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Book Review: The Noise of Time, by Julian Barnes
I picked this up straight away when I saw it in a recent work book sale, as I knew it was on my to-read list. The book takes three episodes in Shostakovich's life, probing the inner turmoil and unanswerable questions that must have been forming in his mind. The first episode is probably the most well known: following Stalin's critical review in Pravda, Muddle instead of Music, of Shostakovich's opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, the composer fears that he is about to be deported to Siberia; to spare his wife and child disturbance in the middle of the night, he takes to staying on the landing by the lifts in his apartment block, reflecting on his life up to this point. He receives a summons to the Big House, where he will be expected to confess to conspiring against the state and/or bear false witness to other seditious activities. But curiously, on the day of his appointment, his interrogator fails to turn up for work; in fact he himself has been arrested, and no-one else has any authority or intent to question the composer.

The second episode takes place on the plane back from Shostakovich's visit to the United States in 1949, when the Soviet delegation left early. Again, he reflects on what has happened in the intervening years - rehabilitation as a composer, then denunciation again, then re-education - and on the various speeches he was required to give in the US, and on the absurd Q&A sessions organised by Russian expats.

The final episode takes place on an unspecified car journey. Shostakovich has finally surrendered and joined the Communist Party, and irony is heaped on irony: by joining the Party he gains more freedom; by allowing him to live, they had killed him.

I haven't read any Julian Barnes before, so I can't comment on whether it is similar to his other works. While I don't think it's necessary, some prior knowledge of Shostakovich certainly helps. This is quite a short and easy (but not comfortable) read, but nonetheless profound.


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