Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Noise of Time review – Julian Barnes’s masterpiece

The Noise of Time review – Julian Barnes’s masterpiece

Shostakovich’s battle with his conscience is explored in a magnificent fictionalised retelling of the composer’s life under Stalin

Alex Preston
Sunday 17 January 2016 07.00 GMT

ulian Barnes’s last novel, the Man Booker-winning The Sense of an Ending (2011), engaged in subtle and sustained dialogue with the book whose title it pilfered, Frank Kermode’s brilliant 1967 work of narrative theory, also called The Sense of an Ending. Barnes’s latest, The Noise of Time, borrows its title from Osip Mandelstam’s memoirs, and again the earlier work casts interesting light upon Barnes’s project. Mandlestam was one of Stalin’s most outspoken critics, his fate sealed with the words of his 1933 Stalin Epigram. He was exiled in the Great Terror and died in a Vladivostok transit camp in 1938. The subject of The Noise in Time is not the brave, doomed Mandelstam, though, but a rarer genius, one whose art continued to flourish despite the oppressive attentions of the Soviet authorities: Dmitri Shostakovich.

julian barnes
Photo by Alan Edwards
Poster by T.A.

The Noise of Time initially appears to be the latest addition to a hybrid literary form with which we are increasingly familiar – the fictional biography. Recent examples range from Colm Tóibin’s The Master (which presented a repressed and unhappy Henry James) to Nuala O’Connor’s excellent Miss Emily (which gave us a wilful and tormented Emily Dickinson). As with all great novels, though – and make no mistake, this is a great novel, Barnes’s masterpiece – the particular and intimate details of the life under consideration beget questions of universal significance: the operation of power upon art, the limits of courage and endurance, the sometimes intolerable demands of personal integrity and conscience.

This novel, like its predecessor, gives us the breadth of a whole life within the pages of a slim book, written in an intimately close third person. The reader visits the composer during three critical moments in his life, the decades between skipped over with extraordinary panache, a bravura performance of Italo Calvino’s maxim that “time takes no time in a story”. We first meet Shostakovich as “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”. A damning Pravda editorial, probably penned by Stalin, has denounced the composer’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District as “non-political and confusing” because it “tickled the perverted taste of the bourgeois with its fidgety, neurotic music”. Shostakovich waits for his first “Conversation with Power” – interrogation by the NKVD – and, presumably, exile or worse.

Our next encounter with Shostakovich is after the war, on a propaganda tour of the US. His visit is prompted by his second “Conversation with Power”, this time a telephone call from Stalin himself that recalls a similar call in Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate (a novel that echoes within The Noise of Time). Restored to the party’s good books by the success of his patriotic “Leningrad” Symphony, Shostakovich is delivering a series of speeches denouncing his own work and, particularly, that of Stravinsky, whom he likes and admires. He reads his speech in a “muttered monotone”, hoping the words will be taken for what they are – dictations from the state. In the audience, though, is Nicolas Nabokov (Vladimir’s cousin and in the pay of the CIA), who forces Shostakovich to reiterate his endorsement of the views of Zhdanov, the man “who had persecuted him since 1936, who had banned him and derided him and threatened him, who had compared his music to that of a road drill and a mobile gas chamber”. It is a moment of abject, torturous humiliation for the composer.

The third section of the novel gives us an elderly Shostakovich, sitting in the back of a chauffeur-driven car, made bitter by the inexhaustible demands of the party, even now that Stalin’s terror has given way to the reign of “Nikita the Corncob”. Shostakovich describes himself as a hunchback, “morally, spiritually”, a man shattered in body and spirit: “He could not live with himself. It was just a phrase, but an exact one. Under the pressure of Power, the self cracks and splits.” We witness his “final, most ruinous Conversation with Power”, when the oleaginous functionary Pospelov forces him to join the party and take up a position entirely within the fold, as chairman of the Russian Federation Union of Composers. Shostakovich succinctly diagnoses his own greatest fault: “He had lived too long.”

Around halfway through the novel there is a passage that operates as a kind of appeal to the reader, and also a statement about what kind of book this is: “There were those who understood a little better, who supported you, and yet at the same time were disappointed in you. Who did not grasp the one simple fact about the Soviet Union: that it was impossible to tell the truth here and live. Who imagined they knew how Power operated and wanted you to fight it as they believed they would do in your position. In other words, they wanted your blood.” Here we sense the ghost of Osip Mandelstam, providing a heroic vision of what might have been for Shostakovich – an early death, lauded by some, forgotten by most. Instead, we get the old man, churning out bombastic, grandiloquent public music and composing his masterpieces – his late string quartets – in private, all the while knowing that “music is not like Chinese eggs: it does not improve by being kept underground for years and years”.

