Julian Barnes Posts

Book Post 44: 25 Aug – 14 Sept 2019

Book Post 44 includes some of the titles received in the past few weeks. Wherever available Amazon’s Kindle widget has been embedded in the blog post. It will allow you to browse through the book before you decide to buy it.

16 Sept 2019

Julian Barnes, “The Noise of Time” and Wolfgang Hilbig, “I”

julianbarnestnosiseoftimeBut endless terror continued for another five years. Until Stalin died, and Nikita Khruschev emerged. There was the promise of a thaw, cautious hope, incautious elation. And yes, things did get easier, and some filthy secrets emerged; but there was no sudden idealistic attachment to the truth, merely an awareness that it could now be used to political advantage. And Power itself did not diminish; it just mutated. The terrified wait by the lift and the bullet to the back of the head became things of the past. But Power did not lose interest in him; hands still reached out – and since childhood he had always held a fear of grabbing hands. 

Julian Barnes’s latest novel, The Noise of Time, is about the Russian composer Shostakovich. It is about how he Shostakovichpractised his art, trying to lead a normal life during Stalin’s regime and it was not easy. Shostakovich never joined the Communist Party while Stalin was alive. He  did so much later in 1960 when he was to be appointed by the government as General Secretary of the Composer’s Union and had to be a party member in order to hold the post. ( It was the second time in his life that Shostakovich’s son, Maxim, saw his father weep.)  Julian Barnes has for more than fifty years been a fan of Shostokovich. As he says in an FT interview, “My brother used to sell me the classical music records he most despised or had grown out of.” ( 22 Jan 2016, http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/b6432f9e-bf64-11e5-846f-79b0e3d20eaf.html )

The Noise of Time opening scene is about the performance of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk on 26 January 1936 at the Bolshoi Theatre. Shostakovich attended the operatic performance in the presence of Stalin and his Politburo comrades, Molotov, Mikoyan and Zhdanov. It had been a success at home and abroad for more than two years, making Stalin curious. Two days after Shostakovich witnessed Stalin at the theatre, the Pravda carried a scathing article — “Muddle instead of music”. Subsequently, many commissions for Shostakovich dried up. It is said his income fell to at least one-third of what he had been earning. Even his patron,  Marshal Tukhachevsky, was unable to help. During the Great Terror which was to follow Shostakovich was fearful of his life. He lived in great dread of being taken away in the middle of the night as many of his friends and neighbours had been and shot including Marshal Tukhachevsky. But he never was. ( The sketch of the man on the book cover looking over his shoulder anxiously while holding a suitcase is meant to be the composer who for a while waited with a packed suitcase every night waiting to be picked up.) Within these stifling circumstances he tried to lead as normal a life he could, much like his father who ‘was an entirely normal human being’. ( p.22) His music began to be more conservative and in 1946 he composed a cantata, Song of the Forests, praising Stalin as a great gardener. Yet Shostakovich never left Russia. He did go abroad for performances and represented his country officially but he never left unlike Stravinsky.

Keeping an Eye OpenJulian Barnes novel is bio-fic ( to use David Lodge’s term for such literature). It is a sophisticated tribute by one artist to another, the writer imaging the trauma the composer experienced during Stalinism. In his book Keeping an Eye Open ( published 2015) a collection of essays on art and artists, Barnes says, “Artists are greedy to learn and art is self-devouring… .” ( p.103). He then puts forth an old idea of the artist being a voyeur. “This is exactly what the artist should be: one who sees ( and voyeur can also carry the sense of hallucinatory visionary).” (p.123)  In The Noise of Time Barnes probably is so focused on the relationship that Shostakovich had with the Stalinist state that it occupies the bulk of the story. Then the writer gallops through the remaining years reducing even Boris Pasternak to a passing reference and not even mentioning  the legendary black and white production of Hamlet ( 1964). It was based on Pasternak’s translation and Hamlet ( 1964)Shostakovich composed the music.

While one can appreciate Julian Barnes tribute to a musician he has long admired, it is the timing of the publication of the novel that has to be lauded. The Noise of Time is published in 2016, the 400 year birthday celebrations of Shakespeare’s wherein the story of Shostakovich revolves around his musical interpretation of Macbeth. It is also exploring the life of an artist under Stalin’s version of communism in Russia. A form of government that came with the Russian Revolution of 1917, nearly a hundred years ago.

Another book that is worth mentioning here given the many similarities it shares with The Noise of Time is I Hilbigby Wolfgang Hilbig, translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole. It is not an easy book to read for its shifts in literary texture and excessive reliance on interior monologues that can be disconcerting. It is a fear that he lived with in East Germany given how the Ministry for State Security, or Stasi, employed a vast network of official collaborators including literary figures. So Hilbig was never able to trust anyone even though he was never implicated.  , is a book  that leaves the reader very disturbed for the paranoia conveyed by Hilbig in his book written from the perspective of a writer-informant. This feeling of fear is what one is left with upon closing the book.

This unforgiving and constant fear can only be experienced and it is not a figment of anyone’s imagination or relegated to history books. It is still to be found in nations where freedom of expression is stifled and it is even more alarming when it is done using official machinery. At such moments it is immaterial whatever the political system — whether a communist or a democratic state. The full import of living with this kind of round-the-clock anxiety can never really understood by writers and readers distanced from such authoritarian regimes but these stories could be read as appreciating art for art’s sake. Having said that The Noise of Time and are going to be spoken about for a long time to come for the tremendous impact they are going to have on literature and the art of writing.

Julian Barnes The Noise of Time Jonathan Cape, London, 2016. Hb. pp. 180. 

