The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

the noise of time“Muddle instead of Music”…

😀 😀 😀

A man stands by the lift in his apartment block in the middle of the night, waiting for the men from the ‘Big House’ to come for him. It is 1936 in the Stalinist USSR, and the man is Shostakovich. The state newspaper Pravda has deemed his latest opera to be “Muddle instead of Music” – a piece designed for the bourgeoisie and therefore not acceptable for a Soviet audience. Now Shostakovich is expecting to be hauled away and grilled about his political beliefs, a dangerous thing for an artist under this brutal regime.

This short novel is a barely fictionalised biography of the composer, focussing on three major episodes in his life each 12 years apart. Shostakovich was eventually brought back into favour and even sent off to represent the regime in the US, but he lived always under the fear that one day he would again be ostracised, or worse. It is clearly well-researched, and is well-written, with Barnes using Shostakovich’s life as a vehicle to muse on the position of artists under totalitarian regimes.

From now on there would be only two types of composer: those who were alive and frightened; and those who were dead.

Barnes looks at questions of bravery and cowardice, compromise and its debilitating effect on artistic freedom, and the blindness of the regime to the subtleties of irony. He shows clearly how an individual knew that any decision he reached might impact severely on his families and friends, and how this made the question of defying the regime more complex than the simple matter of personal bravery it might at first sight seem. One of the more interesting sections discusses the response of people living safely in the West, expecting Soviet artists to be willing martyrs without an understanding of the realities of living in perpetual fear, not just for themselves but for those around them.

Dmitri Shostakovich
Dmitri Shostakovich

…if the plan to take the 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; there were established norms, and deviations from those norms.

(Am I the only one thinking that coal miners probably didn’t have it too good under Stalin, either? I do get a little tired of artistic narcissism…)

I often find Barnes’ writing cold, and this short book falls into that category. In fact, I found myself questioning whether it could really be defined as a novel at all. It reads more like a series of connected essays based on carefully selected vignettes from the lives of Shostakovich and other composers of the time. It’s interesting enough and certainly readable, but I found it provoked surprisingly little emotional response in me considering the subject matter, nor did it add anything significant to a subject that has been dealt with many times before both fictionally and factually.

Art belongs to everybody and nobody. Art belongs to all time and no time. Art belongs to those who create it and those who savour it. Art no more belongs to the People and the Party than it once belonged to the aristocracy and the patron. Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time. Art does not exist for art’s sake: it exists for people’s sake. But which people, and who defines them?

Julian Barnes
Julian Barnes

I found myself comparing it to the novella Peredelkino in Ken Kalfus’ collection PU-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, which tells essentially the same story about a writer caught under the restrictions of the Soviet regime. Kalfus’ story addresses the issues just as insightfully, but is much more clearly a fiction, with all the contrasts of light and shade that I felt Barnes’ book lacks.

So, in conclusion, this is an interesting read, but for me it fell between two camps and didn’t quite fit well in either: too cold and unemotional, and a little too polemical, to work fully as a piece of fiction; and without enough depth or detail to be fully satisfying as a factual account of Shostakovich’s life.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.

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69 thoughts on “The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

  1. As always, FictionFan, a thoughtful and candid review, for which thanks. I know just exactly what you mean about a book that doesn’t really fall into the camp of fiction. Readers want some connection to a story at some sort of emotional level, I think. Not feeling that makes a book less of a good experience. On the other hand, I think readers also want their biographies (seems to me that’s the closest sort of non-fiction to this book) to have some depth and real insight into a character. Hmmm…..the topic’s fascinating, and I am tempted just on that score. I may put it on the radar at some point.

    • I do often find that Barnes’ writing doesn’t engage me emotionally – it always tends to feel like factual writing and his subject matter is often factual too, and I often wonder why he doesn’t just write his novels as essays. He is supposedly a great essayist though I haven’t read any of them – but it seems more suited to his style somehow. However, as always, as many people are raving about this one as are criticising it, so if you do read it, I hope you enjoy it! 🙂

      • Barnes is such a talented writer with such a curious mind that his books do tend to be all over the map. And writing historical fiction about a particular famous individual is a bit like walking the top of a high, thin wall, trying to reap the richness that comes from working with interesting and famous characters while generating the rich interiority that is the lifeblood of emotional works of fiction.

        If you haven’t yet, you might put on the TBR my favorite example of this genre by my favorite writer of fiction–The Master, by Colm Toibin. A wonderful novel based on the life of Henry James (who himself had a bit of a deficit when it comes to emotions).

