The Noise of Time opens in Leningrad in 1937 as the composer Dmitri Shostakovitch stands by the lift in his apartment block, smoking cigarettes. He has displeased the authorities with his latest composition and is expecting to be arrested by the Soviet NKVD and taken to the Big House, from where few return. He hopes that by waiting on the landing, he will save himself the indignity of being dragged from his bed, and spare his wife and child the terror of bearing witness.
When I meet Julian Barnes at the offices of his publisher, I ask him if he thinks his novel about the life of Shostakovitch could belong in a genre of fictional biography. “No, I always call it fiction,” he replies. “I think it’s a novel. My definition, such as I have of the novel, is that it’s an incredibly generous genre. It always has been, especially in the Anglo- Saxon world.”
We discuss the nature of research, the different roles of the novelist and the biographer, what each of them has to strive to know: “A lot of this is posthumous evidence from one source, so I don’t know if Shostakovitch was on that landing, I don’t know what he was thinking about on that landing, I don’t know what he remembered on that landing. So I don’t really think of it as a fictional biography. It’s a fiction about a real life. But then fiction has often been about real lives. But I don’t mind what people call it.”
Barnes feels a responsibility to the truth, so far as it is findable, both in the details—when Shostakovitch vomits 22 times, or wins 300 rubles in a competition, the numbers are real—and in the overall representation: “I deeply admire his music and I also admire him as a human being. I do feel a responsibility to portray him as accurately as I can and to hope that people will be moved and saddened as well as enthused by his life.”
Barnes briefly considered inventing a composer with a similar sort of fate and then decided that it might even be less true to put a made-up Russian into the historical and political structure that Shostakovitch endured. He’s pleased with the result: ”He is the composer who was most subjected to threats, persecution, near- obliteration and on whom the pressure of the state rested most heavily throughout his life—more heavily on his life than any other composer ever. So I think let’s give him his due, let’s give him his due for his survival.”
Barnes’ interest in Russia started in 1961, when his school employed a Russian teacher for the first time. “We thought, ‘Russian, that seems sexy’.” He studied the language at A-Level and for two terms at university and it’s the literature he loves most, alongside French.
He has also been listening to Shostakovitch since he was 18. “I went to Moscow when I was 18 and came back with loads of Russian LPs with terrible paper sleeves which looked sophisticated. I’ve still got them. And then at a certain point I read Testimony, which is a version of his memoirs, and I realised the human and political position he had been put in throughout his life. It’s that moment of him standing with a little case packed, waiting to be taken away, almost certainly to his death. When I’ve talked to musicians they often cite that. If you are any sort of writer or artist you imagine what the worst might be. And if you are a conductor or a composer or a musician you would think what would happen if the state had that power and control, the arbitrary ability to judge and condemn you.”
One of things that has pleased Barnes most about early responses to the book is that people who didn’t know how bad things were, and thought of Shostakovitch as someone who collaborated with the authorities, now see how complicated it all was. “We do judge— especially [so] during the Cold War—we judge other countries too easily.”
The Noise of Time is Barnes’ 12th novel—he has also written detective novels under the name Dan Kavanagh—and he rather enjoys the process of publication. He takes editorial suggestions from his English, American and Canadian editors all at the same time: “You should never get to the stage like Iris Murdoch or Kingsley Amis, where you think your prose cannot be improved. You are very attached to what you write and you know that you know it better than everyone else, but you should never think it can’t still be improved.”
Suzanne Dean, creative director at Random House, has designed the author’s jackets for 20 years. “I really look forward to it,” he says. “Almost every time I go into a cover meeting with her I say, ‘This is the most enjoyable part of writing.’ She will do several different covers and we discuss them. I always ask for 48 hours and I take them home and show them to friends and get their reactions.”
Of The Noise of Time livery, he says: “There is something about the lettering and the way she’s made the letters crush in on his head. That’s the noise of time crushing in. People who know it’s about Shostakovitch will think it’s a drawing of him. People who don’t will think this is someone being crushed, looking anxious. Why has he got a case and where is he going? A good cover shouldn’t be an answer, it should be a provoker.”
This is Barnes’ first novel since he won the Man Booker Prize with The Sense of an Ending in 2011. He is rather famously known as the inventor of the phrase “posh bingo”, which he included in a piece in the London Review of Books in the 1980s—but no one noticed until its archive was digitised. “I had been shortlisted three times before [winning], and the worst part of it is you feel—and I’ve talked to other novelists about this—you feel you’ve let your publisher down when you don’t win. One year I remember trying to cheer them up and I thought, ‘Hang on, this is a bit back to front, they should be cheering me up’.”
Winning was a relief, but it came with complex emotions. “It was three years after my wife [Pat Kavanagh, a literary agent] had died and she’d been to the Booker half a dozen times—three times with me—and none of her authors ever won it. So there was sadness there as well, and after that it was elation. And though it would be lovely to win with your third novel, if you win it in your sixties you think, ‘This means the backlist is going to get another boost, so that’s going to help me along the last stretch.’”
The Noise of Time is dedicated to Pat: “I’ve dedicated all my books to her since I’ve known her and they are still for her, yes. And I hope she would have liked it.”
Picture: Alan Edwards.