Review – The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

OK, I’m calling it: When I grow up, I want to be Julian Barnes, please.

I’m not – specifically not – saying that The Noise of Time is the most enjoyable novel I’ve ever read. In places it was actually a bit of a slog. I did, though, still find it to be worth the effort. Why? Well, it turns out that Julian Barnes has a brain the size of a planet (and a proper planet, not one of those hokey-cokey ones at the edge of the solar system), and here he’s in the mood for sharing.

Indeed, there are times when this hardly felt like a novel at all. At its simplest, The Noise of Time is a fictionalised life of Dmitri Shostakovich under the Soviet regime, but that description in isolation is simple to the point of being misleading. This is not literary biography. Rather, Barnes takes three moments in Shostakovich’s life and uses them as a springboard for Barnes-as-Shostakovich’s ruminations on literature, music, philosophy, politics – really, a little of everything, delivered at times deadpan, with black humour; at others, with barely-suppressed anger. I’m not qualified (certainly not as qualified as Barnes) to comment on what Shostakovich was really thinking at these particular points in his life; to me, though, passages like this feel more like unfictionalised Barnes:

‘Art belongs to everybody and nobody. Art belongs to all time and no time. Art belongs to those who create it and those who savour it. Art no more belongs to the People and the Party than it once belonged to the aristocracy and the patron. Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time. Art does not exist for art’s sake: it exists for people’s sake.’

Or this eminently quotable quote:

‘How was it possible not to love Shakespeare? Shakespeare, after all, had loved music. His plays were full of it, even the tragedies. That moment when Lear awakes from madness to the sound of music…And that moment in The Merchant of Venice where Shakespeare says that the man who doesn’t like music isn’t trustworthy; that such a man would be capable of a base act, even murder or treason. So of course tyrants hated music, however strenuously they pretended to love it. Although they hated poetry more.’

There are plenty more where that came from; in places, The Noise of Time feels like an evening spent with your old university professor, the one whose approval you craved. I enjoyed it, but then, that’s because I’m crazy about smart people, and I was in awe of nearly all of my professors – learning is pretty much my favourite thing. As a novel, though, rather than an exercise in intelligence, I’m not sure how well it works. It’s certainly not a book which can be read quickly, despite being a slim 192 pages – I had to keep putting it down and going back to it – and it’s not a book to pick up when you’re tired or distracted. I’d say that The Noise of Time has about the same intellectual density as Marilynne Robinson’s Lila has spiritual density; if you have the patience and the attention span to enjoy one, I think you’ll probably enjoy the other.

Now, I’m off to listen to some Shostakovich. Seems like it’s about time.

***

(This rating is probably unfair; I’m already feeling a little guilty about it, and may come back and bump it up. I think Julian Barnes accomplishes exactly what he set out to – and if I hadn’t read so many great novels recently, I probably would have given this an extra star. But I am a Philistine, and could have done with just a tiny bit more plot to help me digest all that intellectual fibre.)

Random Bookish Thoughts – 27 January 2016 – On New Books for 2016

Following fellow readers on WordPress and Twitter has not, in any way, helped with my book-buying addiction. I’m not convinced I’m actually reading any more,* but I’m certainly contributing plenty of cash to the publishing sector.

In that vein, whilst I’m still in a pretty serious relationship with War and Peace, I will admit to checking out the eye candy (ie new books) that have crossed my consciousness recently via t’internet. The British publishing industry, in its infinite wisdom, seems to have concentrated the release of half a dozen brilliant new books on 28 January, which happens to be (a) tomorrow, and (b) the first payday since Christmas. So, either pre-ordered or on the Amazon wishlist, I have the following (with official-ish blurb):

 

  • The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes ‘In May 1937 a man in his early thirties waits by the lift of a Leningrad apartment block. He waits all through the night, expecting to be taken away to the Big House. Any celebrity he has known in the previous decade is no use to him now. And few who are taken to the Big House ever return.’

