A Question of Time: The Temporal Art of Julian Barnes

Posted on 29th January 2018 by Sally Campbell

Waterstones Online’s Martha Greengrass considers the legacy of Julian Barnes’ writing and how his novel, The Noise of Time, continues to challenge our concepts of time, art and what it is to be human.

‘Nothing begins just like that, on a certain date at a certain place. It all began in many places, and at many times, some even before you were born, in foreign countries, and in the minds of others.’

So muses a fictional Dmitri Shostakovich in Julian Barnes’s novel The Noise of Time. Beginnings, like so many other things in Barnes’s novels, are tricky things. Where to start a story is really just a matter of perspective. You could begin within the dark and creeping timbers of the Ark, as Barnes does in his History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters, or with two cocky students wandering through the National Gallery, binoculars in hand, into Metroland, or with first love (and last, bitter recriminations) as in the paired, three-handers Talking it Over and Love Etc. For all the talk, the end of love might just be a different kind of beginning; nobody dies of a broken heart, after all. 

The Noise of Time begins, appropriately, more than once. First (apparently incidentally) on the platform of a busy station where three men each take a glass of Vodka; then it begins again with a man on an empty landing. This solitary individual is the Soviet composer Shostakovich and as he stands outside an apartment lift in the true dead of night, he is waiting for the crank of gears that will announce his impending incarceration, torture and probably death. He is waiting, as it happens, for something that will never arrive. It is a classic slice of Barnes black humour (and with Barnes there’s always plenty of humour to be had) that the worst, as Shostakovich comes to realise, is never what you anticipate it to be.

It’s this peculiar and particular fractured history of selfhood and history that has been alive in Barnes’s novels throughout his career. Perhaps it’s not surprising for an author who straddles multiple cultural disciplines (he is often described as being as much a French author as a British one). Barnes himself once wryly commented that he is ‘probably anchored somewhere in the Channel.’ Most comfortable on the side-lines, one critic described his novels as ‘fiction written on and about the margins of life that nevertheless manages to occupy its centre’- Barnes has always been a writer who seems to stand outside of time. He often appears determined to bend and shape it as he would any plot; to peel back the comforting layer of a linear history and demand we look again, look closer and see that our reassuring ‘beginning, middle and end’ is just as much a human construct as time itself.

It’s appropriate that Barnes’s first literary success came with a novel that turned both time and the conventions of fiction on their heads – Flaubert’s Parrot. A story, like that of The Noise of Time, that is neither biography, nor purely fiction, but what Barnes calls ‘an upside-down, informal piece of novel-biography.’ Barnes compares his own approach to ‘real’ characters with two approaches to a burial mound: the biographer kicks in the door, the writer of fiction has the option to poke holes from all angles, shedding light on ‘insights you don’t get by using the front entrance.

It’s a perspective that illuminates history by being prepared to look at the world from unusual vantage points. It’s been said that ‘his books are at once precise, zoning in on a minute detail in order to examine it from every angle, and expansive, drawing back to reveal the panorama’. On the one hand, here’s the pesky, censorious and frankly self-righteous woodworm in A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters giving a very literally grounded perspective on a biblical apocalypse with a close-up lens. On the other, there’s the view of the world from above, the ‘clarifying distance’ of time and altitude giving a bird’s-eye view on grief in Levels of Life (written following the death of his wife Pat Kavanagh) - a grief no less affecting for being meditated upon, for being calm. Joyce Carol Oates praised just that quality, describing his writing as ‘essentially adrift and unmoored, and stoically so; his grieving is passionate but narrow’. Barnes has written that the experience of grief left him acutely aware of the magnitude of the feeling being so great as to distort perception: ‘What is taken away is greater than the sum of what was there… this may not be mathematically possible; but it is emotionally possible.’

Barnes has a saying, repeatedly quoted, that ‘history is a raw onion sandwich—it just repeats’. Yet it might be truer when thinking of Barnes’s fiction to turn to the aphorism that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. The patterns of time certainly echo again and again in Barnes’s writing, often pausing to consider the way expectation falls short of reality. Even his first and most obviously straightforward novel, Metroland, has at its centre a looping between remembered history and the present, particularly the tension between individual agency and the chance happenings of fate. It is the narrative of youth refracted through an adult’s perspective. What are we when we are young, Barnes’s writes, ‘but a creature part willing, part consenting, part being chosen’?

It’s that sense of history, personal history most of all, being a dangerous thing to try and pin down that is most at play in Barnes’s Booker-winning tour de force The Sense of an Ending. If novels may have many beginnings, their endings are perhaps even more difficult to assign. Our instinct to wrap things up is a false one, particularly when we attempt to do so through memory, as, in Barnes’s words, ‘what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.’ The Sense of an Ending’s impact comes from the realisation of history’s shaky ground - it’s no wonder John Freeman called it ‘a novel for the ages’. As Barnes says after all, ‘history is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.’

In The Noise of Time, Barnes imagines Shostakovich coming to something of the same realisation. His life is segmented into three narrative points, each defined and redefined as ‘the worst time’. As each new turn of his life comes around, he better understands the ways in which he has utterly failed to anticipate its course. Survival, once a thing to be caught at all costs, a thing longed for, prayed for, turns out in the end to be worse than death. ‘The worst time was not the same as the most dangerous time,’ he realises.

When it comes down to it, Barnes seems to be saying that death is not the most interesting thing, or at least not for a novelist anyway. Although as his meditation on the subject, Nothing to be Frightened Of, suggests, it certainly provides plenty of fictional meat to chew on. The compromises of survival, he seems to argue are far more exacting; demanding a longevity of endurance that eclipses a single gun-shot act of bravery. Like Sarah Moss in her recent novel The Tidal Zone, Barnes addresses living in the shadow of death. He asks the question, how does one live, continue to live, in the awakened awareness of death, when the event itself doesn’t arrive?

The answer, perhaps, is that one doesn’t live, so much as survive. In the face of the most brutal regimes, it is all one can do. One reviewer described The Noise of Time as a ‘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.’ It is this ultimate credit that Barnes wishes his readers to give to his Shostakovich - in a recent interview he commented that Shostakovich ‘is the composer who was most subjected to threats, persecution, near-obliteration and on whom the pressure of the state rested most heavily throughout his life—more heavily on his life than any other composer ever… let’s give him his due,’ he says. ‘Let’s give him his due for his survival.’

Yet some things stand apart and beyond pure survival; music, art, photography, literature. Barnes makes a case for them all as existing not as markers of time, but existing beyond it. Like a photograph that Barnes says give us the unique ability ‘to look at ourselves from afar, to make the subjective suddenly objective’, artistic endeavour allows us to be outsiders to time, offering ways of seeing the world if not more clearly, then more truthfully to our own experience of it. They are where the heart lies and for an author described by the Booker panel as ‘an unparalleled magus of the heart’ it should be no surprise that his novels never lack for expression of real emotion.

And of course in art there are those patterns, those repeated fugues that echo through history and bang the drum for commonality of experience. It’s what Andrew Marr referred to when reviewing Barnes’s satire England, England as, ‘the search for authenticity, in an increasingly unreal world… the search for life itself.’ These patterns Barnes draws together as the moments of confluence drawn from the very ‘noise of time’, standing beyond human frailty, weakness and cowardice and gesturing towards something more, something independent. Barnes’s Shostakovich brings music from the constricting grip of totalitarianism, an honest thing emerging despite the discordance and chaos.

In the end, Barnes’s view of the patterns that connect art and time is right there in The Noise of Time: ‘music in the end belonged to music. That was all you could say, or wish for.’





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