In his latest novel, Man Booker winner Julian Barnes charts the creative life and inner turmoil of Dimitri Shostakovich. Shostakovich’s career polarises opinion, partially due to his association with the Communist Party in Russia. The novel grants the troubled artist a narrative voice, as it is from his internal monologue that the story unfolds. Though the prose occasionally lapses into (auto-) biography, allowing Shostakovich to speak directly to the reader, it allows Barnes to create an intimate portrait of a public intellectual living in a totalitarian atmosphere.
The act of creating fictional accounts, of both historical events and the lives of public figures, comes under many headings. Reading the author’s own standpoint into the text can be tempting. Perhaps anticipating this, Kevin Barry‘s recent novel Beatlebone dedicates a chapter to a narrative account of the research process. In this chapter, the author describes “historical fiction” as “getting the voices right” in the absence of important details such as “the way a lover’s hair falls just so on the pillow.”
Barry’s strung out Beatle is perhaps more obviously disposed towards pillow talk than Barnes’ narrator. That said, there is intimacy in Barnes’ portrayal. Early in the novel, the precocious young pianist explains the simplicity of free love to his austere and controlling mother, allusions are made to a romantic trip to the caucuses. However, the nature of the prose means that many of the man’s perceived shortcomings and neuroses are stated rather than dramatised. The inclination to tell rather than show is perhaps an attempt to replicate a non-western mode of storytelling.
In certain passages, there is a large of amount of detail and exposition. Though these passages are dense, they are immersive. At times, the demonstrative nature of the prose, at these moments, seems at odds with the narrative voice. The appearance of these informative moments amongst Shostakovich’s introspection and reminiscence locates them in a personal context. The text gives the impression we are handling a primary source.
The historical detail is also often a revelation to those of us with only a working knowledge of twentieth century Russian history. Readers with an interest in Irish letters may have difficulty with the passage in which Bernard Shaw’s appearance in Moscow is revealed to be a precursor of sorts to former NBA star Dennis Rodman’s time in Pyonyang.
Overall, the writing style is concise, with the narrative hanging neatly on three moments of reminiscence. From here, the composer’s rumination brings the reader backwards and forwards in time. Narration based on the premise is the foundation of Speak, Memory, the real life auto-biography of Russian emigré author Vladimir Nabokov (who also doesn’t fair too well in Shostakovich’s eyes.) However, where Nabokov places himself, and his aristocratic relatives, within a grand narrative of emigration and the disappearance of old Russia, Barnes’ Shostakovich is reminiscing in the moment, and in the reality of the Stalinist state. Here details of Nabokov’s life are presented as parts of a metaphorical meditation on creativity, mortality and the image, Barnes’ Shostakovich’s concerns are more concrete. Moments of insight come in short bursts for Shostakovich whereas Nabokov’s prose is finely wrought.
The Noise of Time presents a compelling story in engaging and original prose, though readers looking to find out more about Shostakovich the man, husband, and lover may be frustrated. Conversely, those looking for a more exhilarating insight into life in Soviet Russia may lose patience. In either case, those who don’t follow through are missing out.