Review – The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

OK, I’m calling it: When I grow up, I want to be Julian Barnes, please.

I’m not – specifically not – saying that The Noise of Time is the most enjoyable novel I’ve ever read. In places it was actually a bit of a slog. I did, though, still find it to be worth the effort. Why? Well, it turns out that Julian Barnes has a brain the size of a planet (and a proper planet, not one of those hokey-cokey ones at the edge of the solar system), and here he’s in the mood for sharing.

Indeed, there are times when this hardly felt like a novel at all. At its simplest, The Noise of Time is a fictionalised life of Dmitri Shostakovich under the Soviet regime, but that description in isolation is simple to the point of being misleading. This is not literary biography. Rather, Barnes takes three moments in Shostakovich’s life and uses them as a springboard for Barnes-as-Shostakovich’s ruminations on literature, music, philosophy, politics – really, a little of everything, delivered at times deadpan, with black humour; at others, with barely-suppressed anger. I’m not qualified (certainly not as qualified as Barnes) to comment on what Shostakovich was really thinking at these particular points in his life; to me, though, passages like this feel more like unfictionalised Barnes:

‘Art belongs to everybody and nobody. Art belongs to all time and no time. Art belongs to those who create it and those who savour it. Art no more belongs to the People and the Party than it once belonged to the aristocracy and the patron. Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time. Art does not exist for art’s sake: it exists for people’s sake.’

Or this eminently quotable quote:

‘How was it possible not to love Shakespeare? Shakespeare, after all, had loved music. His plays were full of it, even the tragedies. That moment when Lear awakes from madness to the sound of music…And that moment in The Merchant of Venice where Shakespeare says that the man who doesn’t like music isn’t trustworthy; that such a man would be capable of a base act, even murder or treason. So of course tyrants hated music, however strenuously they pretended to love it. Although they hated poetry more.’

There are plenty more where that came from; in places, The Noise of Time feels like an evening spent with your old university professor, the one whose approval you craved. I enjoyed it, but then, that’s because I’m crazy about smart people, and I was in awe of nearly all of my professors – learning is pretty much my favourite thing. As a novel, though, rather than an exercise in intelligence, I’m not sure how well it works. It’s certainly not a book which can be read quickly, despite being a slim 192 pages – I had to keep putting it down and going back to it – and it’s not a book to pick up when you’re tired or distracted. I’d say that The Noise of Time has about the same intellectual density as Marilynne Robinson’s Lila has spiritual density; if you have the patience and the attention span to enjoy one, I think you’ll probably enjoy the other.

Now, I’m off to listen to some Shostakovich. Seems like it’s about time.

***

(This rating is probably unfair; I’m already feeling a little guilty about it, and may come back and bump it up. I think Julian Barnes accomplishes exactly what he set out to – and if I hadn’t read so many great novels recently, I probably would have given this an extra star. But I am a Philistine, and could have done with just a tiny bit more plot to help me digest all that intellectual fibre.)

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