Throughout The Noise of Time, I kept thinking of JM Coetzee (not a writer I’d have associated Barnes with before). Most obviously Coetzee’s underrated fictional biography of Dostoevsky, The Master of Petersburg, but more often and more interestingly, Disgrace. In that novel, the hero, David Lurie, is offered an easy way out of a tawdry fix at the beginning of the book; instead, driven by a stubborn sense of personal integrity, he subjects himself to untold privations until the novel’s extraordinary, quasi-religious ending.

Shostakovich, like Lurie, understands that his torments have ancient roots: “He knew his Bible well. So he was familiar with the notion of sin; also with its public mechanism. The offence, the priest’s judgment on the matter, the act of contrition, the forgiveness. Though there were occasions when the sin was too great and not even a priest could forgive it.” Every morning, in lieu of a prayer, he recites to himself a poem by Evtushenko – “But time has a way of demonstrating / The most stubborn are the most intelligent… I shall therefore pursue my career / By trying not to pursue one.”

The composer’s decline into ill health, the withering of his spirit, his hope that “death would liberate his music… from his life” – Barnes presents Shostakovich’s final downward spiral with a kind of ruthless inevitability (and inevitability is, as Susan Snyder says, the signal note of tragedy). Alexei Tolstoy wrote in Pravda of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony: “Here the personality submerges itself in the great epoch that surrounds it, and begins to resonate with the epoch.” Barnes has achieved a similar feat with a period of history, and a place, that despite their remoteness, are rendered in exquisite, intimate detail. He has given us a novel that is powerfully affecting, a condensed masterpiece that traces the lifelong battle of one man’s conscience, one man’s art, with the insupportable exigencies of totalitarianism.

Julian Barnes / The Noise of Time / Reviews

Book reviews roundup: The Noise of Time; The Vanishing Man; But You Did Not Come Back

What the critics though of The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes, The Vanishing Man by Laura Cumming and But You Did Not Come Back by Marceline Loridan-Ivens

Friday 22 January 2016 17.59 GMT

The Noise of Time, a fictionalised account of Dmitri Shostokovich’s survival in Soviet Russia, is Julian Barnes’s first novel since 2011’s Booker-winning The Sense of an Ending. It met with near universal praise. “Make no mistake, this is Barnes’s masterpiece,” enthused Alex Preston in the Observer. “The particular and intimate details of the life under consideration beget questions of universal significance: the operation of power upon art, the limits of courage and endurance, the sometimes intolerable demands of personal integrity and conscience.” “It seems like the best work of Amis, McEwan and Rushdie is behind them. Barnes, by contrast, still has plenty left in the tank,” agreed Duncan White in the Daily Telegraph. All his books “have been about the way we tell the stories of human lives, whether our own or other people’s … [here] Shostakovich is forced to reconcile his own fragmented memories of his life with the story the state wants to tell about him.” “What draws the reader’s attention is not what Shostakovich says about himself,” wrote Robert Douglas-Fairhurst in the Times. “It is what he fails to say. As so often in his fiction, Barnes turns out to be a master of the moments when words crumble away into silence” – a narrative tactic “perfectly attuned to writing about music, an art form in which the rests are just as important as the notes.” Arifa Akbar in the Independent was a rare dissenting voice, finding the novel inferior to The Sense of an Ending. Again, it’s a story “of a man auditing his life’s right- or wrong-turnings”: but too often it “bears the hint of a patronising history lesson”.

