Catriona Kelly at Prospect Magazine:
Where historians subside into embarrassed silence, novelists speak. In The Noise of Time, the different variants of the Lenin story are among many pointers to the fluidity of Shostakovich’s relations with his past: “These days, he no longer knew what version to trust. He lies like an eyewitness, as the story goes.” In an anecdote that frames the novel and is also repeated within it, three men drink a vodka toast on a wartime station platform: “one to hear, one to remember, and one to drink.” The Shostakovich of Barnes’s imagining includes all three: the barely surviving crippled alcoholic, limbless on his trolley, practising “a technique for survival”; the bespectacled listener who offers him vodka with egregious courtesy; and the anonymous witness, who disappears even from recollection after the desultory encounter.
Not that Barnes’s purpose is anything to do with allegory. But The Noise of Time, largely based on memoirs (those collected by Elizabeth Wilson as well as Solomon Volkov’s) is a book about Shostakovich’s memories, rather than a straightforward fictional account of his life. Complaining that the Leningrad symphony doesn’t figure, or that Barnes omits Shostakovich’s work as a teacher of composition, or as a deputy of the Supreme Soviet (and a conscientious one) would be obtuse. It would be equally otiose to point out that as well as agonising over his new version of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Shostakovich negotiated hard over the 1966 film version and insisted only the Kiev production was used. The Noise of Time is a distillation of experience into insomniac self-questioning, or the vertiginous doubt, otkhodnyak, that succeeds the temporary confidence of a vodka high. The mode is interior monologue, but in the third person sometimes used about themselves by particularly sensitive individuals alienated, lifelong, from their own lives.