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One Hand Behind His Back: The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

Julian Barnes The Noise of Time Cover
The Noise of Time
by Julian Barnes
Jonathan Cape
184pp
$32.99 AU
Published February, 2016
ISBN 9781910702604

How strange the whirligigs of time are when it comes to literature. It’s only a few decades, a second in the eye of eternity, since Julian Barnes and his then friend and ally Martin Amis represented the new British writing. I remember Barnes saying to me back in the days when I published him in Scripsi and celebrated him when I could – or should – in the literary pages, ‘I think my work and Martin Amis’s both benefited from the fact that the dominant mode of British fiction ceased to be social realism with a comic twist.’

That was in the early nineties when Smarty Anus (as he has long been called) was looking like a behemoth of Dickensian novelistic invention. In books such as London Fields, sordor, sorrow, squalor and sex were all wrapped in the silk (sometimes the cellophane) of Amis’s prose. That prose appeared back then, more than any British prose before it, as something like a lassoing larrikin idiom, prose that could give the Americans at their wildest and most idiolectally inspired a run for their money.

But of course, there had always been another voice in the new British writing — Julian Barnes. It was clear then, and remains so now, that the unassailable masterpiece of the period was Barnes’ shortish novel Flaubert’s Parrot (1984). This strange story of obsession, which distilled the essence of the author of Madame Bovary via Barnes’ transfiguration of Steegmuller translating the Master, is the work that stands in relation to Amis not only at his grandest but also his most loose and baggy the way Jeffrey Eugenides’ Virgin Suicides would stand to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest a few years later.

Flaubert’s Parrot was a miniature masterpiece, the infinite riches in a little room, a work of such manifest quality that it seemed to indicate in a single stroke that a new tradition had been dynamized and set in motion. It was, as Frank Kermode said, the God-given book. And there has always been something in Barnes’ fiction, shorter and longer — it’s never long — that strikes like lightning, and then disappears. This may be one reason why so much of his career has been devoted, so assiduously and so impressively, to the short story form and to a kind of temperamental terseness.

If one were to venture a criticism of Julian Barnes, it might be to suggest that it is the irresistible lyrical surge of his best writing that represents him at his finest. His new book The Noise of Time (2015) is his first since The Sense of an Ending (2011), the novel which finally won him the Booker Prize he should have received for Flaubert’s Parrot nearly three decades earlier. But for all the exhilarating glory of the best of the novel, The Sense of an Ending has a lot in common with Barnes’ earliest books, Metroland (1980) and, especially, Before She Met Me (1982).  The latter book, with a certain irony, sets in motion a particular pattern of action and then disrupts it, not quite convincingly, with melodrama. The flaws of the 1982 novel returns in the prizewinner of 2011. What The Sense of an Ending is asking for is precisely that: the articulation of an action that makes sense in terms of beginning, middle and end. It’s a book which starts with an utterly satisfying brilliance, a sheer ease of manner which makes us feel, as we follow the hero’s adolescence and young manhood, that we are in the hands of one of the greatest writers under the sun. But then something goes awry and we encounter something random and not very probable. The follow through, in John Forbes’ terms, doesn’t describe the swing. The Sense of an Ending doesn’t end or develop as well as it starts, though that longish and sustained start is so good you can hardly complain.

So now we have  Barnes’ new novella — written in a style that bears little resemblance either to the sunlit soaring aspect of the first part of The Sense of an Ending or to the supple, cluttered, circumstantial style of the rest. In The Noise of Time we hit up against a style that seems grey to the point of drabness, disciplined within an inch of its life. To get a sense of what I mean, consider this opening:

It happened in the middle of wartime, on a station platform as flat and dusty as the endless plain surrounding it. The idling train was two days out from Moscow, heading east; another two or three to go, depending on coal and troop movements. It was shortly after dawn, but the man – in reality, only half a man – was already propelling himself towards the soft carriages on a low trolley with wooden wheels. There was no way of steering it except to wrench at the contraption’s front edge; and to stop himself from overbalancing, a rope that passed underneath the trolley was looped through the top of his trousers. The man’s hands were bound with blackened strips of cloth, and his skin hardened from begging on streets and stations.

