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In new novel, Julian Barnes tests the noise of time through art and biography

At 70, Julian Barnes is a critically acclaimed novelist, short-story author, essayist and journalist – and, most recently, art curator.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Really, what's left for Julian Barnes to achieve?

I asked myself this question the other morning after nearly an hour of conversation with the acclaimed British novelist, short-story author, essayist, critic and journalist. Barnes – still, at 70, erect of posture, trim of frame, blue eyes unclouded, fine hair parted as ever on his left but more grey than sandy now – was in Toronto for a couple of days to promote his latest (and 12th) novel, The Noise of Time. He also spoke on art and artists one evening at the Art Gallery of Ontario, an occasion prompted by the publication late last year of Keeping an Eye Open, a book-length collection of 17 previously published essays on (mostly) painting.

Fame and famous friends, sales, critical acclaim, an avid readership, a heap of international honours, crowds – these have been part of Barnes's life if not since the publication, at the relatively ripe age of 34, of his first novel, Metroland, then almost certainly four years later with the appearance of Flaubert's Parrot, his third. Since then, the output has been the very definition of prolific: 21 titles, 25 if you include the mysteries he wrote as Dan Kavanagh in the 1980s. "I like to think I had my writer's block before I started, in that it took me seven or eight years to write the first novel and it's only 180 pages."

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In other circumstances, a knighthood would seem a nice next step on the career ladder. "Sir Elton, you have met Sir Julian, haven't you?" But Barnes has been a pretty steady Labour supporter over the years. He has said positive things about Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn and recently called for the nationalization of major British utilities. As for the Royals, well … earlier this year, Barnes told the Financial Times that in his ideal republic, they would be exiled to the Isle of Wight.

Another possible honour would, of course, be the Nobel Prize for literature. But that might be just as unlikely as the knighthood since nobody, not even God, it seems, can divine the deliberations and outcomes of the Swedish Academy.

Barnes himself doesn't appear all that thirsty for further honours. "I used to say that awards should be for the encouragement of the young and the consolation of the old and no one in middle age should get any," he told me. "And I did get lots of prizes when I was young and they did tend to dry up in middle age and now I'm getting them again, mostly of the lifetime-achievement variety. Which," he laughed, "doesn't make you feel all that young."

Admittedly, winning the £50,000 Man Booker Prize for fiction in 2011 for The Sense of an Ending was both "a pleasure" and "a relief." Barnes went into that joust having been nominated three times previously, in 1984, 1998 and 2005, failing to win each time. "I didn't want to be like Beryl Bainbridge, short-listed five times and never win it and then get a patronizing posthumous Booker with no money attached."

It's too soon to assess the award prospects for The Noise of Time, as it was first released in Britain in late January and only last month in North America. The reviews, though, have been largely complimentary, often adulatory. The book is a "bio-fiction" cum meditation, anchored in three significant, widely separated episodes in the turbulent life of Russian composer/pianist Dmitri Shostakovich.

Shostakovich had the misfortune of being born in 1906, 11 years before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, and dying in 1975, before glasnost and perestroika and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In other words, a life in which virtually the entirety of his prime creative years were lived under the heavy, unavoidable shadow of Stalinism, with all the fear and humiliation, accommodation, loathing and terror implied by that.

Barnes has been a Shostakovich fan since the mid-1960s, continuing to rank him among his favourite composers. Yet he confessed "on the whole to not be very interested in composers' lives." What got him keen on Shostakovich was reading Testimony: The Memoirs of Shostakovich by Solomon Volkov. Published in 1979, it's a controversial text because Volkov, a journalist and musicologist who left the Soviet Union for the United States in 1976, alleged that its contents were based on conversations he had with the composer – a claim whose authenticity and accuracy have been challenged by many.

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Whatever the truth, it did make Barnes realize that "there was a novelistic side" to the Shostakovich story. "He's the composer who throughout his life was most under constant pressure from power. Yes, there had been interfering archdukes, grumpy patrons and whatever before. But there is no one in the history of Western music on whom power bore down on such a day-to-day basis, demanding that he make decisions both musical and political. … I think it's the story, really, of a man who loses his soul. I think it's a tragedy."

