THE NOISE OF TIME by Julian Barnes

Julian Barnes is a celebrated author of novels, short stories and literary criticism. He also wrote four thrillers (1980-87) as ‘Dan Kavanagh’ (named for his late wife, Pat Kavanagh), featuring bisexual private eye Duffy. Though recently reprinted by Orion, you wouldn’t know that from the bibliography in Barnes’ most recent volumes as Duffy has been expunged from these.

He had been a mistake, swiftly corrected: a face in a photograph that went missing the next time the photograph was printed.

The Noise of Time, while containing references to murder, espionage and blackmail, is not crime fiction.

I submit this short review for Friday’s Forgotten Books meme, hosted today by Todd Mason over at his fab Sweet Freedom blog.

The Noise of Time offers a powerful meditation on the themes of power, oppression and betrayal from the life of the great composer Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich (1906-1975). Set in the 1930s, 40s and 60s, it looks at three periods when his relationship with the Soviet authorities put both his career, and his life, in potential jeopardy. We begin with a memorable, startling image: the composer stands in the hall to his building next to the lift shaft, waiting to be taken away for interrogation.

Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time.

It is of course a much remarked-upon irony that during Stalin’s era, the power of the arts was validated perhaps as never before, precisely because it was denied free expression. This is not the same as Republicans endlessly attempting to squeeze the NEA, which is philistinism pure and simple. What happened in the Soviet era was a policy enacted because the sheer power of Art was utterly acknowledged, and as a result subordinated to the State to keep the masses in line. So what is an artist to do – preserve their life and bow to the establishment? Or refuse to sacrifice their muse, even at the cost of their lives – or the lives of their friends and loved ones?

One fear drives out another, as one nail drives out another.

This brief novel paints a vivid picture of the insecurities that plagued the great composer and what he did to negotiate the dreadful situation in which he and his fellow artists were placed. We see this develop during a state visit to the US in the 1940s in which he is forced to renounce the work of composers he admires and then again in the 1960s, when things had to some extent improved though the fear never truly left Shostakovich. While this book has been met less sympathetically by those already well-versed in the composer’s life, it none the less makes its argument well and drives towards a moving resolution of the Art/Life conundrum.

For more information about Barnes, visit the author’s homepage at: For details about his Dan Kavanagh alter ego, see the author’s other alternate website,

***** (3.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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22 Responses to THE NOISE OF TIME by Julian Barnes

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    This sounds really interesting, Sergio. Among other things, it brings up an aspect of totalitarianism that we don’t hear as much about as we do others. But it’s no less unsettling for that. I like the fact that it’s well-supported, too.

  2. realthog says:

    This sounds right up my street — many thanks for the review. The amazing thing is that Shosters kept composing wonderful and consistent music throughout all the various cultural upheavals to which his life was subjected. It can take longer to acclimatize oneself to some of the later work but, once one does, it seems obvious that it’s part of the same rich stream that gave us, say, the 5th symphony and the earlier string quartets . . . and even the movie scores!

    Poops to the critics who complain a philosophical novel isn’t historically accurate.

    • Thanks for that John and on whole I’m with you when it comes to Shasta. Some of my mates found a lot of it second hand in the novel and felt that Barnes didn’t bring enough of his own tot he table but I think that it is the construction that allows the emotion through. As so often with the great composer’s work of course 🙂

  3. tracybham says:

    I know very little about Julian Barnes or Shostakovich, but your review is very convincing. I also enjoyed the information about the Duffy books, and the link to the website.

  4. Nice post Sergio! I’m one of those who approached this nervously, as I love Shostakovich and I didn’t want anyone messing with my vision of him. However I loved it, and I found the portrayal of a troubled man struggling under a totalitarian regime utterly convincing.

  5. Colin says:

    All new to me: book, writer, series, subject matter. And it sounds intriguing enough to earn a slot in my (ever lengthening) list of books I hope to get around to..

  6. Mike says:

    Not one I’ve come across Sergio, though I’ve enjoyed every Barnes that I have read – ENGLAND, ENGLAND (which I read during a horizons-broadening effort to cosy up with Booker nominees) was a blackly funny story about an ‘England’ theme park set up on one of the Channel Islands that of course starts becoming the country itself while the real one begins reverting to its feudal past, and A HISTORY OF THE WORLD IN 10 1/2 CHAPTERS, which contained one of the best modern conceptions of heaven I’ve ever taken in.

    But this does sound fascinating, and as an author I’ve always found him to be more accessible and easy to get into than many of his storied peers (I struggle with Iain McEwan, for instance). Thanks for covering this.

    • I remember when Barnes broke through with Flaubert’s Parrot and have enjoyed his stuff ever since. I’m old to remember when he took over from Clive James as TV reviewer for the Observer! I know what you mean about McEwan – I have read about half a dozen of his and I didn’t love any of them …

  7. Todd Mason says:

    Though, of course, Zamaitin was already facing this kind of pressure, to put it mildly, during the late Lenin regime…though this does sound interesting. Any obvious reason Barnes’s bibliographies are missing these volumes of late?
    I’m hosting this week…

    • I have update the intro, thanks for hosting Todd 🙂 Barnes isn’t pretending he didn’t write the Kavanagh books but on the other hand, I suppose he sees them as examples of ‘left hand work’ …

  8. Mathew Paust says:

    Sergio, I had no idea (altho I should have) of Shostakovich’s tribulations in the Soviet Union. I never especially took to his music, either, remembering it as marked by much dissonance–which, in retrospect, would relate to his position vis a vis the Stalin regime.Thanks for opening my myopic eyes! 😉

  9. I enjoyed A HISTORY OF THE WORLD IN 10 1/2 CHAPTERS when it was first published. I also read the Kavanagh books before I learned Barnes had written them.

  10. Sergio, I remember reading, in eighties’ newspapers, about the oppression of writers and artists during the Soviet era and the Cold War, and their defections to the Western Europe and the US. In that sense your review of this book resonated with me. There is no dearth of Julian Barnes books at secondhand bookshops and book exhibitions. I only have to pick them up next time.

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