Our latest book club read was Julian Barnes’ new novel, The Noise of Time. Now, we must confess that we’re devoted fans of his Man Booker prize winner, The Sense of an Ending, and waited with bated breath for his next work. But unfortunately, this time around, we weren’t as enthralled. Don’t get me wrong – Barnes’ writing is still as perceptive and precise as ever, but the storyline just wasn’t nearly as captivating. Unless, perhaps, you’re an enthusiast of Russian history or the musical compositions of Shostakovich. You see, this novel is based on a biography of the celebrated Russian composer, who lived during the oppressive years of Stalin’s leadership, and whose creativity and musical output was accordingly stifled.
The story opens with Shostakovich standing outside his apartment, beside the lift, waiting to be arrested by the powers that be (‘The Power’). After receiving a negative review for his opera piece, he is terrified of punishment, both to him and his family. By waiting outside the apartment, he hopes to spare the involvement of his wife and daughter. But as the novel progresses, Shostakovich remains alive and unharmed – yet unable to produce the music he was born to produce. In fact, this becomes the essence of the novel – that being allowed to live a lesser life has actually been worse than a premature death.
And while the temptation of suicide had been very real for his younger self, it seemed inappropriate for an artist no longer at the peak of his career. “So, he had lived long enough to be dismayed by himself. This was often the way with artists: either they succumbed to vanity, thinking themselves greater than they were, or else to disappointment. Nowadays, he was often inclined to think of himself as a dull, mediocre composer. The self-doubt of the young is nothing compared to the self-doubt of the old. And this, perhaps, was their greatest triumph over him. Instead of killing him, they had allowed him to live, and by allowing him to live, they had killed him.”
There are many more insightful paragraphs in this novel, as Barnes has a rare gift for truly understanding the human condition. In that way, there are some parallels with The Sense of an Ending – a man who is past his prime, reflecting on a life that hasn’t lived up to expectations: “So: your talent lies beneath you like a swathe of peat. How much have you cut? How much remains uncut?”
Despite loving the writing, I have to admit to struggling through this novel – and I only made it to the end because it was our nominated book club read. Otherwise, I’d have given up. If you’re a true fan of Barnes’ writing, then go ahead and read it – his perceptive choice of words and eloquent turn of phrase should be enough to keep you satisfied. But if you’re after a stronger plot line, then I’d recommend Do Not Say We Have Nothing – it has a similar theme, of a musician’s life under a repressed regime, but the story was more satisfying. Or, try Music and Freedom – also about an artist whose creativity is stifled, this time by an abusive husband.