“The Noise of Time” by Julian Barnes

I was having a discussion with my parents about the fact that I read mainly YA fiction despite edging further into adulthood every day. While I think there are some amazing books under the classification of “YA” and I definitely don’t think they’re only for teen readers, I’ll admit to sometimes finding it hard to engage with fifteen-year-old protagonists now that that’s no longer my life.

But I find adult / ‘general’ fiction a tricky section of the library to navigate because I have no idea where to start, and because so many books seem to be about romance, which I’m not keen on, meaning that I stick primarily to SF/F and YA. As a result, my parents have taken to recommending me any books they read which don’t have much romance, and that’s how I ended up with The Noise of Time on the shelf next to my bed.

One night, having made myself too anxious to sleep, I decided to start reading it (at 1am), and while I’m not entirely sure that was a good idea, it nevertheless meant I got through it.

the noise of time

Simply put, The Noise of Time is about Shostakovich, and while it’s a work of fiction, it’s also based on real life and real events. I’ve been keen on Shostakovich’s music ever since I played part of the Gadfly Suite on an orchestra course with the LSO when I was about fourteen, and my dad’s a big fan too. (He actually has a PhD relating to Shostakovich, which means I basically grew up hearing it.)

I didn’t know much about him as a person, though, and this book was an interesting glimpse into his paranoia and anxiety living under the Soviet regime — the constant balancing act between creative integrity and self-preservation. It reminded me of The Dream Life of Sukhanov, which is a book I absolutely adore, and Blood Red Snow White, which I recently read, but I would have to say that I prefer both of those books to this one.

It’s possible that reading this at 2am when I was feeling very anxious and miserable and just wanted to be asleep didn’t give me the best impression of it, but hey, at least I related to the constantly-anxious Shostakovich! (To be fair, he had plenty to be anxious about.) I think it’s not necessarily the best introduction to him as a composer or as a person, though. It may be difficult for someone who knows absolutely nothing about the period or about Shostakovich’s work to engage with it.

I’ve studed Soviet Russia in History to a certain extent, and read other books about it; I’m aware of a lot of the other musical figures mentioned (Prokofiev, Stravinsky) which definitely helps with understanding what’s going on. And on a more simple level, I know a certain amount about Shostakovich’s work — so for example, I could imagine the Fifth Symphony while reading the section of the book that describes it. For somebody who doesn’t have that knowledge, it might be a little bit hard to really get into the book.

That said, maybe it might prompt a newbie to look for some Shostakovich on Spotify? Which would be a good thing, because he’s great. I can obviously only speak for my own engagement with the book, which very much depended on my other knowledge. I think personally I’d have struggled if I didn’t know anything going into it.

As for plot and whatnot, well, it’s a little hard to deal with a biographical text in that way, but I think Barnes paces the story well and creates just enough tension to keep it engaging without being too stressful. It’s well-written, with some beautiful phrases that I would have highlighted except that the book doesn’t belong to me, and that’s certainly a selling point.

Art belongs to everybody and nobody. Art belongs to all time and no time. Art belongs to those who create it and those who savour it. Art no more belongs to the People and the Party than it once belonged to the aristocracy and the patron. Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time. Art does not exist for art’s sake: it exists for people’s sake.

Like this quote, a lot of the lines that caught my attention were those that focused on the meaning of art and of music (which is a theme throughout the book) — similar ideas to those I loved in Olga Grushin’s Sukhanov, but I would have to say that book did it more, and to a greater extent, than this one. That said, this book’s barely 180 pages long; it’s definitely very stripped back, which stopped it being boring, but allowed less time for poetic musings on the nature of creativity.

noise of time photo

It’s really hard to take good photos of books at 2am when the only light you’ve turned on is the lamp by your bed, jsyk. But it did have the same colour scheme as my bedspread.

So yeah, on the whole, it was an interesting read and a good distraction from my nocturnal anxiety, but I’m not sure it’s the best thing for somebody completely new to either Shostakovich or Soviet Russia — it might be worth getting an overview before trying to look at this, which focuses much more on close details and emotions.

Rating: ***

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