The silence

A new short story by Julian Barnes
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One feeling at least grows stronger in me with each year that passes – a longing to see the cranes. At this time of the year I stand on the hill and watch the sky. Today they did not come. There were only wild geese. Geese would be beautiful if cranes did not exist.

One feeling at least grows stronger in me with each year that passes – a longing to see the cranes. At this time of the year I stand on the hill and watch the sky. Today they did not come. There were only wild geese. Geese would be beautiful if cranes did not exist.

A young man from a newspaper helped me pass the time. We talked of Homer, we talked of jazz. He was unaware that my music had been used in The Jazz Singer. At times, the ignorance of the young excites me. Such ignorance is a kind of silence.

Slyly, after two hours, he asked about new compositions. I smiled. He asked about the Eighth Symphony. I compared music to the wings of a butterfly. He said that critics had complained that I was "written out". I smiled. He said that some – not himself, of course – had accused me of shirking my duties while in receipt of a government pension. He asked when exactly would my new symphony be finished? I smiled no more. "It is you who are keeping me from finishing it," I replied, and rang the bell to have him shown out.

I wanted to tell him that when I was a young composer I had once scored a piece for two clarinets and two bassoons. This represented an act of considerable optimism on my part, since at the time there were only two bassoonists in the country, and one of them was consumptive.

The young are on the way up. My natural enemies! You want to be a father figure to them and they don't give a damn. Perhaps with reason.

Naturally the artist is misunderstood. That is normal, and after a while becomes familiar. I merely repeat, and insist: misunderstand me correctly.

A letter from K in Paris. He is worried about tempo markings. He must have my confirmation. He must have a metronome marking for the Allegro. He wants to know if doppo piu lento at letter K in the second movement applies only for three bars. I reply, Maestro K, I do not wish to oppose your intentions. In the end – forgive me if I sound confident – one may express the truth in more than one way.

I remember my talk with N about Beethoven. N was of the opinion that when the wheels of time have made a further turn, the best symphonies of Mozart will still be there, whereas those of Beethoven will have fallen by the wayside. This is typical of the differences between us. I do not have the same feelings for N as I have for Busoni and Stenhammar.

It is reported that Mr Stravinsky considers my craftsmanship to be poor. I take this to be the greatest compliment I have received in the whole of my long life! Mr Stravinsky is one of those composers who swings back and forth between Bach and the latest modern fashions. But technique in music is not learned at school with blackboards and easels. In that respect Mr I S is at the top of the class. But when one compares my symphonies with his stillborn affectations...

A French critic, seeking to loathe my Third Symphony, quoted Gounod: "Only God composes in C major." Precisely.

Mahler and I once discussed composition. For him, the symphony must be like the world and contain everything. I replied that the essence of a symphony is form; it is the severity of style and the profound logic that creates the inner connection between motifs.

When music is literature, it is bad literature. Music begins where words cease. What happens when music ceases? Silence. All the other arts aspire to the condition of music. What does music aspire to? Silence. In that case, I have succeeded. I am now as famous for my long silence as I have been for my music.

Of course, I could still compose trifles. A birthday intermezzo for the new wife of cousin S, whose pedalling is not as secure as she imagines. I could answer the call of the state, the petitions of a dozen villages with a flag to hang out. But that would be pretence. My journey is nearly complete. Even my enemies, who loathe my music, admit that it has logic to it. The logic of music leads eventually to silence.

A has the strength of character which is lacking in me. She is not a general's daughter for nothing. Others see me as a famous man with a wife and five daughters, a cock of the walk. They say that A has sacrificed herself on the altar of my life. Yet I have sacrificed my life on the altar of my art. I am a very good composer, but as a human being – hmm, that's another matter. Yet I have loved her, and we have shared some happiness. When I met her she was for me Josephsson's mermaid, cushioning her knight among the violets. Only, things get harder. The demons manifest themselves. My sister in the mental hospital. Alcohol. Neurosis. Melancholy.

Cheer up! Death is round the corner.

Otto Andersson has worked out my family tree so thoroughly that it makes me ill.

Some consider me a tyrant because my five daughters have always been forbidden to sing or play music in the house. No cheerful screeches from an incompetent violin, no anxious flute running out of breath. What – no music in the great composer's own home! But A understands. She understands that music must

A herself also operates with silence. There is – God knows – much to rebuke me for. I have never claimed to be the sort of husband who is praised in churches. After Gothenburg she wrote me a letter which will be found when they check my pockets as rigor mortis is setting in. But on normal days she offers no rebuke. And unlike everyone else she never asks when my Eighth will be ready. She merely acts around me. At nights I compose. No, at nights I sit at my desk with a bottle of whiskey and try to work. Later, l wake, my head upon the score and my hand clasped round empty air. A has removed the whiskey while I sleep. We do not speak of this.

