The USSR versus their artists is a huge story of art versus 20th Century power, and one of human compromise and heartbreaking loss. Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time is a fictionalised retelling of one of these tales: Dimitri Shostakovich‘s life in Soviet Russia. Told in intimately close third person, the slim book shows Shostakovich’s flourishing genius in increasingly testing circumstances. But Barnes uses this genre of novelised biography to speak about the larger human condition: the capability of cruelty, the capacity for creativity, the function of conscience, and the limits of both power and courage.
Shostakovich is a problematic hero to lead a tale. He vacillates, compromises, hurts himself and others along the way. But his artistry is undeniable, and his ongoing creation and creativity under the USSR is astonishing. This book captures his unequal conversations with power, and tries to breathe life into the decisions that a hero shouldn’t really be making.
Barnes’ Booker Prize-winning The Sense of an Ending was so subtle and engaging, a real gift of a book managed by a controlled, lush storyteller. And so I bought his latest novel The Noise of Time without hesitation. And while it has been called a masterpiece by others, I feel differently. It definitely has masterpiece pretensions, tackling a subject so big, a history so significant, that this thin novel must be considered ‘serious’. However, to me, it felt like a potted history, a lesson I could have got anywhere and in fact, if I had done a music degree, probably already would have. I was bored at times, and frustrated in others when Barnes presumed to give such an intimate internal dialogue to such a famous, suffering, figure of history.
This period of history in this place is remarkable for its aims, its cruelty and its sheer stupidity. It is the facts, not the storytelling that kept me reading this book.
“And if the plan to take a worker from the coal face and turn him into a composer of symphonies did not exactly come to pass, something of the reverse happened. A composer was expected to increase his output just as a coal miner was, and his music was expected to warm hearts just as a miner’s coal warmed bodies. Bureaucrats assessed musical output as they did other categories of output…”
And perhaps this is the most upsetting part for me: Shostakovich’s story is an epic one, full of subtleties and art against the odds and upsetting, regular human sacrifice and compromise. But Barnes’ method is not the way to tell it. We don’t need a fictionalisation: the story is enough on its own. To add the presumptive tortured internal monologue overworks the indistinct in life; tries to explain and justify the compromises. However, it is not black and white, good and evil, the institution against the artist. Shostakovich is not a hero. But Barnes persists in pushing the emotive as a justification, showing and then telling again and again what Shostakovich is going through.
Shostakovich is an astonishing artist living in truely challenging, extraordinary times. His story is a worthy, fascinating one but Barnes’ retelling adds no value, subtlety or further colour. In the end, The Noise of Time just left me asking why this book was published; what does it add; what does it express? The best bit of this book are the facts, and whatever Barnes can add on top of this feels superfluous and flailing in the face of a remarkable period of history.