The Urgency of the Unremarkable
A Feature Review of
The Noise of Time: A Novel
Hardback: Knopf, 2016
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Reviewed by Andrew Stout
In addition to being one of Britain’s most esteemed contemporary novelists, Julian Barnes has distinguished himself as an eloquent and knowledgeable commentator on art. His most recent book of essays, Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art (2015), is a series of reflections on the works of (mostly) French painters. In The Noise of Time Barnes is again reflecting on art – though this time it is the music of the Russian composer Dimitri Shostakovich, and the commentary comes in the form of a novel.
From one perspective, the entire narrative is a meditation on the role of the artist. It is a meditation rooted in the specific circumstances of Shostakovich’s life and his conflicts with Soviet authorities. It asks questions about destiny, time, cowardice, courage, and the artist’s use of irony. Shostakovich ran afoul of the party for the themes of his early opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, which was denounced as “Muddle Instead of Music,” in the party paper Pravda, conceivably written by Stalin himself. This incident is the catalyst for the story’s drama, and the review’s final line sets an ominous tone: “It is a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly” (27).