Furthermore, that major author doesn’t embarrass himself once by misusing musical terms or by getting anything technically or atmospherically wrong, large or small, about the subject that so many in film and literature so regularly mess up.
Julian Barnes, the author of such remarkable books as “Flaubert’s Parrot,” “A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters” and “Arthur and George,” may not quite hit it out of the park with “The Noise of Time” as he did with those other books, but it is a solid outing, crisply told, memorable even.
“The Noise of Time” is about Shostakovich. The story is narrated by Shostakovich, sort of. The reader is put inside the composer’s head; we are aware of what he’s thinking. At the same time, those thoughts are relayed in the third person, so there’s also the feeling of the all-knowing author/narrator.
There is very little dialogue. Just the composer thinking about what is happening and what has happened to him in the course of his life. The thoughts are arranged more or less in chronological form, so that when you finish the book, you feel you’ve read a kind of biography.
Except, since this is fiction, we know quite a bit more about Shostakovich (this fictional one) than we could ever know about any real human being. Still, Barnes has based his tale on ostensibly non-fictional source material. In an author’s note at the end, Barnes names two main sources, Elizabeth Wilson’s “Shostakovich: A Life Remembered” and Solomon Volkov’s ever-controversial “Testimony: The Memoirs of Shostakovich,” the cause of the so-called “Shostakovich Wars,” which you can Google and read about for days.
Barnes says he treated the latter source as a biographer might treat a private diary, that is, as a source not entirely reliable and unbiased. Which I thought was a neat way of going about it, and which others, no doubt, will think is like having your cake and eating it too.
Shostakovich led a depressing life, as told here and elsewhere, a double life too. In “The Noise of Time” we are rather trapped inside that life, and at times I did find it wearing. Barnes tells much of the story in short bursts of one or two paragraphs (which are then separated from the next burst by an extra line space on the page). The composer’s thoughts jump around in this way, and circle around. And each of the bursts tends to resolve in some concrete, depressing conclusion. After a while, the reader gets it.
Richard Taruskin, in The New York Times, had deep objections to this book, and, as an academic, he has every right. (His objections are based mainly on the use of “Testimony” as a source.) But take “Testimony” as more or less true (and plenty of reliable witnesses do), and “The Noise of Time” seems to me an entirely plausible fiction, a possibly accurate portrayal of how the composer felt and thought. You can’t say it’s not.