The Noise of Time

9781101947241_p0_v1_s192x300    To grasp Julian Barnes’ stream of consciousness rambling in The Noise of Time, background information on the narrator, famous Russian composer Shostakovich, is necessary, as is listening to his music.

With fleeting references to Dmitry Shostakovich’s youth as a musical prodigy, Barnes focuses the first part of his book on Shostakovich’s early success with his orchestrated Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Listening to the discordant and sharp tones can be both other worldly and agonizing. Despite world-wide acclaim, the opera irritated Stalin and the dictator left in the last act before the opera ends. As a result, Shostakovich was attacked in the Soviet press – usually a harbinger to miserable consequences in Stalin Russia. Fearing imprisonment – Barnes has him waiting every night by his elevator, expecting to be arrested.

Barnes successfully gets inside the composer’s head as he recounts the beginning of the Great Terror, in which many of the composer’s friends and relatives were imprisoned or killed, including his patron Marshal Tukhachevsky. Fearing for himself and his family, Shostakovich withdrew his next symphony and managed to write a conservative and non experimental Fifth Symphony in 1937 – conveniently title by the press as “A Soviet Artist’s Reply to Just Criticism.” Suddenly, he was back in favor. The seesaw continued through World War II in 1948 when a government decree accused him of perversion for his modernist music.

Part Two focuses on Shostakovich’s famous trip to the United States, as an emissary for Soviet Russia. The composer struggles with his inner convictions about music, and Barnes offers the theme of this tortuous tale, reflected in his title:

“Art belongs to those who create it and those who savor it. Art no more belongs to the People and the Party than it once belonged to the aristocracy and the patron. Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time.”
As Shostakovich unconvincingly parroted the the voice of Power in Russia – “what he was supposed to think” – his renunciation of Stravinsky, the composer he revered, seem to affirm the American view that he was only trying to be safe. For years Shostakovich’s wrote works glorifying Soviet life or history, quietly endured a tutor to indoctrinate him in Marxist beliefs, even joining the Communist Party in 1960, under duress. Barnes offers Shostakovich’s inner turmoil as absolution for his betrayal of fellow artists in the name of the government.

Throughout, Barnes identifies the constant struggle of the artist – “When a composer is bitter, or in despair, or pessimistic…{his} music…strong and true and pure {is} enough to drown out the noise of time…” His life continued to be a balancing act between being true to his music and satisfying his government.

Not an easy read, The Noise of Time opens the history of Russian politics and the music of Shostakovich in his fearful and oppressive world.

I found Shostakovich’s banned opera – Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk – on the internet, and the library had a CD of his Seventh Symphony, which I played in my car whenever I was out and about.  Together, listening to his music and reading Barnes’ treatise, gave Shostakovich’s life  substance – but I doubt I will ever really understand either.

Related Review:  The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

9780374106683_p0_v1_s192x300  Dominic Smith adds to the list of stories about famous art thefts with his book about an obscure Dutch painter in The Last Painting of Sara de Vos.  Crossing through three time periods, Smith follows the creation, forgery, and final resolution of a fictional Dutch masterpiece.

Like Barbara Shapiro’s The Art Forger, Smith creates drama around the lives of the artists and those involved in the art world while educating the reader in art history.  Although Smith seems more intent on the minute details and history of Dutch painters lives and technique, the plight of his main character, Australian Ellie Shipley, holds the story together.  When I found myself nodding off through the heavy descriptions of preparing a canvas or muddling through the politics of old Dutch guilds, I read on to find out if Ellie, the forger art student who became renowned as an art historian, could survive her minor indiscretion and her major crime.

Smith flips disconcertedly from Sara de Vos, an early seventeenth century painter – one of the few women admitted to the art Guild – to Ellie Shipley in the 1950s when she forges the only painting by Sara de Vos, and then to Ellie’s life as a professor and curator in the twenty-first century when she faces the possibility of her past secret crime ruining her life.  Although the dates are clearly identified at the beginning of chapters, the jumping through time zones becomes somewhat frenetic and I often wanted to skip through the lecture on past lives to get to the present.

The author in his note before the story states that he  “fuses biographical details from several women’s lives of the Dutch Golden Age  {to create a story around} Sarah van Baalbergen, the first woman to be admitted to the Haarlem Guild of St. Luke.  Smith’s understanding of the era is notable as he deftly describes life and hardship for the struggling artists who were contemporaries of Rembrandt.  After being banned by the Guild and deserted by her husband, a fellow artist, Smith’s  fictional Sara de Vos stands with the well-known Dutch painter Judith Leyster as a leader in her time.

Ellie Shipley’s only masterpiece was her forgery of the de Vos painting for a shady art dealer.  As a starving graduate student working on her dissertation, Shipley eventually finds herself involved with Marty de Groot, a wealthy Manhattan lawyer and the owner of the original which has been in his family for 300 years.  When their paths cross again fifty years later, Ellie is in the awkward position of curating an art exhibit with two identical paintings for a show of women painters of the Dutch Golden Age at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. One is the original Sara de Vos painting, “At the Edge of a Wood,” stolen from de Groot; the other is the forgery, painted by Shipley. 

The story was a long slow slog, missing the excitement of a Shapiro book, but this is not a crime novel.  The yearning and romance of the two key characters – Sara de Vos and Ellie Shipley – are enmeshed in a well-researched treatise on the art world and Dutch women painters. The story is educational to a fault, and perhaps an improvement over a stuffy lecture hall on learning about the Dutch and their art.  

