Novelists have every right to use historical data to lend their works verisimilitude, and they are free to go beyond the facts, wherever their fancy leads them. Historians, though, are bound by circumstances, condemned to whatever partial, obstructed view their sources grant them. Their only recourse is to keep on looking and pray. Meanwhile, novelists can soar and gain an untrammeled vista.
But what are they actually seeing? Sometimes they deliberately describe what never was. Sometimes they claim more. In a draft for “War and Peace,” Tolstoy wrote that he really wanted to tell the history of Russia’s Napoleonic war but that if he undertook the task without fictional admixture, it would “force me to be governed by historical documents rather than the truth.”
What is that truth, which goes beyond the documents? Whatever it is, Tolstoy’s pursuit of it gave us “War and Peace,” so it can’t be such a bad thing. But more recently, it has given us Julian Barnes’s novel “The Noise of Time,” which pretends to give us the truth, not just the facts, about the composer Dmitri Shostakovich.
This book, I think, is a beautifully written botch, and it has me wondering anew about truth. People have been doing that, of course, for a long time — at least since Pilate confronted Christ. And the wrangling over what the truth might be about Shostakovich and his experiences under Stalin has been going on, it sometimes seems, almost as long.
Musicologist Richard Taruskin on Julian Barnes’ new novel about Shostakovitch.