This novel is a fictional examination of the life of Dmitri Shostakovich. It doesn’t attempt to be a full biography – many details are omitted and time frames are concertina’d and stretched. It focusses in particular on his inner life, the accommodations he made with the Soviet regime in order to remain resident in Russia, unlike other artists such as Stravinsky and Solzhenitsyn who defected. There is scant information about his family, beyond a few sketchy references, and not much background description.
Barnes is introspective and searching in his character’s need to establish an ethical framework, to evaluate his place on a moral scale. He deals adroitly with the illusions of smug Western liberal humanitarians, pointing out that ‘It was impossible to tell the truth here and live . . . They wanted martyrs to prove the regime’s wickedness but you were to be the martyrs, not they.’
He is excellent on the disappointments of a long career, of self-disgust, of betrayal and sacrifice and the need to deploy irony & sarcasm. It is an old man’s book about an old man and his art. His Shostakovich is relentlessly self-absorbed and self-flagellating – ‘he doubted he had the strength for silence’.
Barnes is excellent on creative anxiety, a great artist’s need to control everything, and there is a moving cognitive dissonance at play if you know the music well – as the composer is undergoing agonies of self-doubt the author casually mentions the works, which are of course exceptional and enduring. The tragedy and the strength of this character is his refusal to believe in his exceptionalism:
‘The final wail in his head was about his life as well as his art. It was this: at what point does pessimism become desolation?’
For this reader the books sits alongside Levels of Life, Barnes’ writing on art and Flaubert’s Parrot, all slim volumes about the examined life, rather than with the novels such as The Sense of an Ending. I’d be intrigued to hear our customers’ views.
The Noise of Time – Julian Barnes -9781910702604 – £14.99