The destruction of the human soul: Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time

Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time. Vintage Books, 2017. First published 2016

Julian Barnes Noise of Time cover Can artists work without compromising themselves when living under a brutal dictator with a highly prescriptive set of strictures about what constitutes “acceptable” or proletarian art? That’s the dilemma faced by the protagonist of Julian Barnes’ fictional account of Dmitri Shostakovich under Stalin-era Soviet rule.

Barnes conveys particularly well the absurdity behind this autocratic ‘Power’: Stalin and his successors employ fanatical apparatchiks to enforce their doctrine, and any perceived deviation from it is dealt with savagely. During the opening section of the novel, Shostakovich stands outside his Leningrad apartment by the lift, waiting for its doors to open and emit the men from the ‘Big House’ who will take him away to the fate he knows has befallen so many of his friends (and countless strangers) – interrogation, the camps, or more likely a bullet to the back of the head.

His crime: to write an opera that Stalin considered bourgeois, cacophonous, and suspiciously like the odious capitalist western jazz.

He stands there night after night, hour after hour, to spare his wife the sight of his being hauled from his bed by these agents of terror.

Most of the novel consists of a highly plausible account of his inner conflict during his decades of fluctuating favour with Power. He sees himself as a coward when he kowtows to it. He signs his name to articles he hasn’t written, admissions of ‘crimes’ he knows he’s innocent of.

Even worse is the apparently softer regime under Stalin’s successors, when he finds himself having to make even more humiliating concessions and public shows of feigned allegiance to a system that’s still repressive and narrow-minded:

And when faced with criticism of his own work, his response was: look, I have a multiplicity of styles, just tell me which you would prefer me to use. He was proud of his facility – but that was not what was being asked of him. They didn’t want you to fake adherence to their banal taste and meaningless critical slogans – they wanted you to actually believe in them. They wanted your complicity, your compliance, your corruption.

The novel is well written, full of intriguing insights into this conflicted man’s anguish and dilemma. His genius is marred by certain human frailties and flaws – this is no hagiography.

I just didn’t find it as compelling as I thought I would. Maybe it’s just the lacklustre mood of these constrained times – it hinders my capacity to enter into these fictional worlds. Another time I’d have probably enjoyed this novel much more – but this exploration of ‘the destruction of the human soul’ is not what I need at present. And as another autocratic, narcissistic leader heads for the Florida golf courses, maybe life will take a turn for the better in this turbulent world.


The first snowdrop of the year appeared in our garden last week

Meanwhile Mrs TD and I continue our daily walks. The other day as we turned from our street into the main road we were confronted by two power company vans and a group of workmen in high vis vests, standing around a large hole they’d just dug in the road, peering into its depths. Is there a problem? Mrs TD asked. “No, just a gas leak,” one of the workmen cheerily replied…


22 thoughts on “The destruction of the human soul: Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time

  1. Hi Simon! Nice to see that your soul, at least, persevering, gas leak and all! Love the snowdrop. Those early flowers, like the first birds returning, do wonders for the morale.
    I was interested in your reaction to Barnes’ The Noise of Time, which I had thought of reading myself. In the last few years, I’ve gotten very fond of Shostakovich’s music (mostly the quartets, am slowly working on the rest of it) and thought the book might be interesting. For no particularly valid reason, I’m not a big Barnes’ fan, however, and, like you, didn’t feel up to reading about all the tragedy in Shostakovich’s life. Maybe in happier times . . .

    • Janakay: as I said in the post, it’s well written and rattles along at pace – but if anything it’s a bit…I don’t know, fussy or fastidious, maybe too self-consciously literary. That probably sounds ridiculous, but I found that the repeated motifs (no doubt meant to emulate those in music) slightly intrusive, same with some of the imagery, and anecdotes that smacked of JB’s research. I’m so pleased my fuzzy pics of early flowers are pleasing you. They certainly cheer me up (the flowers, not so much the pics).

      • Hi Simon,

        I enjoy your discernment here. Yes, there is something to this author that is a bit much of a Muchness. He is very gifted, but he seems to Sit Down To Write About The Destruction of the Soul, and won’t let you forget it!

        I think we are all exhausted and beaten up and need a break! I suddenly thought of Armistead Maupin and his “Tales of the City” set in the pre-AIDS San Francisco of the 70’s. Charming tale of the interconnected lives of a group of house-sharers on “Barbery Road.”

        • Maureen: good to hear from you again. I’ve not read Maupin, but used to enjoy the tv series based on those stories.
          How are things with you? Must be a relief to be back with a President less like the leaders in this Barnes novel.

  2. I loved this one, Simon, but then I’m a Shostakovich obsessive, and read it in pre-pandemic times. I thought Barnes captured DDS quite brilliantly, but then I was favourably predisposed towards the book…

    Anyway, isn’t it great to see the back of the orange maniac??

    And snowdrops – at last. A few are peeking through in our garden which is pleasing and gives me probably unwarranted feelings of optimism!

    • Kaggsy: I know little about DDS, so found the novel useful as a guide to his life and work – but more particularly his inner life. Maybe one to try again in happier times. And yes, it’s wonderful to see DT shuffle off to whatever deluded rabbit hole he’s disappearing into. Good riddance. Unfortunately he’s left quite a toxic legacy. It is an optimistic sign, the first snowdrops, I agree. Wild garlic is shooting up around here in the hedgerows, and there are more and more daffodils either flowering or about to. Spring is on its way.

