The destruction of the human soul: Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time

Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time. Vintage Books, 2017. First published 2016

Julian Barnes Noise of Time cover Can artists work without compromising themselves when living under a brutal dictator with a highly prescriptive set of strictures about what constitutes “acceptable” or proletarian art? That’s the dilemma faced by the protagonist of Julian Barnes’ fictional account of Dmitri Shostakovich under Stalin-era Soviet rule.

Barnes conveys particularly well the absurdity behind this autocratic ‘Power’: Stalin and his successors employ fanatical apparatchiks to enforce their doctrine, and any perceived deviation from it is dealt with savagely. During the opening section of the novel, Shostakovich stands outside his Leningrad apartment by the lift, waiting for its doors to open and emit the men from the ‘Big House’ who will take him away to the fate he knows has befallen so many of his friends (and countless strangers) – interrogation, the camps, or more likely a bullet to the back of the head.

His crime: to write an opera that Stalin considered bourgeois, cacophonous, and suspiciously like the odious capitalist western jazz.

He stands there night after night, hour after hour, to spare his wife the sight of his being hauled from his bed by these agents of terror.

Most of the novel consists of a highly plausible account of his inner conflict during his decades of fluctuating favour with Power. He sees himself as a coward when he kowtows to it. He signs his name to articles he hasn’t written, admissions of ‘crimes’ he knows he’s innocent of.

Even worse is the apparently softer regime under Stalin’s successors, when he finds himself having to make even more humiliating concessions and public shows of feigned allegiance to a system that’s still repressive and narrow-minded:

And when faced with criticism of his own work, his response was: look, I have a multiplicity of styles, just tell me which you would prefer me to use. He was proud of his facility – but that was not what was being asked of him. They didn’t want you to fake adherence to their banal taste and meaningless critical slogans – they wanted you to actually believe in them. They wanted your complicity, your compliance, your corruption.

The novel is well written, full of intriguing insights into this conflicted man’s anguish and dilemma. His genius is marred by certain human frailties and flaws – this is no hagiography.

I just didn’t find it as compelling as I thought I would. Maybe it’s just the lacklustre mood of these constrained times – it hinders my capacity to enter into these fictional worlds. Another time I’d have probably enjoyed this novel much more – but this exploration of ‘the destruction of the human soul’ is not what I need at present. And as another autocratic, narcissistic leader heads for the Florida golf courses, maybe life will take a turn for the better in this turbulent world.

Snowdrop

The first snowdrop of the year appeared in our garden last week

Meanwhile Mrs TD and I continue our daily walks. The other day as we turned from our street into the main road we were confronted by two power company vans and a group of workmen in high vis vests, standing around a large hole they’d just dug in the road, peering into its depths. Is there a problem? Mrs TD asked. “No, just a gas leak,” one of the workmen cheerily replied…

 

Elizabeth Taylor, A View of the Harbour – and some recent walks

Elizabeth Taylor, A View of the Harbour. Virago Modern Classic, 2018. First published 1947

As its title suggests, this is a painterly novel. There’s an ensemble of characters who live in the picturesque houses, shops, pub and cottages clustered around a fading harbour in the south of England just after the war. Among them is the visitor Bertram Hemingway, a retired naval officer, who likes the idea of painting seascapes and a view of this harbour, but he lacks the talent or application to produce anything of note. He’s a sort of catalyst: his arrival sets off a chain of reactions in the other characters in this enclosed community that will change some of their lives.

Elizabeth Taylor A View of the Harbour coverHe’s curious about other people; some would say he’s nosy. He has ‘a passion for turning stones’ to see what lives underneath. He’s less keen on taking responsibility for the disruption this curiosity causes.

The novel reveals the frictions, frustrations, infidelities, betrayals and imperilled friendships that go on in the harbourside’s fractious families and isolated individuals. Everyone watches everyone else: there’s a good deal of curtain-twitching as lonely individuals keep an eye on the comings and goings around the once-busy, now dying harbour.

Taylor’s usual sharp eye for telling detail is apparent. She describes the world of nature as if it were a living chorus, or reflection of the human drama onshore: the sea is sometimes ‘queasy’; ‘waves exploded and crashed’ as a young couple walk the coastal path, anticipating love; the fish being caught far out at sea ‘fought and slithered in the nets, floundering and entangled.’

She seems most at home with the middle-class characters, but she writes with acuity about the working classes, too – without romanticising or evading harsh realities.

If you haven’t yet tried Elizabeth Taylor’s fiction, this would be a good place to start: not her most subtle work, but I’m sure you’ll not regret exploring her fiction (the short stories are excellent, too – list of links to my posts at the end).

HeronRecent walks: a few days ago with Mrs TD I crossed town and did the circuit of a park beside which runs a tidal river. There we saw this elegant grey heron, poised like a dancer as it fished in the muddy shallows – the tide was low.

Another day I had to step into the shelter of a rural gateway to let a car pass in the narrow lane. As I looked across the huge garden of this country house I saw a large grey and white goat standing on the roof of a shed. His back was towards me, but he must have sensed my presence, because he obligingly turned to face me as I zoomed in with my phone camera to take his picture. He was too far away to include the photo here – he’s just a blur.

