Julian Barnes: The Noise of Time

In the late Seventies a group of ambitious young writers assembled for boozy Friday lunches at Bursa, a Turkish-Cypriot kebab house on the fringes of Bloomsbury distinguished by its proximity to the offices of The New Statesman. The literary editor of that magazine, Martin Amis, was by all accounts the star of a show that included James Fenton, Christopher Hitchens, Clive James and Ian McEwan. Numerous memoirs attest to an intensity of raillery that was by turns intellectually pyrotechnical and frankly puerile. Amid such a crowd it is hard to imagine Julian Barnes getting a word in.

On arriving as Amis’s deputy at The New Statesman, Barnes said he was so shy he was “paralysed into silence” by weekly editorial meetings. It took him the best part of a decade to write and publish his first novel, Metroland (1980), largely because he struggled to take seriously the idea of himself as a novelist. The company he kept every Friday cannot have made that easier; McEwan had made his name with The Cement Garden (1978) and The Comfort of Strangers (1981) while Amis wrote the decade-defining Money (1984). There cannot have been many writers of such ambition who have found themselves the third-best novelist in a kebab house. When Salman Rushdie later joined the set (which had migrated to grander venues than Bursa), Barnes was faced with the absurd situation of looking around the table and wondering whether he’d even make the podium.

It turns out Barnes was merely pacing himself. It seems like the best work of Amis, McEwan and Rushdie is behind them; Barnes, by contrast, still has plenty left in the tank. While his peers burned out with self-consciously big books, Barnes wrote more modestly and his talent aged well. As he was about to enter his sixties, he reached a large audience with the historical fiction of Arthur and George (2005) and followed it up with a small but intricate novel in The Sense of an Ending (2011), which won the Man Booker Prize. He has published collections of essays on France, cooking and art and has written two hybrids of essay and memoir, Nothing to Be Frightened of (2008) and Levels of Life (2013), both of which proved moving and unexpectedly funny.

He turns 70 this month and with The Noise of Time he has written a novel of deceptive slenderness: a short fictional account of the life of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. In scale, it appears similar to The Sense of an Ending, but is without that book’s taut, thriller-ish structure; less tidy but more ambitious. Those seduced into reading Barnes by his Booker Prize might well be disappointed. Longer-standing readers will recognise his commitment to reinventing himself: one of the things Barnes most admires in Flaubert is his never having written the same book twice.

The Noise of Time is a narrative in which nothing much happens: a man waits for a lift; a man sits on a plane; a man sits in a car. All the action takes place in Shostakovich’s head; in each of these three sections we find him at a moment of reflection amid a larger crisis, the “skittering” of his mind represented by short bursts of text that flit between memories and the present.

Crisis Number One is the Great Terror. The story begins with Shostakovich on the landing of his apartment block in the middle of the night waiting for the lift that will bring the secret police. This is 1936 and Stalin’s great purge is under way. Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk has met with Stalin’s personal disfavour and the composer has been denounced in the press: a clear sign that the cogs of murderous bureaucracy have been set to grind. It can only end one way: in an interrogation cell in which a “confession” awaits a signature, and a bullet the back of a neck.

As Shostakovich waits, he thinks of his childhood, of past lovers and, compulsively, of the train of circumstances that led to his fall. He remembers the disaster of the debut of his First Symphony at an open-air venue in Kharkov, when the music had set the local dogs barking. The louder they played, the more dogs barked. “Now his music has set bigger dogs barking,” Barnes writes. “History was repeating itself: the first time as farce, the second time as tragedy.”

This inversion of Marx’s formula is typical of the black humour Barnes lends to Shostakovich. There is a manic vacillation to the composer’s thoughts but beneath the discordance are subtle melodies. Certain repeated images resonate with each other throughout the novel; a list of memories at the novel’s start – “Cut peat weighing down his hand. Swedish water birds flickering above his head. Fields of sunflowers. The smell of carnation oil… Sweat oozing from a widow’s peak. Faces, names” – return as an oblique coda.

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