The Noise of Time
Random House UK, Vintage Publishing
Pub Date: Jan 28, 2016
” A soul could be destroyed in one of three ways; by what others did to you; by what others made you do to yourself; and by what you voluntarily chose to do to yourself”
I really enjoyed Julian Barnes’ last novel, his 2011’s Man Booker prize-winning ‘The Sense of an Ending’. Whilst it was short, it was also one of his best – a lovely book of memory and regret.
His latest, ‘The Noise of Time’ is also quite short, and one might argue also about memory and regret. It tells the story of Dmitri Shostakovich, the Russian composer both feted and condemned by the Soviet state during his lifetime. It starts with the expectation from Shostakovich – in 1936 – that he is going to die. He has been questioned by the NKVD about his relationship with a some people who have plotted against Stalin. He says he knows nothing but is given the weekend to get his story straight. So he waits each day by the lift, suitcase in hand, for them to come and take him to the Big House “‘Many who went to the Big House on Liteiny Prospekt never emerged again”.
But his fears fail to materialise, partly because his accuser becomes the accused in typical totalitarian state style.
What follows is an interesting looks at who Shostakovich might have been – as Barnes himself notes: “Shostakovich was a multiple narrator of his own life,” added to which several revisionist versions of his life designed to paint him in a better light also muddy or clear the waters depending on your point of view. Did he believe in the Soviet ‘project’ ? did he merely go along with anything that allowed himself to survive? As Barnes’ Shostakovich says he had paid Caesar and Caesar had not been ungrateful ” he swam in honours like a shrimp in shrip-conktail sauce”. But similarly Barnes has him muse “When you chop wood, the chips fly: that’s what the builders of socialism liked to say. Yet what if you found, when you laid down your axe, that you had reduced the whole timberyard to nothing but chips”
We inhabit Shostakovich’s consciousness in the book, fearing for him as his star ebbs and flows with his country’s leaders, laughing as he gets digs in about TS Eliot, Picasso, Satre. Pitying him as he has to be a good citizen whilst representing his country at the Cultural and Scientific Congress for World Peace and over his resentment at never getting foreign car , whilst other seemingly less rewarded composers did.
It manages to say a lot about music, art and politics – “Art belongs to everybody and nobody” – and about fear and survival and the deals we make with our own conscious to get through life – “the bad luck 1972 intended for him was not his dying, rather his continued living”, and yet still a fairly light read. This is due purely to Barnes’ skill at writing beautifully clean and flowing prose.
It may even lead you to check out some Shostakovich.
Review copy provided by Random House/ NetGalley