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The Russia News

May 28, 2022 7:12 pm

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Soviet Roulette: Julian Barnes’ Noise of Time


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 Since the pandemic arrived, I’ve taken a bit of a hiatus from Russian subjects, reading widely.  However, I try to make sure a few Russian books, or Russia-themed books, stay in the mix.  I happened about Julian Barnes’ novel on Shostakovich in a roundabout way. I had just finished several books by Flaubert, and was in particular greatly impressed by A Sentimental Education.  This, in turn, led me to pick up Barnes’ magnificently clever paean to the master stylist, Flaubert’s Parrot.  After that, I needed to find another Barnes book immediately, so selected Noise of Time.  Well, Noise of Time can’t compete with either A Sentimental Education or Flaubert’s Parrot, but Barnes does do a wonderful job of depicting the moral dilemma of many ordinary (and extraordinary) Soviet citizens.  For Shostakovich was neither pure saint nor pure sinner.  Like many, he lived through the Great Terror and entered into the Thaw in a somewhat traumatized state.  While I didn’t find Barnes had all that much to say about Shostakovich as a musician or artist, he did help demonstrated the complexity of making one’s way in a totalitarian society.  Of course, Shostakovich’s own memoir, Testimony, is an even more eloquent account of survival in Soviet society.  That great work is filled with Shostakovich’s rage and bitterness at all kinds of people who made dark compromises with power.  Some have argued that Volkov actually authored (or too actively curated) this memoir, but even if he did, the work expresses deep truths about moral corruption.  Rubenstein’s  biography of Ehrenberg, Tangled Loyalties, is another exceptionally insightful take on artists who managed to maintain some moral integrity despite being frequently called upon to serve as apologists for Stalinism and post-Stalinism.   

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