Julian Barnes Keeping An Eye Open Jonathan Cape, London, 2015. Pb. 280

Wolfgang Hilbig I (translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole), Seagull Books, 2015. Hb. 

28 January 2016

 

Literati: Diversity in books (6 September 2014)

Literati: Diversity in books (6 September 2014)

Jaya BhattacharjiMy monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 6 September 2014) and in print ( 7 September 2014). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/literati/article6386263.ece. I am also c&p the text below.  The post from Malorie Blackman’s Facebook wall has been used with her permission. 

The 10-book challenge

There is a 10-book challenge circulating on Facebook. The idea is to put together ten books that have stayed with you as a reader. Reading the lists circulating on posts is an interesting exercise. There were the expected names such as Enid Blyton, P. G. Wodehouse, Jane Austen, William Golding, Graham Greene, Sue Townsend, Gerald Durrell, Ogden Nash, Ayn Rand, Henry Miller, Mary Stewart, L. M. Montgomery, Coetzee, Julian Barnes, J D Salinger, Harper Lee, Toni Morrison, Charles Dickens, Seamus Heaney, Douglas Adams and Michael Ondaatje. Those from or of South Asian origin included familiar names such as  Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy, Upmanyu Chatterjee , Rokeya S. Hossain, Rohinton Mistry, Khaled Hosseini, Mohsin Hamid, Khushwant Singh, Amitav Ghosh,  Salman Rushdie, Jamil Ahmed, Arun Kolatkar, Kiran Nagarkar and Qurrulatain Hyder. In translation there were a handful, many repeated often–Sukumar Ray, Saratchandra Chattopadhyay, Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, Haruku Murakami, Franz Kafka, Umberto Eco, Marjane Satrapi, Nikos Kazantzakis, Fyodr Dostoevsky, Orhan Pamuk, Mario Vargas Llosa, Leo Tolstoy, and Roberto Calasso.  Surprisingly Shakespeare, Valmiki’s Ramayana, The Bible, Hermann Hesse, Khalil Gibran, C. S. Lewis, Roald Dahl, Agatha Christie, A. A. Milne, Hemingway, Neil Gaiman, Goscinny and Uderzo’s Asterix and Obelix series, Herge, Bill Watterson, J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, J. R. R. Tolkein, Henry James, Oscar Wilde, Lewis Carroll, Paulo Coelho and J. M. Barrie were not mentioned as often as I expected them to be.  ( The names have not been listed in any particular order.) These catalogues are useful since they remind us of what makes “classic” literature. Yet there are deafening silences. I scoured lists from different regions, hoping to discover authors and books popular in those cultures—these could be in translation or different categories, titles that are rarely heard of overseas; it was not to be. Majority of the titles mentioned were of internationally established household names.

These games have their uses. Many authors are discovered through conversations. At the same time vast amounts of literature are not easily recalled. For instance, literature in other languages apart from English was rarely acknowledged and women writers continued to be in a minority. Children’s literature too was not often referred to all though many lists consisted of books read as children. Hence it is not surprising that there has been a call by many international writers to discuss diversity in books–a campaign started in May ( http://weneeddiversebooks.tumblr.com/ ). The hashtag –#WeNeedDiverseBooks and #diversityinbooks—on Twitter is worth reading for examples from around the world, across genres, languages and regions. An unfortunate fallout of this campaign was the racial abuse Malorie Blackman, Children’s Laureate ( 2013-15) faced in UK. As she wrote in a Facebook post “I talked about diversity in literature walking hand in hand with inclusion. I talked about the books for our children being more diverse so that we see more stories featuring children/YA with disabilities, travellers, LGBT, protagonists of colour, diverse religions, classes and cultures. Not once did the phrase in the banner headline pass my lips because I don’t think in those terms.” This was misrepresented in a banner headline as “Children’s books have ‘too many white faces’”. Since then the news corporation responsible for this story has apologized to her on Twitter.

Discovering authors

Nury Vittachi, author and keynote speaker at the recently concluded JumpStart pointed out that three out of four people are Asian or African.  So to find the young adult title The Fault in Our Stars by John Green is a bestseller, selling more than 5.7 million copies, is curious. In fact it contributed to the success of Penguin Random House worldwide generating revenues of €1.5bn (£1.2bn) in the six months to June 2014. Surely there are other titles that have been equally well-received by readers, but not so prominent?

Discovering an author is a riddle, paradoxically not easily resolved even in the age of information. Altaf Tyrewala writes “How miserable it must be to want only what one wants. I don’t remember people being so disinterested in the unfamiliar. Folks these days seem annoyed when they encounter something that they haven’t already cross-checked, as if the perpetually connected sizzle of their web-wired lives precludes the possibility of anything still remaining unknown.” (“New and Second-hand”, Engglishhh: Fictional Dispatches from a Hyperreal Nation)

Last week while speaking in a panel discussion to celebrate “Kitaabnama: Books and Beyond” completing one year of programming on Doordarshan television, it struck me this series addresses many of these challenges that affect publishers—diversity, discoverability, and accessing new markets. Kitaabnama’s format of having a conversation in the first half, followed by an author reading in the second half, and allowing it to be multilingual, immediately opens a new world of literature to the viewers.

Today it is possible to discover books in many ways. For instance, Martin Amis’s new novel—The Zone of Interest–a holocaust comedy, set in fictional Auschwitz, failed to interest his regular German and French publishers and it may struggle to find readers overseas. Yet the buzz about it on the internet suggests otherwise. So discoverability and diversity in books is possibly easily overcome with multiple formats to disseminate information about books and access authors.

6 September 2014