it worked: sharp and bright, like a newly struck currency, it has bags of energy and weight in fewer than 140 pages.

It is also magically light. Most of the novel is in brisk, peppery dialogue with not much distracting detail outside it. “He stands. He looks very tired.” “They walk.” “He shrugs.” “She stops.” Each dialogue is between Helena and another. Helena is a woman living in London, the object of unwanted attentions from her neighbour Tom (“Come and sit on my lap”), and a failing writer. That is her own view: on the one hand she writes to her sister, Alice, who is doing humanitarian work in Chechnya, but Alice doesn’t reply (“Even in my dreams she never replies”). Also, her books, though “much respected”, don’t sell, though she can still be a writer and nothing else, as “our parents left us both enough to get by. You could say I’m cursed with a small private income.” At the beginning of the story, she is trying and failing to write a book about the American artist Joseph Cornell, when her domestic routine is interrupted by the arrival of a Czech journalist and photographer, Ed; he claims that Alice told him that Helena would put him up.

Joseph Cornell: Andromeda: Grand Hotel de l'Observatoire

Every few chapters, the dialogue gives way and we get extracts from Helena’s work-in-progress on Cornell. She dislikes much of his work, its “sweetness” and “tweeness”, but is moved by his boxed assemblages – glass-fronted boxes of found objects and scraps of Victoriana – and in particular his Hotel Andromeda series. She thinks them “as true to our time and as resonant as The Waste Land and Duchamp’s Large Glass.” (The latter is the subject of a thrilling analysis by Josipovici in What Ever Happened to Modernism?) It is the conflict and ambiguity of the boxes that appeals to her: the “seediness of the [hotel] notepaper,” “the wonder evoked by the name Andromeda” and “the beautiful bisexual body of the trapeze artist.” Most of all it leads her to the realisation that

I grew up thinking about art as ‘the beautiful’, but I have come to understand that that is not what art is at all. Art is what manages to express that which lies buried so deep inside us that we can never find the sounds or images or words for it and so could never have access to it were it not for others, artists.

This ties in with her sense of the impossibility of writing: of making writing do what she wants it to, which is to evoke what is inside us. Her house guest Ed, the photographer, finds a similar impossibility in reporting on the conflict in Chechnya. “It’s my job to show the world. But I cannot do it. Not really. […] I was there a long time and I understand nothing.” Not the least of Helena’s problems in writing about Cornell is that to make him the centre of a book “would be to distort him. […] He was never at the centre. Always at the side.” Always at the side: that is one way of putting it. Although Helena makes a distinction between Cornell and true “outsider artists” like Adolf Wölfli and Henry Darger (“people in asylums. Or who should have been in asylums”), it’s fair to say that he was outsider enough. He had “no idea of how to live in the world” and developed obsessions with, among others, Lauren Bacall. His “typical diet for one day in 1946 included caramel pudding, a few doughnuts, cocoa, white bread, peanut butter, peach jam, a Milky Way, some chocolate eclairs, a half-dozen sweet buns, a peach pie, a cake with icing, a prune twist.” One contemporary said of him: “I always had the feeling that if I shook him he would pulverize into dust, like old paper.”

Joseph Cornell: Hotel Andromeda (1954)

Cornell himself struggled, as Helena struggles – as every artist ever has struggled – to achieve the alchemy that transforms life into art. “How,” Helena writes as she quotes from his notebooks, “to hold on to ‘the ceaseless flow and interlacing of original experience’? How to hold on to it and not kill it in the process?” Josipovici himself appears to have managed it, making a fluid, playful and serious book full of delights, from the “demented silence” of a Hans Namuth portrait of Cornell, through Wallace Stevens’ poetry (“Those that are left are the unaccomplished, / The finally human, / Natives of a dwindled sphere”), to Wittgenstein’s reported final, ambiguous words (“Please tell them I’ve had a wonderful life”). It’s all evidence of a mind full of both life and art, and a book that “preaches no sermon, yet, like music, it resonates within us, setting free a whole range of possibilities.”