‘The Noise of Time’ by Julian Barnes is a fictional account of the life of Dmitri Shostakovich, one of the most famous Russian composers of the twentieth century. The novel focuses on three key points in his life at twelve-year intervals. In the first part, Shostakovich is waiting by a lift shaft expecting the secret police to take him away and interrogate him at The Big House during the height of the purges in 1936. In the second part, he travels to the United States to deliver a speech on behalf of the Soviet Union in 1948. In the final part set in 1960, he is asked to become a party member under Khrushchev.
You don’t need to be an expert on Shostakovich’s life (I’m certainly not) in order to read and enjoy this novel. It is more about how creativity is guided by circumstances and the power of art and music under difficult and restricted conditions in a totalitarian state than it is about the struggles of one particular composer. The farcical contradictions of life in the Soviet Union are evident throughout the book and often laced with black humour. Shostakovich’s music was banned after his early opera ‘Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk’ was condemned by Stalin and described as “muddle instead of music” in an editorial in Pravda, However, he discovers in 1948 that his reputation has been instantly restored when he is asked to represent the Soviet Union at the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace in New York with Stalin even claiming that his music was never banned in the first place.
‘The Noise of Time’ is Barnes’ first novel since once of his more conventional works The Sense of an Ending was published in 2011 and won the Man Booker Prize that year, a literary award which he memorably described as “posh bingo”. Barnes is no stranger to writing fictionalised versions of true events such as the affair between balloonist Colonel Fred Burnaby and French actress Sarah Bernhardt in Levels of Life or that of the Great Wyrley Outrages case in Arthur and George. As with both of these accounts, Barnes doesn’t deviate much from the known facts about Shostakovich but he also succeeds in bringing real life to his character, one that he is obviously sympathetic towards.
Those who have read his earlier novels will know that Barnes tends to write fragmented and often abstract lists of memories and snapshots rather than conventional prose. ‘The Noise of Time’ is no different in this respect and I can see that the vagueness of Barnes’ writing may be off-putting for some readers. However, ‘The Noise of Time’ is an atmospheric portrait of an intriguing character and could well be a Man Booker Prize contender later this year.
Many thanks to Random House UK, Vintage Publishing / Jonathan Cape for sending me a review copy of ‘The Noise of Time’ via NetGalley.