Arguably one of the most anticipated novels of 2016, The Noise of Time is the twelfth novel from Julian Barnes. It is the second of his novels I have read having previously read and enjoyed his 2011 Man Booker Prize winning novel, The Sense Of An Ending. His latest work is a fictionalised retelling of the life of composer Dmitri Shostakovich.
‘Was it brave to be standing there waiting for them, or was it cowardly? Or was it neither – merely sensible?
My interest was piqued from the opening pages as we are introduced to our protagonist, Shostakovich, as he waits on the landing, by the lift, where he has been for hours. We learn that one of the composer’s works – Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District – has been criticised in an editorial likely to have been written by Stalin. This results in Shostakovich’s fear and anticipation of being taken to the ‘Big House’ for interrogation. This is one of three key moments in his life described in the novels three parts. The second part covers his life after the war and the third features an elderly Shostakovich. Over the course of these moments we learn of the struggles Shostakovich faces as he wrestles with his conscience and reflects on his life.
‘…the most dangerous time was not the time when you were most in danger’
Through The Noise Of Time, Barnes has presented an interesting glimpse into the life of a man living in a dangerous time, threatened by the power of Stalinist Russia. It raises interesting themes about power and control, bravery and cowardice, art and love. Throughout the novel Shostakovich struggles with his conscience, considering himself to be a coward as he awaits his fate as his work is in the spotlight for the wrong reasons. There is also the fear of what may happen to his family if he is discredited. The most poignant moments arise in the latter stages of the novel as an elderly Shostakovich reflects on his life and his views on his own existence.
‘Power itself did not diminish; it just mutated’
This is certainly a well written novel and there is an authenticity to Barnes’ writing which brought the era to life. Admittedly, I did struggle to get into the story at times and it didn’t grip me as I hoped it would. Nonetheless, this is an informative story that introduced me to a subject which I previously did not have any knowledge of. Whilst this may not really be suited to me the writing is exceptional and there were numerous passages within that I really liked that raised some interesting points – particularly with regard to power and its influence over the arts, the hold it had over this composer’s life.
‘He liked to think that he wasn’t afraid of death. It was life he was afraid of, not death.’
The Noise Of Time is a beautifully crafted portrayal of one artist’s life that showcases the work of a writer with an illustrious career. It is a book that explores power, love, art and humanity. Whilst perhaps this wasn’t the book for me, I am in no doubts that this is a story that will cement Barnes’ status as a masterful writer.