My post on ‘Art and Power in Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time’ is available to read on the Ploughshares blog. Read an extract below, or find the full post HERE.
In The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes examines the relationship between art and power, or, more specifically, between individual creativity and a controlling state. The novella is a fictionalized biography of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, covering his personal and professional life under Stalinist rule. It is structured around the composer’s three “conversations with power”—episodes that bring him and his art into contact with the state apparatus. Through these “conversations,” Barnes’ novel asks how and whether art can survive under such conditions.
The first of the novella’s “conversations” centers on the nights following a damning review of Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in Pravda, the official newspaper of the Communist Party. The composer spends these nights fully dressed and clutching a packed suitcase, waiting on the landing of his apartment building in expectation of arrest. As Barnes writes, “They always came for you in the middle of the night.” It was May 1937, during the height of what became known as “the Great Terror,” during which many of the composer’s friends and relatives were imprisoned or killed as enemies of the state.
Barnes captures the perpetual uncertainty and fear evoked by this environment in disjointed passages that follow Shostakovich’s overactive thoughts as he waits by the lift: “He tried to keep his mind on Nita but his mind disobeyed. It was like a bluebottle, noisy and promiscuous.” He flits from moments of mundanity or amusement to alarming thoughts of old friends suddenly and unexpectedly taken to the “big house,” never to return.