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.