Likely Stories: The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

Nov 17, 2016

An absorbing tale of Dmitri Shostakovich caught in a web of a political nightmare.


I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

Dating back to graduate school, I have admired Julian Barnes for his quirky novels.  In most of his works, he does not use anything resembling the conventional structure of the novel.  However, as a Booker Prize winner, he has the sort of position which allows him to be as unconventional as he wishes.  His latest novel, The Noise of Time, is certainly no exception. 

This interesting historical account of the career of Dmitri Shostakovich has some flavor of historical fiction, but at the end of the novel, he has profusely thanked Elizabeth Wilson, who “supplied [him] with material I would never have come across, corrected many misapprehensions, and read the typescript” (201).  He continues this adulation with, “this is my book not hers; and if you haven’t liked mine, then read hers” (201).  Thanks for the offer, but I liked your book a lot.

I have been fascinated by Russian history for decades, and I also have a fondness for Russian music – particularly Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, and Shostakovich.  When I learned of the relationship between Dmitri and Josef Stalin, I was perplexed.  I always thought music was a bridge over any troubled waters on the planet.  The composers refusal to join the Communist Party caused him much trouble.  At one point in his life, he so feared the Russian secret police, he slept in his clothes with a small handbag on the floor.  He did not want to be dragged away in his pajamas.

Eventually, Stalin died, and Nikita Khrushchev became the First Secretary of the Party.  Stalin abhorred Dmitri’s talent, and the official party line was that Dimitri’s music was “Muddle and Muck.”  Most of his work was banned for years.  When Nikita took over, he was rehabilitated after joining the party.  He refused as best he could, but the pressure was intense.  Many of his fellow composers and musicians turned their backs on him for giving it to Khrushchev

Barnes spent a lot of time on Dmitri’s introspection.  In 1949 when the pressure under Stalin was at its greatest, Shostakovich mused, “If music is tragic, then those with asses’ ears accuse it of being cynical.  But when a composer is bitter, or in despair, or pessimistic, that still means he believes in something. // What could be put up against the noise of time?  Only that music which is inside ourselves – the music of our being – which is transformed by some into real music.  Which, over the decades, if it is strong and true and pure enough to drown out the noise of time, is transformed into the whisper of history” (135).  Wow.  This requires some serious thought to digest – especially for a non-musician.

What troubled me the most was the politicization of music.  Music should join people together not drive them apart.  Music should soothe, refresh, invigorate, and raise ones sensibilities.  It should not be a political tool manipulated for the accumulation of power.  Music has power of its own, and that should be the end.  Julian Barnes’ 21st book, The Noise of Time is an absorbing and thought-provoking exploration of the clash between art and power.  Whether you are a composer, a musician, or merely a listener like me, this novel should move you to a better place.  5 stars

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!