I looked online but couldn’t figure what breed he was. The nearest I could get was an Icelandic goat. What’s he doing in Cornwall?

Mossy wall

Yesterday I took one of our favourite local routes, and I had to take this picture of a lovely old Cornish hedge. Maybe not as authentic as those in the open country; this one is the outer wall of a house on the edge of town in a small development of fairly modern properties. Even so, it’s got a lovely downy coat of moss.

 

The River Kenwyn flows in the valley     River Kenwynjust below our house. This view is from the road bridge just as the river enters the outskirts of the city. All looks very monochrome and bare in December, but buds are bursting on the tree branches. Do the fish have trouble swimming against the strong currents in the swollen waters after recent heavy rain? How do they see where they’re going when it’s so muddied by the run-off from the steeply sloping fields upstream?

Saw two dippers splashing around in one of the other rivers that enters the built-up area across town the other day. I think they’re the only British birds that can swim underwater.

Also finally caught a good view of one of the tawny owls that haunt our valley: we hear their screeches, hoots and whistle most nights, but so far I’ve never managed to see one. This one was only about thirty feet away, perched on a branch just beyond our garden fence. He blinked at me nonchalantly in the beam of my torch, swivelled his head in that owly way they have, then took off.

CrocusFinally, the first winter flowers appeared in our garden yesterday: a crocus in a pot and a snowdrop by the bird feeder. The delinquent squirrel, who ate all the crocus bulbs last year, has spared most of them this winter, but I did see this morning the shredded remains of a crocus flower – as if he’d left a sinister message for me. You thought I’d given up, didn’t you?

That’s why, as I watched him in the owl’s tree this morning, he arrogantly turned his back and flounced his tail at me. Like a French archer at Agincourt. Pesky little rodent.

Links to all my Elizabeth Taylor posts (five novels and the complete short stories) HERE.

 

More lockdown rambles

I won’t comment on last week’s events in Washington DC, or the subsequent craven behaviour by those who supported them. Neither shall I mention the worsening Covid crisis here in the UK. We’re now in our third lockdown as cases surge alarmingly.

All we can do, me and Mrs TD, is to go for our daily country walks, tune in to nature, and get through each day. I have managed to read most of Elizabeth Taylor’s early novel A View from the Harbour, so should be posting on that soon.

Meadows in shadow at noon

Meadows in shadow at noon

The weather finally brightened last week: cold and frosty, but this was because of the clear sky overnight. Daytime was therefore crisp, sunny and beautiful. Even though the sun barely struggled above the horizon at noon. Long shadows were cast by the trees at the edge of this local meadow.

That was at the end of the walk that day. Earlier I looked over the hedge beside the lane I walked along, Sunny scene with birdtowards the north and the wind turbines by the A30 – the main road linking Cornwall with the rest of the country, just beyond the horizon in this shot.

The turbines are barely visible in my picture – but a passing crow managed to photo-bomb it.

A little further along from this scene the lane turns sharply left and drops down into the deep Kenwyn river valley. Here are a couple of pictures of this downward-sloping lane, the first taken (and posted here) last May, the second from my walk last week:

Lane with cowparsleyCountry lane, winter

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Earlier this week, as we walked down another local lane, we spotted our first wild daffodils (I included a picture of some cultivated ones at Epiphany House in my post a week or so back) atop a hedgerow.  Early daffodils

 

This week has been warmer – no frost – but very murky, with a misty rain rippling across the countryside.

Here’s a glimpse of the contrast with last week’s conditions: Misty rain

 

 

 

Mrs TD went for her walk today alone as I wanted to write this post. As I was drafting it, she texted me this picture below. I’ve featured these local peacocks several times since the rural rambles became so regular during the Covid restrictions.

This is the first time they’ve been seen together as a group of three. She said there was a fourth one standing ostentatiously on top of his favourite shed roof.

We haven’t heard them screeching, though, since the summer. We’ve spotted the occasional one in recent weeks, moping about this area, all alone, but resolutely silent. Why don’t they screech in winter? Are they sulking?

 

Austin Wright, Tony & Susan

Austin Wright, Tony & Susan. Atlantic Books, 2011. First published in USA 1993.

Austin Wright, who died in 2003, was for many years an English professor at the University of Cincinnatti. There he had the reputation for minute critical analysis of literary texts. I’m afraid this shows in his first novel, Tony & Susan, not entirely in a good way.

It’s technically superb: a taut thriller is embedded in another novel that struggles to emerge from its shadow.

 Austin Wright, Tony & Susan coverSusan is sent the MS of his first novel by her ex-husband, Edward with a request that she provide a critique: something is lacking in it, he says in his letter. They’d divorced after the wreck of their marriage, precipitated by his abandoning a budding law career to indulge his desire to become a writer. Susan wasn’t pleased: she thought he took for granted her complicity in this (to her mind) deluded dream, supporting his fantasy with her salary as a college English teacher.

You see what’s coming: Susan, a self-confessed severe literary critic, especially of Edward’s apprentice work when they were married, reads the novel that forms the basis of this novel. It’s a metafictional, self-reflexive premise that I never fully bought.

