Genre: Historical fiction
Narrative style: Detached third-person narrator
Synopsis: Set in Soviet Russia, The Noise of Time looks at the life of the composer, Shostakovich. The novel focuses on three key points in the composer’s life, while also giving details of his relationship with the Soviet state, first under Stalin then under Khrushchev. This is not a straightforward fictional account and is as much about the relationship between art and power as it is about Shostakovich’s life.
Reading challenges: Full House Reading Challenge: Genre – History
I have been a fan of Julian Barnes for a long time. Unlike Amis or McEwan, he writes rich and enticing prose without having to show off his vocabulary and cleverness all the time. I hadn’t read anything he had written for a while so when I got this for Christmas I was very excited. Not only was it by Barnes but it was about the Soviet regime, something that I am also quite interested in.
Barnes chooses three key moments in Shostakovich’s life to illustrate the way he suffered and the difficulties he faced. These moments represent changes in the way that he is viewed by the state and the way that he views his position in relation to it.
At first, he is so convinced that he will be taken to the ‘Big House’ that he stands outside his apartment by the life so as not to be taken from his bed. His music is banned and he is very much disapproved of. It is only by a stroke of luck that he survives this part of his life.
In the second part, he is on a plane, flying to America to take part in what is basically a propaganda exercise, Stalin having decided that actually his music wasn’t banned at all. Now he is faced with making speeches he hasn’t written and agreeing with the Party line on various composers even though his personal views are different.
Finally, he is in the back of his limousine, having to be made to join the party, hating himself but seeing no other possible route. Barnes uses these three events as jumping off points to add detail and to Shostakovich’s life, his many wifes, his relationships with other composers and of course, with Power.
The portrait he paints of Shostakovich is easy to empathize with. Faced with survival as the only real consideration, it is hard to know how any of us would react. It is easy to imagine that we will stand up and protest but more likely, we would do what was needed and say what needed to be said. Shostakovich views himself as a coward but this sort of Power would make cowards of us all.
Barnes paints a clear picture of the changing Soviet state and calls the difference the new power under Khrushchev vegetarian by comparison to Stalin. It is, however, still Power and it is no easier for Shostakovich to produce music that the state approves of than it was before. (Having recently watched The Death of Stalin, I couldn’t help picture Steve Buscemi as Khrushchev as I don’t really know what the real Khrushchev looked like.) It seems that Shostakovich is destined to never be completely in favour or at least, in favour in a way that he could be comfortable with. It must be difficult when you can’t even appreciate your music being popular.
Finally, this is a novel about the role of art in society and how the Soviet regime – and others like it – warp the very idea of artistic creation. Not only do artists have to be free to create but audiences have to be free to listen and to hear what they want to hear.