Catching up....

Another quick canter through Bookhound's recent reads - apologies for no individual reviews but sometimes life just gets in the way, so since my last review I've read Alan Furst's A hero in France, The noise of time by Julian Barnes, and Javier Marias' The infatuations.

A hero in France was another of Alan Furst's solid tales of daring-do in war-torn Europe. In his latest novel it follows Mathieu (not his real name) as he becomes involved in the early days of forming an escape-line from France back to the UK. Life is soon going to become much more difficult though as Hitler turns against Russia, the Communists join the Resistance, and the Gestapo muscle in on those who are "setting Europe ablaze".

For all that I enjoy Furst, and think his historical atmosphere and sense of place is admirable, I do get a bit irritated by his bias against Britain. Everyone seems to be waiting for the United States to join the war (never mind that Britain is getting pounded on a nightly basis), most of the pilots appear not to be from Britain, and anyone from SOE is probably posh, dodgy, and an idiot (their French is rubbish too). If it wasn't for this, I'd probably have thoroughly enjoyed the novel, enjoyable, occasionally informative but sometimes downright irritating.

Javier Marias' The infatuations is....odd. Marias is a highly rated writer, and has been tipped as a future Nobel prize winner. It may be that The infatuations wasn't his usual style, or perhaps it just isn't a good example of his writing, but I couldn't see what the fuss was about. Written in 2011 (translated 2013), it struck me as The girl on the train for posh readers (who knows, perhaps Paula Hawkins was partly inspired by this).

Maria Dolz sees the same couple breakfasting in a Madrid cafe every day. She is upset when she discovers one day that the man has been murdered in what is apparently a senseless killing. But as Maria becomes friends with the colleagues of the dead man, she discovers a frightening secret...

It's a clever story, it should have worked, but it's really a short story that's been padded out to ridiculous lengths. A week or so ago on Radio 4's Open Book, there was a discussion about what readers find to be off-putting when they open a book. I struggled with this, so many things that were disliked I liked, or at least didn't mind; but after struggling through The Infatuations, I've discovered my two betes-noires - any sentence that is more than 20 lines long (there were a lot of them, including one that stretched to 34 lines!), and interior monologues that may be by one person, or one person having two sides of a conversation, or two people having interior monologues some of which may be by another person. Confused? Yes, I was too. And as for the ending.....Well, I won't say anything about that. Partly because if you really want to read this novel, it would be unfair to spoil it; but also because it was so horribly weak that I was glad I'd reached the end of the book, as if I hadn't I wouldn't have been able to go any further anyway. Yup! As you can tell, I wasn't a fan.

One half-hearted good review, one definite not-good review, so what about Julian Barnes' The noise of time? Regular Bookhounders may remember that I had not been impressed by Barnes' Before she met me, but coming across a book-bin offer which included The noise of time prompted me to get a copy. The blurb on the back suggested the novel had a lot in common with Helen Dunmore's The betrayal which I loved (RIP Helen), and the front cover reminded me of Shostakovich (ok, it's an odd reason, but it worked for me). I soon realised when I started reading the novel that it more than reminded me of Shostakovich, it WAS Shostakovich, as The noise of time is a fictionalized account of Shostakovich's life, as he goes from scared man expecting to go to the Gulag to the USSR's greatest living composer, most famous face, and occasionally the public voice of the Soviet Union, through a sort of interior monologue.

In many ways this has a lot in common with the previously reviewed Symphony for the city of the dead by M.T. Anderson. Anderson's Young Adult non-fiction book concentrated on Shostakovich's life before the Second World War, and the "life" of his 7th Symphony, the "Leningrad". As such it told the story of his life and times, with some concentration on the terror that Shostakovich had to live under. This was also, inevitably, a huge part of Barnes' book too, though the outcome in Barnes' novel is a little different. If Anderson's novel made me appreciate the strain and terror under which Shostakovich and so many artists lived (the title of Barnes' novel is taken from the words of the poet, Osip Mandelstam, who died en route to the Gulag - a salutary lesson for the people of a nation which "loves its poets"), The noise of time made me wonder how I would have acted or survived in such a society. Some seemed to manage to be themselves despite everything around them; but Shostakovich was torn between his genuine kindliness as a person, and the society that he feared would one day throw him too into the Gulag. As a result he joined the Communist Party (one of the few days on which his son could remember him crying), and, on a visit to the USA, was forced to give a speech denigrating his own work, and that of his hero, Stravinsky.

The only way he could rebel was in his music. His music remained his soul, pure and unaffected, whatever he was forced to do or say otherwise. The one image that lingered with me long after I'd closed the book was that of Shostakovich, a friend, and a scruffy beggar, clinking vodka glasses on an equally scruffy station somewhere in the Soviet Union. The friend sees the scruffiness and poverty, the beggar sees only the vodka, but Shostakovich hears a perfect major triad and is entranced "a triad....that rang clear of the noise of time, and would outlive everyone and everything". This is a powerful absorbing read, a paean to the power of music, and a great piece of writing. For a picture of life in a totalitarian regime, and how art can triumph, Barnes is superb.


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