The Noise of Time is Julian Barnes’s latest novel and his first since his Man Booker Prize winning The Sense of an Ending. I read it last year in the midst of my A-levels. I was supposed to be revising the 1973 oil crisis and Gorbachev’s reforms but it is fair to say that I found Barnes’s most recent book far more interesting. Barnes dedicates this short novel to the life of the Russian composer, Shostakovich. It is based on fact but Barnes has not written a biography; instead he tells the story of a man trapped between Power and reality, art and fact, courage and submission. It is a compelling narrative about how art interacted with the Soviet state, alongside the envisaged inner development of this revered composer.
It is true that this book lacks the suspense and pace of The Sense of an Ending. The Noise of Time is a book in which not much takes place but instead we entreat on small meditations in the midst of wider crises. We see Shostakovich in three conversations with Power, with the first of which taking place in 1937. Shostakovich stands alone next to a lift in a Leningrad apartment block. He is waiting for them to come and take him to The Big House. He is fully dressed, every night, so that when Power does come to take him away, they do not wake his family.
The second crisis occurs after a phone call from Stalin in which Shostakovich is told he is to accompany an official state visit to New York. He reads prescribed speeches forcing him to denounce Stravinsky, a composer who Shostakovich himself admired. He is required to accept the opinions of ministers such as Zhdanov, a man who had compared Shostakovich’s music to a road drill and a mobile gas chamber. Barnes shows us how a man, as well as a composer, crumbles under the weight of Power. His artistic expression is sacrificed in favour of satisfying those in command.
Barnes’s third chapter is in the back of a smoke-filled, chauffeured car. We see the cowardice of an old man juxtaposed with the musical genius whose symphonies still maintain their power and beauty. But we do not see a man split down the middle. Barnes makes it clear that the Soviet system was not divisive for Soviet artists but crushing. The narrative tells us that “art is the whisper of history, heard about the noise of time”. The man fades, but his music still resonates.
Julian Barnes never writes the same book twice and you can’t read The Noise of Time expecting to find a second The Sense of an Ending or Arthur & George. Despite being a short read, Barnes succeeds in illustrating the battles fought within the composer’s life. It is a monumental novel capturing the struggle of art and the artist under the hand of totalitarianism.
Images: Vintage, Faye Chua