There were very mixed reactions to ‘The noise of time’ by Julian Barnes. The book is about Shostakovich but the structure isn’t a straightforward narrative. It takes 3 episodes in his life when brushes with ‘Power’ brought crisis and reflection for him. The story is told through his recollections and feelings and over the course of the book we get a sketch of the important relationships and events of his life but it is a fractured picture. Some members of the group found it confusing, and with the added complexities of the Russian names it didn’t hold their attention. Others found it a very powerful and moving book but not an easy read.
The book conveys the way the individual is swallowed up in totalitarian regimes – all aspects of life must serve the ultimate goals of the state. Art for art’s sake isn’t enough – music must be comprehensible and enjoyable for anyone – anything difficult or challenging is regarded as degenerate. Shostakovich has periods where he is out of favour and his music isn’t played. His works have to be approved by a committee before they can be published or performed. He is denied access to manuscript paper …
The book also conveys powerfully the long term effects of living with fear. By the end of his life Barnes portrays Shostakovich as a man who has lost his self-respect. Principles that he thought he would stand by have fallen by the wayside – he has been forced to repudiate other composers whom he greatly admires because of the consequences not only to himself but also to family and friends. He sees himself as a coward.
A poem quoted in the book sums the situation up:
In Galileo’s day, a fellow scientist
Was no more stupid than Galileo.
He was well aware that the Earth revolved,
But he also had a large family to feed.
One disappointment for me was that there was little reference to his music and the process of writing – although it is clear it was the area of his life where he could focus in, where he was confident.
Barnes has given his main sources but the book is a novel – he is able to play with and imagine in a way that a historian would not be able to, but what comes over is a sense of how the individual can be crushed by a system.