The Noise of Time

Written by Julian Barnes
Review by Douglas Kemp

This is a fictional account of the life of the Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich. It is by no means a conventional linear narrative, but rather is a series of reflections, memories and streams-of-consciousness from the composer. The book starts in 1936, and Shostakovich is in fear for his life, having displeased Stalin and thus the whole Communist Party machinery, for a loud and seemingly irritating performance of his opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, in front of Stalin and other leading Party functionaries. The whole mechanism of official displeasure falls upon the unfortunate composer, who knows only too well what happens to those who, intentionally or not, upset the infallible Party. But he seems to have a lucky escape, when his interrogator then falls under suspicion himself. Shostakovich breathes again. He then moves onto to describe and reflect upon his life as a rehabilitated composer in the Soviet Union during the Great Patriotic War against the Nazis, and his state-sanctioned visit to the United States in 1948. Julian Barnes portrays the crass, self-serving, absolutist and pernicious nature of Soviet life, the great experiment that wanted to “engineer the souls of men”; but just ended up as a corrupt regime that benefitted the Party and its members who scrambled up the greasy pole to the top.

Julian Barnes’ novels are elegantly written, as is The Noise of Time an admirable account of a supremely talented man, who had to survive perilous times. It analyses, in precise and intelligent language, his thoughts and responses to the great catastrophe that was the Soviet Union. This book is a relatively short read, but has an immense depth that is lacking in so many other publications of much greater length.