Laura Cumming’s “superb and original” The Vanishing Man interweaves the stories of Velázquez, court painter in Madrid in the 17th century, and John Snare, a Victorian bookseller who believed he’d found a lost painting by the great artist, and whose life was ruined as a result. “Sometimes, dual biographies can be a contrivance, but here the two stories enhance each other,” wrote Bee Wilson in the Sunday Times. “Like Donna Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch, this is about the particular forms of obsession that only art can generate.” “Cumming sides with Snare’s petit bourgeois autodidacticism against the snooty expertise of the art establishment,” found Jonathan Beckerman in the Sunday Times, but the result is “two half-books that don’t combine to make a whole”. Like several critics, Craig Brown in the Mail on Sunday agreed that Snare’s story was the less interesting one – “a shaggy-dog tale leading to nowhere”. “Cumming’s real allegiance is to Velázquez, a man about whose private life and thoughts almost nothing is known,” explained Michael Prodger in the Evening Standard. “In her deep looking and restraint, she explains just why Velazquez is inimitable and one of the greatest artists of all.”
“You might come back,” 16-year-old Marceline Loridan-Ivens’s father told her before they were put on a train to Auschwitz-Birkenau, “because you’re young, but I will not come back.” Loriden-Ivens is now 87 and living in Paris; But You Did Not Come Back, her slim memoir of the Holocaust and its after effects, is written as a love letter to the father whose prophecy came true. It’s “devastating”, wrote Erica Wagner in the New Statesman: “It can be read at a sitting; and then asks to be read again.” The “letter of a lifetime,” agreed Helen Davies in the Sunday Times. “It is profound, compelling, effortless, searing. Almost every sentence is a distillation of the human capacity for suffering and survival.” Loridan-Ivens has reached “a bleak conclusion”, found Robbie Millen in the Times: that “antisemitism is an eternal given”. Her own defiance, amid the suicide of her siblings, has been to live. “Just read it.”

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Genesis Breyer P-Orridge / This much I know / 'Pleasure is a weapon'

Genesis Breyer P-Orridge.
Photograph: Drew Wiedemann

Genesis Breyer P-Orridge: 'Pleasure is a weapon'

This much I know

The musician and artist, 66, on Wiliam Burroughs, Caitlyn Jenner, Donald Trump and his dead wife Lady Jaye, with whom he shares a body

Hanna Hanra
Saturday 30 July 2016 14.00 BST

I refer to myself as ‘we’. My wife, Lady Jaye, and I spent time in a Tibetan monastery and realised it is possible for some people to reincarnate. Before Lady Jaye dropped her body [she died of stomach cancer in 2007] we had discussed that she would contact me and she would reappear. We are still together, and she represents us in the immaterial world where she resides.
My father enlisted at the age of 17. He lied about his age because he wanted to ride the fastest motorbikes, which were with the British army. At the end of the war all he got were two bronze medals in a box with a printed note: “Thank you very much for your service.” I’ve just used them in a collage with some Union Jack postcards and some bags of heroin.
William Burroughs told me: “Gen, if you want to know what’s going on, look for who has the vested interest at any given time.” And he’s right.
I was bullied out of the UK and moved to New York. At the time I was with my band Throbbing Gristle and the attention became unbearable. I lost two houses. My parents were doorstepped by the News of the World. They were asked: “Has your son always been a sex maniac?” My mother said: “I know my son is extremely intelligent and whatever he happens to be doing, he will be doing it for a good reason. Goodbye.”
Lady Jaye dressed me in her clothes the first day we met. The love we had was so strong we wished we could become one. Then we thought: why shouldn’t we? [They had plastic surgery to look like each other.]

We don’t agree with Caitlyn Jenner deciding she is the spokesperson for trans people. There are lots of kids on the streets who are hustling and they need the money to transition. And she is saying: “It’s so hard being a woman, knowing what dress to wear to the Oscars.”
We used to live in a radical Maoist commune. Everything was shared. All the clothes were in a box and you wore whatever you pulled out. You couldn’t sleep in the same place twice. All the money was shared and you had to justify why you needed it. We got tired of that dogmatism.
We very rarely relax, but when we do it’s with our dog, Musty Dagger. She’s a Pekingese rescue. When we need to not think and feel for a bit, we lie on the bed and fall asleep.
Anger and rage were the right response to Thatcher and the early 80s, but not now. Our response is: “Pleasure is a weapon.” We always try to look at the opposite of what is happening. Now society is happy to expose its own nasty underbelly – look at Donald Trump.
Everything we do has a story and a connection. It’s not about art for art’s sake. It’s about commentaries on what it is to be alive, and how we can make it better for everyone. We are at a crisis point as a species, so anything that persuades people to be better as human beings is worth doing.
Psychic TV’s new album, Alienist, is out in September (



My writing day / AL Kennedy / ‘As payments plummet, I’m back on the road as much as I was when I started out’

AL Kennedy by Alan Vest

AL Kennedy: ‘As payments plummet, I’m back on the road as much as I was when I started out’

The Man Booker longlisted author on working in the chaos of a new house, making ends meet and the rare joy of writing in a first-class carriage

AL Kennedy

Saturday 30 July 2016 10.00 BST

fter a while, there is no typical day. There are very few days even close to being typical or useful. The busyness and business of being a writer fight for space with anything like writing. And then there is the resting and recharging, which are necessary and which I only remember when I get ill and am reminded – again – that I have to take a break. But let’s take one day last week as an example – as it turned out, the hottest day this year so far.

