The Noise of Time
by Julian Barnes
Knopf (2016)
201 pp

The life and compromised career of Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich is fascinating. An acclaimed composer from a young age, Shostakovich was conducting his 1932 opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsenk District, at a performance on January 26, 1936, and was probably terrified to find Stalin in attendance. Worse, Stalin left early, after Shostakovich had already witnessed his obvious dislike of the opera. Two days later, the opera, which had been praised until then all over the world, received a scathing editorial in Pravda, denouncing it as “muddle instead of music.” In that time and place, a bad review like that, suggesting the opera was contrary to Soviet philosophy, could suggest an imminent demise. Though Shostakovich withdrew the opera a few months later, he lived under constant threat of imminent demise — for him, for his family — for decades.

I was thrilled when I saw that one of my favorite authors, Julian Barnes, was publishing a novel on Shostakovich. Barnes is often sensitive and able to explore the nuances of character and circumstances with great insight. Unfortunately, and frustratingly, The Noise of Time felt smug and condescending, the effort of a novelist who wants to experiment with structure — or to appear to experiment with structure — but who doesn’t trust his readers to comprehend.

The Noise of Time

The book begins with a hook: “It happened in the middle of wartime, on a station platform as flat and dusty as the endless plains surrounding it.” What “it” is that happened is not clear for a while. Strangely, it is one of only a few instances where Barnes allows the reader to wonder, and “it” is not really worth the suspense. For a book about a conflicted, elusive character, such a hook is unnecessary, a novelist’s trick, and definitely got me started on the wrong foot. Or, at least I was concerned about what looked like an early misstep, an attempt to grab by a cheap technique rather than content. Sadly, I felt this throughout.

The Noise of Time, like Barnes’ 2011 Booker-winning The Sense of Ending (my positive review here), is told through vignettes introduced as the seemingly random thoughts of Shostakovich as he awaits what he thinks will be his execution. Standing at the elevator for hours, not wanting to simply wait in his room with his wife, Shostakovich’s “mind was skittering”:

Faces, names, memories. Cut peat weighing down his hand. Swedish water birds flickering above his head. Fields of sunflowers. The smell of carnation oil. The warm, sweet smell of Nita coming off the tennis court. Sweat oozing from a widow’s peak. Faces, names.

I liked this approach — the random, seemingly disconnected memories flooding in short paragraphs to kick start the book, which will in turn elaborate on these memories in short episodes — in The Sense of an Ending, and I was happy to see it utilized again here. However, in The Noise of Time, rather than come off as the exploration of a fragmented mind, one deeply rooted in the psychology of the subject, this structure felt less like trimming the narrative to its essence and more like narrative cutting corners. It seemed to say that the story is so fascinating (and it is), the reader should generate their own impressions of depth.

Strangely, this seeming attempt to put the onus on the reader goes contrary to the many times Barnes explicitly tells us what a particular scene is going to do. After Shostakovich was put on the watch list for his “muddle not music” in 1936, he continued to compose, but obviously had a complicated relationship with the arts and with other artists. In one of the book’s focal episodes, Shostakovich travels to America, hoping for something good, but Barnes quickly tells us “what he had not prepared himself for was that New York would turn out to be a place of the purest humiliation, and of moral shame.” With this, Barnes explains the scene we are about to witness, and the reader is thus pushed through this narrow lens, exploration of nuance, to the extent nuance is present, rendered unnecessary as the conclusion has already been asserted.

With enough sections like this, it starts to feel like Barnes has become fascinated with a subject, has done a lot of reading, and is still working through his thoughts, coming to them and writing them down for us. But that shouldn’t be enough.

I was also increasingly annoyed by Barnes’ quips throughout his vignettes. So many of them were derived from other sources and came off more as clichés in Barnes’ hands.

  • History was repeating itself: the first time as farce, the second time as tragedy.
  • In the twelve years between 1936 and 1948, he had never felt safer than during the Great Patriotic War. A disaster to the rescue, as they say.
  • To be Russian was to be pessimistic; to be Soviet was to be optimistic. That was why the words Soviet Russia were a contradiction in terms.
  • Peace had returned, and so the world was upside down again; Terror had returned, and insanity with it.

These are familiar sentiments, wonderfully delivered the first time around. Even the best segment in the book, the one where Barnes cites his title . . . well, let’s look at it first:

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.

I love the phrase, “Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time.” But “the noise of time” is taken from a book of biographical sketches by the supreme essayist Osip Mandelstam who died at a camp in Siberia after having been arrested by Russian authorities. Barnes simply does not do the concept justice for this to be considered a successful homage. Like much of the book, it feels like something Barnes appropriated from some other source, slapping it together for the reader to admire, giving us surface-bound explanations along the way.

I note that there are plenty of voices out there who disagree with my take on this book. Alex Preston called this book “Barnes’s masterpiece” in The Guardian (here). Duncan White gave the “novel of deceptive slenderness” five stars in The Telegraph (here). And John Self, someone I always know has given a book a fair shake, admired it (here). Then again, Arifa Akbar says Barnes “misses a beat” in The Independent (here). And I found I agreed with nearly everything in Anne Midgette’s review for The Washington Post (here).

And so it seems The Noise of Time will be a divisive book, one that I cannot recommend, but readers can decide for themselves.

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