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Rediscovering Julian Barnes – #manbooker50 @shiny new books

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There’s been a lot of publicity about the celebration of 50 years of the (Man) Booker prize, and the lovely Shiny New Books is focusing on each of the winners during this week. Today sees the site covering the final decade of books, with capsule reviews by a number of bloggers, and I was pleased to join in with my thoughts of “The Sense of an Ending” by Julian Barnes.

Despite having had the book on my shelves for years (after a fortuitous charity shop find) I’d never actually got round to reading it. Which was a bit silly, really, because I read his work in the 1980s and loved it, but I’d kind of lose touch with him. However, my Eldest Child rated the book very highly, and when I enjoyed Barnes’ “The Noise of Time” so much recently, it definitely seemed the right time to reconnect with the author. So when the SNB editors asked for contributors, I thought “Sense” would be the one for me – which it was!

I absolutely loved the book: Barnes’ prose is just wonderful and it’s a novel that lingers in the mind. You can read my (brief) thoughts on it here, and if you haven’t read the book I can highly recommend it. I’m not a person who follows book awards much any more, and I kind of lost touch with the Booker after Margaret Atwood won it (I can remember being *so* excited!) And looking through the list of titles, I would *definitely* choose a different “Golden Booker” selection than the ones chosen!

Nevertheless, I’m so glad to have been prodded into reading “The Sense of an Ending” which I do feel was a really worthy winner. I’d highly recommended popping over to Shiny New Books and checking out all the fabulous posts – you just might find an idea for your next read! 🙂

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2017 – or, Distracted by Documentaries…

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That might seem an odd title for a post rounding up my thoughts on my best reads of the year, but I fear that my reading rate has actually slowed down quite a lot over recent months and I suspect that might have something to do with my constantly being distracted by the BBC…..

Margaret Atwood image c. Jean Malek

This all kind of began over the summer months with the series of programmes on BBC4  focussing on Utopias of all sorts, and in particular Prof. Richard Clay’s three-part series on the subject (I also blame him for sending me off down a bit of an iconoclasm rabbit hole…) Since then, I seem to have been awash with documentaries of all sorts, from classical music through Margaret Atwood to Mexican art, all of which are a bit distracting and take the mind away from books (or send the mind off in strange directions after other books aside from the ones I was meant to be reading…) So my rate of reading has slowed down a bit I think generally because of this, and spending time in chunksters like “War and Peace” and “Crime and Punishment” has compounded the problem.

However, I have read some absolutely marvellous books this year; I never do anything as formal as a top ten, but here are a few of my highlights. And note that two of them have been read in December, so yes! doing one of these lists before January is premature! So – here goes…

Russians

This blog would not be about my reading without having a lot of Russians in there, and 2017 was by necessity dominated by them. It has been, of course, a year of marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution and two of the outstanding books of the year for me were ones dealing with this. China Mieville’s October and the collection 1917, put together by Boris Dralyuk, were fine books which really brought the events of a century ago alive and both will stay with me.

On the Russian fiction front, I spent a great deal of time with some classic chunksters. Finally reading “War and Peace” was a milestone for me, and revisiting “Crime and Punishment” by my beloved Dostoevsky was also a special experience.

There were new treats too, in the form of “The Return of Munchausen” by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, and “Memoirs of a Revolutionary” by Victor Serge. Both authors are recent discoveries and both I would now count as amongst my favourites.  And the wonderful collection of Russian Emigre Short Stories, collected by Bryan Karetnyk and which I covered for Shiny New Books, was a real eye-opener and treat.

Still with Russia, but with non-Russian authors, I actually loved to bits two novels set in that country – “A Gentleman from Moscow” by Amor Towles; and “The Noise of Time”, Julian Barnes’ masterly portrayal of Shostakovich. Really, as a lover of Russian culture and history, I *have* rather been spoiled this year!

Classic Crime

Unsurprisingly, given my taste for it, I’ve delved into a lot of classic crime this year. Much of it has come in the form of lovely books from the British Library Crime Classics editions; and I find it hard to pick favourites from them, although “The Poisoned Chocolates Case” was a real treat.

I also discovered John Dickson Carr with a vengeance. It’s not for nothing he’s known as the king of the locked-room mystery, and I’ve spent many a happy hour with Dr. Gideon Fell this year.

