What I’ve Been Reading : January-February 2016

  • Prayers for the Stolen : Jennifer Clement
  • To The Lighthouse : Virginia Woolf
  • The Noise of Time : Julian Barnes
  • Ghettoside : Jill Leovy
  • A Hand Reached Down To Guide Me : David Gates
  • The Green Road : Anne Enright
  • Olive Kitteridge : Elizabeth Strout
  • Frank Auerbach, Speaking & Painting : Catherine Lampert
  • The Burgess Boys : Elizabeth Strout
  • Quicksand : Henning Mankel
  • The Troubled Man : Henning Mankel
  • Wonderland : Ace Atkins

First things (almost) first: I have to admit to blowing hot and cold about Julian Barnes’ fiction, but that notwithstanding I’ve always thought his various writings about art, painting in particular, were first rate. [Even sidling over to him one time at the Parliament Hill Farmers’ Market, while he was buying, if my memory serves me, a piece of lamb, to tell him how much I’d enjoyed his essay in the London Review of Books, on Bacon.] So, I set to reading The Noise of Time, his novel about Shostakovich, with some enthusiasm.

What a let down! For one thing, it’s hardly a novel at all, a novella at best, a skimpy selection of  interior monologues, designed not to show Shostakovich as the great composer he surely was (there’s little if any sense of the turmoil and  passion of his work) but concentrating instead on those occasions when he bowed in the face of overwhelming authority, doffing his cap instead of hurling it in the faces of Stalin and the rest.

Barnes claims to love Shostakovich’s music and to have lived with it for many years; why then this mealy-mouthed and mean-spirited rehash of what has been written about at greater length and with greater clarity previously?

Nice cover, though.


Henning Mankel, who died from cancer towards the end of last year, was a man who, when he espoused a cause, did so seriously, devoting much of his life – and wealth – to working in Africa, where, in addition to running a theatre he supported various AIDs organisations and charities, as well as, in 2010, showing his support for the Palestinian cause by very publicly joining the flotilla of ships heading for Gaza and as a result, along with eight other Swedish citizens, being arrested by the Israeli authorities and then deported.

I interviewed Mankel several times, in the course of making a documentary for BBC4 about his crime fiction, and couldn’t help but be impressed by his seriousness and the weight of intelligence and effort he brought to highlighting and attempting to cure the worst of what he saw as his country’s and the world’s wrongs.

Much of this is evident in Quicksand, subtitled What It Means To Be A Human Being, a collection of essays published after his death and highlighting, here, amongst other issues, his concerns over nuclear waste and the legacy it is leaving for future generations. Perhaps inevitably, though, the pieces which are the most affecting are those in which he addresses the inevitability of his approaching death, all  written with honesty and a lack of sentimentality.

I understand now, as I fight my battle with cancer, that I keep asking myself the same question (that I put to Rosa). How afraid am I? Do I also reject the fact that death is always standing in the wings, as a possibility, once a cancer diagnosis has been made?

I don’t know. But i think I try to be true to myself. No doubt I am afraid. High storm waves could come from nowhere at any moment and crash against my inner and outer coastlines.

I have tried to build up defences to ward off what scares me. If the worst should happen, if the cancerous tumours multiply and can’t be stopped, I shall die. There is nothing I can do apart from summoning up the same courage that is necessary to lead a decent life. One of the most important arguments for maintaining this dignity and trying to stay calm is that I’m not seventeen years old and doomed to die before I’ve even started living seriously. At sixty-six I have lived longer than most people in the world can even dream of doing. I have lived a long life, even if sixty-six is not as old as it once was.

Barnes on Art

I didn’t realise – couldn’t yet see – how in all the arts there are usually two things going on at the same time: the desire to make it new, and a continuing conversation with the past. All the great innovators look to previous innovators, to the ones who gave them permission to go and do otherwise, and painted homages got predecessors are a frequent trope.

Julian Barnes: Guardian Review 02.05.15

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