While reading Julian Barnes's latest novel, I recalled the day forty years ago when Philippe Petit spent an hour on a cable slung between the tops of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre. The image of that minuscule figure dancing back and forth between those massive buildings was a perfect metaphor for the life of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–75), who was forever torn between responsibility to his art and what Joseph Stalin saw as his responsibility to the state.
Shostakovich's story is well known and some of the issues arising from it have been contentious among historians for decades. Barnes has not written a history but a biographical novel, with all of the freedom that implies. The Noise of Time, a short book, quickly brings Shostakovich to life and then shifts backwards and forwards in time, fleshing out his complex character and the burgeoning pressures heaped on him, along with the intermittent laurels (including several Lenin and Stalin Prizes). The writing moves swiftly, like a stone skipping across a pond, light touches leaving deep ripples. The novel is a pleasure to read, even as it guides the reader inexorably into the leaden world of the USSR and of Stalin in particular: a world of fear and fear's nasty sidekick, anxiety. As well as offering a vivid and tormented Shostakovich, there is a studied reminder of the determination of Soviet leaders to control every means of communication, especially music, partly because Stalin himself liked music, knew its power, and indeed appreciated many of Shostakovich's compositions for films.