  3. An impressive and very thought – provoking book I agree. It conveys so well the painfully difficult balance between self-preservation and moral and creative compromise.
    It moved me to write another poem which I’m happy to send if you’re interested. It has already been published so no problem with that.

  4. It sounds like a very good book – but, as you say, maybe not the best choice for right now in spite of its perceptiveness. Timing can be so important, especially when things around us seem so fragile and uncertain…

    • Quite so, Jacqui. I’ve just started a Patricia Highsmith – also not the most cheering of writers, but so far it’s ok (The Glass Cell). Not many laughs, but very well done. Just been listening to a podcast which included a discussion of Tove Ditlevsen, about whom I’d read several interesting blog posts and reviews – but she is maybe another to read in less ‘fragile and uncertain’ times (good way of putting it; ‘out of joint’ is another).

  5. I admire Barnes’ writing, but rarely love it – he often comes over as rather cold and clinical, as if he’s forgotten to add in the emotional element. This one also annoyed me a little because it felt as if he was suggesting that artists had it worse under Stalin because they’re so much more special than ordinary people – I fear artistic narcissism always turns me off!

    • I also found a kind of coldness in the style, but not the elitist element you suggest, Fiction Fan – but I can see your point. If it’s there, it’s offset against DDS’s deep human flaws – he’s far from exemplary as a person.

  6. I thought this was a terrific book, as Helen says, “It conveys so well the painfully difficult balance between self-preservation and moral and creative compromise”.
    I’ve just finished reading a bio of the Australian artist Judy Cassab who found demands for Soviet Realism so oppressive that she emigrated to Australia, where in the 1950s she found a different set of problems. (Mainly that it wasn’t Europe, if you know what I mean).
    The other thing I liked about Barnes’ book is that it shows that genius doesn’t always come with courage attached, and that we should hesitate before we judge people for ‘kowtowing’.

    • It’s The artist’s self castigation for what he sees as lack of courage that’s so powerfully evoked in the novel – and I agree that Barnes makes no judgement. On the contrary, without labouring the point, he invites the reader to understand, not judge. How awful, to live under a system that prescribed how you should be creative, how you should think and believe. I think Barnes also shows that some artists couldn’t endure it: we see Diaghilev and Stravinsky, for example, who like J Cassab lived abroad.

  7. Hi Simon. It was interesting to read your review of Julian Barnes’ account of the life of Dmitri Shostakovich. I remember reading about the book when it was first published and intended to read it – though have not yet got round to it. Shostakovich has been an important musical reference point throughout my life and reading the review stimulated some affectionate memories. The first time I was aware of his music was in 1961, aged twelve, when I heard the second piano concerto played by John Ogdon in a TV broadcast of the First Night of the Proms. It came as a surprise that somebody with such an intimidating name could compose such accessible music! That experience triggered an exploration in the following years of all the Symphonies – he had reached No 12 at that time (out of 15 by the time of his death).

    Another musical memory comes from October 1966 when I attended a concert at the Royal Festival Hall at which the composer was due to receive the Royal Philharmonic Society Gold Medal. It was a great disappointment that DDS’s health was poor and he did not make it to London to receive the Medal in person. It was some compensation that the concert was the occasion of the first performance in Western Europe of the second cello concerto with Mstislav Rostropovich as soloist. I still have a programme with the cellist’s autograph.

    Truth be told, the most played symphonies have lost their appeal and I am more likely these days to listen to the string quartets which are among the most important contributions to the genre in the twentieth century.

    Aside from their musical qualities, so many of Shostakovich’s works are fascinating for their ambiguity and mystery and their meaning in the composer’s life. I wondered why anyone would bother to write a fictional account of DDS’s life when he himself may – or may not – have collaborated with the Russian musicologist Solomon Volkov in the writing of ‘My Testimony.’ The authenticity of this allegedly dictated account of the composer’s life is still in dispute. Whatever, there is always the music to listen to and some of the greatest works to have been composed in the twentieth century. One of my desert island discs – and possibly the one I would save from the waves! – would be Symphony No 4.

    • Michael: thanks for those memories- I must improve my knowledge of DDS’s music. Barnes does acknowledge his sources- including the memoir you mention – in an end note. What’s different in a novel about a life is that the author is able to be more expansive and speculative than a biographer or autobiographer, unconstrained.

  8. Yes, a fascinating example of that is Maggie O’ Farrell’s recent fictional construction of the short life of Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, and the impact of that life and death on his parents, their relationship, and Shakespeare’s craft. It’s a fascinating and moving imaginative construction of Shakepeare’s early years in the context of rural Warwickshire (close to where I grew up..) – and later move to London – and particularly his relationship with Agnes (Anne) Hathaway, who is fully and persuasively individualised.

    • I was quite tempted to acquire that O’Farrell novel after reading positive reviews – thanks for the reminder, Helen. I suppose Virginia Woolf’s ‘Shakespeare’s Sister’ is an even more imaginative example of this kind of thing.

  9. Lovely snowdrop, and they’re hard to photograph (I found today, tho in a snowstorm …). I’m accepting I’m just not that keen on Barnes, he always seems a bit cold.

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