This year marks the 10th Anniversary of FOBL’s Open Book Group. In 2007 Jan, Annette and I put up a notice inviting FOBL members, and anyone else, to come along and talk books. Would they come? Yes, they did, and 10 years on they still do. Well done all!

I was pleased to moderate The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes.

Barnes presents us with a fictional biography of Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich born on 12 September 1906 in St Petersberg and regarded as one of the major composers of the 20th century. Barnes uses Shostakovich’s voice to describe his life against the background of a tumultuous period in Russian history. The main theme of the novel is how the Soviet State or “The Power” used its influence to control the artistic expression of its composers.

Shostakovich lived in fear of his life following numerous interrogations by The Power when composing every one of his fifteen symphonies, six concertos, quintets, three operas, and film music. He was continually accused of dangerous personal expression rather than writing for the glory of the proletariat……..but, as the group discussed, what and how exactly did The Power want him to compose? The sands were continually shifting depending on Stalin’s whims.

There was unanimous agreement that the writing is sublime. Barnes divided the Novel into three parts covering the years from 1936, when Shostakovich first raised Stalin’s ire with a performance of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, to his death in 1975. The last section was particularly harrowing as Shostakovich is forced to join the Party. The Power argued the world can see just how enlightened they are now that a person of Shostakovich’s stature is “willing” join the fold. Trump, someone ruefully pointed out, is using similar tactics with “good” Republicans.

Each section starts with a quote referencing the opening lines of Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities without the balancing Best of Times. Members also noted Barnes describing the Lady Macbeth review in Pravda as by someone who knew as much about music “as a pig knows about oranges”…….referencing Orwell’s Animal Farm, in turn, a satire of the Russian Revolution.

Another member brought our attention to her favourite passage; a description of the natural pessimism of Russians and Stalin’s aim to make the Soviet Union optimistic (even if he did have to kill millions in the process). Others praised Barnes’ building up the sense of terror within which Shostakovich lived his whole life. “I really had to break for a cup of tea, it was all too much”.

The suspicion was raised about how much was true in the telling and how much is fiction? Some may have preferred a factual biography……….but then any history is only ever the interpretation of the author. Barnes’ treatment allowed his considerable imagination to get inside Shostakovich’s head and attempt to describe his thought processes.

There was also some criticism that there was too little focus on the masses dying without the protection Shostakovich’s art did, ironically, provide him……..but Barnes was focussing on the plight of the intelligentsia.

The musical buffs amongst us were able to shed light in this area where I am sadly lacking. They commented that he can be discordant, but several had witnessed thrilling nights at the Opera House where the audience had lifted as one at the end of the performance of his symphony.

Interesting the Novel is bookended with passages about Shostakovich and friend meeting and drinking vodka with a beggar at the train station. I had been bemused by this, but the group came to my rescue. In the clicking of the three glasses, Shostakovich hears a perfect Triad note. Notes which, ultimately, like other great works of literature and art will survive The Noise of Time. Barnes argues that in the end, this is all that matters. Plenty of food for thought.

In conclusion, we agreed that not only was it a great read, but also we had learned loads. Many of us knew nothing of his life and works, and foresaw much browsing on YouTube to rectify the matter.


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