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.”