 

  • The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, Joanna Cannon ‘England,1976. Mrs Creasy is missing and The Avenue is alive with whispers. As the summer shimmers endlessly on, ten-year-olds Grace and Tilly decide to take matters into their own hands.And as the cul-de-sac starts giving up its secrets, the amateur detectives will find much more than they imagined…’

 

  • Exposure, Helen Dunmore ‘London, November, 1960: the Cold War is at its height. Spy fever fills the newspapers, and the political establishment knows how and where to bury its secrets. When a highly sensitive file goes missing, Simon Callington is accused of passing information to the Soviets, and arrested. His wife, Lily, suspects that his imprisonment is part of a cover-up, and that more powerful men than Simon will do anything to prevent their own downfall. She knows that she too is in danger, and must fight to protect her children. But what she does not realise is that Simon has hidden vital truths about his past, and may be found guilty of another crime that carries with it an even greater penalty.’

 

  • In a Land of Paper Gods, Rebecca MacKenzie ‘Jiangxi Province, China, 1941. Atop the fabled mountain of Lushan, celebrated for its temples, capricious mists and plunging ravines, perches a boarding school for the children of British missionaries. As her parents pursue their calling to bring the gospel to China’s most remote provinces, ten-year-old Henrietta S. Robertson discovers that she has been singled out for a divine calling of her own. Etta is quick to share the news with her dorm mates, and soon even Big Bum Eileen is enlisted in the Prophetess Club, which busies itself looking for signs of the Lord’s intent. (Hark.) As rumours of war grow more insistent, so the girls’ quest takes on a new urgency – and in such a mystical landscape, the prophetesses find that lines between make believe and reality, good and bad, become dangerously blurred. So Etta’s pilgrimage begins.A story of a child far from home and caught between two cultures, In A Land of Paper Gods marries exuberant imagination with sharp pathos, and introduces Rebecca Mackenzie as a striking and original new voice.’

 

  • The Romanovs: 1613-1918, Simon Sebag Montefiore ‘The Romanovs were the most successful dynasty of modern times, ruling a sixth of the world’s surface. How did one family turn a war-ruined principality into the world’s greatest empire? And how did they lose it all?
    This is the intimate story of twenty tsars and tsarinas, some touched by genius, some by madness, but all inspired by holy autocracy and imperial ambition. Montefiore’s gripping chronicle reveals their secret world of unlimited power and ruthless empire-building, overshadowed by palace conspiracy, family rivalries, sexual decadence and wild extravagance, and peopled by a cast of adventurers, courtesans, revolutionaries and poets, from Ivan the Terrible to Tolstoy, from Queen Victoria to Lenin.’

 

  • Catullus’ Bedspread: The Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet, Daisy Dunn ‘Catullus was famed for his lyrical and subversive voice. His poetry tells the story of a life beset with love, loss, and the political conflict that characterised the end of the Roman Republic. ‘Catullus’ Bedspread’ follows the young poet’s journey through a world filled with all the indulgences and sexual mores of the time, and his lasting affair with a married woman called Clodia. While Catullus and Clodia made love in the shadows, the whole of Italy was quaking as Caesar, Pompey and Crassus forged a doomed allegiance for power. In these circumstances, Catullus composed his greatest work of all, a poem about the decoration on a bedspread, which forms the heart of this biography.’

 

I’ve pre-ordered the top two. Julian Barnes has been a bit hit-and-miss with me in the past – I Capital-L-Loved ‘Arthur & George’, I think I was a bit young for ‘The Sense of an Ending’. But this one sounds great. And ‘The Trouble With Goats and Sheep’ comes highly recommended by a number of people whose opinions I respect. I’m pretty excited about the other two novels on this list, too, and I suspect I will buy and read them well ahead of a lot of the other stuff on my TBR.

The two non-fiction I might resist a little longer, mainly because I have Peter Ackroyd’s awesome History of England series on the go. But ‘The Romanovs’ has been everywhere this month – even on Radio 2 – and it sounds frankly awesome. The Catullus is a more random pick, based not on any pre-existing knowledge of the Classics, but rather on some stellar reviews and a constant quest for ever more esoteric knowledge.

In any case, I’m looking forward to dipping into something a little more modern, once I finish with Tolstoy. (Although I’m not sure I will actually finish with Tolstoy, so much as turn the last of the 1273 pages and, somewhat befuddled, come up for air. In a good way.) Luckily, it looks like being a great month for new books!

 

*Actually, that’s not true. Based on my GoodReads record, I am actually reading more since I started following bookish social media – and remembering more of what I read, too. Long may it continue 🙂