I've said it before and I'll say it again: Julian Barnes is one of my favorite authors and he deserves the Nobel Prize more than any living writer (or singer) I know. The way he uses language should be taught in all schools in the UK (which it probably is, but if it's not, it should). Everyone should have the ability to sew a story like Barnes does, seamlessly, flawlessly, taking you to one place to the other without realizing you have moved at all, and most often than not make you smile on the way (not the case in this book, but it usually is).
The Noise of Time is half novel, half biography. It tells the story of Dmitry Dmitrievich Shostakovich, the most important Soviet composer who lived most of his adult life under the iron rule of Stalin. Judging by what Barnes tells us, his work was unfairly criticized by none other than Stalin because he didn't comply with the demands of the Party, which asked for music for the people, for the masses, for the working class. Stalin, apparently, thought his work too advanced, too formal, "muddle instead of music", and forbade his opera to be performed. Shostakovich lived in fear not only of not being able to work as a composer, but also of being killed by Power. You don't mess with a man like Stalin, and he was so close to him that he even had him on the phone (always according to Barnes, of course).
I knew nothing about Shostakovich, hadn't even heard his name until I started reading the book, but that's not very strange as I know nothing about classical music. The thing that makes this book wonderful is not so much the way Barnes talks about the composer's life, but how he shows us the way people lived in the USSR under Stalin. Shostakovich had one rule: he would never join a party which kills, and was able to maintain that rule until very late in his life (I won't get into details, because you must find out by reading the book). He was a prosecuted man, as were many others, and Barnes is able to put us inside the oppressing atmosphere of a country where the wrong words (even the wrong musical notes) could put you in mortal danger.
Julian Barnes is a comedy genius, as he has demonstrated more than once in his works, but when he puts on a serious face he is even better. There is a longing in his words, as if a spark has gone off, and I'm sure it has to do with the death of his wife, which pushed into a deep depression. But even from the greatest despair he can create magic with his words, and, even though the book is a real "downer" at times, it is worth to swim in this pain if only to share it with Barnes. I really hope he stays with us much, much longer and can present us with more of his works.