Date finished: January 4th 2017
Julian Barnes is one of my favourite novelists, and I can’t really justify why. The Sense of an Ending was a truly brilliant novel which had a profound effect on me. None of his novels I’ve read since has had quite the same effect, so perhaps I base my affinity towards him on just one brilliant diamond, among varying roughs. That said, I do love the way Barnes writes – even if his stories aren’t perfect, his sharp, honest prose just resonates with me on a level I can’t fully describe.
His latest work, The Noise of Time, is a fictional account of the life of Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich, the famous Russian composer, told through the frame of three events in Shostakovich’s life. The first part focuses on 1936, after the denunciation of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtensk in Pravda as bourgeois. We find him standing outside the lift in his apartment, with his hat and suitcase, waiting for the NKVD to take him away. Part two takes us to 1948, one the return flight after his trip to decadent, capitalist America as he fears that he didn’t present himself according to The Party’s will, and part three takes us to 1960 as Power catches up with him.
I suppose I have to muse on classical music a bit for this one. I’m not a connoisseur or even an expert on classical music. At best, I’m an admirer of occasional works, not bodies by a particular composer. I enjoy Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, and Jupiter, Mars and Uranus from Holst’s The Planets. Dvorak’s From the New World Symphony is probably my favourite classic work. Of an afternoon, I might switch on Classic FM and endure the adverts for some soothing background music whilst reading, but I’m unlikely to recognise a composer based on their style. I’m a relative newbie to Shostakovich. I enjoy Symphony No. 7, known as the “Leningrad” symphony and can see the Stravinsky influence in it but I don’t claim to be any expert on composers, classical music or art as a whole.
The Noise of Time is less a novel, and more a meditation on themes, much like Barnes’ other fictional biography, Flaubert’s Parrot. But whereas Flaubert’s Parrot sought to use perspective to deconstruct a man in many ways, The Noise of Time seeks to use a man to build perspectives. What we are left with is the way an individual of Shostakovich’s nervous temperament perceives and reacts to a regime as absurd and totalitarian as the Soviet Union. This makes it less experimental than Flaubert’s Parrot but more focused and nuanced. It becomes a meditation on art, integrity, compromise, irony, fear and individualism in a homogeneous, dangerous regime. In Shostakovich’s conversations with power are some clear nods to the style of some of the Russian greats – probably the only time I’ve been able to, and will ever be able to, pick out homage in literature. Barnes’ prose isn’t as philosophical and profound as it was in The Sense of an Ending but takes on a sort of curling irony, one crucial to Shostakovich’s personality, and life in Soviet Russia.
Back to Shostakovich himself, who I’m seemingly reviewing too. I decided to stick his symphonies on in the background as I read and found that I enjoyed them. The dissonance and atonality of passages that would otherwise be bombastic and gallant appealed to me, seemingly striking the balance between the “glory” of the revolution and the underlying horror of its machinations – irony, I suppose, captured in symphony. I can’t say anything more sophisticated than that, but I did overall enjoy listening to the symphonies whilst I read.
The Noise of Time isn’t Barnes’ greatest work, but it’s undoubtedly exudes his trademark style – from the triumvirate structure, to the crisp prose, to the philosophising on the nature of life, time and memory. To a more-educated reader cultured in classical music it might prove to be a deeply moving and sophisticated novel, but unfortunately I could only appreciate it on a more superficial level – as a fan of the man’s writing, and of Soviet satire. In those respects, it satisfied, but never threatened to overwhelm. Nonetheless, it’s a worthy novel with the moments of beauty and insight that one comes to expect from this veteran author.