Review of The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

I found this book fascinating. The reader is taken on a journey into the life and mind of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovitch, from the age of thirty in 1936.

Life under an oppressive regime means that Shostakovitch lives his life in fear of sudden death. For his family’s sake as well as his own, he is compelled to conform by writing the kind of music acceptable to the State. Restricted to composing traditional folk music and prevented from producing any innovative compositions, he questions how he can remain true to himself when the State decides what is appropriate or inappropriate. How far should he compromise his own beliefs?

Shostakovitch goes to the States during the McCarthy era and has to read proscribed speeches written by the Soviet government, which imply that he conforms with the communist ethos. He is not a communist at that time but later in his life, back in the Soviet Union, has little choice but to become one. in order to continue working and supporting his family. The only other option would be to stay in the States and speak out as others did, such as Stravinsky. Questions raised in the novel include: was he a coward? was he unfaithful to his creative self? how patriotic was he?

The novel gives us an insight into what it was like to ive in Russia at this time. For an imaginative artist it must have been like wearing a straightjacket. All kinds of questions about creativity and the place of Art in society are raised, but the real joy of this book is the glimpse into the complex problems facing this particular composer and how he justifies his choices and learns to live with them.

The answer is that he copes with the situation through irony. He may not compose and perform the music he wants to. He may not speak out and say what he believes. He may be obliged to put his name to a piece of paper that officially makes him a communist. But he knows his true feelings and hears his own music in his head. Even though what he says or signs is quite different, he remains true to himself. This distinction between his public and private persona is the irony that enables him to live with the situation.

I found this a compelling read and would recommend this novel to anyone interested in learning more about what it was like to live in the Soviet Union in this period and to any creative person, whether, musician, artist or writer. As a writer, it made me grateful for the freedoms I enjoy. A literary read of the highest order.