In his 2011 Booker Prize-winning novel The Sense of an Ending, British author Julian Barnes told a beautiful but very British story of secrets and suicide among school friends, set in 1960s and then present day England.
It wasn’t a straightforward novel, exactly – in fact it had a twist ending not normally associated with such earnest literary fiction. But it was nonetheless a novel of recognisable places and relatable characters.
Barnes’ new book, The Noise of Time, is a rather more esoteric proposition. Based on the life of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, it’s a remarkably Russian book – though mercifully shorter and less populated than most – about the corrosive effect that Power (capitalised, as Barnes styles it) can have on art and creativity.
I’d never heard of Shostakovich – classical music isn’t exactly my thing – but Barnes’ novel teaches us quite a bit about him. Too much perhaps; at times, this feels just as much biography as it does novel. There’s perhaps a little too much exposition, at the expense of the human drama.
Shostakovich was one of Russia’s most celebrated composers until his music attracted Stalin’s disapproval. He compromised to stay alive – rather than become a martyr for his art he disowned his controversial work and began producing music more in line with the communist party’s needs. Music that celebrated the glory of the revolution, which had by that point morphed into tyrannous dictatorship. Shostakovich lives – but at what cost to his conscience and soul?
It’s a slim book and still manages to labour its point a little. Still, Barnes is a wonderful writer and this is a flawed but powerful novel.
Next: Seattle, 1999