Alcohol, which I once gave up, is now my most faithful companion. And the most understanding!

I go out by myself to dine alone and reflect upon mortality. Or I go to the Kämp, the Societetshuset, the König to discuss the subject with others. The strange business of Man lebt nur einmal. I join the lemon table at the Kämp. A does not approve.

Among the Chinese, the lemon is the symbol of death. That poem by Anna Maria Lenngren – "Buried with a lemon in his hand." Exactly. A would try to forbid it on grounds of morbidity. But who is allowed to be morbid, if not a corpse?

I heard the cranes today but did not see them. The clouds were too low. But as I stood on that hill, I heard, coming towards me from above, the full-throated cry they give as they head south for the summer. Invisible, they were even more beautiful, more mysterious. They teach me about sonority all over again. Their music, my music, music. This is what it is. You stand on a hill and from beyond the clouds hear sounds that pierce the heart. Music – even my music – is always heading south, invisibly.

Nowadays, when friends desert me, I can no longer tell whether it is because of my success or because of my failure. Such is old age.

Perhaps I am a difficult man, but not that difficult. At my life, when I have gone missing, they have known where to find me – at the best restaurant serving oysters and champagne.

When I visited the United States, they were surprised that I had never shaved myself in my entire life. As if I were some kind of aristocrat. But I am not, nor even pretending to be. I am merely someone who has chosen never to waste his time by shaving himself. Let others do that for me.

No, that is not true. I am a difficult man, like my father and grandfather. Made worse in my case by being an artist. Also made worse by my most faithful and most understanding companion. There are few days to which I can append the note sine alc. It is hard to write music when your hands shake. It is hard also to conduct. In many ways A's life with me has become a martyrdom. I acknowledge that.

Gothenburg. I went missing before the concert. I was not to be found in the usual place. A's nerves were shredded. She went to the hall nonetheless, praying for the best. To her surprise, I made my entrance at the appointed time, took my bow, raised my baton. A few bars into the overture, she told me, I broke off, as if it were a rehearsal. The audience was puzzled, the orchestra more so. Then I gave a new upbeat and went back to the beginning. What followed, she assured me, was chaos. The audience was enthusiastic, the subsequent press respectful. But I believe A. After the concert, standing among friends outside the hall, l took a whiskey bottle from my pocket and smashed it on the steps. I have no memory of any of this.

When we returned home, and I was quietly drinking my morning coffee, she gave me a letter. After 30 years of marriage, she wrote to me in my own home. Her words have been with me ever since. She told me I was a useless weakling who took refuge from problems in alcohol; one who imagined drinking would help him create new masterpieces, but was grievously mistaken. In any event, she would not expose herself ever again to the public indignity of watching me conduct in an inebriated condition.

I offered no word of reply, written or spoken. I tried to respond by deed. She was true to her letter, and did not accompany me to Stockholm, nor to Copenhagen, nor to Malmö. I carry her letter with me all the time. I have written our eldest daughter's name on the envelope, so she will know, after my death, what was said.

How dreadful old age is for a composer! Things don't go as quickly as they used to, and self-criticism grows to impossible proportions. Others see only fame, applause, official dinners, a state pension, a devoted family, supporters across the oceans. They note that my shoes and shirts are made for me in Berlin. Homo diurnalis respects these trappings of success. But I regard Homo diurnalis as the lowest form of human life.

I remember the day my friend Toivo Kuula was laid to rest in the cold earth. He was shot in the head by Jaeger soldiers and died a few weeks later. At the funeral, I reflected upon the infinite wretchedness of the artist's lot. So much work, talent and courage, and then everything is over. To be misunderstood, and then to be forgotten, such is the artist's fate. My friend Lagerborg champions the views of Freud, according to whom the artist uses art as a means to escape from neurosis. Creativity provides a compensation for the artist's inability to live life to the full. Well, this is merely a development of Wagner's opinion. Wagner contended that if we enjoyed life fully we would have no need of art. To my mind, they have it back to front. Of course I do not deny that the artist has many neurotic aspects. How could I, of all people, deny that? Certainly I am neurotic and frequently unhappy, but that is largely the consequence of being an artist rather than the cause. When we aim so high and fall short so frequently, how can that not induce neurosis? We are not tram conductors who seek only to punch holes in tickets and call out the stops correctly. Besides, my reply to Wagner is simple: how can a fully lived life fail to include one of its noblest pleasures, which is the appreciation of art?

Freud's theories do not encompass the possibility that the symphonist's conflict – which is to divine laws for the movement of notes which will be applicable for all time – is a somewhat greater achievement than to die for king and country. Many can do that, while planting potatoes and punching tickets and other similarly useful things can be done by many more.

Wagner! His gods and heroes have made my flesh crawl for 50 years now.

