The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes‏

“And art made tongue-tied by authority” – Shakespeare, Sonnet 66

This is a fictionalised true account of one of Russia’s greatest composers Shostakovich living under the Stalin regime. The book primarily focuses on the struggle between Art and Power, how the latter tries to imprison and condemn the former, how the former has forever been in a war to free itself from the shackles of those sitting high and mighty, trying to sway all Art form their way, to propagate their own selfish agenda by threatening and manipulating the weaker artists.

Shostakovich is by no means a traditional “hero” as his own cowardice repeatedly comes in his way of attaining true greatness. But as an anti-hero, Barnes makes sure the reader falls in love with not only the fictional but the real life composer Dmitri Shostakovich. With repeated strokes of luck, Shostakovich evades death and torture, only to be punished with the penalty of life. And what is life if not controlled by the master, which is the case here.

Shostakovich’s life here is castigated by Stalin and his placemen, the Regime always curbing his works, censoring that which might threaten its solidarity, banning his musical numbers across the country only to retract the injunctions later on when the composer can be of use to them.

There is a constant battle between Shostakovich the composer, and Shostakovich the man himself (the friend, the husband, the father). Both may exhibit a natural tendency for cowardice which in itself is enduring, but many a times the composer shuns the family man as his domesticity appeals to his innate nature yet falls short of his own expectations of himself.

The prose is menacing in its pace, calming and unnerving in its plot, natural in its flow. Barnes weaves easy sentences, letting the reader glimpse the horrors of the Stalin regime whilst focusing on the main character’s introspection and life events through three particular instances. There is always a tone of eschewed tragedy in the background of the story which lends further to the reader’s side-stepped expectations.


  • Now there was another war, and the same invader was back, except that the names had changed: names on both sides

