The Noise of Time
By Julian Barnes
I was already a fan of Julian Barnes before I read this book. But I was familiar with his more overtly humourous titles – “Flaubert’s Parrot” and “A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters”. While this new novel is still unmistakably stamped with Barnes’ wry style, it is of a blacker kind than I had previously encountered.
“The Noise of Time” tells the story of real life Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, during the twists and turns of the Russian Revolution. It is a tale of one man’s struggle, and the problem of artistic freedom versus artistic integrity. You might think – or hope – that the first will bring about the second. If the artist is free to create as he wishes, then surely what he produces will, if he possibly can, be naturally something with integrity. Not so, when the grip of Communism has so thoroughly distorted the nature of what it means to be free.
“Let Power have the words, because words cannot sustain music. Music escapes from words: that is its purpose, and its majesty.”
The distortion of language, of terms like freedom and truth, make the role of musician in our historical protagonist an interesting lens through which to view Russia at that time. Even if words have been betrayed, perhaps there is still hope for music. Perhaps music can be heard above the din of propoganda, and deliver secret messages to those willing to hear. But if Shostakovich’s music could reach worthy ears, would political “truths” and the ghastly practise of Revisionism so dismantle the Russian landscape and its people, that both the man and his music would be drowned out by the noise of time?
And in amongst the big political and cultural questions, is a man simply trying to survive. A flawed man, who loved music, but who’s destiny was decided for him.
Lovers of George Orwell will of course be reminded of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” and “Animal Farm,” for their historical backdrop of Communism. But in terms of style, it is akin to the stream of consciousness style of Woolf and the many-threaded styles of Coe and McEwan.
As a reader unfamiliar with the Russian Revolution, some references went over my head, but the politico-artistic debate, real human experience and engaging writing style more than held my undivided attention.