Summary and book reviews of The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

The Noise of Time

by Julian Barnes

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes
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    Readers' Opinion:

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

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Book Reviewed by:
Donna Chavez

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About this Book

Book Summary

A compact masterpiece dedicated to the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich: Julian Barnes's first novel since his best-selling, Man Booker Prize–winning The Sense of an Ending

In 1936, Shostakovich, just thirty, fears for his livelihood and his life. Stalin, hitherto a distant figure, has taken a sudden interest in his work and denounced his latest opera. Now, certain he will be exiled to Siberia (or, more likely, executed on the spot), Shostakovich reflects on his predicament, his personal history, his parents, various women and wives, his children - and all who are still alive themselves hang in the balance of his fate.

And though a stroke of luck prevents him from becoming yet another casualty of the Great Terror, for decades to come he will be held fast under the thumb of despotism: made to represent Soviet values at a cultural conference in New York City, forced into joining the Party and compelled, constantly, to weigh appeasing those in power against the integrity of his music.

Barnes elegantly guides us through the trajectory of Shostakovich's career, at the same time illuminating the tumultuous evolution of the Soviet Union. The result is both a stunning portrait of a relentlessly fascinating man and a brilliant exploration of the meaning of art and its place in society.

Excerpt
The Noise of Time

And so, it had all begun, very precisely, on the morning of the 28th of January 1936, in Arkhangelsk. He had been invited to perform his first piano concerto with the local orchestra under Viktor Kubatsky; the two of them had also played his new cello sonata. It had gone well. The next morning he went to the railway station to buy a copy of Pravda. He had looked at the front page briefly, then turned to the next two. It was, as he would later put it, the most memorable day of his life. And a date he chose to mark each year until his death.

Except that—as his mind obstinately argued back—nothing ever begins as precisely as that. It began in different places, and in different minds. The true starting point might have been his own fame. Or his opera. Or it might have been Stalin, who, being infallible, was therefore responsible for everything. Or it could have been caused by something as simple as the layout of an orchestra. Indeed, that might finally be...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Discuss the passage that opens The Noise of Time. How does this story set the tone for the novel? What indicators does it give about class and social politics in the Soviet Union?
  2. The first line of Part I reads: "All he knew was that this was the worst time." Examine this statement. How does this sentiment echo throughout the novel? Consider Shostakovich's level of anxiety and fear in this passage as compared to what he feels during his interactions later in life with Power. How does he cope with these feelings?
  3. Discuss the circumstances around the debut performance of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. How did the presence of Stalin and his government officials create an environment of apprehension? How did the media work with the state to create...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

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).

Full Review (671 words).

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Media Reviews

Publishers Weekly

The Noise of Time is that rarity. It is a novel of tremendous grace and power, giving voice to the complex and troubled man whose music outlasted the state that sought to silence him.

Kirkus Reviews

A moody, muted composition about art under the thumb of tyranny.

Library Journal

Starred Review. Though his novel says comparatively little about Shostakovich's music, Barnes's fresh and distinctive approach to the composer's life highlights key aspects of his character and lets us believe we've read an actual biography. This engaging work is well recommended to readers of literary fiction as well as aficionados of Soviet culture and history.

The Observer (UK)

A complex meditation on the power, limitations and likely endurance of art.

The Daily Telegraph (UK)

A novel of deceptive slenderness… Barnes has reinvented himself once again.

The Guardian (UK)

A great novel, Barnes's masterpiece - the particular and intimate details of the life under consideration beget questions of universal significance; the operation of power upon art, the limits of courage and endurance, the sometimes intolerable demands of personal integrity and conscience.

The Sunday Times (UK)

Undoubtedly one of Barnes's best novels.

The Tatler (UK)

Barnes brilliantly captures the composer's conflicted state of mind, which culminates in the chilling realization that 'death was preferable to endless terror.' … Packs an extraordinary emotional punch.

The Times (UK)

[Barnes is] a master of the narrative sidestep… Not just a novel about music, but something more like a musical novel… The story itself is structured in three parts that come together like a broken chord. It is a simple but brilliant device, and one that goes right to the heart of this novel.

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Beyond the Book

The Cult of Personality

Josef StalinIn Julian Barnes' The Noise of Time, Dmitri Shostakovich notes that under Stalin, "[Russians] would listen to [Stalin's] insane daily insistence that all was for the best in the best possible of worlds, that Paradise had been created, or would be created quite soon…when a few more saboteurs had been shot. That happier times would come." He makes tongue-in-cheek references to Stalin as The Helmsman and The Great Leader who has been imbued with supernatural powers – and whose Cult of Personality is far-reaching and incapable of error.

According to Wikipedia, "A cult of personality arises when an individual uses mass media, propaganda, or other methods to create an idealized, heroic, and at times worshipful image, often ...

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