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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 did to yourself. Any single method was sufficient; though if all three were present, the outcome was irresistible."
― Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time
The last Julian Barnes I read was 'The Sense of an Ending' which seemed to float perfectly as a short novel. The prose was as delicate, smooth and perfect as rosette frosting. I'm not sure Nabokov would want to follow that novel, but eventually Barnes was bound to write his next novel, comparisons be damned.
'The Noise of Time' is a short 200 page novel about the life and times of Dmitri Shostakovich, one of the great composers of the 20th century. This is not exactly new ground. 11 years ago William T. Vollmann also used the life of Shostakovich to explore the nature of evil, power, etc. Vollmann used Shostakovich as one of several voices to tell his stories. In some ways, Europe Central explores WWII as a symphony and the life of Shostakovich happens to just be one of the major instruments. In 'The Noise of Time' Barnes explores art and music using Shostakovich as a single instrument.
Barnes uses the relationship between Shostakovich and Stalin (later the Soviet state) to delve into how power and fear can externally affect the artist. But he goes further and looks at how man can affect his own art in relationship to the outside world. He looks at how irony is used as a defense against external forces that would control and destroy.
One of my favorite lines from this novel is:
“Art belongs to everybody and nobody. Art belongs to all time and no time. Art belongs to those who create it and those who savour it. Art no more belongs to the People and the Party than it once belonged to the aristocracy and the patron. Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time. Art does not exist for art’s sake: it exists for people’s sake.”
Anyway, this month I've been a bit obsessed with Shostakovich. After reading two fictionalized accounts his life, I've also been sucked down the Russian rabbit hole of his Symphonies (primarily the 5th, 7th, and 1oth). These three symphonies play a significant role in both books, so I'm glad to have been reminded several times this year that I should listen to more post-romantics than just Gustav Mahler. Thank you Julian Barnes and William T. Vollmann to push me into the small, shaking hands of Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich.
19 of 24 people found this review helpful
Julian Barnes' short novel is enriching in the aesthetics of art and music and edifying in a look at how one of history's greatest composers might have dealt with Stalin's sinister oppression and created exceptional compositions despite living in constant fear that death might be the next knock on the door.
The re-imagining of Shostakovich's life under Stalin reverberates in the ironies of humanity. We esteem courage and justice, but we also want to live. Had Shostakovich spoken out against Stalin's purges and quashing of true art, he would most certainly have been killed immediately, and the world would have been deprived of brilliant works of music. And, would his speaking out have changed anything? Or, should Shostakovich be plagued by his failure in this regard in spite of the haunting reminders he has provided history, well beyond his natural death, of the evils of communism and of Stalin and other "leaders" like him.
"Art is the whisper of history heard above the noise of time," notes the narrator of THE NOISE OF TIME. Anyone familiar with Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 knows that certain "whispers" roar.
These are the ironies Barnes explores in his inspired new work.
5 of 6 people found this review helpful
The rambling style creates a sense of the listener partaking of Shostakovich's mind. An excellent novel, convincingly performed by Daniel Philpott
6 of 6 people found this review helpful
Not an easy read but worthwhile to understand Shostakovitch's life in Soviet Russia. Excellent narrator
5 of 5 people found this review helpful
A great read on the difference of how the east revered its artists. And how difficult it would have been to allow a creative spirit to exist and flourish in such an environment.
Very different from a world of Madonna and Elvis and frank Sinatra.
0 of 1 people found this review helpful