The Noise of Time is a 2016 novel by Julian Barnes based on the life of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975). Barnes is a four times’ candidate for the Booker Prize, and won the Prize in 2011.
The novel exhibits an almost complete reliance on biography, which almost always is simply retold by the writer with the addition of only a few words. The use of disjointed paragraphs merely intends, it appears, to render the borrowing less visible. The reliance on known biography does not make for a good story line, or plot; and some of the author’s comments, although of needs fictional, on the state of mind of the composer or on the context in which he lives, are too frequently fatuous.
Some of the text comes perilously close to intellectual plagiarism; and much of the tone, even the selection of descriptors and the telling of events or situations (e.g., waiting for the lift, the loves and marriages, the Stalin purges, even what works were written when—although there is the occasional inaccuracy that actually weakens the narrative) are not fiction, but biographical history
The conceit of using a real person as a character is an interesting concept, but not new, e.g., Philip Kerr, in The Other Side of Silence, does a successful job in using an historical character, in his case, Somerset Maugham, and Tolstoy, in War and Peace, does it even better with Napoleon. The ruminations on art, such as they are, are entirely outclassed by, say, Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus; and, the sketching of psychological context seems quite weak, certainly compared to, say, Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust.
As Barnes’s book reads like biography, and not like fiction, even the fictional devices are sometimes tedious, e.g., shrimp in sauce, noise of time, talks with Power, the ominous nature of leap years; and the bookending with a vignette of an amputee drinking vodka at a train station does nothing at all for the narrative.
It is the discussion of the meaning and value of art that is the most disappointing, for none of it is original. It is further weakened by superficial discussion of the Fifth Symphony, and complete avoidance of any discussion of the succeeding and equally important Sixth, and the later Thirteenth, in collaboration with Yevtushenko, the Fourteenth, and the seven string quartets that came after the Eighth, which is referred to as a psychological upheaval, but which was as much a reaction to the destruction of Dresden as it was to the recollections of a difficult career and the murder of Jews in Russia.
Some of the references to contemporaries are rather gratuitously simple, e.g., Toscanini as martinet; for, in actuality, Russian artists smuggled out a samizdat copy of the score of the Seventh Symphony in order to get it to Toscanini, who intended to present it to make a statement about totalitarianism, which derived from his own convictions and actions in leaving Italy when Mussolini took power, and his refusal to conduct any further presentations at Bayreuth.
I think Barnes oversimplifies, and sometimes trivializes, Shostakovich and what he contended with, both artistically and politically, and in doing so writes an unintended disservice to a great artist; for it is, to my mind, sometimes fraudulent, and at times nearly dishonest, fiction. Nonetheless, there are so many ways to try to present in words matters that matter; and that, in a reader’s mind, the effort does not succeed, does not diminish the value of the project the author sought to succeed with.
[My thanks to Winnipeg’s Dora Dueck for making me aware of this work.]