The Noise of Time
By Julian Barnes (Knopf)
Hardcover; 224 pages; $25.95
policies and cultural standards. Ultimately,
these stylistic regulations had little to do with
inspiring proletariat-friendly art and much
more with controlling the artists making it.
One of the most famous artists hounded by
the Soviet state was Dmitri Shostakovich,
whose career-long struggles with the state
have become the stuff of legend. His story
continues to fascinate historians, artists and
audiences alike, and has inspired some of the
most heated battles in musicians’ political
memory since Beethoven and Wagner.
The newest installment of this niche
cultural battle is The Noise of Time, the most
recent book from Julian Barnes, a British
novelist who netted the Man Booker Prize
for his 2011 novel The Sense of an Ending.
Barnes readers and fans of this last success are
sure to recognize the stuff that makes up
The Noise of Time, namely a series of intro-
spective vignettes that rotate and coalesce
around pivotal moments in the protagonist’s
life to give a fully fleshed-out rendering of its
subject and world. For Shostakovich (via
Barnes), these come to us as “conversations
with Power,” or three moments when his
career, life and art were on the line — mo-
ments when the State targeted him in an effort
to gain closer control over one of their most
The first conversation falls after the Party
apparatus collapsed on Shostakovich for his
opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which was
infamously pilloried in a Pravda op-ed after
months of commercial and critical success.
Shostakovich was forced to renounce the
opera and retracted his fourth symphony, yet
he was still targeted for interrogation by the
secret police at the height of the purges. A
During the War, Shostakovich had cemented
his value through the composition of patriotic
works like his “Leningrad” Symphony No. 7,
and his worldwide fame led Stalin to ask
him to represent the Soviet Union in New
York City at the Cultural and Scientific
Congress for World Peace, where he was
obligated to denounce his idol Stravinsky.
The third conversation occurred well after
his tormentor, Stalin, had died. In the
1970s — after Krushchev’s ostensible “thaw”
and the retreat from Stalinism — he was
hounded by the Party rep Pyotr Pospelov
and eventually caved, joining the Party
that had tortured him for the duration of
his career. Readers see how Shostakovich’s
perspective shifts with each encounter, and
assess the bitter price of survival for an artist
trapped in a twisted system where life was
bought with concession.
Each of these “conversations with Power”
affords Barnes the opportunity to explore the
fraught relationship between Art and Politics.
What does the artist owe his government?
What does he owe himself? Can music mean
something, or make political commentary? If
so, can a composer be ironic or sarcastic with
his art? If not, can he even speak of irony?
Barnes wrestles with all of these questions
admirably, without allowing the drama of
Shostakovich’s life or the story of the Soviet
Union to get bogged down in these interior
meditations. Some of the questions are even
posed outright, one of the most important
rearing its head in Shostakovich’s tongue-in-cheek exam question to a distressed conservatory student: to whom does art belong?
In the tradition of all great Russian literature, Barnes also uses the abstract conflict of
Art and Politics as a condemning example of
the Soviet Union’s wider pattern of real abuse,
absurdity and hypocrisy. One classic target
is the arbitrary nature of total power and its
decisions, so perfectly demonstrated by the
Lady Macbeth episode.
The same principles are equally encapsulated by the cultural fallout from the Nazi–
Soviet Pact in 1939: overnight, Sergei Eisenstein
was forced to suppress his anti–German film
Alexander Nevsky and start work on a Bolshoi
production of Wagner’s formerly unperformable Walküre. Of course, when the Germans
broke faith in 1941 and poured into the Soviet
Union, Nevsky was immediately revived, and
Wagner became a vile fascist again.
Barnes’s research shines through
The Noise of Time, but this great strength
leads to the book’s largest fault. It seems
confused at times: is the book a history,
a biography or a novel? This is not to say
that the history was misplaced or incorrect.
Indeed, all Russian novels rely on their history, so it only makes sense that novels about
Russia should also provide their readers
with the requisite context. The components
are all there in The Noise of Time, and they
are often stitched together with great art
and finesse. At other times, however, the
momentum of Shostakovich’s vibrant
internal monologues and remembrances
is drawn up short as Barnes feels obligated
(rightly) to lay out the historical background.
The stitches become visible. Regardless,
The Noise of Time stands as a moving and
human portrait of a fascinating figure of
the twentieth century.