I wake in my new house, which is still in new house chaos. Planning non‑emergency building works cuts into time for writing. I look out of the window at the little river, which is winking bluely and suggesting I should sod everything and walk along it. In fact, I get myself suited, booted and packed. I then make a Lemsip and coffee combo in a kitchen that currently has a water-collapsed ceiling and is dominated by a vast dehumidifier. The dehumidifier means I could bake bread in there without an oven. Which is handy, because I can’t use the oven.
I drink. There is some bread. Then a railway station.
I spend much of my life on railway stations and in trains. Readings, festivals, conferences – travel sells books. As payment for everything plummets, I find I am back on the road as much as I was when I started out. The percentage of my income that comes from UK book publication is now the same as it was when I started out. But things could be worse. Like many UK authors, I am supported by income from abroad, especially Germany.
My first train can’t even reach London. It gets as far as Colchester – two stops – and despairs. But train two arrives in London only slightly late. Being only slightly late is always an achievement. I emerge at Liverpool Street into the super-heated greeny‑brown air of the capital. A quiet cab driver (either too hot to curse remainers, or too hot to curse Boris) batters manfully through the gridlock and I’m at King's Cross with enough time to eat cheap warm sushi out of a bag. It’s the healthy option. If you mainly eat at railway stations you try to aim for the healthy option.
Train three grumbles out of King's Cross and I start reading. Today is a reading day – three translated novels, two French, one German. It is fantastically easy to write on trains if you can get a first class ticket – power, quiet, tea, air-con, perfect – but I’m in steerage this time and close to tennis elbow again from too much typing, so today it’s sleazy, philosophical French murders and gritty city German prostitutes with added ironic deconstructions of capitalism.
The French body count distracts slightly from the complete failure of the carriage’s air conditioning. Free water is issued, an unscheduled stop does not result in access to a technician who is battling with other mishaps elsewhere. Paintwork threatens to bubble. We simmer on to Edinburgh, 40 minutes late, and I get to eat out of a bag on Waverley station, this time with two and half hours to idle away. I’ve missed my connection. I drink a lot of fruit juices – healthy option. I ponder the German prostitutes and capitalism as the pimp of us all – it seems a useful metaphor.
I trundle myself on to train five, which is the slow train, but which will get me to Nairn instead of rushing me straight to Inverness, where I’ll have to be uplifted and taken back to Nairn. I am grateful for mobile phones, internet access and wheeled bags. They make today much easier than it would have been 20 years ago.
I finish the last, trippy, deathy French roman policier and reach sunset as we curve round the bay at Montrose. I text my gentleman of choice, attaching a photo of the sunset. We exchange good nights from our endless roads. It is cool, finally. And at 00.30, or so, I am being hugged by people I love and given tea and food and we are talking, talking. Writing tomorrow, but now the comfort of kind voices. It’s what they call inspiration.

 AL Kennedy's latest book Serious Sweet (Jonathan Cape) has been longlisted for the Man Booker prize.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Tom Jones / We need to drop Delilah song for being too violent

Tom Jones

Tom Jones

We need to drop Delilah song for being too violent, says singer

Sir Tom Jones' classic and Welsh rugby anthem Delilah has been labelled inappropriate for rugby crowds over claims it promotes domestic violence.
Former Plaid Cymru president and folk singer Dafydd Iwan said the iconic ballad should be abandoned for its violent lyrics.
He said the song tends to "trivialise the idea of murdering a woman".
The Welsh Rugby Union disagrees though, comparing the lyrics to Shakespeare plays such as Romeo and Juliet.

Mr Iwan said: "It is a song about murder and it does tend to trivialise the idea of murdering a woman.
"It's a pity these words now have been elevated to the status of a secondary national anthem. I think we should rummage around for another song instead of Delilah."
Sir Tom said he was proud the song was used at rugby matches and said the song's subject matter simply reflected "something that happens in life".


Too violent?

The lyrics in question are: "At break of day when that man drove away, I was waiting.
"I cross the street to her house and she opened the door.
"She stood there laughing... I felt the knife in my hand and she laughed no more."


A Welsh Rugby Union spokesperson said: "Within rugby, Delilah has gained prominence through its musicality rather than because of its lyrics.
"There is, however, plenty of precedent in art and literature, prominently in Shakespearean tragedies for instance, for negative aspects of life to be portrayed.
"The Welsh Rugby Union condemns violence against women and has taken a lead role in police campaigns to highlight and combat the issue."

