In the late 70s, a group of young writers assembled for boozy Friday lunches at Bursa, a Turkish-Cypriot kebab house on the fringes of Bloomsbury distinguished by its proximity to the offices of the New Statesman. The literary editor, Martin Amis, was by all accounts the star of a show that included James Fenton, Christopher Hitchens, Clive James and Ian McEwan. Amid such a crowd it is hard to imagine Julian Barnes getting a word in.
On arriving as Amis' deputy at the New Statesman, Barnes said he was "paralysed into silence" by weekly editorial meetings. It took him the best part of a decade to write and publish his first novel, Metroland (1980), largely because he struggled to take seriously the idea being a novelist.
It turns out Barnes was merely pacing himself. While his peers burned out with self-consciously big books, Barnes wrote more modestly and his talent aged well. He turns 70 this month and with The Noise of Time he has written a novel of deceptive slenderness: a short fictional account of the life of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. In scale, it appears similar to The Sense of an Ending, but is without that book's taut, thriller-ish structure.
The Noise of Time is a narrative in which nothing much happens: a man waits for a lift; a man sits on a plane; a man sits in a car. All the action takes place in Shostakovich's head; in each of these three sections we find him at a moment of reflection amid a larger crisis, the "skittering" of his mind represented by short bursts of text that flit between memories and the present.
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Inventing the mental processes of a celebrated Russian composer is obviously a risk for an English writer who grew up in Middlesex. Almost the worst kind of historical fiction flourishes its research before battering the reader into submission with period detail. Barnes, though, is far too technically adept to fall into this trap. He avoids inserting great chunks of exposition into Shostakovich's thinking by telling the story in free indirect speech, giving himself the narratorial freedom to enter the workings of the composer's mind while also offering outside context for the reader. You expect nothing less from a writer soaked in Flaubert.
If Barnes has doubts about his own talent, they are well concealed in his work. Back in 2000, he told an interviewer that it was important to know when to stop writing. Since then he has produced arguably his best work. Fortunately, there is as yet no sense of an ending.
The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes (Jonathan Cape, $38)
Reviewed by Duncan White