  • He did not give a fuck. Let others argue about that; his only concern was to get to the end of each day
  • No, his mind responded, nothing begins just like that, on a certain date at a certain place. 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.
  • 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.
  • What did a name matter? He had been born in St Petersburg, started growing up in Petrograd, finished growing up in Leningrad. Or St Leninsburg, as he sometimes liked to call it. What did a name matter?
  • He felt powerful emotions but had never become skilled at expressing them
  • Still, even so, his life had finally acquired some regularity, and with it the correct beat. Except that now it had all become unstable again. Unstable: that was more than a euphemism.barnes_3-xlarge_trans++CEYXuZ-229TmZ2QzNh8Ui7_WQKd9e8KrD4YHJkU_QcM
  • He himself would never be as worldly. He lacked the self-confidence; also, perhaps, the interest
  • The rooms were enormous, but the windows very small. So a room of fifty square metres might have just one tiny window. The grown-ups thought the builders must have muddled their measurements, substituting metres for centimetres, and vice versa. But the effect, once you noticed it, was alarming to a boy. It was like a house prepared for the darkest of dreams.
  • Words were never exchanged, because words were dangerous. It was just possible that he looked like a man humiliatingly thrown out by his wife, night after night; or a man who indecisively kept walking out on his wife, night after night, and then returning. But it was probable that he looked exactly what he was: a man, like hundreds of others across the city, waiting, night after night, for arrest.
  • Also, his father had died young – in his late forties. A disaster for the family, and for those who loved him; but not, perhaps, a disaster for Dmitri Boleslavovich himself. Had he lived any longer, he would have watched the Revolution turn sour, paranoid and carnivorous
  • The strong cannot help confronting; the less strong cannot help evading. His father had always avoided difficulties, had cultivated humour and indirection in the face of both his life and his wife.
  • They had thrown off the fossilised dictates of church, of society, of family, and gone away to live as man and wife without being man and wife
  • But whatever the cause, he was bad at the practicalities of life, which included, of course, the practicalities of the heart.
  • Their time at Anapa had been an idyll. But an idyll, by definition, only becomes an idyll once it has ended
  • He lit another cigarette. Between art and love, between oppressors and oppressed, there were always cigarettes
  • Why, he wondered, had Power now turned its attention to music, and to him? Power had always been more interested in the word than the note: writers, not composers, had been proclaimed the engineers of human souls
  • He remembered an open-air concert at a park in Kharkov. His First Symphony had set all the neighbourhood dogs barking. The crowd laughed, the orchestra played louder, the dogs yapped all the more, the audience laughed all the more. Now, his music had set bigger dogs barking. History was repeating itself: the first time as farce, the second time as tragedy.
  • He had been a mistake, swiftly corrected; a face in a photograph that went missing the next time that photograph was printed
  • Who could tell what the future would believe? We expect too much of the future – hoping that it will quarrel with the present.
  • From now on there would be only two types of composer: those who were alive and frightened; and those who were dead.
  • He was always punctual, and would go to his death being punctual. He gazed briefly at the River Neva, which would outlast them all.
  • Almost as if he was going off for the night shift. Which in a way he was. And then he stood and waited, thinking about the past, fearing for the future, smoking his way through the brief present
  • Did any part of him believe in Communism? Certainly, if the alternative was Fascism. But he did not believe in Utopia, in the perfectibility of mankind, in the engineering of the human soul
  • After five years of Lenin’s New Economic Policy, he had written to a friend that ‘Heaven on Earth will come in 200,000,000,000 years.’ But that, he now thought, might have been over-optimistic.
  • Theories were clean and convincing and comprehensible. Life was messy and full of nonsense
  • He could turn out efficiently tuneful music which pleased him for a month and the public for a decade
  • Then one day, French bread disappeared from the shops. Instead, there was ‘city bread’ – exactly the same, of course, but now the patriotic product of a Soviet city.
  • The natural progression of human life is from optimism to pessimism; and a sense of irony helps temper pessimism, helps produce balance, harmony. But this was not an ideal world, and so irony grew in sudden and strange ways. Overnight, like a mushroom; disastrously, like a cancer.
  • Ilf and Petrov, after taking a road-trip across the country, had written that thinking about America made them melancholy, while having the opposite effect on Americans themselves. They also reported that Americans, contrary to their own propaganda, were very passive by nature, since everything was pre-processed for them, from ideas to food. Even the cows standing motionless in the fields looked like advertisements for condensed milk.
  • The fact that they couldn’t pronounce your name was your name’s fault, not theirs.
  • Millions upon millions died, but at least suffering became more general, and in that lay his temporary salvation
  • Because, though tyranny might be paranoid, it was not necessarily stupid. If it were stupid, it would not survive; just as if it had principles, it would not survive. Tyranny understood how some parts – the weak parts – of most people worked.
  • But even Turgenev, for all his faults, had a true Russian pessimism. Indeed, he understood that to be Russian was to be pessimistic.
  • To be Russian was to be pessimistic; to be Soviet was to be optimistic. That was why the words Soviet Russia were a contradiction in terms. Power had never understood this. It thought that if you killed off enough of the population, and fed the rest a diet of propaganda and terror, then optimism would result
  • He was an anxious man, and aware that anxiety makes people egotistical and bad company
  • He explained to Maxim at an early age that you preceded a woman upstairs but followed her downstairs
  • he did not train his body; he merely inhabited it
  • He could always work, regardless of chaos and discomfort around him. This was his salvation
  • But those who understood how religion – and therefore Power – operated would have known better. The sinner might have been rehabilitated, but this did not mean that the sin itself had been expunged from the face of the earth; far from it.
  • It was the view of those at the highest level that Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich was not a lost cause, and capable, if properly directed, of writing clear, realistic music
  • Of course, Russia had known tyrants before; that was why irony was so well developed here
  • In an ideal world, a young man should not be an ironical person. At that age, irony prevents growth, stunts the imagination.