Margaret Atwood

A living legend. A genius. ‘Nuff said. I rediscovered her work this year too, and definitely want to keep that trend going during 2018. Certainly, her non fiction books have been a real revelation and I can’t praise her highly enough.

Translated literature

There has been a *lot* of translated literature flowing through the Ramblings this year – and if I was more organised I daresay I could get the spreadsheet I keep my list of books read in to work out some statistics. I suspect there could well be more translated that native language books in there – maybe I’ll calculate one day…

Anyway, spending time with Georges Perec is always a joy and I read more of his works this year. I still have a book or two left unread, thank goodness – I dread getting to the last of his works available to me in English.

And one of the highlights of my reading year, during December was the book “Malacqua” – an author and book new to me which I stumbled upon because of the recommendation on the front from Italo Calvino. An unusual, hypnotic and memorable work.

Sci-Fi (or slipstream or speculative fiction or whatever  you want to call it…)

I’ve always dipped into this kind of genre over the years, but during 2017 I really reconnected, after dipping into Soviet sci-fi during 2016. The late, great Brian Aldiss is turning out to be something of a treasure, but my main incursions into the genre came via M. John Harrison. I read some of his shorter works for the 1968 Club and then had the joy (also in the last month of the year!) of reading his newest collection of shorter works, “You Should Come With Me Now”. It’s a powerful and unforgettable work and another book of the year arriving at the last minute.

Reading Clubs

On the subject of the reading clubs I co-host with Simon at Stuck in a Book, we spent time in 1951 and 1968 last year, and we have 1977 lined up for this one – do join in if you can, these events are such fun!

2018 – plans or not?

I started 2017 giving myself few challenges and reading plans or restrictions – which seems to have worked best for me, and I plan to continue on that road for 2018. I don’t function well as a reader if I feel that I *must* read a book; instead I intend another year of No Plans At All and simply following the reading muse!

One reading challenge I *will* try to drop in on occasionally is HeavenAli’s centenary read-along for Muriel Spark. I’ve read a fair bit of Spark over recent years, but there are plenty of titles I haven’t read so if the timing is right, I’ll be there…

I must too say thank you to all who drop in here, leave comments, discuss and recommend books – I always love engaging with people about reading, and look forward to interacting with you all in 2018. And thanks also to the lovely publishers who’ve provided review copies this year (and contributed to the lack of space in my house…)

Apart from that – lead on, Reading Muse, I’m right behind you…. 🙂

“Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time.”

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The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

You might be sensing something of a theme here on the Ramblings….

… because I do seem to be reading rather a lot of books set in or about Soviet Russia! I guess that’s kind of inevitable in the anniversary year of the 1917 Revolution, and I’m not complaining as it’s fairly obvious to even the most casual reader that I do have an interest in that country and its literature. However, I’ve been circling “The Noise of Time” for a little while now, slightly apprehensive and unsure if I should read it, mostly because of my well-known discomfort with fictionalised real lives, and also because it’s about Shostakovich, whose work I absolutely love (despite knowing very little about music in a technical way).

Dmitri Shostakovich is probably one of the most well-known Russian composers of the 20th century and he does tend to attract a little controversy, being either regarded as a puppet of the regime or a man who survived by saying one thing and meaning another. Barnes obviously subscribes to the latter view, and his portrait of the composer is nuanced and compelling.

But one of life’s many disappointments was that it was never a novel, not by Maupassant or anyone else. Well, perhaps a short satirical tale by Gogol.

“Noise” focuses on three pivotal points in Shostakovich’s life where he reaches a critical point – times when survival could well be in doubt. Each of these years – 1936, 1948, 1960 – is twelve years apart and a leap year, and the superstitious composer is very aware of this. In the first section of the book we find him waiting outside the lift in his building, a small suitcase in his hand; for Shostakovich is convinced he is about to be arrested, taken in the night as so many of his friends and colleagues have been, and he wishes to be prepared and orderly rather than grabbed in his pyjamas. As he waits, he reminiscences and ponders on his past; his relationship with his family, previous loves, and the fact that the failure of his opera, “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” has led to him being denounced and vilified.