The novel-within-a-novel is called Nocturnal Animals – which is the title of Tom Ford’s 2016 film version (I haven’t seen it: I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has). Mild-mannered maths professor Tony, his wife Laura and teenage daughter Helen are driving to Maine. They get involved in a dangerous game of chicken on the highway that culminates in a minor accident. The occupants of both vehicles get out, and it all goes horribly wrong from that point.

The three men from the other vehicle turn out to be nasty individuals, and they force Tony and family into a terrifying ordeal. Tony is forced to question his adequacy and agency. The plot manipulates him into increasingly destabilising positions.

All of this is narrated with alternating sections in which we get Susan’s back story and her reactions to Edward’s novel as it develops. Here’s where I started to lose engagement: as a teacher of literature she evaluates Edward’s narrative that I’d just read, and her analysis occluded my own. I felt placed in a position of uncertainty in my own judgement. This is probably what the author intended, but if that’s the case, I didn’t care for it.

Susan also inevitably looks for a personal message in this rather gruesome story. Is her ex suggesting that she is represented by one of the characters in his novel? If so, which one: the academic, unheroic Tony, who feels guilty and ashamed that he can’t act more decisively to protect himself and his family? Or, even worse, the leader of the men who threaten them? Or the detective who tries to help Tony find the thugs, eventually by resorting to dangerously unorthodox methods that expose Tony to even more menacing dilemmas and confrontations?

Similar questions arise about Edward: is he represented in some way by one of the characters? If so, what might be his cryptic message to Susan?

Wright manipulates Susan’s response, and my own. I was assessing her assessment of Nocturnal Animals and attempts to interpret it in terms of her two experiences of married life – after divorcing Tony, she’d married Arnold, a philandering doctor and had three children – and Edward’s: he’d remarried too. Is his novel really an allegory of their two lives: is he suggesting that they made a mistake by divorcing, or is he just taunting her for leaving him?

As a postmodern puzzle dressed up in a noirish tale of violence and menace it’s entertaining in patches, but ultimately rather cold and…I don’t know, kind of pointless.

Nunez, daffodils, holy wells again

Sigrid Nunez, Salvation City. Virago paperback, 2020. First published 2010

I thought Sigrid Nunez’ 2018 novel The Friend (link to my post HERE) was an intelligent, well-written and highly engaging read. I was disappointed by Salvation City.

Nunez, Salvation City coverMaybe it’s because it’s set in an imagined near-future flu pandemic in which many die – including some of the central characters in the narrative. Given our current dire situation here in the UK, where we’ve just entered our third lockdown in response to a scary surge in Covid cases, it wasn’t perhaps the best choice to cheer me up.

I don’t think that fully accounts for my dissatisfaction with the novel. The long central section has the 13-year-old protagonist, a sensitive lad named Cole, being more or less indoctrinated by a group of well-meaning religious zealots who live in the city of the novel’s title. They are convinced that the pandemic is God’s way of initiating the rapture, and only the chosen (ie those same fundamentalists) will achieve ‘salvation’.

I very nearly gave up on the novel after too many pages of their fanatical self-righteousness. Towards the end Cole shows signs of asserting himself and going his own way, but by then I’d almost ceased caring.

I’m afraid I can’t recommend this one – but do try The Friend. Don’t worry about the dog in it.

DaffodilsInstead here’s an image from yesterday’s local walk. In the grounds of Epiphany House (I recently wrote during first lockdown in April about this former convent and school, now a retreat and conference centre – though not much retreating or conferring is happening there at the moment – HERE). These are the first daffodils I’ve seen this winter. They lifted our spirits. Spring is on the way

It’s weird to be walking our local lanes and paths in a January lockdown, almost a year since we started doing this pretty much every day as our only permitted exercise during the first pandemic restrictions. We’ve seen spring flowers come and go, summer hedgerows burst into life, autumn and now midwinter. Soon the cycle will be back where we started. I guess the message is that life goes on (despite the efforts of our hapless leaders, who seem always to be tardily reactive, rather than proactive and firmly decisive).

Holywell Finally a picture taken the previous day at a north Cornwall beach we haven’t been to in ages: Holywell Bay. There are two holy wells in the area: one, a sea cave in the cliffs over the beach (the tide was too high for us to enter it), the other in what’s now a holiday park in the nearby village of Cubert. Their holy, healing qualities are said to derive from association with the northern English St Cuthbert, or a Welsh St Cubert.

The figure just visible in my picture top left is my brother-in-law, peering into the abyss. No, he was investigating a curious concrete structure in the clifftop – possibly some sort of bunker: this area adjoins Penhale, a stretch of sand dunes on which there’s a military establishment which the public can’t access. This is where Cornwall’s patron saint, Piran, is said to have landed on his miraculous stone from Ireland. I wrote about him and his oratory in the dunes HERE back in 2016.

You can read more about the wells and this area HERE. Link to my two posts on Bede’s Life of Cuthbert HERE.

 

Happy New Year to you all. As we’re all saying at the moment, surely this will be an improvement on last year.