This is not the transfiguration of an already beautiful thing like Barnes’ use of Steegmuller’s Flaubert in Parrot. This is a novelistic idiom that reaches for the condition of translation, as if language could only work through a lexical sort of bleaching of signification, as if all cows had to be grey in the dimmest of international lights. Nor is this social realism in some hearty, hilarious Kingsley Amis mode. No, this is a lean grey realism that remembers not just social realism at its bleakest and most denotative but the ghosts and mendacities of the socialist realism that could surround it.

It doesn’t take long to realise that in The Noise of Time we’re not only in Russia, the fabled disnatured Russia of the Soviet and Stalinist dispensation, but in some gulag of the mind, some imprisoning sterility of the spirit. It takes a little longer — but the presentiment grows like recurrent music — and then there is the distinct realisation that we are reading a particular kind of fiction, a novel in which the writer has one hand tied behind his back. Why? Because he is writing a documentary novel about the composer Shostakovich. One consequence of this – and perhaps an inevitable one – is that The Noise of Time comes across stylistically and affectively as a depressed performance. This is not without precedent even in Barnes’ early work. Back in 1992 he published The Porcupine, a novel about a dictator. A bleak ‘political’ work, nearly styleless by Barnes’ standards, it read like the work of another man, a writer who seemed, a bit strangely, to be on automatic pilot.

Reading The Noise of Time it’s easy to forget the lilt and sap of some of Barnes’ earlier work – especially the first movement of The Sense of an Ending. Think of those two books that began with Talking it Over in 1991 and continued with Love, etc (2000) in which a couple of male friends and their intimates and beloveds are shown in sharply defined, erotic proximity. The writing, with its marvelous, fragrant sense of multiple points of view, has a glorious dramatic verve. Barnes relishes the corners of affection and the blows of anger that make up a world of colour and nuance and comical interconnection. Stylistically, The Noise of Time could not be less like this.

Barnes has tried his hand at documentary fiction before in his 2005 novel about Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur and George (it’s worth noting too that Barnes is a distinguished essayist when he’s not writing stories and novels, the man who wrote of Princess Diana in a deeply ambivalent essay published after her death that Elton John might say she was a candle in the wind but she seemed to him to come across like a great bloody chandelier.). I was certain that I’d read every word of fiction written by Julian Barnes — when suddenly it came to me that Arthur and George had escaped me. That novel came back to me with the words of Peter Porter who told me when he read it that it just seemed so superior to most things written these days. And, yes, it’s a fine book, and a weird one. And I set about reading it in order to have a yardstick for The Noise of Time and to fill out the sense of what a documentary novel might mean in the hands of an author whose natural tilt is towards the lyrical mode rather than a densely articulated action.

Arthur and George is a kind of true life detective story in which the creator of Sherlock Holmes sets about attempting to prove the innocence of a solicitor of Indian background — with an Anglican vicar for a father — who is accused of mutilating horses. It is a remarkable book and, if it raises the atmospheric fascination, riddling human motivations and ambiguities of the detective story to the level of art, it also deploys the technique of Talking it Over and Love, etc of presenting the central characters’ points of view under different headings, almost in the manner of an epistolary novel.
This is how it goes:

George

Each morning George takes the first train of the day into Birmingham. He knows the timetable by heart, and loves it. Wryley & Churchbridge 7.39. Bloxwich 7.48. Birchills 7.53. Walsall 7.58. Birmingham New Street 8.35. He no longer feels the need to hide behind his newspaper; indeed, from time to time he suspects that some of his fellow passengers are aware that he is the author of Railway Law for the ‘Man in the Train’ (237 copies sold). He greets ticket collectors and stationmasters and they return his salute. He has a respectable moustache, a briefcase, a modest fob chain, and his bowler has been augmented by a straw hat for summer use. He also has an umbrella. He is rather proud of this last possession, often taking it with him in defiance of the barometer.