        • Yes, I admire his writing which is why I keep trying with him. I haven’t read The Master yet – just finished The Heather Blazing. Not my favourite Toibin but still excellent. It’s odd but in a lot of ways their writing styles are quite similar – a bit understated, relying on precision of language rather than big poetical flourishes. And yet I can’t imagine ever finding Toibin cold. Perhaps it’s that Toibin seems more interested in people and Barnes in ideas. I must admit, because I read so much factual stuff, I do like my fiction to be obviously fiction…

  2. I think the subject matter is fascinating. I went to see the Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy and one of the main things I thought was how brave he is. His art makes comments on human rights, censorship and creative freedom. He keeps creating, he keeps challenging… I don’t think I’d have that kind of bravery.

    • So do I, which is why I was a little disappointed in this. Yes, it would be easy for Ai Weiwei to simply move to the West – brave of him to work under the regime. In this one, Barnes contrasts Shostakovich with some of the composers who left to live in America, but even one or two of them went back after a while. I guess the pull of one’s home is very strong…

  3. This is one, despite your reservations, that I will probably find myself seeking out at some point, as I love the man’s music, know a little about the background, and find myself fence sitting with Barnes. It is just possible that my interest in the subject of the book could let me get a little cosier with Barnes than I might otherwise do

    • Well, I do hope you enjoy it, but I felt it was a bit superficial to be honest. I only know the basics about artists working under Stalinism and yet I felt I learned surprisingly little. However some people seem to be enjoying it more, though the reviews are very mixed.

  4. This sounds very similar to Julian Barnes’ earlier breakthrough novel Flaubert’s Parrot. That book is also biography dressed up as fiction but I enjoyed its melancholy air.
    Nice line about the coal miners. They certainly didn’t have it easy under Stalin. Lots of British writers seem to be writing about Soviet Russia these days: Martin Amis did it too, and I do wonder how many of them actually speak Russian or have engaged deeply with the culture that they are examining. It’s also worth asking what they bring to the mix that Russian authors who lived through these times cannot. We have the work of Bulgakov and Solzhenitsyn and they’re both terrific authors.

    • I enjoyed Flaubert’s Parrot too from what I recall, but this one felt much more superficial somehow. My knowledge of life for artists under Stalin is basic and yet I felt I learned very little from this – very little a quick read of Shostakovich’s life on Wiki wouldn’t have told me, in fact! And I certainly didn’t feel he was giving me any particular insights into Russian culture. I don’t mind British or other writers using it as a basis for a story, but there must be an added something to make it worthwhile – Kalfus threw in a bit of a love affair and some thinly disguised autobiographical humour, which made it work as more of a fiction. And Kalfus did actually live in Russia for a few years, so maybe that’s why his worked better for me…

  5. I haven’t read this one, but thanks to your balanced review, I won’t have to! It just doesn’t sound like something I’d care to spend time with. Not so much the subject matter, of course, but more like the confusion that dominates overall.

    • It certainly isn’t one I’d be pushing on people. Interesting subject matter, but it just didn’t grab me emotionally the way I expect fiction to. Oh, well! Can’t win ’em all… 😉

    • I’m coming to the conclusion that I’m not a fan of Barnes either – he’s done one or two I’ve enjoyed but usually I end up feeling much as I did about this one.

  6. Great review, FF – it gave me a real flavour of the book. These pesky artistic types, eh? Always over dramatising 😉 All in all, I would prefer to be a composer than a coal miner in the USSR but it was still a scary time for anyone seemingly opposed to the regime. I actually am quite interested in this book and as it is only short shall add it to my list.

    • Thank you! Ha! Yes, indeed – I must admit that every time an artist of whatever kind starts moaning on about how haaaaaard their life is, I get an urgent desire to send them an application form for a job as a sewage worker… 😉 But yes, not fun being any kind of known figure under one of these regimes. Well, you may enjoy it more than I did – it’s getting mixed reviews. It’s his style that doesn’t work for me – I admire his writing but don’t feel it…

      • I can’t stand writers talking about ‘the process’, like it’s some kind of esoteric kind of hardship that only they could possibly fathom. Write a word, write another word – repeat a few thousand times. That’s pretty much it. Stop whining. Grr!
        I quite like a ‘cold’ delivery when it comes to factual-type writing and, being USSR-based, this sounds like something I could quite enjoy. Might hate it. Will let you know 😉

        • Ha! I know! It’s such a modern thing too – but what bugs me most is that half the books you read these days are writers writing about the hardship of being writers. Pah! And tchah!! And even bah!!!

          Yes, do! I did swither about rating it more highly – maybe a 3.5 or even 4 – but as so often it kinda went down a bit when I really thought about it for the review. Sometimes analysing books does them no favours…

          • There are far harder things to do for a living than write. It’s not easy to earn much money, true, but if one can get even a few quid for putting words on paper they should be super chuffed, I say!
            What I love about your reviews is that they are honest and objective and you say what YOU really think. Then, it is down do us readers to decide if the book is for us or not 🙂

            • Indeed, I never mean to run writers down. Certainly it doesn’t seem to be easy to make a living at it, but I think that’s always been the case except for the rare runaway success.

