nudge List Jan 2016: Homo Sovieticus: The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

Article published on January 22, 2016.

There is a tendency to regard Julian Barnes as something of an Eeyore figure, a gloomy introspective writer who smiles wistfully at the human comedy as it plays out in the world and on the page, but he can be droll and waspish too. This is the man who called the Booker Prize a species of “posh bingo” but the mischievous remark belies his essential seriousness for few writers write about art as convincingly as Barnes and in this new novel about the torment of Russian composer, Dmitri Shostakovitch, he is at his thought-provoking best.

It’s a sobering thought to consider that the author is now 70 years old and that The Noise of Time is his twelfth novel. Looking back on all of these novels, I can’t think of one which hasn’t stayed with me down the decades. I can think of no other writer I’d prefer to spend time with so what is it about Barnes that endears him to his loyal readership? Part of it is the way Barnes is neither afraid of extremely high-class erudition nor of writing about everyday quotidian matters. In Barnes, you have the essence of the democratic intellect which can switch from high to low subject-matter without missing a beat.

Barnes has written powerfully about the evils of Soviet-style government before, in The Porcupine, which imagined the trial of a former dictator ensnared with his own totalitarian laws. The Noise of Time, concerns the persecution of composer Dimitri Shostakovitch who endured a lifetime lived on the edge of official approval and censure, constantly tortured by the anxiety that free expression of his musical gifts could have him killed. So intense is this anxiety he takes to spending nights fully-clothed on the landing of his apartment block with a small suitcase to hand. Every night he waits, expecting to be taken away to the Big House. Any celebrity he has known in the previous decade is no use to him now. And few who are taken to the Big House ever return.


The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes’s first novel since his Booker-winning The Sense of an Ending, is a story about the collision of Art and Power, about human compromise, human cowardice and human courage. It is the work of a master.

Bert Wright, Editor – The Nudge List
Julian Barnes (c) Alan Edwards


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