Reading a novel about a historical character is like finding snapshots in someone else’s photo album of a party you attended. There’s something familiar about it, but you’re startled, again and again, by the new angle.
In “The Noise of Time,” Julian Barnes largely avoids this problem of disorientation. The acclaimed author treads so gently around the life of 20th-century Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich that he stays almost entirely external, only skimming below the surface of the public facade. The result is unlikely to startle anybody who knows Shostakovich — or to offer a particularly fresh view of this complicated, tortured man.
But “The Noise of Time” is not written for those who know Shostakovich — not least because it blithely embraces a romanticized version of Shostakovich’s life that has been widely discredited. “Testimony,” Shostakovich’s purported memoir, has been shown to have been written less with than by another author, Solomon Volkov, and scholars are wary of treating it as fact. And yet in his novel’s acknowledgments, Barnes says that he treated it as “a private diary” and one of his main sources. Indeed, despite his mention of the “Shostakovich wars,” I was left wondering just how far Barnes had actually immersed himself in Shostakovich scholarship, or Shostakovich’s music, before writing.
What’s at issue — in the Shostakovich wars, as in this novel — is the composer’s relationship to the Soviet regime. In 1936, when Shostakovich’s young career was blossoming, an article in Pravda titled “Muddle Instead of Music” attacked his opera “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.” The article effectively proscribed his work for years and appeared to make him a marked man, although he did survive Stalin’s purges, as many did not. (Barnes depicts this episode and its aftermath in the first of his novel’s three sections.) In the following years, Shostakovich made various nominal attempts to give the authorities what they wanted, starting with the Fifth Symphony, the finale of which purports to glorify the Soviet regime but which “Testimony” describes as a veiled parody of it.
It is easier to admire a composer who wrote messages of resistance and rebellion into his music than one who fearfully accommodated. Many who loved Shostakovich and love his music have been glad to support what seemed like tangible proof of his opposition to the regime under which he lived and worked. The reality is not so black and white. But Barnes, rather than taking advantage of fiction’s potential for nuance, offers what amounts to an unquestioning echo of “Testimony’s” stance. His three-part book is essentially an extended meditation on art, with increasingly fragmentary glimpses of the people and events in the composer’s life.
It’s hardly uncommon for historical fiction to take liberties. And certainly Barnes knows how to tell a tale. But for all its polished surface, this novel is equivocating and cautious. It backs its way into the story, groping toward a fragmented sense of the main character. We’re confronted with short paragraphs that offer epigrammatic patness and a lot of motivic repetition of phrases or images as a mask for a certain amount of narrative uncertainty, be it on the part of the protagonist (Shostakovich) or, it often seems, the author himself.
For Shostakovich, Barnes makes clear, music is all that matters. There’s some irony here, since “The Noise of Time” must be one of the least musical books about a composer ever written. There is very little mention of Shostakovich’s music and virtually no mention of what went into writing it. One senses in Barnes the non-aficionado’s shyness about engaging with music, so pervasive as to prevent his even taking an interest in learning more.
There is at least one musical source that appears to have informed him, though: a show about Shostakovich that was staged in 2000 and that toured widely thereafter, by the London-based Théâtre de Complicité and the Emerson String Quartet. Created before “Testimony” was widely called into question, it took almost the same view of Shostakovich-as-persecuted-hero that Barnes does. Its title, from a book by the poet Osip Mandelstam, was “The Noise of Time.” Barnes does not credit it in his acknowledgments.
Such things are merely symptomatic of this book’s greatest flaw: its failure to delve deeply into the ideas that shaped the composer’s life, even a lack of intellectual curiosity that lets the author be content with falling into step with previous artistic work rather than really making the material his own. A great historical novel — take Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” — presents something new: a compelling, fresh reinterpretation; Barnes’s “The Noise of Time” is merely an adroit rephrasing of an argument we’ve heard before. The result is a pretty enough piece of writing that may well be embraced by those to whom the story is new. But it remains as shallow as — well, a snapshot.
Anne Midgette is the classical music critic of The Washington Post.
By Julian Barnes
Knopf. 201 pp. $25.95