Many people rave about Julian Barnes, and indeed winning a Man Booker Prize tends to suggest you are brilliant at what you do. But I have at times struggled with his slow pacing and prose. At university I did not enjoy Flaubert’s Parrot, although a few years ago I did enjoy The Sense of an Ending, which admittedly I read on audio, which does tend to disguise or minimise pacing issues.
I was sent a review copy of his new novel – the first since the Booker – The Noise of Time. The concept is fascinating. Set his story in communist Russia, The Noise of Time is a painstaking fictional recreation of the life of real-life composer Dmitri Shostakovich, focussing specifically on the role of the political of the artists of the time.
Shostakovich was not ideological and resented the interference of the government on the lives of artists at the time. However, without political support, an artist was guaranteed obscurity and even in some cases, death. Shostakovich’s life is a series of compromises until he finally does not recognise the man riding around in a town car with political clout and overwhelming success. But it was a hard road, and many times Shostakovich feared for his life.
Despite these wonderful ideas and the human expression of the pressure to become part of the political propaganda machine, I found myself drifting off often during the novel, which failed to hold my interest in the way it really should have. This was hard work. But in the end, it was work worth doing. This is thoughtful and satisfying if you can make it to the end.