I read (and reviewed) The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes a few months back, and really enjoyed it. I admit Barnes was one of those authors I had sort of heard of, and I wasn’t sure how old he was or whether he was still writing. The Sense of an Ending was published in 2012 but, as I said in my review at the time, I assumed it was much older than that. So I was pleased to discover he was still publishing, and I picked up The Noise of Time (2016) without really looking into what it was about too much. I mean, it’s about 180 pages long which is the most important thing!
I have had a really reading slump. So it took me a long time to get around to reading it. That’s not the books fault, I just kept getting distracted by my phone, and tired by work. My copy was hanging around in my bag for several months so it’s quite bashed up. But I’m back on it now, and got through this book in a day.
The Noise of Time
Like The Sense of an Ending, this book is a rambling journey through a man’s memories. Although in this case it is not a middle aged English man looking back at youthful misadventures and their painful consequences. But a Russain, Dmitri Dmitriyevich living in Soviet Russia, and the harshly enforced political whims. In fact, Dmitriyevich is a composer who music is loved, reviled, reformed, and loved once more. His full name isn’t given until later in the book, when I thought ‘oooh I’ve heard of him’. Given that I am almost completely ignorant of life in the Soviet Union (apart from what I’ve read in Under The Frog), and composers I still didn’t know what was happening. I recommend not looking it up, and wandering into the book as clueless as me, then googling it all afterwards.
Barnes gives up the story from Dmitriyevich’s point if view, and although he does question his own actions from time to time, as we all do, he also usually dejectedly justifies them, as we all do. The story is, in many ways, him battling his own conscious. The jury seems to still be out on the real life individual, was he actually championing the glory of Mother Russia in his music? But Barnes has clearly decided to paint our protagonist as begrudgingly reacting to political pressure exerted on him by Power. It starts with him waiting by the lift in his apartment block, with his pregnant wife sleeping in their apartment, waiting to be taken away to ‘The Big House’. All this because because his latest opera has been derided as ‘more muddle than music’ meaning unpatriotic.
I don’t know enough about Russia, now or then, to know if all the details are correct. For example, the annoying habit of everyone’s names changing or abbreviating and confusing me. But these are the books where I learn about the Soviet Union (why didn’t I get properly taught about this in school?), and what life was like, backed up by the stuff I saw in the Solidarity museum in Gdansk, Poland. Although, they would also have you believe that the Solidarity movement single handedly brought down the Soviet Union…
I enjoyed this book. The style may not be to everyone’s taste. The jumbled narrative that moves backwards and forwards through time and nothing really happens. Kind of like Ishiguro books. Although actually, stuff does happen, or has happened, it’s just not happening now so there’s a lack of immediacy to everything. It all just washes over you and is quite sad.