The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

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The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Rebecca Foster
Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Summary: Through a fictionalised biography of the Russian composer Shostakovich, Barnes questions how art can withstand political oppression.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 192 Date: January 2016
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781910702604

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Julian Barnes's first novel since he won the Booker Prize for The Sense of an Ending is a fictionalised biography of Russian composer Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich (1906–75). Knowing Barnes's penchant for stylistic experimentation, though, this was never going to be a straightforward, chronological life story. Instead, as Barnes so often does, he sets up a tripartite structure, focussing on three moments in Shostakovich's life when he has a reckoning with Power (always capitalised here). The title phrase helpfully spells out what the book is all about: 'Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time.'

Each of the three major sections begins with a variation on the same line: 'All he knew was that this was the worst time.' With that pessimistic take on Dickens, Barnes seems to be saying 'hey, things could always get worse' – and for Shostakovich they seem to. We start in 1936, when the composer first manages to make himself unpopular with the Stalinist regime. He stands by the lift on the landing outside his apartment, overnight case by his side, just waiting to be taken away. Maybe if he goes willingly his wife, Nita, and their children, Galya and Maxim, will be spared. Yet the police never come for him.

In Part Two, set in 1948, Shostakovich flies to New York to represent Russia in the Cultural and Scientific Congress for World Peace. To his shame, he reads scripted speeches that expound the party line and pretends to believe them. After all, as the cautionary examples of Prokofiev, Stravinsky and Akhmatova make clear, it is always best to side with the government. This earns Shostakovich some success – in 1960, the focus of Part Three, he's asked to chair the Union of Composers, and he's also awarded the Stalin Prize and the Order of Lenin on multiple occasions – but never peace of mind. He realises early on there are 'only two types of composer: those who were alive and frightened; and those who were dead.'

Under a regime that makes friends, distant family members and former associates disappear, Shostakovich has to decide whether he has the courage to be his own artist. He notices that Power seems to come for him every 12 years – 1936, 1948, 1960, all leap years – and hopes to be dead before they can come again in 1972. An ironic perspective is all that keeps him going: 'Irony allows you to parrot the jargon of Power, to read out meaningless speeches written in your name, to gravely lament the absence of Stalin's portrait in your study while behind a half-open door your wife is holding herself in against forbidden laughter.'

The omniscient narrator sums up Stalin's rule as 'a vast catalogue of little farces adding up to an immense tragedy.' The book is full of such terrific one-liners ('Integrity is like virginity: once lost, never recoverable' is another great one), but there are not many memorable scenes to latch on to. Shostakovich goes through three wives (one dies and one he divorces), but never did I feel very close to him as a character; I had little sense of his inner life.

This is closest in subject to Barnes's The Porcupine (1992), an Eastern European novel with a political theme. I've now read all but a few of Barnes's books, and to me this one doesn't particularly stand out in his oeuvre. The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra is the better recent book about artistic expression under authoritarianism. I'd be most likely to recommend the Barnes only to those with an existing interest in Shostakovich or Russian history. All the same, it's a successful short parable of art imprisoned by politics.

Further reading suggestion: Barnes fans should be sure not to miss Arthur and George and Levels of Life.

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