Writers & Company

Julian Barnes on love, loss and Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich

Eleanor Wachtel spoke with the beloved novelist, essayist and art critic on stage at the Bluma Appel Salon in Toronto.
Eleanor Wachtel has spoken with Julian Barnes five times over the course of his thirty-year career. (Mary Stinson/CBC)

More than 30 years ago, Julian Barnes published a dazzling novel — his third — called Flaubert's Parrot. Ostensibly about the life and art of Gustave Flaubert, it's an entertaining and provocative mix of anecdotes, pensées and aesthetic speculations. Since then, Barnes has published nine more novels, three short story collections and a handful of nonfiction works. He won the Man Booker Prize in 2011 for The Sense of an Ending and was named to France's Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2004.

His latest novel, The Noise of Time, mixes biography and fiction à la Flaubert's Parrot. But this time the setting is the Soviet Union, and the subject is 20th-century composer Dmitri Shostakovich. 

Eleanor Wachtel has spoken to Julian Barnes five times over the course of his lengthy career. Their latest conversation took place at the Bluma Appel Salon at the Toronto Reference Library in 2016. 

Why Russian is a "sexy" language to learn

When I was 15, I'd been reading French and German at school, and at A-level they offered Russian. It was the first time they'd offered Russian at school. I thought it sounded sexy as hell, and I thought you had to be incredibly clever to learn it, so I thought, I'll go for that. I learned it for two years at school and two semesters at university. I guess at the time that I was learning Russian, it was also the time that I was just becoming interested in classical music. I have a brother who's an ancient philosopher — in both senses of both words — and he used to sell me his classical LPs when he was bored with them. Then I started buying my own records. So this Russian thing led me to Shostakovich. His music has been with me for 50-plus years.

The real Dmitri Shostakovich

He was shy and sensitive. Also, he was a musical prodigy, and in that way sometimes with musicians, he missed a certain kind of growing up, of rubbing along with other children who weren't interested in music. There was something perhaps a little bit held back within him. And when he wasn't sensitive, he was sort of blurting. He felt that he was on the wrong metronome setting emotionally. In some ways, the Soviet Union in its earliest days was repressive, but in other ways, it was very freeing. It was initially very freeing for the arts, of course, and early Shostakovich music was very experimental. Communist Russia believed in sexual freedom, ease of marriage and ease of divorce. He married his wife, divorced her, and then married her again.

Julian Barnes on keeping his wife's memory alive

I was coming back from the farmers' market in North London and a man stands in front of me, blocking my path, and he looks kind of shabby somehow, but also middle class. I notice the middle button is missing off his overcoat. And he says, "My wife died two months ago. I wake up each day and I think of a different way of killing myself. And my children don't understand, and I'm going to write out sentences from your book [Levels of Life] and send them to them." And it just goes straight between the ribs when someone says that to you. 

It's been very chastening and kind of heartening at the same time that people do talk or write openly about it. I thought if I couldn't hack it after a certain period of time, I'd consider taking my life. I've always thought that was a human right, a grown-up right you had as a human being. But an argument found me, which was that I was the fullest repository of the memory of my wife, and if I killed myself, that repository would disappear. In a way, she'd be dying again, and I couldn't do that to her. 

Julian Barnes' comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the broadcast program: "Prelude, Op. 87 No. 16" composed by Dmitri Shostakovich, performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy.