Books

21 February 2017

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes, UK, 2016


Julian Barnes writes on page 125 (edition published by Jonathan Cape): What could be put up against the noise of time? Only that music which is inside ourselves – the music of our being – which is transformed by some into real music. Which, over decades, if it is strong and true and pure enough to drown out the noise of time, is transformed into the whisper of history.

This a beautiful book, beautifully researched and written. There is nothing in the early part of the book that indicates that the book is about Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich; this is information that appears piece by piece, until the reader says: “Why, of course… ”


Drawing upon a number of biographies of the composer, The Noise of Time is not itself a biography, even though it follows a rough timeline from birth to death. In many ways it is a painting of Shostakovich where his emotions and his vital essence take priority over dates and happenings. It is this presentation that makes the book so special and so readable.

Shostakovich is a gifted composer, for whom music is everything, who is caught up in a society that has lost its soul. He watches while other creative people are exiled to camps or executed, and he awaits the knock on the door that will lead to the same fate for himself. Bit by bit he learns that the truthful expression of his innermost emotions will only lead to annihilation. In the end he compromises.

It is this compromise that is the most difficult thing Shostakovich has done. He is no longer being completely truthful to the creative force within him, but the alternative does not bear thinking about. Some may see him as a coward, but opting to reconcile two opposing forces – his own creative nature and the Soviet State – Shostakovich must be given due praise.

His fears, his love of music, his frustration with the State and the people administrating it weave together to give us the portrait of a man filled with the boundlessness of music but also with many regrets and much soul-searching. Definitely a book worth reading.

The photo of Julian Barnes above is from HeadStuff