The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

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Reviewed by Marina Sofia

Julian Barnes is an avowed Francophile, as we have learnt from previous works such as Flaubert’s ParrotCross Channel and his book of essays Something to Declare. In fact, his analytical intellect and passion for dissecting ideas is often in higher regard in France and he has won a number of literary prizes in that country. So perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that in his latest book he attempts one of those subgenres which is vibrant and popular in France, although seldom indulged in England, namely the fictionalized biography.

Little wonder then that The Noise of Time has also met with a mixed reception in the UK. Questions have been asked whether Barnes had to use the real composer Shostakovich for his musings on art and artistic freedom, doubts have been raised as to how healthy it is to hang Barnes’ own thoughts onto a real-life person whose motivation we can only speculate about, and whether a fully fictional composer would not have done the job just as well. The author has also been accused of trivializing the composer or making him out to be a coward, but in interviews he makes it clear that he considers Shostakovich his hero.

In spite of all this hoo-ha, I found this a fascinating reimagining of the life and thoughts of Shostakovich and the compromises one has to make in a totalitarian state for one’s art, family and life. The purpose of the book is to ask: what would any of us have done in a similar situation? It is tempting to think we would have been heroic, but when your life and, above all, your family are in danger, what compromises might any of us be prepared to make? This is not so much the biography of a man (in fact, if you don’t know anything about the life of Shostakovich, you are going to struggle a little to make sense of all the names and events), as the portrait of a country and a political system.

It’s a slim book and revolves around three key episodes in the composer’s life, each set about a decade apart and each starting with the ominous phrase ‘All he knew was that this was the worst of times.’


1. First, in the dead of night, we find Shostakovich waiting by the lift in his apartment block with his small case packed. He fully expects to be picked up by the KGB as an enemy of the people after his latest opera was denounced as bourgeois and incomprehensible, a muddle instead of music. He wants to spare his family the agony of watching him being dragged away, so he stands and waits, thinking about the past, fearing for the future, smoking his way through the all too brief present.

In Stalin’s Russia no one dares to have their own opinions, all the critics hang on the beloved leader’s every word, and knowing how the wind blows is key to survival. In fact, as Shostakovich knows, there were only two types of composers in Soviet Russia in 1937: ‘those who were alive and frightened, and those who were dead’.

He refers back to an optimistic time, when he greeted Lenin’s triumphant entry into Finland Station, but by 1937 the disenchantment with Soviet ideology is all-encompassing, the rumours about Stalin’s paranoia omnipresent. People are still following their leader, but no longer because of love or brainwashing, but fear, pure and simple. Barnes conveys the claustrophobic atmosphere and almost unsayable, inchoate fear perfectly. He also has a talent for one-line zingers: ‘Stalin liked to say that the finest quality of the Bolshevik was modesty. Yes, and Russia was the homeland of the elephants.’


2. The second episode occurs just after the Second World War, when Shostakovich has been selected to represent the Soviet Union in a visit to the US in 1948. He has survived the dangerous 1930s and the war, he has reached a sort of truce with Stalin, yet he knows he is surrounded by minders and spies and that he has to be very careful what he says on his trip abroad.

In spite of all this, he is not that impressed with America, the land of the free, although he does not quite see the trampling of the starving proletariat underfoot there, as depicted in Soviet propaganda. He is, however, surprised at its materialism and passivity; he finds that the Americans are ‘passive by nature, since everything was pre-processed for them’. Fêted as an international star composer, he nevertheless feels under constant pressure to perform and say the right things or else…

More opportunity for Barnes to meditate about the Soviet agenda through Shostakovich’s mouth. He draws parallels between an orchestra and its conductor, and a country’s population and its dictator. He portrays the Soviets as the engineers of the human soul – waiting for the miraculous apparition of the ‘new man’ in Communist utopia. They forgot that ‘Russians are not machines. Scrub, scrub, scrub, let’s wash away all this old Russianness and paint a shiny new Sovietness on top. But it never worked – the paint began to flake off.’ This is the least successful part of the book to my mind.


3. After the death of Stalin and Khruschev’s ‘opening’ to the West, in 1960 Shostakovich experiences an apparently more benign period in 1960. But old age and years of dictatorship have worn him down, he has caved in, joined the party, signed articles condemning those who spoke out against the regime, compromised far too much. He is fully aware of what he regards as a personal defeat and is deeply self-critical, even though he also has good reason to justify his choices. ‘He had betrayed himself, and he had betrayed the good opinion others still held of him. He had lived too long.’

Throughout, he felt he was keeping part of his real essence back, that he was using irony as defence, an irony that often went unnoticed by the regime. His jokes and satire were a form of ‘silent protest’, a ‘weapons of the weak’ revenge for having to cooperate. But at what point does irony become collusion and when does humour take the place of revolution and signify tacit acceptance? ‘This was the final, unanswerable irony to his life: that by allowing him to live, they had killed him.’

Although this part too has beautiful, if rather world-weary observations about art and absolutism, the ‘people’ and the ‘elites’, about freedom of thought and compromise, it can at times read like a pamphlet:

Art belongs to everybody and nobody. Art belongs to all time and no time. Art belongs to those who create it and those who savour it. Art no more belongs to the People and the Party than it once belonged to the aristocracy and the patron. Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time. Art does not exist for art’s sake: it exists for people’s sake.


If only the real sense of menace of the first part could have carried on in the other two sections! If only there had been more fiction here! The dark shadow of night creeping up on him and his country is beautifully captured in that touching scene of standing beside the lift (he could have taken a chair to wait, but what would the neighbours think?). The remaining two events feel like less of a personal dilemma, more of an essay and meditation on art and freedom. Yet, although it doesn’t quite work as a piece of fiction, nor as a biography, it is an erudite and thoughtful look at an almost dystopian society, as well as a look at how our personal beliefs (the music within) might be modulated by the ‘noise of the time’ we live in.

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Marina blogs at Finding Time to Write.

Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time (Jonathan Cape, 2016). 978-1910702604, 192pp., hardback.

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