Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time: 'Making music for ‘Uncle Joe’, book review

Barnes uses these dramatic events to frame a fictionalised biography, narrated from Shostakovich’s perspective

Peter Carty
Sunday 24 January 2016 14:59
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Julian Barnes has pulled out a real surprise this time round. From the middle-class English milieu of his Man Booker prize-winner, The Sense of An Ending, he has plunged into Stalinist Russia and the tormented life of the composer Dmitri Shostakovich.

It is a bold departure but, fortunately, Barnes does not risk execution if his latest offering fails to win favour – unlike Shostakovich.

In 1936, Stalin attended a performance of Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. He left early and an editorial appeared in Pravda headed “Muddle Instead of Music”. Further articles denounced Shostakovich as an “enemy of the people”, which meant a bullet to the back of his head was likely to follow.

Not wishing to distress his family by letting them witness his arrest, he stood by the lifts in his apartment block for many nights, smoking heavily, as he waited for the secret police to come. The storm passed and Shostakovich lived on, albeit burdened with anxiety and depression.

Barnes uses these dramatic events to frame a fictionalised biography, narrated from Shostakovich’s perspective. This subject matter is not a complete shock, partly because Barnes follows other British writers in mining the Soviet Union for material, notably his literary peer Martin Amis with his novel House of Meetings.

Stalin’s Russia featured extremes unavailable in modern Britain, in this instance a backdrop of terror to highlight the compromises of creativity. Shostakovich suffered the standard caprices of the muse, but was also at the mercy of a philistine psychopath.

Barnes has eschewed the sophisticated sub-structures that feature in many of his previous novels; Shostakovich’s turmoil is laid completely bare and never elided.

Similarly, Barnes’s ongoing preoccupation with the unreliability of history is muted: we know that Shostakovich was forced to parrot the party line, but there is little doubt about his true views on the regime.

We are left to savour a series of elegant insights into the mind of a brilliant artist. The prologue sets the bar extremely high. It describes a scene of two passengers drinking vodka with a legless beggar on the platform of a provincial railway station.

In limpid prose, Barnes creates a timeless moment of calm before the strife to follow. In the main narrative he frequently reaches the same heights, with the novel’s symphonic structure and motifs marred only, perhaps, by the lachrymose portentousness of some later passages. Throughout, Barnes offers a surety of touch that few writers can match.

The Noise of Time, by Julian Barnes. Jonathan Cape £14.99

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