The Noise of Time begins in the aftermath of this denunciation. Shostakovich is awaiting his arrest, due to be taken to the Big House, where those deemed enemies of the people were taken and shot. He thinks on his past, sifting through his memories, not knowing when the moment will arrive when his fate is decided.
The book is divided into three parts, each one framed as a ‘Conversation with Power’. There are three of them in total, the first being his trip to the Big House. In total they span 30 years of Shostakovich’s life, with once occurring every decade. This unfortunately marred my experience of the novel, since the back cover only mentioned the first one. When it was over I felt that I’d been cheated of a story, and enjoyed the second two less than I might have. But this is a fault of the marketing, rather than the novel or Barnes himself.
The writing is skilled and technically precise (as you’d expect from a twice-Booker Prize winner). His Shostakovich is nervy, insular, and painfully self-aware. The struggle he faces is how to protect his personal and artistic integrity against tyranny. Whether he succeeds or fails is a question the book leaves unanswered, but the point it makes is that it’s necessary and worthwhile regardless.
This is the third of Julian Barnes’ novels I’ve read (the other two being England, England and The Sense of an Ending), and it’s consolidated my respect for him as a writer. His books are thoughtful, meticulous, and compelling. This one I particularly enjoyed because my knowledge of Russian history is sketchy, and it’s fascinating to learn more about how the Soviet Union operated.
After I’d finished reading, I listened to some of Shostakovich’s music to connect the character to the real-life figure, and it’s clear that his acclaim is deserved. It was chilling to read about how close he came to disaster, and the constant vigilance it required to survive under Stalin’s rule. In an age of widespread populist authoritarianism, it’s especially worth reading to understand how we as individuals can be affected by the grip of absolute power.