The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes: Book Review

The Noise of Time is a popular fiction centred on the life of prominent Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s in three periods. The first when denounced by Stalin in Pravda in 1936, second as a prominent emissary of Soviet and culture at a Congress in New York in 1949, and third under the thaw instigated by Khrushchev, pressured into becoming a party member and president of the Soviet Composers Union 1960. Barnes understands the basic facts of life under the Stalinist bureaucracy and manages to convey the feeling of the times, that of suspicion and fear in a terrifying and stressful epoch. Though Barnes is skilled In the craft of writing and has presented a light novel that reads well, he does not investigate the complex contradictions of Shostakovich’s life.

08757CB1-BFB0-41C2-9BE6-8417209F406CThe novel begins with the first episode centred on screening of Shostakovich’s opera The Lady Mcbeth of Mtinsk in which Stalin personally was seen to attend. Until this time it had been a highly successful opera for nearly two years, yet what follows in a anonymous editorial in Pravda denouncing his opera as  “muddle instead of music”. The editorial was suspected to have been written by Stalin. “It is likely that the opera’s treatment of the police and of police repression, among other themes, struck Stalin as highly inappropriate in this period immediately before the Moscow trials.” (1) The editorial ends with a thinly vieled threat to say that he “is playing a game that may end up very badly”.

Next, flashing forward to New York, against abject humiliation for Shostakovich as the prominent representative of Soviet arts and culture at the Congress for World Peace in New York in 1949, he is rehabilitated by Stalin in return for becoming a figurehead for the regime internationally. In one humiliating episode he is forced to present a crude pre-prepared speech extolling the superiority of the Soviet music system, before going on to publicly denouncing Stravinsky (his strongest musical influence) Prokofief (a close contemporary) among other composers.

In the third and final section, set in 1960 under thaw of Khrushchev following Stalin’s death, Shostakovich is pressured to finally become a party member and reluctantly takes up the position as president of the Union of Composers, to be held up as proof of the reform of the USSR. Becoming a passive pliant tool of the bureaucracy, he signs editorials and denouncements of others that have been pre-prepared for him. He becomes a pariah amongst his close colleagues and contemporaries for his pernicious role in providing political support for the bureaucracy.

Julian Barnes has written a number of short stories and essays before tackling the complicated puzzle of Shostakovich’s attitude towards the bureaucracy. He is no historian, yet he does a fair job in creating the mental state of a man as he adapted to survive the purges and mass terror. Though artists were somewhat better off than other layers of intellectuals and academics in the Soviet Union, as it is harder to denounce and enforce a strict political line through the abstract nature of music. They were not immune as through the enforcement of socialist realism, avante-garde experimental techniques were decried, and only optimistic themes were permitted (1). Under Stalinism, ‘Musicologists’ examined their works and drew conclusions about the composers and thus treated according to the perceptions of the regime, either persecuted or promoted.

Shostakovich’s story elucidates some of the destructive role of the brutal Stalinist bureaucracy in its political genocide and suppression of all creative and experimental artistic tendencies. A process which Trotsky once described in The Revolution Betrayed:

The most eminent artists either commit suicide, or find their material in the distant
past, or become silent” (2)

Shostakovich was a incredible figure, though he was demoralised and adapted politically to life under the Stalinist bureaucracy, he fought to maintain his artistic independence, and never succumbed to the doctrine of socialist realism. (1) Shostakovich produced very beautiful and lasting music, his emotionally charged  music captured the essence of the times in which he lived.

Unable to understand or convey this complex figure, Barnes writes of Shostakovich’s experience as one that is deeply personal, spending an inordinate amount of time on his inner turmoil in the face of these intrigues, Barnes never really casts his net wider than recreating Shostakovich’s mental anguish. To conduct a wider foray into the experience of an entire generation under Stalinism is beyond the ken of Barnes and his ilk without a systematic study of the Russian revolution and its ensuing degeneration, that is the history of the 20th century.

If you want to read an foray into the mental state of Shostakovich, primarily a psychological novel, interspersed with lyrical Russian poetry and idioms, read this novel, but if you want to learn anything of interest, look elsewhere.

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes
Penguin Random House
224 pp


1. World Socialist Website: The Legacy of Dmitri Shostakovich

2. Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed
Labour press, 1991. p 156


Owen Hsieh is an independent Marxist living between Western Australia and Taiwan. An avid bibliophile and book collector with a special interest in Eastern European literature and history, currently focused on the Russian Revolution and Stalinism.

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