Review: The Noise of Time
Bookseller James Gilbert shares his opinion of Julian Barnes' new novel The Noise of Time. The novel, described by The Guardian as a masterpiece, captures the life of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich.
'When life said to you, "And so", you nodded, and called it destiny.'
Julian Barnes' ability to rub away the skin of the human psyche has not wained. From the eccentric wanderings of Geoffrey Braithwaite in Flaubert's Parrot, to the cruel ghosts of the past which haunted Tony Webster in the Man Booker winning The Sense of an Ending, Barnes' last novel, we are teased, enticed and ultimately trapped. Hardly a position we would chose to be in, but one finds it impossible not to simply give oneself over to Barnes' remarkable ability to invite his readers deep into the troubled minds of his protagonists, turn off the lights and throw away the key. His eagerly awaited tenth novel, The Noise of Time, is an illuminating fictionalised memoir of the Soviet composer and pianist, Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich, a mere mortal suffering in the constant battle between the gods of Power and Art, under the glare of Joseph Stalin. Despite the battle raging on tirelessly through the decades of Shostakovich's career, we follow a man wearied, pummelled and possibly weakened by its lack of resolve, but ultimately unbroken. Yet as with any of Barnes' works, rub away the surface, and we are shown dark truths wrapped under thick skin.
The title is lifted from a collection of prose by poet and essayist Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938), a fierce critic of Stalin who would have his fate sealed in 1933, when he published Stalin Epigram, a satirical poem about the climate of fear in the Soviet Union. While a sharp allegory for a time of devastating oppression, the title is also a citation on Shostakovich's ghosts, his Achilles' Heel, his life's work. The Noise of Time is something he cannot escape, lest silence runs him down. Comprised of three parts, the novel follows three pivotal points in the composer's life, the first of which finds our protagonist trembling outside the lift of his building, away from the ashamed and helpless gaze of his first wife and children, awaiting his arrest. Unsurprisingly a closer ally to Solzhenitsyn than Kafka, we learn quickly that, also unsurprisingly, the apparent fate of Shostakovich is owed to a venomous Pravda editorial, in which the composer's production Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk had been condemned "Muddle instead of music", after a disastrous performance notable for not just Stalin's presence, but discomfort and dismay throughout. Embroiled in disgrace, Shostakovich prepares for his fate by packing up a few meagre belongings, surrendering himself to the forces of Power who he believes will come and take him away, to the Big House, where few return from. One often associates 'destiny' with aspiration and ascension, but to Dmitri Shostakovich, destiny is a dirty word. From the outset the narration is frantic, broken, and initially appears disheveled, before the pieces of the story settle and slide seemlessly among each other like an intricate puzzle being solved before your eyes. What is unmistakable throughout this period, however, is Barnes' steady and hypnotic prose, metronomic, and pacing forward unperturbed, like time itself.
Shostakovich's story is one of fear, and yielding, but with means of survival rather than a means to an end. What we are presented with is a bleak, helpless portrait of a man attempting to weather the storms of heaven, fending off the bolts of Zeus with a tiny umbrella. His plight is lamentable, not only in his treatment and discrimination by Power, but also in that he is shackled to his Art, his purpose. He is determined to fight, to remain a man of substance and values, but as much as the reader, grows increasingly less certain of how much of a fight he is truly offering. In life under the cloud of Stalin, fear is prevalent. Fear of capture, fear of the unknown, fear of fear itself. While Shostakovich is at times a seemingly hardened spirit, ready to face destiny with an arsenal, the climate of fear is fully realised. Destiny is non-negotiable. What we are presented with is a man refusing to be stupefied by persecution, yet increasingly burdened after "conversations with Power", including a spellbinding dialogue from a phone conversation with "the voice of Power" itself. A cowering existence at once beaten and blackened by Power's constant strangehold on Art, blooms horribly to reveal Art's inability to stand erect, despite the apparently unerring efforts of the likes of Shostakovich, who in his progressing age remains determined to believe he is a flagbearer of opposition. The elegiac nature of this brilliantly wrought novel, brought to the fore in the latter stages, shows Shostakovich questioning destiny, and possibly even accepting it.
The Noise of Time is a novel of fear, of art, of power, but it is most notably a novel indicative of one of Barnes' many great qualities as a writer: it is a novel of humanity. The idylls and folly of youth are pitted against acknowledging the Hell of adulthood in Stalin's Russia, and despite clocking in at just 180 pages, we witness a defining and vast period of a man's life mapped out, laying bare every one of his desires, joys, nightmares and woes. Shostakovich is shown to be a man of moral strength who wields talent to keep Power at bay, yet is not immune to sacrifice, detachment and making childish threats of suicide. This time Barnes has rubbed away the surface to reveal, with great clarity, a somber world, a novel with such a raw sense of humaity that when the cats sharpen their claws on Shostakovich's soul, we flinch with him.