              Aw, thank you! It’s all so subjective, reading, in the end. Even great books don’t please everyone, and some people even seemed to enjoy The Monogram Murders… 😉

            • Don’t get me wrong – I am a writer! But they should save the drama for the book and put on their grown up pants for the rest of the time 🙂
              Haha! Now, I DID enjoy The MM – just not in the way the author might have hoped!

            • Nah – some books are just meant to be given a hard time. To be fair, she was never going to compete with Christie and I kind of admire her for giving it a go.

            • I wonder if she’ll do another one. Loads of people gave it 5-stars – which does make me wonder about this whole selection of the fittest theory… 😉

            • I definitely wouldn’t give it 5 stars but I can’t deny it entertained me. She writes really well but no one can be expected to successfully recreate a Poirot novel. That said, if she does another one I will definitely read it…

  7. I think I’d rather read Akhmatova’s poems or read the kid’s book “Breaking Stalin’s Nose” or investigate the latest YA, “Symphony for the City of the Dead.” I’ve read all but the latter, and it’s on my TBR list.

  8. Oh, and about the artistic narcissism. Yes, there is a certain preciousness, but I know many artists who are making art while doing manual jobs to pay the bills. AND the idea that when you’re doing physical work, you have something in the end to show for it that is the achievement. A clean bathroom, a working motor, etc. With art, there’s no guarantee that anyone will like what’s being produced or that a work of art can be rushed. Because if it is rushed, it can turn to crapola. And then heads will roll, unless one can be a genius on schedule. I admire those artists who can. 😀

    • Ha! Yes, but I still think it’s probably a preferable life to being a coal miner under Stalin. Shostakovich had his nice dacha and his car to compensate – he never seemed in danger of becoming one of the millions who starved to death or got sent off to the labour camps. I’m guessing many a coal miner would have been willing to swap hardships… 😉

        • You should vote for the Communists in the upcoming elections then – they’re actually beginning to seem quite sensible in comparison to some of the candidates… 😉

            • I know! We’re in the midst of our “shall we pull out of the European Union and live for ever on memories of how we were once a great Empire instead” campaign – the one that’s based on the simple premise that we are superior to all other nations and we don’t know why they don’t realise it. So the TV is filled nightly with “swivel-eyed loons” as David Cameron once memorably called them…

  9. Ah, I like Shostakovich. Good music, I think. Poor chap. See, if he would’ve openly rebelled, and grabbed a gun, he could’ve fought his way to the caribbean. Once there, he could’ve joined a band of pirates, and make music forever. Isn’t that grand?

  10. This type of semi-fictionalised biography is very popular in France – I must have read dozens of them. I am never quite sure what to think of them – as you say, they do sit between two stools, somehow. However, I liked particularly the first part of the book – which did have that paranoia and fear to it, while the others were more world-weary and cynical and cold.

    • I do think it’s rather an odd format. I find it means I bring a lot of preconceptions to it, if I know anything about the subject, that I wouldn’t do if it was the same story but about an entirely fictional character. I’m pretty sure that’s why I preferred the Kalfus story in this instance. Yes, I thought the first section was the best too – if it had all been like that, I’d have enjoyed it more.

    • I think it mostly comes down to his style of writing in the end. I admire his writing and he certainly writes intelligently but it rarely allows me to feel emotionally involved – which is what I generally like about reading fiction. It does seem to be dividing readers, this one, though. Glad you enjoyed it! 🙂

  11. Very thoughtful. I find him cold, too, and I don’t mind Elizabeth Taylor’s cold eye but he often seems like he’s engaging (or indulging) in a writing exercise.

    • Yes, that’s exactly right! And interesting you should use the word “indulging” – I’ve found myself often accusing him of self-indulgence in the past too. I keep sticking with him because I do admire his writing, but he so rarely engages me emotionally…

  12. Very interesting assessment. Now I want to read one of his books to see what you mean. 🙂 I’ve read books by authors who left me feeling disengaged emotionally. I usually wind up avoiding them after one book.

    • Yes, I usually avoid them too, but I did enjoy a couple of Barnes’ earlier books and I keep hoping he’ll win me back over. But I think I’m about ready to stop trying with him now…

  13. A really interesting review – I too have found Julian Barnes’ books to be on the cold side so I’m pleased that you’ve come to that conclusion too. Sorry that this felt a little bit disjointed because of the method used in exploring this musician’s life in context of the regime. I have to give you extra points for not messing up the spelling of the subject – a feat that I wouldn’t ever have managed!

    • Haha! I still haven’t recovered from the time I reviewed a book by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky – there ought to be a law against having that many z’s!! Yes, I’m not sure why Barnes’ books have that effect on me – he always writes about things that I should find interesting and that should be emotional. Pity – he’s one of those writers I really want to love…

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