BookBrowse Reviews The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reading Guide |  Reviews |  Beyond the book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

The Noise of Time

by Julian Barnes

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes X
The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    May 2016, 224 pages
    Jun 2017, 224 pages

  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
Donna Chavez
Buy This Book

About this Book



A compact masterpiece dedicated to the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich.

Confession: I do two terrible – some say unforgivable – things while reading a book. First, I grunt or laugh or moan when things strike me. Second, with pen in hand, I underline, circle or comment on passages, sentences, and words that I find remarkable.

While reading Julian Barnes' The Noise of Time about Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), I laughed, grunted, snickered and moaned nonstop. And there are underlines, circles and comments on almost every page of this remarkable book. The only thing I didn't do was applaud, because I would have had to put down the book. The last thing I wanted.

I've read other critics refer to this story as a fictionalized biography, and in at least one instance there was disappointment because the critic felt it failed at that. Of course it did. This is not a biography, fictional or otherwise, at all. To me, it felt more like a fictionalized third person memoir. As if Shostakovich – the tormented musical genius – had a gremlin in his head making notes and recording the random thoughts. The sparse selections of topic, the chopped paragraphs, the musings and even the repetitions, all have the ring of a personal journal or memoir of a person reflecting on life, art, politics and philosophy. And, as a memoir, this slender volume is a resounding success.

The preface tells the story about a beggar and his encounter with two men at a train station who share a vodka with him. The beggar, a double amputee from a war injury, is described as beyond the point of caring what great cause inspired that, or any other, war. "He had become a technique for survival. Below a certain point, that was what all men became: techniques for survival." It is the leitmotif of Shostakovich's life.

The Noise of Time begins with the harrowing nights after his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is panned in Pravda by (possibly) Josef Stalin himself. There is a lack of certainty in the identity of the music critic because, "there were enough grammatical errors to suggest the pen of one whose mistakes could never be corrected." This is frightening for the composer because in Stalin's Russia such a criticism from the tyrant himself could serve as a death sentence. As a result, Shostakovich fully expects The Great Leader's minions to yank him from his very bed and drag him off to exile or worse. And so, worried about the effect such a trauma would have on his wife and child, he waits with a packed bag next to the elevator in the hallway of his apartment building to meet his fate head on. He does this night after night, weeks on end, until he finally gives up and returns to his matrimonial bed, but sleeps fully clothed on top of the covers.

Imagine such terror over a work of art. This for a man who believed that, "art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time." A man who wrote irony into his music and who knew, even then, that the irony would be lost on subsequent generations of audiences, but who hoped the music might stand on its own merits. Shostakovich continually wrestled with his internal dissonance and anguish over just how much art the State – or "Power" as he referred to Stalin – should own. He noted that even Jesus never specified how much Caesar was due.

Far from feeling cheated out of more biographical information or details of the man's creative process, I felt very much in touch with Shostakovich's heart and his struggle to maintain some semblance of the standard of integrity he'd set for himself. Barnes lets us hover over the composer's life, peep into his thoughts, and envision what life under tyranny is like for the creative mind of the genius. From youth to old age when, "his mind no longer skittered," but, "limped carefully from one anxiety to the next," Shostakovich became more alive than an account of the sum of his experiences.

Reviewed by Donna Chavez

This review was originally published in June 2016, and has been updated for the June 2017 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Beyond the Book:
  The Cult of Personality

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: Hungry
    by Jeff Gordinier
    Noma, René Redzepi's restaurant in Copenhagen, Denmark, has widely been considered among the ...
  • Book Jacket: With the Fire on High
    With the Fire on High
    by Elizabeth Acevedo
    From Like Water for Chocolate to Ratatouille, writers have recognized the power ...
  • Book Jacket: Lanny
    by Max Porter
    At once beautifully poignant and hauntingly grotesque, Max Porter's Lanny is like an unexpected ...
  • Book Jacket
    Call Me American
    by Abdi Nor Iftin
    As a boy growing up in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, Abdi Nor Iftin loved watching action ...

Readers Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    Beirut Hellfire Society
    by Rawi Hage

    A searing and visionary novel set in 1970s Beirut that asks what it means to live through war.
    Reader Reviews

Book Club
Book Jacket
The Guest Book
by Sarah Blake

"An American epic in the truest sense…"
Entertainment Weekly

About the book
Join the discussion!
Win this book!
Win In the Full Light of the Sun

New from Clare Clark!

"Evocative prose and excellent pacing make this fine historical a must-read for art history buffs."
- Publishers Weekly


Word Play

Solve this clue:

A A A Day K T D A

and be entered to win..

Books that     

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.