  • But irony – perhaps, sometimes, so he hoped – might enable you to preserve what you valued, even as the noise of time became loud enough to knock out window-panes. What did he value? Music, his family, love. Love, his family, music. The order of importance was liable to change. Could irony protect his music? In so far as music remained a secret language which allowed you to smuggle things past the wrong ears
  • When you chop wood, the chips fly: that’s what the builders of socialism liked to say. Yet what if you found, when you laid down your axe, that you had reduced the whole timberyard to nothing but chips?
  • Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time
  • all untrue definitions of art ascribe to it a specific function.
  • cats who sharpened their claws on his soul
  • He read the Friday speech in a fast, uninflected gabble, reinforcing the fact that he was quite unfamiliar with the text. He carried straight on over punctuation marks as if they did not exist, pausing neither for effect nor reaction. This has absolutely nothing to do with me, his manner insisted
  • What mattered was not so much whether a particular story was factually true, but rather, what it signified. Though it was also the case that the more a story circulated, the truer it became.
  • The poem ended by marking the difference between ambition and artistic truthfulness: I shall therefore pursue my career By trying not to pursue one.
  • People found it so funny, he suspected, not just because Maxim was a natural comedian, not just because they enjoyed Bulgarian jokes, but for another, deeper reason: because the little sketch was so perfectly suggestive. Over-complicated manoeuvres to achieve the simplest of ends; stupidity; self-congratulation; imperviousness to outside opinion; repetition of the same mistakes. Did not all this, magnified across millions and millions of lives, mirror how things had been under the sun of Stalin’s constitution: a vast catalogue of little farces adding up to an immense tragedy?
  • The work’s thunderous banality had ensured its immediate success
  • The red roses on Nita’s grave, strewn all over. Every time he visited. And not sent by him.
  • Just to be noticed by Stalin was much more dangerous than an existence of anonymous obscurity
  • Those in favour rarely stayed in favour; it was just a question of when they fell
  • Revisionism was so loathsome and heretical a concept that the word itself practically had horns growing out of its head.
  • But when a composer is bitter, or in despair, or pessimistic, that still means he believes in something.
  • Of course, no one dies at exactly the correct moment: some too early, some too late. A few get the year more or less right, but then choose completely the wrong date
  • Despite being a punctilious timekeeper, he was always half out of step with Russia. So his dying had shown a foolish synchronicity.
  • They didn’t want you to fake adherence to their banal taste and meaningless critical slogans – they wanted you actually to believe in them. They wanted your complicity, your compliance, your corruption
  • And Power itself did not diminish; it just mutated
  • He was free to speak the truth – why didn’t he do so on behalf of those who couldn’t
  • Did he utter a single public word of protest while breathing the air of freedom? That silence had been contemptible; and just as he revered Stravinsky the composer, so he despised Stravinsky the thinker.
  • As did the connection between self-contempt and alcohol, the one inciting the other. He knew that connection, that incitement all too well.
  • But when children came along, you could not have both parents pursuing their own pleasure – not without causing unconscionable damage
  • In his loneliness, he had panicked. Well, that was nothing new.
  • And by any scale of measurement, he had to agree. It was better, in the way that the life of a prisoner in solitary confinement is improved if he is given a cellmate, allowed to climb up to the bars and sniff the autumn air
  • You could say that his parents were merely displaying good manners, and proper piety, under their own roof. Or you could say that he had been born – or at least christened – beneath the star of cowardice.
  • ‘Come, come, Dmitri Dmitrievich, there is a point at which modesty becomes a kind of vanity.’
  • that members of the Party are not expected to have a deep grasp of political theory
  • What had he ever wanted except to be left alone?
  • It was rather that now, at this juncture, he lacked even the self-respect that suicide required.
  • Let the world see how they recruit new Party members, by trussing them up and transporting them like sacks of onions.
  • Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich has joined the Communist Party of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. It can’t be, because it couldn’t ever be, as the major said when he saw the giraffe. But it could be, and it was.
  • Football was pure, that was why he had first loved it. A world constructed from honest striving and moments of beauty, with matters of right and wrong decided in an instant by a referee’s whistle. It had always felt far away from Power and ideology and vacuous language and the despoiling of a man’s soul
  • Perhaps this was one of the tragedies life plots for us: it is our destiny to become in old age what in youth we would have most despised.
  • Tragedies in hindsight look like farces.
  • Penetrate beneath the modern tyrant’s skin, go down layer after layer, and you will find that the texture does not change, that granite encloses yet more granite; and there is no cave of conscience to be found.
  • There were limits to irony: you cannot sign letters while holding your nose or crossing your fingers behind your back, trusting that others will guess you do not mean it. And so he had betrayed Chekhov, and signed denunciations. He had betrayed himself, and he had betrayed the good opinion others still held of him. He had lived too long
  • A soul could be destroyed in one of three ways: by what others did to you; by what others made you do to yourself; and by what you voluntarily chose to do to yourself
  • He was stoic as an invalid; what troubled him was not so much his condition as people’s reactions to it. Pity embarrassed him just as much as praise ever had.
  • He had done his best, but life had not yet finished with him. Life was the cat that dragged the parrot downstairs by its tail; his head banged against every step.
  • The last questions of a man’s life do not come with any answers; that is their nature
  • His younger self, by the side of the road, would see in the back of that car some wizened old sunflower, no longer turning towards the sun of Stalin’s constitution, but still heliotropic, still drawn to the light-source of Power.
  • If you turned your back on irony, it curdled into sarcasm. And what good was it then? Sarcasm was irony which had lost its soul.
  • So, he had lived long enough to be dismayed by himself. This was often the way with artists: either they succumbed to vanity, thinking themselves greater than they were, or else to disappointment
  • The self-doubt of the young is nothing compared to the self-doubt of the old
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