Near the end of the novel, Barnes has a 54-year-old Shostakovich muse in the third person: "Instead of killing him, they had allowed him to live, and by allowing to live, they had killed him. This was the final, unanswerable irony to his life."

Asked if there's some penumbral autobiography to his Shostakovich, a taste perhaps of the old "there-but-for-the-grace of-history-or-fate-or-birth-would-have-been-me" conceit, Barnes replied: "Well, you do ask yourself how you would have behaved in such circumstances. I'm a child of the Cold War. … I remember when my English master sent his wife to the country because of the Cuban Missile Crisis [in 1962]. I read Russian at school, at university. And while communism was there, there was always that running question: Would you rather be an artist in an oppressive society where every note you wrote and every word you published meant more to a hungry and spiritually starved readership or auditorship – or would you rather be living in a comparatively free society where it didn't much matter what you said because you weren't going to be put in prison?"

In a 2013 essay on British painter Lucian Freud, republished in Keeping an Eye Open, Barnes offers a sort of credo: "Art tends, sooner or later, to float free of biography." I tell him that The Noise of Time can't really be seen as a contribution to that process because it is so rooted in Shostakovich's tortured life, in the muck of history – indeed, for his music to "float free" and be "heard above the noise of time," it's probably going to take at least another 50 to 75 years.

In addition, Barnes is very discreet in his descriptions of Shostakovich's music and the methods he used to create it; there are, for instance, no scenes of him clandestinely "coding" anti-Soviet "messages" in his compositions – something Shostakovich's most ardent supporters claim he did.

Barnes offered a handful of reasons in reply. "Though I love music, my technical [knowledge] is very limited," he acknowledged. At the same time, he said, "there possibly would have been more [compositional material] if there had been an authoritative account from him or anyone close to him about how he wrote his music. He was not one to rise from the dinner table declaring, 'Of course, it should be allegretto, that movement,' and go to his study."

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It is known that Shostakovich wrote mostly in his head, that the only noise that bothered him was the barking of dogs. But, as Barnes observed, "he didn't believe in autobiography, didn't believe in powerful anecdotes about the creative process. Also, there are certain impertinences in making a real person a fictional person – but I felt it would be too impertinent to try, from my point of view, to imagine what it would be like when he made those artistic-musical decisions."

The Noise of Time, he argued, is finally less about "whether this symphony was an improvement on that symphony. It's not about the inner musical self; it's about the inner spiritual self and how an artist being confronted by power works that out on a day-to-day basis."

Barnes admitted that from time to time he does "envy" art forms other than writing. "One of the things you envy about, say, painters is: There is the picture on the wall; there are people standing in front of it, taking it all in in one go. It's unlike reading a novel on an airplane, say, then setting it aside and picking it up on the beach and so on and so forth. Then again, if you had a work sitting or hanging obscured in a gallery and saw people walking past your picture and not looking at it, that would be disheartening."

Still, reading the elegantly phrased belletristic essays on Edgar Degas, Henri Fantin-Latour and Édouard Vuillard in Keeping an Eye Open, one doesn't sense that Barnes wishes he could have been a painter rather than a writer. He agreed that that is the case – albeit to a point. "I am a novelist and a long-looker who comes to art. I'm not adding to the academic discussion with Keeping an Eye Open. I'm saying, 'This is how it strikes me; what do you think?' It's meant to be a companionable book."

In the meantime, Barnes's open eye has led him into the realm of art curation. He is currently helping to prepare an exhibition of about 70 works by Swiss post-impressionist Félix Vallotton (1865-1925), set to bow at the Royal Academy in London in 2019. Barnes calls Vallotton "deeply underrated," even as his paintings "range from high quality to fierce awfulness," and deserving of a higher international profile.

Of course, there's no guarantee that, even with the Barnes imprimatur, Vallotton will enjoy a revaluation upward. As Barnes has his Shostakovich muse at one point, only if the art is "strong and true and pure enough" can it possibly "drown out the noise of time" and become "the whisper of history."

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