James Gault reviews The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes
The cover of my copy of The Noise of Time informs me that the book is a masterpiece. I don’t feel I am qualified to agree or disagree with that assessment. As a reviewer, I can only tell you what I liked about it and what I didn’t. Whether my likes add up to the status of a masterpiece is for you to decide.
I certainly think it’s a masterpiece of atmospheric writing. The author’s incredible skill permeates the whole work with despair and despondency. You can admire the writing, but if you’re looking for a book to cheer you up, don’t choose this one!
The book is founded on the life of the great Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. Is it a biography or a novel? All the basic facts of the composer’s life are there, but told through his innermost thoughts. Biographers don’t have access to the beliefs and feelings of their subjects; these are only available to the imagination of a novelist. And, of course, it is impossible to verify the interpretation of the writer. So the book is a work of fiction, and therefore a novel.
Shostakovich is famed for his Leningrad symphony, which is itself renowned for having stuck two fingers up at the Stalin regime without them noticing. The composer thus acquired, at least in the West, a reputation as a silent rebel. This reputation is the bedrock from which Barnes builds the thoughts and fears which make up this story. The novel can be seen as a political tract against Stalinsim, or as the battle of an artist with his conscience, or both.
Whichever it is, it is brilliantly constructed. Authors are usually warned to ‘show, not tell’ and avoid back stories, but this whole novel is in a sense the back story of the main character. In spite of this, it is engrossing from beginning to end. Wonderful writing!
If you are interested in the history of communist Russia, or in music, or in the compromises artists make in bringing their work to the public, this is a book you will enjoy. But if you’re feeling a bit down, leave it for a more optimistic moment.