‘The Monument to Ivan the Terrible Is Like the Monument to Rocky Balboa’

PHOTO by Elena Pakhomova / RIA Novosti
Julian Barnes on travelling across Russia, Tolstoy, the art of the novel, and the meaning of life

The United Kingdom will be the Country of Honour at the 18th International Book Fair for High-Quality Fiction and Non-Fiction, which took place from Nov. 30 to Dec. 4 at Moscow's Central House of Artists (CHA). A number of literary events will be curated by the British Council.

During the Fair, 25 leading writers and publishers from the UK visited Russia, including Julian Barnes, a classic of contemporary world literature and author of the novels “The Noise of Time,” “Flaubert’s Parrot,” “England, England,” and “Arthur & George” to name but a few. The writer attended a public interview on Dec. 3 in the CHA’s concert and movie hall. On Dec. 4, he visited Chitai-gorod bookstore in Evropeisky Mall. On the eve of his trip to Russia, he spoke with Natalia Kochetkova, for Lenta.ru.

Lenta.ru: Back in 1965, you took a long journey to Russia with your university friends in a minibus. How did it all start?

It wasn't my idea. I joined a group of students which were looking for another member. I definitely wasn't brave enough to travel on my own; I needed someone to inspire my courage.

What made you study Russian in your early years?

It seemed… er… sexy. At school I studied French and German. At some point (I was 15) I got a chance to have Russian classes, so I sacrificed German for it. There were just four of us who studied Russian. It was an experiment and we were guinea pigs in a way.

What impression did Russia leave on you? Minsk, Smolensk, Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, Odessa? Did the trip meet your expectations?

I'm not sure I had any expectations. We meandered across the country, stayed on campsites overnight and wandered around cities by day. They seemed huge and captivating, even though I knew that it was merely a fraction of the whole. The experience of war was still fresh in people’s mind. I remember parking in the centre of Kharkov, when some women set about our minibus, mistaking us for Germans. Fortunately, we managed to explain we were British. Back then I could not even imagine the losses the Russians had suffered during the battle for Kharkov.

What do you expect from your current visit?

Snow, I suppose. And hopefully readers. As I have already mentioned, I leave my expectations at home while I'm traveling. But this time I'm not planning on staying in any tents.

Your recent novel, “The Noise of Time,” published in Russia by Azbuka, stirred passionate debate. Many are intrigued by the choice made by the main character. Shostakovich does not confront the regime, rather, he often compromises. He allows himself to be talked into a second marriage, with another woman. He gives in to the authorities. Why did you pick Shostakovich as your hero?

I was 16 when I first listened to his music. I still do. At some point I realised his life had been a reflection of his reality, when Art and Authority come face to face. I found Shostakovich unusually sympathetic: very intelligent, ironic and exhausted. Anyway, heroic deeds do not interest me, there’s been enough written about them.

“My hero was a coward,” you wrote in The Guardian. “But cowardice became the only smart choice.” Can cowardice become a heroic deed?

The only hope I have is that when people read the book they will ask themselves, “What would I do? Could I do any better?” Do you remember the fear which consumed David Oistrakh? Even in later life he said that he did not know how not to fear. Just imagine that fear is part of your daily life. How strong ought a person be?

Composer Dmitri Shoctakovich (R) after being awarded International Peace Prize, 1954

In your opinion, how should an artist who lives in a totalitarian regime behave? Resist and perish? Or keep quiet, accept things and continue to work? The first option is more noble. But perhaps the second is the only right answer?

There is no one answer. An artist, whoever they might be, can react based on their aesthetics, interests and individual traits.

A number of people in Russia have been praising recently such historical figures as Stalin and Ivan the Terrible. Ivan even received a monument in the city of Orel. What do you think is driving these people?

Personally, I have nothing against this business with Ivan the Terrible. To me it is similar, forgive me for the comparison, to the Rocky Balboa statue in Philadelphia. But I will say this: historical and controversial figures who are still remembered today require very careful study and judgement. Why do cities need to erect these monuments anyway? Wouldn’t they look better without them?

You must have read Solomon Volkov’s “Testimony” when writing “The Noise of Time.” Which other sources did you use?

