Full House Reading Challenge – The Noise of Time – Julian Barnes

Genre: Historical fiction

Narrative style: Detached third-person narrator

Rating: 5/5

Format: Paperback

Published

Synopsis: Set in Soviet Russia, The Noise of Time looks at the life of the composer, Shostakovich. The novel focuses on three key points in the composer’s life, while also giving details of his relationship with the Soviet state, first under Stalin then under Khrushchev. This is not a straightforward fictional account and is as much about the relationship between art and power as it is about Shostakovich’s life. 

Reading challenges: Full House Reading Challenge: Genre – History

I have been a fan of Julian Barnes for a long time. Unlike Amis or McEwan, he writes rich and enticing prose without having to show off his vocabulary and cleverness all the time. I hadn’t read anything he had written for a while so when I got this for Christmas I was very excited. Not only was it by Barnes but it was about the Soviet regime, something that I am also quite interested in.

Barnes chooses three key moments in Shostakovich’s life to illustrate the way he suffered and the difficulties he faced. These moments represent changes in the way that he is viewed by the state and the way that he views his position in relation to it.

At first, he is so convinced that he will be taken to the ‘Big House’ that he stands outside his apartment by the life so as not to be taken from his bed. His music is banned and he is very much disapproved of. It is only by a stroke of luck that he survives this part of his life.

In the second part, he is on a plane, flying to America to take part in what is basically a propaganda exercise, Stalin having decided that actually his music wasn’t banned at all. Now he is faced with making speeches he hasn’t written and agreeing with the Party line on various composers even though his personal views are different.

Finally, he is in the back of his limousine, having to be made to join the party, hating himself but seeing no other possible route. Barnes uses these three events as jumping off points to add detail and to Shostakovich’s life, his many wifes, his relationships with other composers and of course, with Power.

The portrait he paints of Shostakovich is easy to empathize with. Faced with survival as the only real consideration, it is hard to know how any of us would react. It is easy to imagine that we will stand up and protest but more likely, we would do what was needed and say what needed to be said. Shostakovich views himself as a coward but this sort of Power would make cowards of us all.

Barnes paints a clear picture of the changing Soviet state and calls the difference the new power under Khrushchev vegetarian by comparison to Stalin. It is, however, still Power and it is no easier for Shostakovich to produce music that the state approves of than it was before. (Having recently watched The Death of Stalin, I couldn’t help picture Steve Buscemi as Khrushchev as I don’t really know what the real Khrushchev looked like.) It seems that Shostakovich is destined to never be completely in favour or at least, in favour in a way that he could be comfortable with. It must be difficult when you can’t even appreciate your music being popular.

Finally, this is a novel about the role of art in society and how the Soviet regime – and others like it – warp the very idea of artistic creation. Not only do artists have to be free to create but audiences have to be free to listen and to hear what they want to hear.

Eclectic Reader Challenge – Published in 2013 – Levels of Life – Julian Barnes

In an earlier book, (The History of the World in 10 and a half chapters, a book dedicated to Pat Kavanagh) Julian Barnes made in clear how much he loved his wife. He recounted, with a sense of wonder, the moment in sleep when she moves her hair from the back of her neck so that he can snuggle in closely to her. For Barnes, this is a moment that every night proves the bond between them. (Incidentally, it is an image I think of almost nightly as I move my own hair from the back of my neck so that my husband can snuggle closer to me.) I had already associated the word uxorious with him, a word I am nearly certain I came across in one of his books although I cannot prove this without looking back through them all to find it. His once close friend, Martin Amis, called him uxorious (perhaps suggesting that Barnes was henpecked) when he moved from Kavanagh’s publishing company and Barnes severed all ties with him. This was a man that really loved his wife. So when I decided to read Levels of Life for the Eclectic Reader Challenge and I realised it was, at least in part, a meditation on grief at the loss of his wife I knew that it was going to be an emotional ride.

And it certainly was. The final chapter – The Loss of Depth – felt almost intrusive in its honesty about how he felt. It was like reading a diary entry or even an extended suicide note. Barnes has laid his soul bare for the reader to judge. I wonder if it has helped him to write it as he seems even at the end to be confused and lost, wondering if anything will ever change from the moment he is in now.

When I was reading the earlier chapters, I was wondering how this could possibly fit with what I the book to be about. But it soon became clear that they were joined by an extended metaphor photo (7)about flying, about freedom and about love, all of which Barnes feels he has now lost. All of this is exquisitely written. (Maybe I’m biased, Barnes is one of my favourite voices but it is always clear that he has a love of language and he writes in a very precise way which I enjoy.) But is in the final chapter that the writing has real emotional resonance. I felt devastated on his behalf as if he was someone I knew, not just an author I love. In the way of the un-bereaved, in the face of real grief, I longed to be able to do something. All I could do was make myself a cup of tea and shed a few tears for a woman I didn’t know who had such a profound effect on the life of one man.

Day 13 – A book that disappointed you. Lighthousekeeping and The Sense of an Ending

I try to avoid disappointment when reading. That is probably an obvious thing to say but I am quite a careful reader and I know what I like and what I don’t like. If, for whatever reason, I end up reading something I’m fairly sure I won’t like then I have lower expectations and so no disappointment ensues. I think the only time I am disappointed is when I read a book by a writer I really like and it isn’t as good as I expect. It is probably still a lot better than a lot of other books I read but my expectations lead me to expect too much from it.

I first discovered Jeanette Winterson when I was at University and The Passion is one of my all time favourite books and I’d liked everything that she had written before. I couldn’t wait to read Lighthousekeeping. The excitement behind reading this book was made all the greater by the fact that as part of Off The Shelf, I went to hear her read an extract from the book. I was really expecting to love this book.

And it still contains all those things that Winterson is so good at;

photo (1)the poetic imagery, the love of language and playing with language, the telling of and de-constructing of the stories we tell ourselves. But at the end I felt dissatisfied. It was even difficult to say exactly why or what the problem was. It just felt a little hollow, as if I had expected this book be a three course meal and to fill me up but I was left still feeling peckish.

It was too insubstantial for me. The language didn’t seem to lead anywhere and I was left with a feeling that I had greatly missed the point.

I had a similar feeling when I got to the end of A Sense of an Ending. Again, I love Julian Barnes and have read The History of the World in 10 and a half chapters a number of times, as well as a lot of his other novels. Again the story is well told, the narration is strong and the main character is convincing

photo

but it didn’t seem to add up to a lot.

I’m sure I’m not the first person to say that I was both glad and not when this book won the Booker. Glad because it surprised me that Barnes had not won before with say Arthur and George, to name but one possibility. Not glad because I do not feel that this is Barnes’ best work by some stretch.

Perhaps my tastes are changing and both these authors are no longer what I really want to read. I hope not. I haven’t really returned to Jeanette Winterson after reading Lighthousekeeping which seems a little churlish considering how many of her books I have enjoyed. As for Barnes, I will have to wait and see what his next novel will be.