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Courtesy of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

May 9, 2016

Let us Remember: Julian Barnes Attempts Historical Fiction

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The Noise of Time is a novel of threes. It begins with three mysteriously unnamed characters meeting on a train platform, and it is parted into three sections. Each of these sections is allocated a different setting — the lobby just outside two elevator doors, a plane seat and a car seat. In each of these sections, the main character never moves. Instead, he reflects.

With The Noise of Time, we get Man-Booker-Prize-Winner Julian Barnes’ go at historical fiction. Barnes’ figure-of-choice for his book’s spotlight is Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich — a scrawny, introverted Russian composer who composed music during the twentieth century’s era of Soviet oppression. The Noise of Time is, most of the time, wonderfully introspective. Shostakovich, as Barnes paints him, is a nervous man. In the entire first part of the novel, he remains seated before elevator doors in the middle of the night and anxiously recalls key moments of his life. He is certain that the Soviet government (or, as he ominously calls it, “Power”) is coming for him. He doesn’t want the officers to wake his family, so each night, he dresses up and waits by the elevator. We wait alongside him, listening to the running of his thoughts. We get regaled with tales of his shifting life philosophies, failed love affairs and Russian politics, all of which are fascinating.

In the second and third parts, the meditations and reflections go on, but the focus shifts more to politics — Shostakovich is constantly at odds with Power, it seems — and to something called “the noise of time.” Barnes’ Shostakovich philosophizes (and, sometimes, it seems the philosophizing has no end) on the nature of great music. He believes that, like all art, only some music will survive time. The rest will be forgotten. He seems obsessed (and it seems most artists are) with trying to figure out what survives “the noise of time” and what doesn’t. In a very literary fashion, Shostakovich’s obsessions become prosaic and melodramatic at points. Now and then, they become gimmicky — occasionally, though, they are moving.

The formatting is designed to reflect the jumpiness of Shostakovich’s thoughts. Each of the three parts is broken into a large number of smaller sections that each average approximately half of a page in length. Often, the bits are only related tangentially. The effect is that, on one page, Shostakovich’s relationship with his mother is being laid out in detail, then, a mere page later, his ideas on music are being explained. The grander effect is a feeling that we have been thrown earnestly into Shostakovich’s mind, and we are being exposed to all of its naked unsteadiness. Though odd and unnerving at first (as I imagine hearing someone’s thoughts should be), there’s a certain charming flow to it.

The Noise of Time is worth a read, and it’s short. This novel of threes comes full circle in order to end the way it begins: with its three unnamed characters huddled together on a train station platform.

Tushar Thomas is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at tt465@cornell.edu. 

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