Review: The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

I was listening to BBC Radio 4 this morning. The programme was Only Artists in which individuals working in the arts have conversations. The painter Rose Wylie said this to the comedian Stewart Lee: “The higher up you go, the more you’re allowed to do what you want.”

You can’t get much higher as an English literary novelist than Julian Barnes. It’s a given that any book by him will be well written. Having won the Man Booker prize with The Sense of an Ending, and having it made into a major film, he pretty much walks on water. In Rose Wylie’s words he’s allowed to do what he wants.
But I can’t help thinking about a parallel world in which Julian Barnes the Unknown pitches his first novel to a publisher thus: ‘It’s an imagined journey into the mind of the Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich. I chart his life (or what I think he made of it) in random mind-vignettes that could be read in any order because the chronology of the thoughts is irrelevant. Nothing is made up. There is no interaction with others except in his thoughts.’
Would Julian Barnes the Unknown have been published?
My brother, Dave, once told me the story of a young student (I can’t remember if it was Dave himself) who worked in a bakery. His job was to impale donuts fresh from the cooking process onto a spigot and pull a lever that would inject them with a measured dose of red jam. In order to give some interest to this repetition, sometimes the student would impale the donut but omit to pull the lever. He found some consolation for the drudgery of the job by imagining the disappointment that the buyer of the empty donut would feel.
For me, reading The Noise of Time was like biting into an empty donut. I felt cheated. I missed dialogue. I missed the logic of a chronological plot. I missed a properly told story.
And, as for the jumbled arrangement of the ‘chapters’, BS Johnson did it, and did it better, in The Untouchables, his ‘novel in a box’.
I liked The Noise of Time. I admired it. But …


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Robert Ronsson

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11 2017

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