Arthur

And then he meets Jean.

He is a few months short of his thirty-eighth birthday. He is painted that year by Sydney Paget, sitting straight-backed in an upholstered tub chair, frock coat open, fob chains on show; in his left hand a notebook, in his right a silver propelling pencil. His hair is now receding above the temples, but this loss is made irrelevant by the compensatory glory of the moustache: it colonizes his face above and beyond the upper lip and extends in waxed toothpicks out beyond the line of the earlobes. It gives Arthur the commanding air of a military prosecutor; one whose authority is endorsed by the quartered coat of arms in the top corner of the portrait.

Arthur is the first to admit that his knowledge of women is that of a gentleman rather than a cad.

This is beautiful and brisk and rather ravishingly odd. Arthur and George is a triumph of period ‘tone’ because it manages to insinuate itself as an Edwardian novel which is also something like a modern one. It also has a kind of uncanny quality that partly inheres in the alleged crimes and partly comes from the way the book presents us with the enigma of its central figures George and Arthur.  It is part of the sophistication of the novel that it presents Conan Doyle in particular as a multi-faceted human character with all his moralisms and prejudices — while also representing his bulldog toughness and staying faithful to the historical record.  Through the vulgar inscrutability of his characters, Barnes endows the mystery novel (in the American sense) with the status of an epistemological donnée. In Arthur and George we are a little less sure of what has happened or is about to happen because the past itself is the end and the beginning of what is being examined.  You can see Barnes at the edge of inventing a new genre, a kind of populist – though that’s not quite the word – literary docudrama which is a million miles from ‘faction’ in the Sebaldian lyrical essayistic mode and some degree closer to contemporary film and television docudrama of the true crime variety although with a thrilling authorial and personal flavour. It should be apparent that I think Arthur and George is an understated marvel of a book. The effect is at once traditional in that it provides the satisfactions of a lost age of trash fiction — and radically novel.

The Noise of Time is a very different kind of book. One counterpart that came immediately to mind is a contemporary one. In 2002 Martin Amis, Barnes’ sometime friend, published Koba the Dread, a novel about Stalin and while Barnes’ Shostakovich novel is shadowed by the figure of Stalin, the difference is instructive. Amis’ Koba the Dread is a work of unprecedented vulgarity even among the author’s not inconsiderable quantity of failures (Time’s Arrow, the backwards running Holocaust novel has a high place in this catalogue). It is like a child pulling faces at himself in the mirror and saying over and over ‘Josef Stalin was a Very, Very Bad Man’. Amis’s Stalin novel is callow both in its narcissism and its moral pretentiousness: the novel takes an obvious position (which is, yes, okay, right) and beats it to a brainless pulp. The relation of The Noise of Time to Koba the Dread is the opposite of an anxiety of influence, something more like the comfort of disdain. Barnes give us a very adult take on a world that corrupts the air the artist breathes in which he nonetheless continues to live.

The tone of The Noise of Time is very different from the sub-Solzenitsyn rant of Koba. It is more like a blanched version of the spectrally allegorical style of Koestler or Camus, an old-fashioned Cold War style.

All he knew was that this was the worst time of all. The worst time was not the same as the most dangerous time. Because the most dangerous time was not the time when you were in the most danger.

This was something he hadn’t understood before.

He sat in his chauffeured car while the landscape bumped and drifted past. He asked himself a question. It went like this:

Lenin found music depressing.
Stalin thought he understood and appreciated music.
Khrushchev despised music.
Which is the worst for a composer?

To some questions, there were no answers. Or at least, the questions stop when you die. Death cures the hunchback, as Khrushchev liked to say. He was not born one, but perhaps he had become one, morally, spiritually. A questioning hunchback. And perhaps death cures the questions as well as the questioner. And tragedies in hindsight look like farces.

