The Noise of Time

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes
Reviewed by Gordon Simmons

Here is the question that intrigues me: How does an author of the caliber of Julian Barnes, whose The Sense of an Ending won a Man Booker prize, cope with creating his next novel? We now have The Noise of Time and, not surprisingly, it incorporates some of the features of his prize winner. Each book is a short fictional biography of a man ruefully recalling the moral decisions of a lifetime. Both titles are borrowed: The Sense of an Ending lifts its title directly from an archetypal 1967 work by literary theorist Frank Kermode; The Noise of Time adopts the title of the memoir of Osip Mandelstam, a musician who defied Stalin’s criticism and was exiled and died in a transit camp in 1938.

The subject of Barnes’ The Noise of Time is not the courageous Mandelstam, but an extraordinary musical genius, Dmitri Shostakovich, whose art thrived during the Stalin era—all the while accompanied by his own bitter remorse for his necessary artistic compromises. Barnes’ latest novel is short, like its predecessor, and is similarly set out in separate paragraph capsules on each page, as if to capture the fragmentary nature of human remembering. The book’s three parts center on three “Conversations with Power.” The first of these encounters is a nerve-wracking interrogation by an NKVD agent. The second is an “encouraging” telephone call from Comrade Stalin himself. In the third section Shostakovich suffers what he calls his “final, most ruinous” conversation when an obsequious functionary forces him to join the Party. These three provocative episodes highlight the novel. It’s regrettable that more of the novel doesn’t come alive with the same drama and tension of human interaction.

“It must be a daunting task for a narrator to speak for a person who wasn’t allowed to speak for himself. “

It is just possible to read this three-part novel as modeling the ABA sequence of the sonata form that structures classical music and much Western popular music. A brief introduction and a coda bracket the three sections of the novel. In the ABA musical sequence, themes are initially stated—in my hypothetical case here, the themes would be literary ones: the operation of political power upon art, the intolerable demands of personal integrity and conscience. In the second section the themes are developed; they are finally restated in a new form. Of course, Barnes probably did not specifically intend anything like a “literary concerto.” But the repeated theme-and-variation formula offers a way to make sense of my concern that the novel lacks the narrative drive of The Sense of an Ending. The tense dialog of Shostakovich’s three “conversations” gives way to persistent ramblings of fear and self-pity. Barnes hammers home the obviously thorough research on his protagonist by repeating thoughts and refining them, stalling the pace of narration.

We learn little of Shostakovich’s interaction with his colleagues or his family. He mentions his wife only in the third section when he visits her grave. We are told offhandedly of romantic dalliances. Despite the outpourings of inner thoughts, spoken in an intimate third person, Shostakovich the man remains distant to us. I wish we could see his pain and his euphoria while creating his music, and learn more about the music beyond its various political innuendos.

It must be a daunting task for a narrator to speak for a person who wasn’t allowed to speak for himself. Perhaps the real-life story of Shostakovich overwhelmed the fiction. Nevertheless, Barnes paints a thought-provoking picture of the Stalin regime and the unrelenting pressures under which Shostakovich composed his music. Still, after The Sense of an Ending, particularly, I was looking for a riveting story. For all of its eloquence, that is not what this book gives us.

Music, Barnes tells us, was what Shostakovich offered against the noise of time. In the very last paragraphs he reminds us of three characters who opened his novel. Waiting for a train, they clink glasses of vodka in a toast. Shostakovich, one of the three men, smiles and murmurs, “A triad.”

“War, fear, poverty, typhus and filth, yet in the middle of it, above it and beneath it and through it all, Dmitri Dmitrievich had heard a perfect triad. The war would end, no doubt—unless it never did. Fear would continue, and unwarranted death, and poverty and filth—perhaps they too would continue for ever, who could tell. And yet a triad put together by three not very clean vodka glasses and their contents was a sound that rang clear of the noise of time, and would outlive everyone and everything. And perhaps, finally, this was all that mattered.”