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Barnes on Books! A short digression…

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A Life with Books by Julian Barnes

It’s all that Annabel’s fault! She did a post last month on an Independent Bookshop Week event she attended and mentioned in passing (as well as showing a picture) the essays put out in the past by the IBW organsers to celebrate books and bookshops; and one of these was by Julian Barnes. You might have noticed that I’ve rediscovered Barnes’ writing recently, and rather marvellous it is too. And with a title like “A Life with Books”, this little essay sounded essential for me, especially as I’d loved Robert Macfarlane’s “The Gifts of Reading” so much. So of course I had to send off for it, didn’t I?? 😀

“A Life… ” is 27 pages of loveliness wherein Barnes looks back at the books he’s encountered over his reading life, meditates on them and discusses the necessity of the printed book; and I’m completely in accord with his views on the latter. He rather cleverly recognises that “Books will have to become more desirable: not luxury goods, but well-designed, attractive, making us want to pick them up, buy them, give them as presents, keep them, think about rereading them, and remember in later years that this was the edition in which we first encountered what lay inside.” Thinking of all the attractive editions being brought out by any number of publishers, particularly some of my favourite (often smaller) imprints, I think he’s definitely spot on.

I also found unexpected resonances in his discussions of the fate of bookshops. Like Barnes, I come from a time “when most towns of reasonable size had at least one large, long-established second-hand bookshop, often found within the shadow of the cathedral or city“. Barnes’ adventures as a rabid bookbuyer were entertaining and gave me attacks of nostalgia; however, all of us booklovers are aware of the declining number of bookshops on the streets. Barnes particularly focused on a city in which I used to work, Salisbury, which was riddled with bookshops in the early 1980s – bliss! One such was D.M. Beach of Salisbury, located in a wonderful old building on the corner of the High Street which must have cost a fortune in rent. It housed the most wonderful antiquarian books and was vaguely intimidating for an impoverished youngster. Barnes reflects sadly that “All those old, rambling, beautifully-sited shops have gone” and Beach’s is no exception – it closed in 1999.

Barnes is always an excellent writer, and this elegant little essay ended up being an affecting paean for books, bookshops and what they can do for our lives. Fortunately paper books seem to be fighting back, with a wonderful array of lovely publications from imprints who are passionate about them appearing left, right and centre. Bookshops are having a harder time, and I personally live in a biggish town with only a Waterstones – so I do try to support that so we can at least have a bookish presence on the High Street. Anyway, I’m so glad that Annabel’s post nudged me into tracking down a copy of this; I may even have a collection of Barnes’ essays somewhere and on the strength of this one, it will be well worth reading! 😀

2018 – so what were my standout reading experiences? :)

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When it comes to doing an annual best of list, I tend to leave it to as close to the wire as possible; I’ve been known to read some corkers that end up at the top of the tree in the dying embers of the year. I also like to stretch the format a little, going for themes or concepts as well as just titles or authors. Anyway, without further ado, here’s what rocked my reading boat in 2018!

Books in translation

I don’t keep detailed statistics about the kinds of book I read, but I *do* now keep a list! And I can see from a quick glance down it that I’ve most definitely read a lot of works in translation. This has always been the case with my reading, and I’ve probably tended to focus on French, Italian and of course Russian originals. However, I’ve branched out a little more this year, with Spanish-language works, a stand-out Polish book (the incredible Flights!) and of course continued very strongly with the Russians…

They pretty much deserve a section on their own, but suffice to say I’ve encountered a number of authors new to me, from a shiny new book in the form of the marvellous The Aviator, to a poetic gem from Lev Ozerov and a very unusual piece of fiction (if it was fiction…) in the form of The Kremlin Ball. The wonderful humorous and yet surprisingly profound Sentimental Tales by Zoshchenko was a joy. Marina Tsvetaeva has been an inspirational force, and in fact Russian poetry has been something of a touchstone all year. I don’t think I will *ever* tire of reading Russian authors.

I spent quite a lot of time musing about poetry in 2018, actually, including the intricacies and issues of translating the stuff… Part of this related to the Baudelaire-Benjamin rabbit hole into which I fell, and I’ve actually been gifted a very fat book of French poetry in verse translation which I’m really looking forward to. The Baudelaire prose translations I’ve been reading are just wonderful and so I’m hoping this approach will work for French poetry generally.