Related Reviews:  

Abroad by Penelope Lively

Do we see the lives of others through the lenses we create from our own experience?  Anthropologists have struggled with how the observer changes the world of the observed.

imagesListening to the audiobook of The World Between Two Covers, I heard Ann Morgan cite Penelope Lively, one of my favorite authors, as someone who had dealt with this theme in Abroad, a short account of a young couple’s trip to the Continent in search of inspiration.

Ann Morgan notes:

“The danger of demanding authenticity, or “spirit” of a place in a book is that we look for what we expect to see and miss what is there. Instead of allowing the stories of a region to open our minds and read us in new directions, we can become narrow and petty, demanding that regional literature conform to our expectations.  Far from broadening our horizons, we risk shutting ourselves in a hall of mirrors where we see our version of the world reflected back at us ad infinitum.”


Since I had never read Abroad, I downloaded a copy for $3.99 and quickly read the 26 page novella.  The story is witty and humorous, with a definite caution to all of us who think we can learn more about the “culture” through travel.

In Lively’s Abroad, two young British artists decide they need to go Abroad to the Continent to see “landscapes peppered with peasants, wearing proper peasant clothes…All so authentic…In England we didn’t have peasants. Just the rural working class. Farm workers.Not the same.”

The Lively fun never stops in its light ridicule and witty banter:

“…part of the appeal – not knowing what people were talking about…You were on the outside, not involved, just looking on, which is what you were there for…”

When the couple comes across a picturesque country wedding party, they are, at first, happy to lurk nearby to sketch the group.  Of course, they are noticed and the country folk invite them over to enjoy food and wine, and the couple revel in their authentic experience. However,when their car does not start and they are stranded at the farm, their hosts are not willing to extend their hospitality to the couple with no money to fix the car or pay for their keep.   By the end of the novella, the pair are forced to admit ‘You can have enough of authenticity eventually,’ but not before the clever “peasants” have squeezed a week’s worth of unpaid farm labor out of them, and a fresco of the family on the kitchen wall.

Never underestimate the locals.



Finding Winnie – 2016 Caldecott Award Winner

9780316324908_p0_v3_s192x300When you think of Winnie the Pooh, you may imagine the Disney character or the rumbling voice of Sterling Holloway, but Lindsay Mattick tells the real story of the bear in her 2016 Caldecott winning book – Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear.

Illustrated by Sophie Blackwell, the story evolves into two tales: first, the saving of Winnie the bear cub from a trapper and his stint as the mascot of Captain Harry’s World War I regiment; next, as the bear in the London Zoo who played with Christopher Robin Milne “right inside her enclosure,” inspiring the little boy to rename his stuffed bear after her. Christopher Robin’s father, Alan Milne made Winnie famous by writing about the adventures of Winnie the Pooh.

Mattock adds an “Album” at the back of the book, sharing family photos and the excerpt in the 1914 diary, identifying the day when Harry met Winnie – August 24th.  A picture of Christopher Robin and the real Winnie at the London Zoo in 1925 is included.

Canadians from Winnipeg are reminded of the bear’s roots and his savior, a local veterinarian World War I soldier, Captain Harry Colebourn, with a statue in Assiniboine Park.  Mattick, a descendant of Harry tells his story to her young son, his namesake, as a bedtime tale.                                   

“Sometimes the best stories are {true}.”



The Muralist

9781616203573_p0_v2_s192x300When I started reading B.A. Shapiro’s The Muralist, I did not expect a book about Jews fleeing Europe during World War II for asylum in the United States to be so relevant to the current political posturing about refugees.  Shapiro is best known for The Art Forger, her fictionalized solving of the famous art heist mystery at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.  In The Muralist, art is again the focus, with the added drama of the war, the beginnings of modern art, and a brave artist working for the WPA.

When Dani Abrams, who works at Christie’s auction house, accidentally finds small abstract paintings hidden behind works by  famous abstract expressionist artists, she sees a resemblance to the art by her aunt, Alizee Benoit.  Alizee, a young American painter working for the Works Progress Administration (WPA), along side Pollock, Rothko and Lee Krasner, before they were famous, vanished in New York City in 1940, while trying to free her Jewish family living in German-occupied France. As Dani tries to solve the mystery of her aunt’s disappearance, the story flashes back to Alizee during the prewar politics of 1939 and the forgotten refugees refused entrance to the United States at that time.

Shapiro’s style commands attention to details with references to key players during the war.  Eleanor Roosevelt is neatly portrayed as feisty as biographers have revealed her, and references to artists Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko include relevant excerpts from their early lives and careers.  Benoit’s fictionalized paintings have the power of Picasso’s Guernica.  Luckily, Shapiro includes an “Author’s Note” identifying which characters and plot lines are based on real happenings in history – some were a revelation.  I still found myself double checking her research with her villain, Breckinridge Long, the assistant secretary of State who ignored FDR’s Presidential plan to bring Jews from Europe to escape Hitler’s death sentence.  Alas, he did exist – another sad note in American history, and an echo of some of the politics being bandied about today.

The heroine, Alizee Benoit, did not ever exist, except in the imagination of the author, but her work with the WPA, her initiation of new frontiers in art, and the mystery of her disappearance – all fuel a fast-paced mystery while providing historical  information.  The plot twists and turns, as it alternates from present-day to prewar America, leading to a satisfying ending, and finally revealing what happened to Alizee.

Shapiro delivers another gripping story in The Muralist.

Review:  The Art Forger