In Germany, they took me to hear some new music. I said: "You are manufacturing cocktails of all colours. And here I come with pure cold water." My music is molten ice. In its movement you may detect its frozen beginnings, in its sonorities you may detect its initial silence.

I was asked which foreign country has shown the greatest sympathy for my work. I replied England. It is the land without chauvinism. On one visit, I was recognized by the immigration officer. I met Mr Vaughan Williams; we talked in French, our only common language apart from music. After a concert, I gave a speech. I said, I have plenty of friends here, and, naturally, I hope, enemies. In Bournemouth a music student paid his respects and mentioned, in all simplicity, that he could not afford to come to London to hear my Fourth. I put my hand in my packet and said: "I will give you ein Pfund Sterling."

My orchestration is better than Beethoven's, and my themes are better. But he was born in a wine country, I in a land where yogurt rules the roost. A talent like mine, not to say genius, cannot be nourished on yogurt.

During the war the architect Nordman sent me a parcel shaped like a violin case. It was indeed a violin case, but inside was a leg of smoked lamb. I composed "Fridolin's Folly" in gratitude and sent it to Nordman. I knew him for a keen a cappella singer. I thanked him for le délicieux violon. Later, someone sent me a case of lampreys. I responded with a choral piece. I reflected to myself that things had turned inside out. When artists had patrons, they would produce music, and as long as they continued to do so, they would be fed. Now, I am sent food, and respond by producing music. It is a more haphazard system.

Diktonius called my Fourth a "bark bread symphony", referring to the old days when the poor used to adulterate flour with finely ground bark. The loaves that resulted were not of the finest quality, but starvation was usually kept at bay. Kalisch said that the Fourth expressed a sullen and unpleasant view of life in general.

When I was a young man, I was hurt by criticism. Now, when I am melancholy, I reread unpleasant words written about my work and am immensely cheered up. I tell my colleagues: "Always remember, there is no city in the world which has erected a statue to a critic."

The slow movement of the Fourth will be played at my funeral. And I wish to be buried with a lemon clasped in the hand which wrote those notes.

No, A would take the lemon from my dead hand as she takes the whiskey bottle from my living one. But she will not countermand my instruction about the "bark bread symphony".

My Eighth, that is all they ask about. When, Maestro, will it be finished? When may we publish it? Perhaps just the opening movement? Will you offer it to K to conduct? Why has it taken you so long? Why has the goose ceased to lay golden eggs for us?

Gentlemen, there may be a new symphony, or there may not. It has taken me 10, 20 years, nearly 30. Perhaps it will take more than 30. Perhaps there will be nothing there even at the end of 30 years. Perhaps it will end in fire. Fire, then silence. That is how everything ends, after all. But misunderstand me correctly, gentlemen. I do not choose silence. Silence chooses me.

A's name day. She wishes me to go mushrooming. The morels are ripening in the woods. Well, that is not my forte. However, by dint of work, and talent and courage, I found a morel. I picked it, put it to my nose and sniffed, laid it reverently in A's little basket. Then I dusted the pine needles from my cuffs and, having done my duty, went home. Later, we played duets. Sine alc.

A great auto-da-fé of manuscripts. I collected them in a laundry basket and in A's presence burned them in the open fire in the dining room. After a while she could stand it no longer and left. I continued the good work. By the end I was calmer and lighter in mood. It was a happy day.

Things don't go as quickly as they used to... True. But why should we expect life's final movement to be a rondo allegro? How should we best mark it? Maestoso? Few are so lucky. Largo – still a little too dignified. Largamente e appassionato? A final movement might begin like that – my own First did so. But in life it does not lead to an allegro molto with the conductor flaying the orchestra to greater speed and noise. No, life has a drunkard on the podium, an old man who does not recognize his own music, a fool who cannot tell rehearsal from performance. Mark it tempo buffo? No, I have it. Mark it merely sostenuto, and let the conductor make the decision. After all, one may express the truth in more than one way.

Today I went for my customary morning walk. I stood on the hill looking north. "Birds of my youth!" I cried to the sky, "Birds of my youth!" I waited. The day was heavy with clouds, but for once the cranes were flying beneath them. As they approached, one broke from the flock and flew directly towards me. I raised my arms in acclamation as it made a slow circle around me, trumpeting its cry, then headed back to rejoin its flock for the long journey south. I watched until my eyes blurred, I listened until my ears could hear nothing more, and silence resumed.

I walked slowly back to the house. I stood in the doorway, calling for a lemon.

This piece appears in the new issue of Granta, 'Music', edited by Ian Jack; £9.99 from bookshops, or £7.99 direct from Granta (freecall 0500 004033). Julian Barnes's new collection of writings about France, 'Something to Declare', is published 11 January (Picador, £8.99).