To pick out one particular book in translation would be hard, but I do want to say that Saramago’s Death at Intervals has remained with me since I read it, particularly the delicate portrayal of the relationship between Death and the Cellist. In fact, whilst browsing in Foyles at the start of December, I found myself picking the book up and becoming completely transfixed by the ending again. Obviously I need a re-read – if I can only work out where I’ve put my copy…. :((

And a book of the year must be the poetic wonder that is Portraits without Frames by Lev Ozerov. Books like this remind me of how much I’m in debt to all the wonderful translators in the world!

Club Reads

The club reading weeks which I co-host with Simon have been a great success this year, and such fun! We focused on 1977 and 1944 during 2018, a pair of disparate years which nevertheless threw up some fascinating books. I was particularly pleased to revisit Colette, Richard Brautigan, Sylvia Plath and Edmund Crispin, as well as exploring Borges‘ work. The clubs will continue into 2019 so join in – it’s always fascinating seeing and hearing what other people are reading!

The British Library

I think BL Publishing need a special mention for the continuing wonderfulness of their books; I’ve read a number of their Crime Classics this year, which are always a joy, and I’ve also been exploring the new range of Science Fiction Classics which they’ve been putting out. I credit them, together with a chance Virago find in a Leicester Charity Shop, with my discovery of the books of the amazing Ellen Wilkinson – definitely one of my highlights in 2018!

They publish other books than these, of course, and as well as the excellent Shelf Life, I was gifted some fascinating-looking volumes about areas of London for my December birthday – I feel a possible project coming on…. 😉

Non-fiction

I’ve always been fond of reading non-fiction, and this year I’ve read quite a few titles. Inevitably there have been Russians (with How Shostakovich Changed My Mind being a real standout) as well as Beverley Nichols on the 1920s and numerous books about books. However, there’s been quite a focus on women’s stories with Ada Lovelace and Mary Shelley both featuring strongly, as well as Flaneuse, a book that intrigued and frustrated in equal measure. The French Revolution made a strong entry, with Olympe de Gouges’ Declaration of the Rights of Women proving to be stirring stuff. Looking down the list of books I read, there’s a lot of Paris and Russia in there!

Bookish arrivals

There have been *so* many bookish arrivals this year, that at times Mr. Kaggsy was getting quite fretful about the fact that we would soon be unable to move around the house… However, I *have* been clearing out books I think I won’t return to, and intend to continue having a bit of a (careful) purge in 2019. I have been very fortunate on the bookish front, though, and having not been able to afford much in the way of books when I was growing up, I’m always grateful to have them and thankful to the lovely publishers who provide review copies.

There *have*, inevitably, been some particularly special arrivals this year. My three Offspring gifted me the Penguin Moderns Box Set for Mothers’ Day, and although my reading of them has tailed off a little of late, I do intend to continue making my way through them in 2019, as so far they’ve been quite wonderful.

And a year ago (really? where has that year gone!) I was ruing the fact I couldn’t get a copy of Prof. Richard Clay‘s fascinating monograph Iconoclasm in Revolutionary Paris: the Transformation of Signs, and forcing one of my offspring to borrow a copy from their university library to bring home for me to read over the break. Through diligent searching and bookseller alerts, I managed to secure a copy, which I was inordinately excited about. On the subject of the Prof’s documentaries, I’m very much looking forward to seeing his forthcoming one on the subject of memes and going viral – watch this space for special posts! 🙂

New discoveries, rediscoveries and revisits

One of the delights of our Club reading weeks is that I always seem to manage to revisit some favourite authors, as I mentioned above. However, this year I also reconnected with an author I was very fond of back in the day, Julian Barnes. The Noise of Time was a hit last year, and I finally read and adored The Sense of an Ending this year. I now have a lot of catching up to do.

