The Noise of Time review – Julian Barnes’s masterpiece
Shostakovich’s battle with his conscience is explored in a magnificent fictionalised retelling of the composer’s life under Stalin
Sunday 17 January 2016 07.00 GMT
ulian 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.
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Photo by Alan Edwards
Poster by T.A.
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 wilful 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, the sometimes intolerable demands of personal integrity and conscience.
This novel, like its predecessor, gives us the breadth of a whole life within the pages of a slim book, written in an intimately close third person. The reader visits the composer during three critical moments in his life, the decades between skipped over with extraordinary panache, a bravura performance of Italo Calvino’s maxim that “time takes no time in a story”. We first meet Shostakovich as “a man standing by a lift, at his feet a small case containing cigarettes, underwear and tooth powder; standing there and waiting to be taken away”. A damning Pravda editorial, probably penned by Stalin, has denounced the composer’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District as “non-political and confusing” because it “tickled the perverted taste of the bourgeois with its fidgety, neurotic music”. Shostakovich waits for his first “Conversation with Power” – interrogation by the NKVD – and, presumably, exile or worse.
Our next encounter with Shostakovich is after the war, on a propaganda tour of the US. His visit is prompted by his second “Conversation with Power”, this time a telephone call from Stalin himself that recalls a similar call in Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate (a novel that echoes within The Noise of Time). Restored to the party’s good books by the success of his patriotic “Leningrad” Symphony, Shostakovich is delivering a series of speeches denouncing his own work and, particularly, that of Stravinsky, whom he likes and admires. He reads his speech in a “muttered monotone”, hoping the words will be taken for what they are – dictations from the state. In the audience, though, is Nicolas Nabokov (Vladimir’s cousin and in the pay of the CIA), who forces Shostakovich to reiterate his endorsement of the views of Zhdanov, the man “who had persecuted him since 1936, who had banned him and derided him and threatened him, who had compared his music to that of a road drill and a mobile gas chamber”. It is a moment of abject, torturous humiliation for the composer.
The third section of the novel gives us an elderly Shostakovich, sitting in the back of a chauffeur-driven car, made bitter by the inexhaustible demands of the party, even now that Stalin’s terror has given way to the reign of “Nikita the Corncob”. Shostakovich describes himself as a hunchback, “morally, spiritually”, a man shattered in body and spirit: “He could not live with himself. It was just a phrase, but an exact one. Under the pressure of Power, the self cracks and splits.” We witness his “final, most ruinous Conversation with Power”, when the oleaginous functionary Pospelov forces him to join the party and take up a position entirely within the fold, as chairman of the Russian Federation Union of Composers. Shostakovich succinctly diagnoses his own greatest fault: “He had lived too long.”
Around halfway through the novel there is a passage that operates as a kind of appeal to the reader, and also a statement about what kind of book this is: “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 here 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.” Here we sense the ghost of Osip Mandelstam, providing a heroic vision of what might have been for Shostakovich – an early death, lauded by some, forgotten by most. Instead, we get the old man, churning out bombastic, grandiloquent public music and composing his masterpieces – his late string quartets – in private, all the while knowing that “music is not like Chinese eggs: it does not improve by being kept underground for years and years”.
Throughout The Noise of Time, I kept thinking of JM Coetzee (not a writer I’d have associated Barnes with before). Most obviously Coetzee’s underrated fictional biography of Dostoevsky, The Master of Petersburg, but more often and more interestingly, Disgrace. In that novel, the hero, David Lurie, is offered an easy way out of a tawdry fix at the beginning of the book; instead, driven by a stubborn sense of personal integrity, he subjects himself to untold privations until the novel’s extraordinary, quasi-religious ending.
Shostakovich, like Lurie, understands that his torments have ancient roots: “He knew his Bible well. So he was familiar with the notion of sin; also with its public mechanism. The offence, the priest’s judgment on the matter, the act of contrition, the forgiveness. Though there were occasions when the sin was too great and not even a priest could forgive it.” Every morning, in lieu of a prayer, he recites to himself a poem by Evtushenko – “But time has a way of demonstrating / The most stubborn are the most intelligent… I shall therefore pursue my career / By trying not to pursue one.”
The composer’s decline into ill health, the withering of his spirit, his hope that “death would liberate his music… from his life” – Barnes presents Shostakovich’s final downward spiral with a kind of ruthless inevitability (and inevitability is, as Susan Snyder says, the signal note of tragedy). Alexei Tolstoy wrote in Pravda of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony: “Here the personality submerges itself in the great epoch that surrounds it, and begins to resonate with the epoch.” Barnes has achieved a similar feat with a period of history, and a place, that despite their remoteness, are rendered in exquisite, intimate detail. He has given us a novel that is powerfully affecting, a condensed masterpiece that traces the lifelong battle of one man’s conscience, one man’s art, with the insupportable exigencies of totalitarianism.
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The Noise of Time review – Julian Barnes’s masterpiece