In some senses, we’ve been here before, both with Julian Barnes himself (Flaubert’s Parrot) and with a fair number of other authors (Colm Toibin’s The Master is a good example of what we are talking about); The Noise of Time is, in part, a fictionalised biography, of the Russian composer Shostakovich. We say “in part” because Barnes is busy here, perhaps busier than he ever has been before, and The Noise of Time works hard on a variety of fronts (at one point, Shostakovich admits, “one of life’s many disappointments was that it was never a novel, not by Maupassant or anyone else”; Barnes’ great triumph here is to fashion a novel that renders a life in novel form).
Divided into three similar sized sections (each of which comprise a slim novel, but this isn’t a novel you will want to read quickly, the short sentences and the occasional density of the material – The Noise of Time is quite a reflective and reflexive novel, perpetually circling back on itself – will have you pausing to mull as you read), we meet Shostakovich at three pivotal moments in his life and the narrative explodes forward and back, circling around each of these moments to present us with an expansive and complex picture of the man himself.
Our first meeting occurs as he stands, each night, with a suitcase in hand, outside the front door of his apartment waiting to be arrested and transported to the Big House (he fell out of favour with Stalin after his operatic reworking of Macbeth, and was denounced in the press, and critics who formally praised his work changed their proverbial tunes); our second occurs immediately after a promotional propaganda tour of the US, where he is forced to give speeches that are written for him and say things he does not believe and undergo humiliation at the hands of Russians who defected years previous and view him as some pathetic tool of an evil regime; our final meeting comes at towards the end of his life, after Stalin has gone, replaced by Nikita Khrushchev, and still the regime won’t leave him be.
Regularly denounced, Shostakovich does what he needs to do to survive, and is criticised and disrespected as a result; the most compelling parts of the novel are when Barnes explores artistic integrity, and has Shostakovich explaining how it isn’t just his own life he is saving but the lives of every one he loved (and of course he has direct experience, during his first denunciation, of a great many people around him disappearing never to be seen again, close relations and colleagues executed or, in one case, tortured and released only to die on the way home):
“And, of course, the intransigent logic ran in the opposite direction as well. If you saved yourself, you might also save those around you, those you loved. And since you would do anything in the world to save those you loved, you did anything in the world to save yourself. And because there was no choice, equally there was no possibility of avoiding moral corruption.”
And, of course, the debate rages to this day about whether Shostakovich is a great or a man responsible only for trash. In The Noise of Time, Barnes’ portrait is of a man
“crushed into a hundred pieces of rubble, vainly trying to remember how they – he – had once fitted together.”
It’s a great novel but also a dark novel, a dense novel, a novel that labours (we suspect) under a cloud of pain, as if the author himself is struggling and finding in the writing of the novel, in the life of another man, a kinship. We’ve had The Sense of an Ending, which could have been a final book. The fact of the existence of The Noise of Time suggested to this reader that Barnes quite possibly looked about him and thought, what else can I do but write? In other words: I can’t go on, I’ll go on. There’s even a line in the book that seems to recall that old parrot of Flaubert’s, a line that echoes the Beckett above:
“‘If we’re going, then let’s go,’ as the parrot said to the cat which was dragging it downstairs by its tail.”
Any Cop?: Some of the light playfulness of Barnes’ earlier books is gone, replaced instead by a harder, flinty accumulation of tough sentences, ideas and images wrestling with a powerful central conceit, how does the artist make peace with himself in a world that refuses to let integrity and authenticity run untrammelled?