Returning to George Orwell is always a reliable delight, and I made peace with Angela Carter after a rocky start. Robert Louis Stevenson has brought much joy (and most of his work has been new to me), and Tomas Espedal’s Bergeners was my first Seagull book. I keep being drawn back to Jose Saramago, though; Death at Intervals really got under my skin and I *must* find my copy…

Challenges

I’ve been keeping my commitment to challenges light over the last few years, and this is actually working quite well for me. I don’t like my reading to be restricted, preferring to follow my whim, and I think what I’ve read has been fairly eclectic… I dipped into HeavenAli’s Reading Muriel celebration of Spark’s 100th birthday; dropped in on the LT Virago Group’s author of the month when it suited; joined in with the reading clubs (of course!); and for the rest of the time mostly did my own thing. It’s been fun… Will I take part in any next year, or set myself any projects? Well, that remains to be seen…. 😉

So that’s a kind of round up of the year. Looking down the list of books I’ve read, I’m more than ever aware of the grasshopper state of my mind – I don’t seem to read with any rhyme or reason. Nevertheless, I mostly love what I read, which is the main thing – life is too short to spend on a book you’re really not enjoying…

Loving my local library (redux) – plus the Oxfam lowers its prices! #bookfinds #library

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Things really *do* never go as planned, do they??? Like so many bookish types, I try to control the flow of incoming books as we get closer to the C-word time of year as I know lovely friends and family will be gifting me with them. And I had intended to do a very small post (if at all!) this weekend featuring a modest pair of arrivals which had made their way into the Ramblings this week:

The Owen Hatherley book is one I was very excited to receive from the publishers. I’ll be covering it for Shiny New Books; I’ve read a number of his books and he’s an incisive, funny and fascinating commentator. The Friedrich Ani was a result of a giveaway on the lovely Lizzy Siddal’s blog – I have won two books there recently, which is quite unprecedented, as I *never* win things! It’s a beautiful Seagull Books crime novel and I’m *so* pleased. So that seemed quite modest for a week’s arrivals…

However, I’m still in that Baudelaire-Benjamin wormhole and I amused myself mid-week by having a look at the local library’s online catalogue to see if there was anything interesting lurking. I was having an itch to amass more of their works, one in particular, and I wondered whether anything would be available to borrow which would scratch that itch without buying more books. I had low expectations, and the local Big Town didn’t have anything in stock. However, a wider search revealed that Bury St. Edmunds, of all places, seems to be a hotbed of rebellious thought and critical theory, as they had the specific book I was after as well as a number of Other Interesting Titles. Who knew?? Anyway, I placed reserves on four books and expected to wait a while for the library service to get them over here. However, an email pinged into the inbox today informing me that all four had arrived and were ready for collection, which was speedy and surprising, and meant that I ended up lugging these four round town with me today…

Despite the weight, I’m pleased to be able to explore these four volumes. Obviously, Benjamin on Baudelaire is what was exercising my brain most, but “Baudelaire in Chains” is a biographical work which sounds intriguing… The Modernism book also sounded good, and Adorno is one of the authors mentioned in “The Grand Hotel Abyss” which I’ve started dipping into also, so this seemed a good way to have a look at his writing and see if I want to explore further.

However.

As usual on Saturdays, I fell into the Oxfam bookshop to see if anything new was on the shelves, as the stock has been moving a little faster than usual of late – and this might have happened…

Someone has obviously been donating a lot of Julian Barnes and since my love of his writing has been rekindled recently, I really couldn’t ignore these. Particularly as they were marked at 99p each. It seems that my grumpy comment about their increasing prices may have been a little premature, as across the board they didn’t seem too pricy today. As for the Robb… Well, I actually had a copy of this before, then donated it in a fit of madness and clearing out books, and then thoroughly regretted it, particularly after I enjoyed his “The Debatable Lands“. So again, a no brainer, and only £1.99. Four books of such interest at less then a fiver ain’t bad.

