Review by Fernanda Lai

Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time (Jonathan Cape, 2016), pp. 180.

What if music were treated as words are? If a composer had been a writer instead, how would his text have been treated differently by political state apparatuses? These are the questions raised by Julian Barnes’s latest novel, The Noise of Time, which imaginatively re-tells the life of Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich. This distinction between music and words is not only central to the novel, but is also a crucial separation during Soviet Russia. While “Power had always been more interested in the word than the note,” the Soviet cultural program demanded the submission of all art forms to political dictates. A matter of two pages — “Writers were condemned on page one of Pravda, composers on page three”— could mean the difference between life and death. During his lifetime, Shostakovich was both celebrated and condemned by the Soviet state, and moreover, given the ambiguous political character of music, it is no wonder that the reader muses alongside Shostakovich: “Why . . . had Power now turned its attention to music and to him?”

In the novel the answers remain elusive, though they are continually explored through the imaginary Shostakovich, whom the reader meets three times. After a review in Pravda declares Shostakovich’s latest opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk to be “non-political and confusing,” critics who had consistently praised it for the last two years swiftly changed their tune. Such aesthetic judgments toll a death sentence in Stalinist Russia, and as Shostakovich expects, he is brought to the NKVD headquarters to implicate his patron in a supposed plot against Stalin. However, by twists of fate parodying the secret police in Soviet Russia, his interrogator is himself arrested before Shostakovich has to make any official declarations. Having narrowly escaped, he finds himself confronting something even more terrifying — his own capacity for cowardice.


Our second encounter with Shostakovich comes twelve years later, when he is en route to a US propaganda tour in 1948, rehabilitated as a nationalistic composer after a second “Conversation with Power.” His music is once again laid open to language, but this time, by the voice of Shostakovich himself, though not in his own words. He is compelled to publicly endorse the views of Minister Zhdanov, who had “compared his music to that of a road drill and a mobile gas chamber,” and to read a long speech deriding his idol Stravinsky in the “worst moment of his life.” Yet although words are what have ruined him, Shostakovich still believes they remain his saving grace. As he concludes, his refusal to commit suicide was not a matter of cowardice or a question of sensibility.  He “could not kill himself: because then they would steal his story and rewrite it. He needed, if only in his own hopeless, hysterical way, to have some charge of his life, of his story.”

Another twelve years pass before our final encounter with Shostakovich. An older Shostakovich is now inundated with accolades like a “shrimp in shrimp-cocktail sauce,” but is morally and spiritually depleted. Having been forced from the role of composer to mere political mouthpiece, he has now become a spokesperson of the Party after his third “Conversation with Power,” entering the fold as Chairman of the Russian Federation Union of Composers. While these “Conversations with Power” used to test “the extent of his courage; now, they tested the extent of his cowardice.” Somewhere along the way, his actions had ceased to be about self-preservation, and had become an assault on his integrity. As Shostakovich writes edict after edict condemning artists that he admires, he succinctly summarizes his predicament — “He had lived too long.”

“MUDDLE INSTEAD OF MUSIC” reads the headline of that first damning Pravda editorial, where all of Shostakovich’s troubles began. In many ways, the headline is also an accurate description of the entire novel, which has Shostakovich mentally skittering from one thought to the next, from a childhood memory to a rumination on candelabra, anchored only by his physical location. Nevertheless, the tripartite structure gives a sense of progression, and recalls the ending of Barnes’s previous Booker-winning novel, The Sense of an Ending, almost picking up where it left off: “There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond this there is great unrest.” The Noise of Time is a return to familiar terrain for Barnes, representative of his longstanding interest in probing moments of historical stress. Yet, readers who expect the same gripping pace that characterized The Sense of an Ending will find themselves disappointed, for despite both being slim volumes, The Noise of Time relentlessly stays with each moment, packing it almost claustrophobically with historical detail.

Devoted readers of Barnes’s work do not return for imaginative sweeps, but for his skill in depicting minute adjustments, his ability to portray life as incremental changes of daily occurrence alongside seismic shifts of belated realization. In other words, this is the version of life that Shostakovich has in mind, when he speaks of a movement from “first” to “last” that diminishes life’s possibilities into merely “what time did to you.” It is this obsessive trawling through memory, these surgically-precise incisions into Shostakovich’s psyche that makes it Barnes’s novel: “He knew how people liked to melodramatize their early lives, and to obsess retrospectively about choices and decisions which at the time they had made unthinkingly. He also knew that Destiny was only the words And so.”

 And so” is not the conjunction of history, but of narrative. The concern of the novel, from Barnes’s perspective, is not to explain Shostakovich, but to add, delve, and elaborate, to show how narration constructs an identity. While some may interpret this as a biographical apologia for a musical genius with a troubled historical legacy, make no mistake, it is not history that is at stake in this novel, but the status of art: music and writing. Barnes himself points out in the author’s note: “Shostakovich was a multiple narrator of his own life,” which is “highly frustrating to any biographer, but most welcome to any novelist.” As we are jostled along by Shostakovich’s abrupt shifts in thought, Barnes completes Shostakovich’s hope that “death would liberate his music… from his life” and become “just music” again, by making a separate creation of Shostakovich’s life through his own novel.

In The Noise of Time, Barnes suggests that the Soviets were right about at least one thing — art, in all its forms, upholds a shared commitment to Truth. By taking the title of the novel from the memoirs of another Soviet artist, Osip Mandelstam, who was exiled during the Great Terror for criticizing Stalin, Barnes suggests that it is not as Shostakovich wishes, and music does not solely belong to itself. Rather, music and language, as they were in Soviet times, remain in service of each other. While the meaning of music is always open to constant revision, subject to its historical moment, language is also what may rescue it from history, perhaps by creating a work of fiction. The Noise of Time reveals Barnes’s faith in what art can accomplish, the very faith that his protagonist lacks: “Art belongs to everybody and nobody. Art belongs to all time and no time. Art belongs to those who create . . .  Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time.” And so, this is what Barnes reminds us of.


Fernanda Lai was born in Hong Kong and is a rising senior at Williams College Massachusetts, majoring in English and History.

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