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Julian Barnes’s The Noise of Time

Julian Barnes’s The Noise of Time

Review by Pauline Fairclough

Most striking of all to me, Barnes’s Shostakovich has no discernible sense of humor. He repeats the priceless anecdote about how Shostakovich was sent a personal tutor to instruct him in Marxism-Leninism: one day his teacher asked, “Who are you in comparison with our great Leader?” and Shostakovich, recalling the text to Dargomizhsky’s comical song, in which a similar question is posed, deftly quoted in reply, “I am a worm.” In Lev Lebedinsky’s telling, Nina Shostakovich reported this conversation (at which she was present), laughing till tears ran down her cheeks; yet none of the hilarity transfers itself to Barnes’s Shostakovich. And I think there is a reason for this: the protagonist of The Noise of Time is a bleak and broken figure, one who looks back on happier times not with joy, or humor, but with a permanent sense of loss. In Barnes’s words, Shostakovich was “a man crushed into a hundred pieces of rubble, vainly trying to remember how they—he—had once fitted together.” The sense of dislocation, of a man who cannot reconnect with his younger self, is total. This Shostakovich, in his old age, sees “only what was gone” and awaits his own demise with a grim eagerness, believing he had lived too long.