And coming across the Robb reminded me that a couple of weeks I hauled home a few books from the Oxfam and then shoved them on a shelf and forgot all about them. Here they are, with an Interesting Other Title on top which snuck in through the front door one day:

The Alexis de Tocqueville is one of two titles by that author I’ve picked up recently to add to the French Revolution pile. I was pleased to get this particular edition, because the translator is Stuart Gilbert, who rendered the version I own of my favourite Camus novel, “The Plague”, and I like his style. And as I said, the other three were from the Oxfam and Very Reasonably Priced. The Eric Newby is one of the few I don’t have by him – I love his travel books and his wonderful self-deprecating style. The Robb is mentioned above and I’m so pleased to have these two volumes. And “Walking in Berlin” is a book I heard about when it came out and *so* wanted to read, but didn’t get round to doing anything about. It was never going to stay on the Oxfam shelves…

So. I’m not doing too well at stemming the incoming flow of books. But do you blame me?????

The inevitability of the arrival of new books…

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Let’s make no bones about it – I’m a book addict. Have been since I learned to read, really, and I can’t say I’ve ever denied it. So despite the bulging nature of my shelves, there have inevitably been books arriving recently (and those of you on social media may have seen some of these already). They’re a fairly eclectic bunch as usual, with a lot of nice Russians in there, and in the spirit of sharing I thought I would post some images here! 😀

So, what have we here? Well, from top to bottom:

Penguin Modern Poets #17 – yes, I know I’ve got completely behind with my reading of this series, but I hardly ever see them second-hand, and it was 49p in the Oxfam and it has Kathleen Raine. I’ll get back to this series eventually – honest!

The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter – why, you may ask, have I picked up another copy of this when I had such a bad experience before?????? Well – for a start it’s an original green Virago in great condition for only 99p and the one I have is a nasty modern version. But mainly, my fiercely feminist Middle Child insists that it’s a work of genius, and so I fear I should pay attention to her and give it another try with an open (and in the right frame!) mind. We shall see…

Pulse by Julian Barnes – I’ve loved my recent reads of Barnes’ work, and this is short stories. I’ve not read any of  his shorter works so for £1.49 I’m happy to have a go!

(Incidentally, the three above were all from the local Oxfam which seems to have calmed down a little with its prices and I can’t help but scream “bargain”!!!)

Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees – all I know about Mirrlees is that she has a Woolfian connection, so when I saw this lurking in the local BookCrossing location (Caffe Nero) I figured it should come home with me.

Letters: Summer 1926 by Pasternak, Tsvetaeva, Rilke – a nice NYRB edition at Full Price! (Eeek) There is a story attached to this which will come in a later post rambling on about Russians and poetry…

Orphic Paris by Henri Cole – another NYRB I bought at full price because I just loved the sound of it. I’m currently reading it and it’s stunning and I will write about it eventually but I am a bit behind with reviews at the moment, alas…

The Wives by Alexandra Popoff – I read about this online somewhere, and for the life of me I don’t know where. It’s about the wives of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Bulgakov etc etc and how they were literary partners and support to their husbands. Sounds just fascinating and this is a lovely second-hand-but-in-wonderful-condition-and-very-cheap copy. Result!

The eagle-eyed amongst you will have noticed a couple of spines with no writing and these are they:

This little lovely has been on my radar for a while, and as I’m having a bit of a Russian poetry binge at the moment and want to read a range of different translations, I thought “WTF! I work for a living, I shall buy books!” and sent off for it. More of the Russians in a later post, as I hinted above!

The other arrival is one I was ridiculously excited about:

Again, a lovely little chapbook I’ve been aware of for a while which is stuffed with Mayakovsky (amongst others) and translated by Boris Dralyuk! The cover image is from a Mayakovsky agitprop poster, and the inside is equally beautifully illustrated as well as containing an interview with the translator. Why have I never bought a copy before? Possibly because I’ve been trying to be good about book purchases (and, frankly, failing) and also because the price is not low as it’s from a small press. However, for some unknown reason to do with the weird vagaries of book pricing, I happened upon it the other day with the price slashed. So I ordered it, and even more weirdly the next day it had returned to full price. No, I don’t understand it either.

Fortunately, I have managed a fair amount of reading over the summer, and another purge is looming. However, it won’t necessarily be so easy to get rid of the extra books, as will be revealed in the forthcoming post about Russians and poetry…

(Oh, the mug? Fancy you asking! I saw it online – possibly Twitter or Instagram – and how could I resist? It’s Penguin orange, from M&S and yes, it describes me perfectly. It’s so beautiful I can hardly bear to use it…)

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! 🙂

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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