Book review: Julian Barnes’s brilliant recreation of the life and trials of Dmitri Shostakovich

Masterful novel about the great Russian composer by Julian Barnes offers a bleakly funny window onto Shostakovich's thoughts and the terrifying world that shaped them.

Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), circa 1955. Michael Ozersky / Slava Katamidze Collection / Getty Images
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The Noise of Time begins in 1937, for all intents and purposes, with a 30-year-old man sensing his end.

The man is Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. Packed suitcase at his feet, we find him grimly waiting in the dead of night outside the door of his flat, smoking cigarette after cigarette, while his wife and child sleep inside. Shostakovich has good reason to believe that the Soviet authorities will arrive at any moment to take him away.

His crime? Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, an opera that displeased Comrade Stalin so much that, in all likelihood, he wrote the scathing Pravda review/veiled death threat himself: "there were enough grammatical errors to suggest the pen of one whose mistakes could never be corrected". (Fun thought exercise: imagine Andrew Lloyd Webber awaiting imprisonment or death after a review of Cats penned by Margaret Thatcher.)

Though branded an “enemy of the people”, the composer survives the Great Purge in which an estimated 10 million Russians lost their lives.

Julian Barnes’s novel ends in 1975 with Shostakovich’s actual end and it is those 38 intervening years that are documented in this sad, self-lacerating and darkly funny hybrid of a novel.

The Noise of Time is both a burrowing meditation on an artist's lifelong relationship with totalitarian power, fear and compromise, and a fascinating fictional biography of one of the 20th century's greatest composers. Like the best biographies, fictional or otherwise, one doesn't have to come to The Noise of Time with a great deal of knowledge or even interest in Shostakovich or his music. Though I'd be surprised if most readers don't find themselves on, say, Spotify, exploring or rediscovering Shostakovich's work: this is part of the delight in reading this novel, and not a small one.

Barnes is a master, and brings you in immediately, intimately into the composer’s thoughts and the terrifying world which shaped them.

Neurotic, cowardly, brilliant and always beleaguered, Barnes’s Shostakovich comes alive not so much in action – the book is long on telling, short on showing – but in the mental anguish and memories of one man and his complicated relationship to a system seemingly intent on breaking him and his art.

The novel is divided into three parts: three times of crisis in Shostakovich’s life. The first finds him waiting for that prison or death sentence which never comes, following Stalin’s review of his opera and its bourgeois “quacks and grunts and growls”.

We are shown a young talent creating challenging music in a time when such music was deemed an enemy to the people. “A composer was expected to increase his output just as a coal miner was, and his music was expected to warm hearts just as a miner’s coal warmed bodies.”

The second, and most darkly entertaining, section of the novel takes place in 1949, much of it in the United States. Shostakovich is now mostly rehabilitated. To survive, he has partly capitulated.

One of the novel’s absurdist highlights has Stalin himself calling Shostakovich to request that he join the Soviet delegation for the Cultural and Scientific Congress for World Peace in New York. Shostakovich says that he simply cannot, that he will get airsick. Stalin says they can give him medication for this. Shostakovich tries again: he cannot afford a proper tail-suit. Stalin says that this, too, can be arranged. Attending the Congress for World Peace and reading statements prepared by the Communist party is a deeply, humiliating experience for Shostakovich, one that comes to feel worse than the death that did not take him in 1937.

The final section of the novel finds Shostakovich at the end of his life, now the most glorified and, apparently, tortured composer in the Soviet Union. Here the state makes its final claim, getting him to join the official Communist Party.

Barnes has an incredible feel for the soul-destroying human tragedy that this entails, leaving us with a haunted man torn asunder by the state and his own life within it. What has his life amounted to? What has his art accomplished within the confines of such a horrific and absurd state? Is cowardice what he will now be forever known for, or can his music survive its creator? Is survival the same thing as cowardice? And, most importantly, who can really judge?

“To some questions, there were no answers. Or at least, the questions stop when you die. Death cures the hunchback, as Khrushchev liked to say.”

Tod Wodicka’s second novel The Household Spirit was published last year. He lives in Berlin.