Some rambling thoughts on The Noise of Time

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.

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4 comments

  1. “The first part occurs in 1936, following an adapted historical event – Shostakovich’s new opera, “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk””

    A little correction – Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk uyezd is not a historical work, it’s a work of fiction. The name itself was a Leskov’s trolling of I. Turgenev, who earlier had a short story “Hamlet of Schigirovsky uyezd” .

    “Stalin condemned the opera and denounced Shostakovich as an enemy of the people.”

    If the book claims that then it’s lying. This is simply not true, and could be easily checked. The article Muddle Instead of Muscic was anonymous and we still have no proof that it was indeed penned by Stalin (besides, there are suspects besides him). Stalin never publicly denounced Shostakovich as “an enemy of the people”. Trying to overplay the “victim of the Regime” card won’t accomplish much, when you have to resort to blatant lying.

    “He is waiting for the NKVD to take him away, hoping that the secret police will come only for him and not his family.”

    I’m sensing a hidden quote from the book itself here. I have to ask – why is NKVD called the “secret police”? NKVD stands for the Narodniy Kommisariat Vnutrennikh Del (People Commissariat [Because the word “Ministry” is too bourgeois] of the Interior). Question – do you call your ordinary cops, who are subordinate to your own country’s Ministry/Secretariat of the Interior to be a “secret police”? Is the FBI them? NSA?

    Why when talking about Russia (any Russia, timeless Russia) it is permissible to use these un-words, un-terms, which meaning no one truly comprehends, but which are applied in the knee-jerk pattern, without involving any higher mental activity?

    One interesting fact that won’t be noticed by the readers of the book, who are all too ready to sympathize with the victim of the regime. Shostakovich lived in an multi-apartment house in Leningrad, and his apartment (in 1930s) had elevator – the author says his directly. At the same time the vast majority of the Soviet citizens didn’t live in multi (private!) apartment houses in Leningrad (or any big city) with the elevator. At the same time, the vast majority of the Soviet citizens were not repressed. So the end hidden quote:

    “…the suffocating claustrophobia of a society consumed by fear, where anyone can disappear at a whim of the powers that be.”

    is off the mark. No, not anyone, and not, not disappear. And should someone find themselves under NKVD’s scrutiny, they’d have a fairly good idea why.

    “The philosophical question at the heart of The Noise of Time is: how does an artist follow his personal vision in a totalitarian society?”

    And how does and artist follow one’s personal vision in the capitalist society?

    “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.”

    The same System that gave him a private apartment in the house with elevator in Leningrad. Said “repressed” Shostakovich a year after said article released his “5th Symphony”, which Stalin DID noted and commented upon, writing in “Pravda” “Деловой творческий ответ советского художника на справедливую критику” (“No-nonsense creative response of the Soviet artist to fair criticism”).

    Shostakovich was so “repressed”, that he was allowed to keep his place in Meyerhold’s “Theatre of working youth”. I’m sorry, but when someone is “repressed” – he is usually “repressed”. No Shostakovich. Since 1937 (you know – they peak of the “Terror”) he was teaching in Leningrad’s conservatory. A move up, not down. In 1939 (being just 34 y.o.) he becomes a professor there. All thanks to the Bloody Regime. The same year the Bloody Regime didn’t purge him or censored his 6th Symphony.

    I have a question – why should we, ordinary commoners, sympathize with now thoroughly disproved myth of “persecuted genius”? Artistic Intelligentzia, for the most part, owed EVERYTHING to the Soviet Government – yet it found time to kvetch, whine and bitch about it, while in the Free West they’d have been minced, chewed and spat out by the Free Market.

    “Does The Noise of Time succeed in giving readers insight into how a creative mind can work under an oppressive system? Yes.”

    Studio bosses in the Free Market Capitalism can (and tend to) be oppressive as well. Why then use Shostakovich as example if the problem and the lesson are fairly universal?

    “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.”

    He did, did he?

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    • Agh, crap! I forgot to separate the quotations again, didn’t I?!

      “Studio bosses in the Free Market Capitalism can (and tend to) be oppressive as well. Why then use Shostakovich as example if the problem and the lesson are fairly universal? “

      I don’t know. Maybe this article can address that.

      “He did, did he?”

      It could be worse – Barnes could’ve fabricated events in Shostakovich’s life in service of ratcheting up the “Art vs Power” message to Patriot-levels of in-your-face…

      Look, this is why I usually stay the heck away from the Stalin period.

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      • The article:

        “Julian Barnes: Russians had 40 years to write Shostakovich novel but didn’t”

        Boo-hoo. But it took the same 40 years for the Americans to write Ezra Pound novel thinnu-thin monography. Should we start denouncing the lack of the post-(post)-modernist revisionism among the American intellectuals, who don’t want to embrace the legacy of the Innocent Victim of the Bloody Oppressive Regime ™, who became the captive first of the Secret Police, and then of the Punitve Psychiatry, whose treambling artistic soul who, have to endure “the suffocating claustrophobia of a society consumed by fear, where anyone can disappear at a whim of the powers that be” (c)

        Still – no novel. Shame on you, Western shy and modest intelligentzia! Shame on you!

        “We, Russians, were even a bit offended that a novel about Shostakovich was written by an English and not a Russian writer!”

        We were?! Well, Pavel Basinsky from the “RG” SURELY can cpeak on behalf of all Russians, d’uh!

        “RG: How did you come upon the idea to write a novel about Shostakovich? Was it your interest in music or in the main character of the novel as a significant personality of his time? It seems you don’t pay much attention to the era itself”

        This tells you everything about historical accuracity (or the lack of it) of the novel.

        In order not to get sucked in by the compelling narrative about this or that event of the past, one simply has to study history. Nothing difficult at that.

        P.S. The inverview is shallow, hollow and of no substance.

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