Julian Barnes: The Noise of Time

by Jennifer Bryce

Another brilliant book by Julian Barnes, this is a fictitious exploration of Shostakovich. After reading it I thought, this is so much better than a ‘non fiction’ biography. Meticulously researched, Barnes can let us slip inside the mind of the composer and we are there with him, waiting at the lift for the police from the Power to arrive and arrest him, feeling the utter humiliation of being forced to denounce those artists he respected and admired, being blackmailed into joining the communist party.

In 1936, Shostakovich was denounced after Stalin was outraged by a performance of The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.  In an editorial of Pravda, Shostakovich’s music was attacked for its ‘formalist’ tendencies, and the composer had to be ‘rehabilitated’.  Some sense of Shostakovich’s position comes through in Barnes’s quoting of Pasternak’s poem about Hamlet: ‘I am alone; all around me drowns in falsehood’ (page 111). When I read Solzhenitsyn some years ago I had seen the suffering in the gulags as that – bitter, human suffering. But this book has helped to explain a further dimension – when one is forced to betray oneself and to condone those things that one secretly abhors. One can respond with cynicism and irony, but how far can this go? The title of the book suggests that maybe an inner music is the only lasting truth: ‘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’ (page 125). Shostakovich saw Bach’s music as this kind of ‘real music’, which was ‘impregnable’.