Julian Barnes is a writer who does not waste words. While his subjects are often difficult and his novels contain references to specialized subjects, his writing is accessible to all readers through his clear ideas, deep understanding, and well-considered use of language. He has a very, very fine turn of phrase, no doubt about that. While always approaching his novels with a sense of trepidation, hoping I could “get” them, I now think of them as treasure boxes – foreboding when closed but glorious once unlocked. That is what The Noise of Time is like. For me, it was a completely serendipitous discovery of the marvel that is Dmitri Shostakovich, and his music. No novel is ever as delightful as those ones that you begin with worry, and end with a sense of a new world revealed to you.
While Barnes’ intellectualism is clear in all his novels, in this one in particular, his feeling, his passion, for the composer (the man) and his music succeeds in both moving and enthralling the reader. The idea is compelling – an imagined life of Russian composer and pianist Shostakovich as a suffering, terrified, instrument of Soviet Russian propaganda and government control, and an artist not free to express himself – but desperate to do so. But that idea, combined with Barnes’ almost supernatural ability to depict the workings of the mind of a long-dead composer, and make the reader cry with pity for him, now that is genius. Trust me. The book is little. The cover is plain. But the rave reviews are more than justified.
In terms of plot, this is Barnes’ imagining of the most pivotal moments in Shostakovich’s life – it’s a novel, not a biography. And it is not a technical analysis of his music. It depicts the man at odds with a powerful regime, and the clash of art and politics. Shostakovich gets the attention of Joseph Stalin in a particularly repressive, brutal time in Soviet Russia’s history. Stalin and the Communist Party is represented in Shostakovich’s mind as “the Power”. He is famous and talented, and does not belong to the Communist Party. But the regime wants to use him to advance their cause.
“Why, he wondered, had Power now turned its attention to music, and to him? Power had always been more interested in the word than the note: writers, not composers, had been proclaimed the engineers of human souls. Writers were condemned on page one of Pravda, composers on page three. Two pages apart. And yet it was not nothing: it could make the difference between death and life. The engineers of human souls: a chilly, mechanistic phrase. And yet…what was the artist’s business with, if not the human soul? Unless an artist wanted to be merely decorative, or merely a lapdog of the rich and powerful.” (p.40)
The phrases, “engineers of human souls” , “the noise of time”, “the muddle of music” and “an optimistic Shostakovich” are phrases that are repeated, with ever-increasing intensity and depth, through the novel. Shostakovich wanted to be none of them: not an engineer of human souls, nor part of the “noise of time” (history, politics, wars, everything that generates a lot of drama, but passes), nor a composer of muddled pieces, nor optimistic. Barnes depicts him as a self-confessed weakling, a coward, a worrier, someone who ran from his troubles. Yet Shostakovich, for all his self-doubt, composed and conducted all his life, regardless. He simply gave up protesting and let his reputation be abused at the will of “the Power”, so long as he could write music.
“To be Russian was to be pessimistic; to be Soviet was to be optimistic. That was why the words Soviet Russia were a contradiction in terms. Power had never understood this. It thought that if you killed off enough of the population, and fed the rest a diet of propaganda and terror, then optimism would result. But where was the logic in that? Just as they kept on telling him, in various ways and words, through musical bureaucrats and newspaper editorials, that what they wanted was “an optimistic Shostakovich”. Another contradiction in terms.” (p.74)
The enduring memory of the book that I, and many other readers, will have, is the image of Shostakovich standing at the elevator in his building, waiting with his little packed suitcase to be arrested and taken away by the secret police. (Presumably that’s why some editions of the book has a cover image of this very moment.)
Day after day he does this, while his wife and children wait in terror in their apartment a few feet away. They never do come and get him. But that sense of a Sword of Damocles dangling above his head continued for years and years, through the regimes of Josef Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhnev and their successors, until his death in 1975. Throughout the novel, the sense of impending doom remains.
Who does art belong to?
Who does art belong to? is the key question that all artists and students of art had to be able to answer in the Soviet Union. In the novel, the answer, as Lenin had decreed, was that Art Belonged to the People, and so artists must produce work that appealed to the people. Shostakovich’s work was damned for being “Muddle Instead of Music”, and not music for the people. As such, his music could not be played, he could not get work, he could not conduct orchestras, his new compositions could not be presented to the public. The moment that he has to betray his beliefs in public during a trip to America, for the sake of saving himself, is truly terrible to read. Few people had an inking what he was being forced to say:
“Then there were those who understood a little better, who supported you, and yet at the same time were disappointed in you. Who did not grasp the one simple fact about the Soviet Union: that it was impossible to tell the truth there and live. Who imagined they knew how Power operated and wanted you to fight it as they believed they would do in your position. In other words, they wanted your blood. They wanted martyrs to prove the regime’s wickedness but you were to be the martyr. And how many martyrs would it take to prove that the regime was truly, monstrously, carnivorously evil? More, always more. “ (p. 115)
These days we all know countries where freedom of expression is repressed, where people cannot tell the truth and live. So readers can grasp the sheer terror of his situation. But what made Shostakovich continue to compose? Just this belief:
“What could be up against the noise of time? Only that music which is inside ourselves – the music of our being – which is transformed by some into real music. Which, over the decades, if it is strong and true and pure enough to drown out the noise of time, is transformed into the whisper of history. This was what he held to.” (p.135)
And sure enough, his music endured, and the Soviet Union did not, nor did the bureaucrats and politicians who tried to stop him. Was the man who Barnes depicts in The Noise of Time the “real” Dmitri Shostakovich? Musicologists and historians might differ. But Barnes achieves with this novel an emotional engagement between readers and this misunderstood, somewhat contentious composer which few other writers could achieve. Listen to this piece: Romance from Shostakovich’s composition The Gadfly Suite, Op. 97a, with Jonathan Carney on violin. It is just one of hundreds he composed, and perhaps not the most critically acclaimed. But nevertheless, doesn’t that just silence the noise of time?
About the header:
The Naval Jack of the Russian cruiser Varyag (Varangian), moored at the Port of Vancouver, Canada, 11 November 2011. Photo by MM Bijman. Edited image of Dmitri Shostakovich, in Moscow, 1964 (Getty Images).