Honestly, I hate having to give The Noise of Time a negative review. On the one hand, Julian Barnes is undoubtedly an extremely talented writer. On the other hand, this novel has several glaring issues which demand attention and critique.
The Noise of Time is divided into three parts, each focusing on a defining moment from famous Russian composer Dmitry Shostakovich’s life under Stalinism and after Stalin’s death. The first part occurs in 1936, following an adapted historical event – Shostakovich’s new opera, “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk”, was not well received by Stalin, who left the performance early. Stalin condemned the opera and denounced Shostakovich as an enemy of the people. The novel opens with a haunting image of Shostakovich standing outside his apartment deep in the night, in street clothes and with a small suitcase, facing an empty elevator. He is waiting for the NKVD to take him away, hoping that the secret police will come only for him and not his family. But they never do – instead of being confined to the claustrophobia of a small prison cell, the composer has to endure something much worse: the suffocating claustrophobia of a society consumed by fear, where anyone can disappear at a whim of the powers that be.
The philosophical question at the heart of The Noise of Time is: how does an artist follow his personal vision in a totalitarian society? In answering this question, the book straddles the gap between biography and historical fiction, but does neither genre service. While it uses real events from Shostakovich’s life, it doesn’t have enough of a plot or real fiction to be classified as “historical fiction”. But it does have fictional characters and their imagined thoughts, meaning it’s not wholly biographical either. Rather, it’s a hybrid historical essay on the nature of artistry and freedom of thought in the USSR, using Shostakovich as an example of a great talent personally targeted and shaped by the system. But that begs the question of why Barnes chose to tackle his Big Question in the form of a novel, which The Noise of Time is undoubtedly marketed as.
Despite lodging numerous passionate defenses of Art, the novel is pretty artless itself. The writing itself is excellent; but the content is “off”. I saw labels for emotion, but felt nothing. Characters were paper-thin and seemed to only function as mouthpieces for the author’s view on the various Major Issues checked off the list. Does The Noise of Time succeed in giving readers insight into how a creative mind can work under an oppressive system? Yes. But because Barnes focused on a real historical figure as narrator, I could sense him standing behind that figure at all times. Whenever Shostakovich opened his mouth (or his mind), it wasn’t his own thoughts that spilled forth; it was Barnes’s research and careful writing.
In fairness, blending fact and fiction is something all HF writers struggle with at some point. I, Putin grappled with that problem in places. On the few occasions I’ve attempted historical fiction, it pained me to leave some of my research out. And indeed it’s admirable that Barnes chose to stay faithful to real historical events, rather than taking extreme liberties as many writers are wont to do when dealing with Russia. But as any HF writer will tell you, research serves fiction, not the other way around.
Something tells me The Noise of Time would be stronger as a work of nonfiction.
The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes. Pub. 2016 by Jonathan Cape. Hardcover, 180 pages. ISBN13: 9781910702604.