Revising a Famous Life – The Noise of Time

thinking-clipart-4c9LRXncEAfter someone dies, we often tend to canonize the person, conveniently forgetting the foibles and character flaws.  In Richard Taruskin’s essay for the New York Times – Martyr or Survivor? That Depends  – he questions Julian Barnes’ portrayal of the life of famous Russian composer in his novel The Noise of Time.

In Barnes story, Shostakovich reluctantly agreed to compose for the Russian despots, and managed rebellious chords to preserve his own sound and work his way to worldwide fame.  Taruskin notes the “dubious sources” used by Barnes to create a more positive persona for the composer – a “passive pawn” of politics, and argues Shostakovich should be given credit for a better sense of politics and more intelligence in handling his Russian overseers.

When reading The Noise of Time, I was forced to find more about the life of the famous composer, to compare notes with Barnes’ story.  For the first time, I listened to his famous operas – “The Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.”  Barnes had opened a new window for me.   As for the fictionalization of Shastokovich’s life, Barnes produced a testament from his own perception, possibly more positive than real.  But this is fiction, after all.

Sometimes it’s hard to remember how author’s have the ability to change and reframe history in their fiction.  Once, at a book club meeting, a member insisted on Frank Lloyd Wright’s accurate conversation with his mistress in Loving Frank, and it took some a debate to decide the author Nancy Horan had really not been under the bed, but had created a fictionalized version of her own.   The power of the novel to convince the reader is a testament to the author; its factual content can be disregarded or researched – the story still holds.

But the danger is, of course, believing everything you read.  There was a time, when the printing press was first invented, when the written word was gospel.  We have come a long way with critical debates of content, and today the political word is more often questioned than believed.  If The Noise of Time offers a simplistic view of Shostakovich – a Western rationization and a hopeful wish of his leaning away from the terrors of his time, it only confirms what readers want to believe – a view maybe Barnes was shrewd in capitalizing on.

Have you read it?

Review of the book: The Noise of Time




When the Timing is Off

After downloading Nancy Horan’s historical fiction about the life of Robert Louis Stevenson – Under the Wide and Starry Sky – I stopped at chapter 2.  Having enjoyed her first book, Loving Frank, her version of Frank Lloyd Wright’s tumultuous affair with Mamah Borthwick Cheney, I decided the library book that had just arrived would offer a better approach than my iPhone. Maybe I needed real pages to turn.  Painstakingly, I persevered through fourteen chapters (of 90), and stopped again.

The not so well-known relationship of the frail R.L. Stevenson and Fanny Osbourne, a married woman with a free spirit and a penchant for being a painter, has been tapped by the Today Show for its Book Club.  Susan Cokal for the New York Times notes in her review that “the early chapters provide a stirring overture, with enough lyrical emotion and fervent aspiration to satisfy even a 19th-­century reader.”  

But Sarah Bryan Miller of the St. Louis Post Dispatch says: “{the plot} sometimes plods, as Horan seemingly tries to work in every episode of the couple’s lives together over 20 years…”  As with Loving Frank, Horan manages to be the fly on the wall to hear all those fictional conversations.

I just can’t get into it. I’ll try again later – maybe.  Have you read it?