In Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time, Shostakovich is chopped up and hemmed in

Julian Barnes’ latest novel is an attempt at the crystalline, obliquely passionate historical novel as practised by Penelope Fitzgerald.

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At first Julian Barnes’s new novel, a medita­tion on the career of Shostakovich, suggests a return to familiar territory or territories – The Porcupine crossed with Arthur & George, perhaps. The reality is a departure: specifically an attempt at the crystalline, obliquely passionate historical novel as practised by Penelope Fitzgerald. But as things turn out, The Noise of Time resembles the likes of The Blue Flower and Barnes’s favourite, The Beginning of Spring, only in its brevity. Where Fitzgerald was unillusioned Barnes is irritable, where she was exacting he is pedantic, where she was Olympian he tends towards the smart alec. In Fitzgerald’s work the world is larger than any single view, whereas the world in Barnes’s work accords precisely with his own perspective. As in his recent memoir, Levels of Life, a stated preference for the knotty is coupled with a powerful appetite for glib shorthand and cut corners.

The Noise of Time portrays the conflict between Shostakovich’s desire for integrity as a composer and his instinct for survival in a society that derides formal experimentation as “decadence” and treats old-style Russian “pessimism” as a betrayal of Soviet “optimism”. Along the way, there are many moments of terror and a few unavoidable compromises. But Barnes struggles to locate the drama in Shostakovich’s predicament. In a slender book, there are dozens of details that serve only to establish the already well-recorded violence of the Soviet regime and the reality-defying tactics of its propaganda, the overnight rebranding of “French bread” as “city bread” being a vivid example robbed of its impact by overkill.

Following a brief prologue, the book recycles a device from Barnes’s last novel, The Sense of an Ending: a list of memories the reader will encounter in the pages that follow, in this case “Cut peat weighing down his hand” and “Sweat oozing from a widow’s peak”, among others. It is clear that we are being accorded direct access to Shostakovich’s thoughts. But unlike in The Sense of an Ending – the monologue of a man who clearly was always missing the point – the narration here gives us little purchase on the character. We gain an impression of how Shostakovich views himself (“weak-willed”) yet no feeling of acquaintance; there is a sense of claustrophobia but no intimacy, an effect exacerbated by the decision to forgo dramatic scenes. The central idea that under “the pressure of power, the self cracks and splits”, though theoretically convincing, is never given solid form.

Barnes’s preferred manner of rummaging through Shostakovich’s mind aims for paradox but ends up feeling circular, with a movement less symphonic than sing-songy. On the first page, set in 1937 as the 31-year-old Shostakovich believes he is about to be taken away by the authorities, we read: “His situation had come out of the blue, and yet it was perfectly logical. Like the rest of life. Like sexual desire, for instance. That came out of the blue, and yet it was perfectly logical.” It’s easy to see Barnes using Shostakovich’s situation to express a treasured idea – which, like much of his thinking, seems to be
offered in the face of an imaginary canard, in this case, that the unexpected and the inevitable never coincide. Elsewhere, Shostakovich remembers “very precisely” when his confrontation with the authorities began, but then decides: “No . . . nothing begins just like that . . . It all began in many places, and at many times, some even before you were born, in foreign countries, and in the minds of others.” At last, the notion of clear points of origin is blown out of the water!

And so a composer whose music Barnes worships and whose conduct he admires becomes just the latest vehicle for his constricting cerebral approach. Complexity is asserted but never achieved, in large part because of the tone of assertion: “Theories were clean and convincing and comprehensible. Life was messy and full of nonsense . . . the theory of love did not match the reality of life. It was like expecting to be able to write a symphony because you had once read a handbook of composition.”

The number of one-liners in The Noise of Time is especially high because, perhaps in emulation of Fitzgerald’s brief chapters, Barnes has constructed the novel as a series of snapshots and vignettes, roughly 230 in all. Besides killing off momentum, this approach puts a great strain on Barnes’s rhetorical powers, which while strong are not equal to conjuring up so many mini-endings and partial pay-offs without a certain deadening. In search of the required cadence, he has recourse to allusive aphorism (“History was repeating itself: the first time as farce, the second time as tragedy”), closure-clinching wordplay (“And tragedies in hindsight look like farces”), glib reversal (“But it could be, and it was”), wistful beard-stroking (“If only things were so simple”) and reductive revelation (“Maybe that was what he’d been running away from”). There are also conundrums (“Did this mean something, or did it mean nothing?”) and distinctions, endless distinctions: “Well, there is no escaping one’s destiny . . . And no escaping one’s mind”; not “ironic bravado” but “suicidal folly”; “not in any way undermined . . . just, now, completely irrelevant”.

The overall effect is of Shostakovich being chopped up and hemmed in. At times it can be hard to tell between the Soviet version of culture that Barnes is condemning and his own brusque pronouncements, such as “Music escapes from words: that is its purpose, and its majesty” and “Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time”.

As for that phrase: whoever told Barnes there is no copyright in titles has a lot to answer for. When he named his first novel Metroland it might have been taken as an act of homage to John Betjeman’s documentary about the same patch of outer London suburb; besides, the spelling was slightly different. In the case of Flaubert’s Parrot, a spin on Roger Shattuck’s Proust’s Binoculars – well, maybe he was within his rights. But The Sense of an Ending was for almost half a century the name of a book by Frank Kermode, justly celebrated for its exploration of themes, such as time and ­teleology, treated with painful obviousness in Barnes’s book. The latest instance is more brazen still, being not just the borrowing of a phrase coined by the poet Alexander Blok but the appropriation of the title of a book by Osip Mandelstam, as well as a previous creative work about Shostakovich – Complicite’s 2001 show at the Barbican. Although Barnes repeats the phrase until it loses whatever resonance it once possessed, he finds no room, in a two-page author’s note at the end of a book about the rough handling of creative endeavour, to confess a debt of gratitude. 

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes is published by Jonathan Cape (192pp, £14.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 21 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Middle East's 30 years war