Tom Jones says critics shouldn't take Delilah so literally

Tom Jones

Tom Jones says critics shouldn't take Delilah so literally

Singer says it makes him proud to hear the hit sung by Welsh rugby crowds, and that those calling for it to be banned ‘take the fun out of it’

Sean Michaels
Friday 12 December 2014 08.05 GMT

Tom Jones has rejected claims that his song Delilah “trivialises” violence against women, arguing that critics shouldn’t be taking the 46-year-old song so “literally”.
Jones’ comments come as Dafydd Iwan, former president of the Welsh nationalist paty Plaid Cymru, called for Welsh rugby supporters to stop singing Delilah at matches. Jones’ 1968 hit tells the story of a man who attacks the woman who cheated on him. “Forgive me Delilah I just couldn’t take any more,” he sings. “I felt the knife in my hand and she laughed no more.”
“It’s not a political statement,” Jones told the BBC on Thursday. “This woman us unfaithful to him and [the narrator] just loses it … It’s something that happens in life.”
Iwan, who is also a folk singer, recently asserted that Delilah “trivialise[s] the idea of murdering a woman”.
“It’s a pity these words now have been elevated to the status of a secondary national anthem,” he said. “I think we should rummage around for another song instead of Delilah.”


Delilah has long been part of the repertoire of the Welsh Rugby Union and supporters of the Premier League football club Stoke. “I love to hear it being sung at Welsh games,” Jones said. “It makes me very proud to be Welsh that they’re using one of my songs.” He claims that “the great thing about the song” is its chorus, “Why, why, why Delilah”. “I don’t think [singers] are really thinking about it … If it’s going to be taken literally, I think it takes the fun out of it.”
Thus far, the Welsh Rugby Union has shrugged off Iwan’s call for a Delilah ban. “[The Union] condemns violence against women and has taken a lead role in police campaigns to highlight and combat the issue,” a spokesman told the South Wales Evening Post. “[We are] willing to listen to any strong public debate on the issue of censoring the use of Delilah but we have not been aware of any groundswell of opinion on this matter.”

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Rebecca Hall / ‘I was born in the wrong place and at the wrong time’

Rebecca Hall

Rebecca Hall

‘I was born in the wrong place and at the wrong time’

She has starred in Hollywood blockbusters, costume dramas and, now, The BFG – but despite leading a ‘charmed life’, the actor insists she’s not a ‘perfect, entitled luvvy’

Xan Brooks
Thursday 21 July 2016 15.39 BST

When Steven Spielberg was casting the role of the Queen’s housemaid in The BFG, he knew who to call. The part required an actor who was English to the core and as posh as you like; ideally with a metaphorical clatter of hockey sticks thrown in for good measure. He told Rebecca Hall: “It’s a small role, but it’s significant – and I specifically want you to play it,” which was nice of him and flattering – and possibly a little galling as well, in that it suggests the director had a preconceived notion of what Hall represents. In this, I suspect, he is not alone.

Rebecca Hall, David Rylance, Ruby Barnhill y Steven Speilberg 

“Directors assume I’m, like, establishment,” she explains, nose wrinkling, and then in the same breath concedes that she understands why. She comes with pedigree, brandishing a golden ticket that must be justified at every turn. To the innocent film-goer, she is a capable young British actor, equally at home in Hollywood blockbusters, gritty dramas and period costume. But to others she will always be stage royalty, the daughter of director Peter Hall and soprano Maria Ewing; a princess wheeled on to attend to the Queen.

Who, me? Why everyone is talking about Rebecca Hall

Rebecca Hall
Photograph by Jake Chessum for the Guardian

Who, me? Why everyone is talking about Rebecca Hall

Rebecca Hall is used to people always wanting to talk about her dad, but now the Bafta-winning actor is having to get used to another line of questioning: her role in the break-up of a Hollywood golden couple. She talks gossip, girls' schools and growing up

Simon Hattenstone
Saturday 12 June 2010 00.02 BST

Rebecca Hall is a fine actor who starred in the best Woody Allen film in years, but she's better known now for her role in a recent tabloid splash, after she was cast as the femme fatale, or deadly English rose, who could, possibly, have destroyed the marriage of Sam Mendes and Kate Winslet. After all, she had worked with Mendes, they were friends, and apparently she was his type of girl (brainy, arty, good-looking).

We meet in a Manhattan cafe. She arrives on foot, alone, long, black dress, no make-up, flat sandals, sore ankles from where high heels have been rubbing. I look for Sam Mendes hiding round a corner with his high-art posse. Nothing doing. Does she live round here? No, she says apologetically, she's not been here before. So where is home these days? "That's a good question."