The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes
“In May 1937 a man in his early thirties waits by the lift of a Leningrad apartment block. He waits all through the night, expecting to be taken away to the Big House. Any celebrity he has known in the previous decade is no use to him now. And few who are taken to the Big House ever return.”
Barnes’ latest novel is a fictional documentation of the life of the Russian composer, Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich, who lived under both the Bolshevik and Communist regimes of the USSR, until his death in 1975. Shostakovich was at turns both adored and reviled by both his country’s people and leadership, and much of his music reflects this push-pull of acceptance and rejection. But what his life was like across all those years, and if he was a dissident or a loyal Communist party member, has mostly been left to conjecture and interpretation, and Barnes attempts to find his own answers to these contentions with this book.
I must admit that Barnes is, for me, somewhat of an enigma as an author. Several years ago, I read his Booker Prize winning novel, The Sense of an Ending, and to tell the truth, I’m not totally sure what it was about (which is probably why I never wrote a full review). While I can remember very little about that novel, I’m having a completely different feeling about this book. On the one hand, Barnes writes with a blank prose style that initially feels cold and unfeeling, but slowly grows on you. This style also tries its best to hide a very dry sense of humor that sneaks up on you at some of the strangest times. With this, Barnes includes some interesting, but obviously typically Russian idiosyncrasies into his story telling, which lend a high level of authenticity. Together, all this makes Shostakovich into a very sympathetic character, and the reader only hopes hope that Barnes got him right.
On the other hand, Barnes introduces a kind of “non-character” in the form of what he calls Power (yes, with a capital P), which has somewhat human qualities, but is more of a representation of the type of external forces that Shostakovich lived through. This sounds confusing, and I have to say that there were times when I was confused by his usage of this amorphous thing that seemed to sit at the center of Shostakovich’s life, which he struggled with as well as struggled against. Of course, the other thing at the center of Shostakovich’s life was his art, which was in his case, his music, that went in and out of favor with Power.
The question that then comes to mind, is what relevance does this have today? Why would Barnes write this novel now? Personally, I’m not certain, but if I'm to hazard a guess, it might have something to do with understanding what art can do to influence power, and if it even deserves to have any influence at all. Regarding the political arena, these days we constantly hear the discussions about whether artists (among other non-political personas) should speak their minds or not, and then we see people on both sides of the argument either denigrating or praising their choices to do one or the other. Of course, soviet Russia was as far from being a bastion of free speech as possible (nor is it today), making these reactions part and parcel of the privilege of living in a society that (at least technically) upholds this democratic value. If Barnes is trying to tell us that we need to celebrate the fact that despite all its faults, the ability to speak truth to power is something we should treasure, then maybe he made a very good point. He certainly shows us through this novel how not having that freedom can be debilitating, both artistically and emotionally.
Of course, I could be totally off base about this, and perhaps Barnes just decided to look at a beloved composer, and muse about his world and life. In either case, I certainly found this book far more approachable (and memorable) than The Sense of an Ending and I truly enjoyed reading about a composer I know so little about. For this, I think I can recommend this novel, but because I’m still unsure of what Barnes is trying to say here, I’m going to give it four out of five stars (which is still a pretty good rating from me).
“The Noise of Time” by Julian Barnes is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books, Kobo audio books, eBooks, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you.