The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

What a delight it has been to spend time with Julian Barnes and his new novel, The Noise of Time. Elegantly written and perfectly balanced, this slight book (it comes in at under 200 pages) is Barnes’ first novel since his Booker Prize-winning, The Sense of an Ending.

Again, we see a man taking stock of his life: in this case, the Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich, whose career came under the watchful eye of Stalin’s dictatorship, and, to a lesser but lingering degree, that of Krushchev.

The book begins with Shostakovich anxiously smoking cigarette after cigarette in the foyer of his apartment, convinced that Soviet agents are shortly to come and take him away to the Big House. His crime? Composing an opera which had received a bad review in the state-owned Pravda newspaper –a sign that Stalin wasn’t happy.

Throughout the book big questions are asked, such as, ‘Who does art belong to?’ Does it belong to the masses, or the privileged, educated few? How is a composer expected to maintain a creative output, if he is required to toe the party line musically? And also, importantly for Shostakovich, is it more important to stand up for your integrity and die for your principles, or to live to compose another symphony, albeit within the dictates of Soviet parameters?

It was fascinating to read about the impact of Stalin’s dictatorship on the arts; the speeches written by party officials that Shostakovich was expected to read out when he travelled overseas; and the conundrum of wanting to stand up and tell the truth, but knowing that the price you would pay for truth-telling was blood.

I fully expect to see this book on all the short-lists over the coming year. And don’t let its size fool you – it’s big and meaty, even though it’s more novella-sized than full-length book.

Gabrielle Williams is a bookseller at Readings Malvern.