Book of the week: The Noise Of Time by Julian Barnes
The Booker-winner's latest is the fictional biography of a Soviet-era composer
Cliffnotes: Using brief, recollective episodes, Barnes constructs the fictional biography of Dmitri Shostakovich, a Soviet-era Russian composer and his steady manipulation by the ‘Power’. His opera Lady Macbeth Of The Mtsensk District is flagged unfit for consumption after Stalin walks out in disgust, and a review titled ‘Muddle Instead Of Music’ in the Communist publication Pravda costs him all creative freedom. As Shostakovich and his genius succumb to Soviet oppression, Barnes explores the human consequences of artistic confinement.
Get a taste: After submitting to the Soviet Party’s demands of him, Shostakovich ponders the nature of cowardice:
Being a hero was much easier than being a coward. To be a hero, you only had to be brave for a moment – when you took out the gun, threw the bomb, pressed the detonator, did away with the tyrant, and with yourself as well. But to be a coward was to embark on a career that lasted a lifetime. You couldn’t ever relax. You had to anticipate the next occasion when you would have to make excuses for yourself, dither, cringe, reacquaint yourself with the taste of leather boots and the state of your own fallen, abject character. Being a coward required pertinacity, persistence, a refusal to change – which made it, in a way, a kind of courage.
Author 101: The prolific English author has previously worked as a lexicographer for the Oxford English Dictionary and a Times Literary Supplement critic. His best-loved novels include Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), Arthur & George (2005) and the Booker-winning Sense Of An Ending (2011; soon to be adapted for screen by Lunchbox director Ritesh Batra). Barnes, 70, has also published critically acclaimed non-fiction like Levels Of Life (2013), a memoir on grief written after the death of his wife.
Bonus trivia: The novel’s title is borrowed from Russian eassayist and poet Osip Mandelstam’s memoir. He was an outspoken Stalin critic who died in exile.
ELLE verdict: The terror driving Soviet Russia is palpable in Barnes’ writing: from the power of a Stalin stare to make a man soil his pants to the constant fear of being snatched away from safety. But while the short novel concentrates on three pivotal moments in the composer’s life, Barnes’ burst-mode narrative restricts an intimate knowing of Shostakovich.
Similar reads: House Of Meetings by Martin Amis, The Unbearable Lightness Of Being by Milan Kundera