It’s been more than five years since the publication of Julian Barnes‘s highly acclaimed last novel, The Sense of an Ending, which won the 2011 Man Booker Prize, so expectations of his new novel are inevitably high. The Noise About Time is about composer Dimitri Shostakovich and his attempts to navigate the iron web that has been woven around every aspect of life within Russia first under Stalin then Khrushchev (Nikita the Corncob). Intellectuals, particularly those in the arts were particularly vulnerable, elevated to great heights for providing pride, solace and inspiration to the masses, then sent crashing to earth or worse, for unimagined infractions.
Shostakovich was, by age 29, arguably Russia’s most famous composer. But when he was instructed to attend a performance of his The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, a Russified version of Shakespeare play which was to be attended by Stalin he was pre-programmed to be on edge. Even as the musicians played Shostakovich he feels he is doomed. When he opens Pravda the prominently displayed headline “Muddle Instead of Music” confirms it. Where once the paper had praised the work now it condemned ‘tickled the perverted taste of the bourgeois with its fidgety, neurotic music.” It was he bemoans, not a review, instead they were “editorializing about his existence.”
Written in terse, almost staccato, prose, The Noise About Time is told largely through
the first person, with Shostakovich increasingly dark and self-flagellating musings over the choices he has made to comply with the all-pervading restrictions of Power. As such, all of the other characters who were important in his life, his wives and children, other composers and artists, even the various entities of Power, don’t get fleshed out much, just shadows in the dark corners. And we learn surprisingly little of the passion behind his composing.
From his birth, when the priest forced his parents to abandon the name they had chosen for him because it was “too unusual”, his has been a life of fear-induced compromise. As his life progresses his monologues become increasingly dark excoriations about his complete compliance with whatever Power dictates. He composes prescribed “appropriate” music, reads prepared speeches and mouths the official party platitudes while on propaganda overseas visits.
For what is a relatively slight book, Barnes creates a palpable miasma of fear and despair with moments of almost unbearable tension. Shostakovich’s night-time vigil on the lobby outside his apartment, preferring to be ready when the NKVD arrive to arrest him rather than lie sleepless in bed waiting for the knock at the door is worthy of the blackest of noir thrillers. But overall there was something lacking about his portrayal of this man teetering on the edge of a moral precipice, at the same time volunteering himself to leap off and end his compromised existence and lambasting himself for not doing so.
Barnes acknowledges and widely credits drawing on the extensive archives of Shostakovich’s music and life, including several biographies. For me, a little less history and a little more novel would have made it an even better read.
The Secret of an Ending by Julian Barnes is published by PenguinRandomHouse. Other novels by Julian Barnes include Arthur & George, England, England, and Flaubert’s Parrot (all shortlisted for the Man Booker) and A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters. He has also written numerous collections of essays and short stories.