Certainly! I also relied on the excellent book about Shostakovich by Elizabeth Wilson, his letters to Glikman and a book about his children. These were my four key sources. But for years I had read many other books about Shostakovich, Russia and music. Different letters, both published and unpublished. Besides, I had done some writing about Shostakovich before: in “Nothing to Be Frightened Of,” my book about death.

Monument to Ivan the Terrible in Orel, the first in Russia

“The Noise of Time” uses a rich selection of words which will be meaningful for a Russian reader: proverbs, as well as quotations from both Pushkin and Akhmatova. Do you remember them from back when you studied Russian?

Yes, I had collected them for years. I thought they would set the right atmosphere. My favourite proverb is “He lies like an eyewitness.” It became an epigraph to my novel “Talking It Over.”

Are there any other figures from Russian history which especially interest you?

The list is endless…

Bearing in mind your novels “Metroland, A History of the World in 10½ Chapters” or “Talking It Over,” it seems that history does not exist - just stories about it. A subjective narrative overrides objectivity. How does this relate to “The Noise of Time”? The novel is about history, but what are we to make of historical accuracy if we can not trust anything other than a momentary feeling?

Our perception of the world is simultaneously subjective and objective. Subjective truth and subjective memory are often extremely powerful, but are equally often unreliable. Objective truth is when we know that the truth is 100% unattainable (unless we we're talking about God, of course). But we also know that a 90% objective truth is better than 10 percent of one and even 63% tops 62%. Because of this, we have to protect every percentage point.


There was a joke recently that “The Noise of Time” is written as if the author belonged to the Soviet intelligentsia. Would you take it as compliment?

I’ll take it as one, although I’d prefer to be called a “Russian intellectual.” However, the novel was written by a British intellectual. At least I hope so.

In your works you often give a new meaning to the creative approach of other writers, like Flaubert, Tolstoy, Shostakovich. What does it take for a person to pique your interest?

I wrote about Tolstoy very briefly. But take Conan Doyle, for example. To create a literary interest, I feel that they should transcend their historical existence. In any case, I don't buy into the rules between fiction and non-fiction, I break them.

It seems that Flaubert and his creative stroke lie close to your heart, but you regularly rail against Tolstoy. In “Metroland,” for example. Especially in the part where he brings up the “idea of family.” You say that people can be happy in a marriage, and this happiness is not boring and banal. Which of Tolstoy's thinkings do you take on board and which ones do you disagree with?

The main protagonist of “Metroland” was supposed to be a little complacent and forced to abandon his youthful ideals. As for Tolstoy, he is clearly one of the greatest ever writers. The only part that I can not accept is his preaching about how one ought to live. The older I get, the more I reject his moralising attitude.

Writer Leo Tolstoy (second L) with his family in his estate Yasnaya Polyana, 1899

Recent global political events suddenly made your novel “England, England” relevant once again. It is full of ironic depictions of British stereotypes and national identity. Writing it in the 1990s, could you foresee Brexit or was it a mere coincidence?

I think it was a random hunch. At the same time, in 1989, I had just finished “A History of the World in 10½ Chapters,” which tells a story of the football team I'd supported my whole life finally achieving huge success after a prolonged period of woe. And then, years later, in 2016, Leicester, to everyone's surprise, won the Premier League. So maybe I have some prophetic gift. If so, I should write a novel about world peace.

Someone described you as “One of the greatest writers of contemporary Britain, the Booker Prize winner, a Francophile (“Flaubert's Parrot”), cook (“The Pedant in the Kitchen”) and master of political portrait (“Letters from London”). Which of these statements are you willing to accept?

I am really flattered. But I simply write one book and then another. I have no particular strategy. I put what I like down on paper and try to do my best. That's all a writer can do.

Your books are a meditation on human nature and our attitude towards life and death. It seems that love is the only thing worth living for. Forgive my hackneyed question, but how would you define the meaning of life?

The meaning of life! Now there's a Tolstovian question! Every time I try to jot down the meaning of life it turns into 200 or even 500 pages. So I’m afraid I don't have the answer.

Interviewed by Natalia Kochetkova