The Noise of Time

Pablo-Picasso-Guernica-1937-1

The Noise of Time is the title of a novel by Julian Barnes based on the life of the Russian composer Dimitri Shostakovitch. Here is the beginning of an elegant review in The Guardian:

Julian Barnes’s last novel, the Man Booker-winning The Sense of an Ending (2011), engaged in subtle and sustained dialogue with the book whose title it pilfered, Frank Kermode’s brilliant 1967 work of narrative theory, also called The Sense of an Ending. Barnes’s latest, The Noise of Time, borrows its title from Osip Mandelstam’s memoirs, and again the earlier work casts interesting light upon Barnes’s project. Mandlestam was one of Stalin’s most outspoken critics, his fate sealed with the words of his 1933 Stalin Epigram. He was exiled in the Great Terror and died in a Vladivostok transit camp in 1938. The subject of The Noise in Time is not the brave, doomed Mandelstam, though, but a rarer genius, one whose art continued to flourish despite the oppressive attentions of the Soviet authorities: Dmitri Shostakovich.

The Noise of Time initially appears to be the latest addition to a hybrid literary form with which we are increasingly familiar–the fictional biography. Recent examples range from Colm Tóibin’s The Master (which presented a repressed and unhappy Henry James) to Nuala O’Connor’s excellent Miss Emily (which gave us a willful and tormented Emily Dickinson). As with all great novels, though–and make no mistake, this is a great novel, Barnes’s masterpiece–the particular and intimate details of the life under consideration beget questions of universal significance: the operation of power upon art, the limits of courage and endurance, and the sometimes intolerable demands of personal integrity and conscience.

I have been sitting with the title. It feels so apt to our time.

As I understand the phrase, both Mandelstam and Shostakovitch struggled with how to hear themselves, and how to make their voices heard, over the noise of their time.

Great art, literature, and music characteristically transcend political categories, even when engaged with the issues of their time. There is within each of a like capacity for transcendence in our private lives, in the capacity to hear our inner voices. The noise of our time seeks to steal the inner silence we need.

Strategies for protecting inner silence differ. Some seek not to let the news in. Others let the news in but keep it fenced off from the parts they hold dear. Still others–who like to do their creative work in noisy places–create an inner resistance as a stimulus to creativity.

This is not an argument for quietism. The times call us to protect everything we hold dear. It is, instead, a reminder that, among the things we hold dear, perhaps the most important is the silence at our core. We need to protect our ability to hear the sounds of silence.