What does it mean to have integrity? What is cowardice? These are the questions that Julian Barnes explores in his novel about the life of the composer Shostakovich.
The Noise of Time draws on material from several biographies about Shostakovich and his struggle to maintain his sense of who he was in the middle of Soviet Russia. The novel focuses on three points in the composer’s life – 1936 when night after night he waited to be taken away for interrogation, 1949 when he was part of a Soviet delegation of composers to the USA, and 1960 when he was being harassed by officials to join the Communist Party.
The beauty of a novel over a biography is that a novel is never dispassionate. You can’t just sit on the outside. A novel puts you inside someone’s head – and Barnes is skilful at this: at times it almost feels like eavesdropping on Shostakovich as his train of thought rapidly jumps from one memory to another and another – the way we all do when we are worried and nervous. As Shostakovich himself frets about whether he is a coward; worries about what his friends will think; fears for his family, Barnes challenges his readers to judge Shostakovich – is he really a coward? Has he really lost his integrity? Would you have behaved in the same way? Is it cowardly to give in when you are more fearful for your loved ones than for yourself?
While being written from Shostakovich’s point of view, Barnes cleverly weaves in enough detail about wider Soviet Russia to give his readers sufficient context. So we read about how Russian audiences responded to Boris Pasternak’s translation of Shakespeare’s sonnet 66, we hear about Stalin’s reaction to a standing ovation for the poet Anna Akhmatova, we are given several glimpses into the life of fellow composer Prokofiev. And these layers of wider information are designed to challenge the reader to think – would you really have done the same? But then…all of this context is delivered from Shostakovich’s point of view – was Prokofiev really the sell-out that Shostakovich seemed to think he was? Or just a man who chose to survive in a slightly different way? A man with different priorities?
The big question that The Noise of Time has left me with, is a question about how we judge ourselves. Shostakovich seemed to conclude that he was a coward. But was his judgement right? In 1949 Stalin phoned Shostakovich to ask him to be part of a delegation to the USA. In the course of the conversation, Shostakovich said no – several times – and when asked why, he said that it would be awkward for him to represent Soviet music when so much of his work had been banned. Given that the work was almost certainly banned on Stalin’s direct orders , it was a bold move – but it paid off. The action of a coward? And it left me thinking – when I get to the end of my life, which are the moments that I will judge my life by?
This book is an interesting insight into Soviet Russia and a great read. It’s easy enough to take on holiday, but poses enough questions to feel meaty and substantial. If The Noise of Time is typical of his work, I’ll be reading lots more books by Julian Barnes in the future.