Julian Barnes The Noise of Time is Masterful

By Julian Barnes
Knopf, 197 pages
* * * *
A great writer makes you care about something about which you once cared not at all. Julian Barnes is a great writer. He won the Man Booker Prize for his 2011 novel The Sense of an Ending and I suspect The Noise of Time will win some accolades of its own. Its subject is the Soviet pianist/composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) and I can safely say that his music has never been on my personal playlist. Leaving aside the fact that my taste for symphonic music is minimal, what little of Shostakovich’s music I’ve heard strikes me as over-the-top in ways that only Soviet-era music purporting to honor the proletariat can be.  As we learned, first in the official denunciation of Stalin in 1956, again after glasnost in the 1980s, and with finality after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russian communism seldom cared about the masses as much as the personal power of tyrants, the security of apparatchiks, and privileges of Communist Party members.  Shostakovich’s greatest act was that he survived three denunciations; in part by composing music for whichever way the political winds chose to blow. The consensus opinion today is that he produced several symphonic wonders, but was largely a propagandist.

Barnes provides a fictional, but plausible explanation for how Shostakovich survived. His is not a tale of music, but of a life in a regime of unnamed and often unexplained terror. It reminded me a bit of Franz Kafka’s The Trial in that Barnes places Shostakovich inside a world ruled by whim and arbitrary might rather than logic of morality. It is ultimately one that slowly sucked the humanity out of Shostakovich. Here’s how Barnes describes it: “A soul can be destroyed in one of three ways: by what others did to you; by what others made you do to yourself; and by what you voluntarily chose to do to yourself, Any single method was sufficient; though if all three were present, the outcome was irresistible.” This beautifully written passage occurs near the end of the novel, but it’s summative of how Barnes structured the novel.

Bares has three sections—movements if you will—titled “On the Landing,” “On the Plane,” and “In the Car.” The novel follows the trajectory of the above quote. Barnes also refers to each as encounters with "Power," his personification of the vampiric terror inherent in the Soviet system. In the first section, set in 1936, the young Shostakovich sits in the hallway near his apartment, waiting for what he thinks is his inevitable arrest. After several experimental compositions that brought him renown, Stalin expressed his dislike for his “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” and Pravda immediately denounced it as “muddle instead of music.” This was generally a ticket to Siberia or an anonymous date with the firing squad. Instead, Stalin and his minions decided to put fear to work in the service of propaganda. Shostakovich's “Fifth Symphony” was filled with the histrionic flourishes beloved by Stalin and the composer was resurrected at a hero.

Ahh, but at what of psychic and artistic costs? Barnes imagines Shostakovich’s inner turmoil. Move the clock ahead to 1948, when Shostakovich—over protests that he is unworthy, though Barnes imagines this as inner conflict—is on his way to New York as the Soviet representative to the Cultural and Scientific Congress for World Peace. There he will be largely shunned by peers and writers whose opinions he values: Copeland, Odets, Stravinsky…. As Shostakovich later thinks upon his life, Barnes puts these thoughts into his head: "…it was not easy being a coward. Being a hero was much easier…. To be a hero, you only had to be brave for a moment—when you took out the gun, threw the bomb, pressed the detonator, did away with the tyrant, and yourself as well. But to be a coward was to embark on a career that lasted a lifetime. You couldn't even relax." What wisdom—and what writing!

Shostakovich's third encounter with Power occurred in 1960, by which time he had been rehabilitated a second time. (His music had been declared "formalist.") We find him in a car about to assume another duty he does not want: chair of the Russian Federated Union of Composers, a post that makes the former judged the judge of a new generation of musicians and composers. In other words, he is now Khrushchev's puppet. Safe at last? Barnes writes, "All he knew was this was the worst time of all. The worst time was not the same as the most dangerous time. Because the most dangerous time was not the time the time you are in most danger…." A tautology, or deep insight?

Again, it's important to realize that The Noise of Time is fiction, not historical biography. We don't know how much of this Shostakovich actually thought, but the glory of this novel is that I immersed myself into the mind of a person about whom I hitherto cared not a wit. Moreover, Barnes made me do so by paying scant attention to the very reason anyone would care about Shostakovich: his music. There's no reason to mince words—Julian Barnes is a masterful writer who melds prose into psychological drama. His writing is economical, but the weight of his well-chosen words is profound.

Rob Weir

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