The subtlety of The Noise of Time is to present the great composer through an existential lens. We see Shostakovich as complicit with a regime that tolerates him and treats him as both a treasure of the earth and as so much dirt. It’s all carried out with a schematic brilliance and a pervasive mordant melancholy:

He attended Party meetings as instructed. He let his mind wander during the endless speeches, merely applauding whenever others applauded. On one occasion, a friend asked why he had clapped a speech in the course of which Khrennikov had violently criticised him. The friend thought he was being ironic or, possibly, self-abusing. But the truth was, he hadn’t been listening.

Those who did not know him, and who followed music only from a distance, might well have observed that Power had kept the deal offered by Pospelov on its behalf. Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich had been received into the holy church of the Party, and little more than two years later, his opera – now retitled Katerina Izmailova – was approved and premiered in Moscow. Pravda piously commented that the work had been unfairly discredited during the Cult of Personality.

This is good writing — with an elegantly etched sketchiness that leaves it just clear of the obvious. The moment in which the composer’s vision is articulated has the kind of stoicism that Barnes, early on, indicated he admired in Chekhov. He cited the Russian author in an epigraph to Staring at the Sun: ‘A carrot is a carrot. Nothing further is known’. And something like that, some dimly luminous signification of nothing, is the only claim of the composer who happens, without the glamour or trappings, the intensity of any signature, to be Shostakovich the modernist, the disciple of Wagner, the celebrator of the victories of Stalin, the hater of totalitarianism, the elegist for the dead of Babi Yar.

What he hoped was that death would liberate his music: liberate it from his life. Time would pass, and though musicologists would continue their debates, his work would begin to stand for itself. History, as well as biography, would fade: perhaps one day Fascism and Communism would be merely words in textbooks. And then, if it still had value – if there were still ears to hear – his music would be…just music. That was all a composer could hope for. Whom does music belong to, he had asked that trembling student, and though the reply was written in capital letters on a banner behind her interrogator’s head, the girl could not answer. Not being able to answer was the correct answer. Because music, in the end, belonged to music. That was all you could say, or wish for.

Music is music: nothing further is known.

The Noise of Time is an impressive minor work by a great writer. Part of what makes it impressive and at the same time somewhat depressing (at the level not so much of performance as vision) is that it takes a dim view of art.  Or rather in this novel, art is the one thing worth clinging to. It’s not that Barnes here takes the tragicomic as an allegory of the life of the ageing artist but it is significant that he should be drawn to this story of a Russian artist at this particular historical moment– with Putin, God help us, as a mighty spectre – and that he presents it with such biting coldness and with so few hints of heroism.

This is an unambiguously good book by a great writer and it is also in the common garden sense a “good” read rather than a great one. It does not have the lyricism or the circumstantial verve of Barnes’ other stories which bubble with life through whatever disenchantment and misadventure. This is a book without consolation, even the consolation of tragedy or, let’s say, tragic intensity.  The noise of time is a recurrent phrase — and it is also only a step away from intimations of dancers to the music of time and all that Powellian/Proustian palaver. Just as Barnes disdains the consolation of tragedy, he disdains the consolation of art. His study of Shostakovich is a sombre and powerful march of the self, one that reverberates with the artist’s own self-portraiture, his melancholy études.

Despite its limitations, despite every etiolation and refusal to be exalted by suffering, The Noise of Time is the work of a master craftsman and, like every word Barnes writes, it should be read and pondered. We may miss the smiling summer night quality of some of his earlier work, with its eroticism and its elasticity and we may also miss the poetry that he found, almost by a principle of telepathy, in the prose of Flaubert. Instead he seems to be sailing towards a new minimalism — and perhaps towards an embittered moralism. It’s hard not to hope too that Barnes might turn again to history with the degree of warmth, the relish for the remembrance of things past, that he displayed in Arthur and George.