He did not want to make himself into a dramatic character. But sometimes, as his mind skittered in the small hours, he thought: so this is what history has come to. All that striving and idealism and hope and progress and science and art and conscience, and it all ends like this, with a man standing by a lift, at his feet a small case containing cigarettes, underwear and tooth powder; standing there and waiting to be taken away.

Through a quirk of fate Shostakovich survives 1936 and when we next encounter him he’s returning from a politically motivated propaganda visit to America. This has been stressful, as he’s been made to spout speeches and soundbites written for him by the authorities, as well as encountering hostile émigré Russians. By now, the composer knows that to speak out would mean trouble for both him and his family, and instead irony is the best defence against tyranny – particularly useful when dealing with a functionary sent to give him a little political education.

The final section focuses on an older Shostakovich, dealing with declining health and a final indignity. Living through the thaw that followed Stalin’s death, everyday life has become slightly easier; however, this brings its own problems and the composer is faced with having to make a choice which will completely compromise him morally and is one of the hardest things he ever has to do.

The Composer

Barnes draws on two major works for his portrait of the composer: “Shostakovich: A Life Remembered” by Elizabeth Wilson, and “Testimony”, Shostakovich’s memoirs as related to Solomon Volkov. Both of these books are on Mount TBR and I’m well aware that the latter has also been controversial, with differing claims about its authenticity. Nevertheless, the voice that Barnes gives to Shostakovich here is one I found entirely convincing and the book is a compelling, fascinating and very moving read. Barnes captures brilliantly in his narrative the effects of living a life in constant fear; the daily horrors, the wish to escape and just be left alone to create your work. Despite his dismissal of himself as a “worm”, Shostakovich’s narrative is wryly witty in places, a dark humour that was probably a necessary response to years of living under the iron heel of tyranny.

In the old days, a child might pay for the sins of its father, or indeed mother. Nowadays, in the most advanced society on earth, the parents might pay for the sins of the child, along with uncles, aunts, cousins, in-laws, colleagues, friends, and even the man who unthinkingly smiled at you as he came out of the lift at three in the morning. The system of retribution had been greatly improved, and was so much more inclusive than it used to be.

The title of this book is also that of a collection of memoirs by the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, and it’s also a thread that runs through the narrative. On the surface you couldn’t find two more different Soviet artists than the poet and the composer. Mandelstam spoke his mind about Stalin during the height of the purges, was betrayed and paid the ultimate price of madness and death; Shostakovich, by contrast, considered himself a coward and often failed to speak out, instead trying to negotiate a path through the stormy waters of the Soviet regime. It was a life endured with constant ups and downs, one day in favour, the next day out, and I would argue it took a certain moral resilience to live that way. How he actually managed to cope with constant fear and uncertainty while producing stunning works is a bit of a miracle; and actually living with the daily stress of not knowing if you’ll be denounced or arrested or tortured or killed takes its own kind of courage. And despite the portrait given here, Shostakovich *did* speak out in support of other artists and also produced work attacking anti-Semitism; so he was not without courage.

What could be put up against the noise of time? Only that music which is inside ourselves – the music of our being – which is transformed by some into real music. Which, over the decades, if it is strong and true and pure enough to drown out the noise of time, is transformed into the whisper of history. This was what he held to.

Four Russian Geniuses

There’s a wonderful photograph, which I’m reproducing here, which basically shows four Russian geniuses in 1929. Clockwise from the top left you have Mayakovsky, Rodchenko, Meyerhold, and Shostakovich. Mayakovsky would commit suicide a year later; artist Rodchenko managed to survive until 1956; the great man of the theatre Meyerhold was tortured and executed in 1940; but somehow Shostakovich made it through until my lifetime, dying in 1975 – a link to that Soviet past that lasted into the modern world.

A Very Brilliant Author

So “The Noise of Time” turned out to be one of the best reads of the year so far, and a book that I’m so glad I picked up. It deserves all the plaudits it received: not only does Julian Barnes paint a sympathetic and suggestive portrait of a great composer who survived a terrible regime against all the odds, he also provides a frighteningly vivid depiction of what happens to art under totalitarian rule. That’s becoming a running theme on the Ramblings, one which is particularly relevant to our world today; and I can’t recommend this book highly enough, especially if you need to be reminded of what we have to avoid.

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