Review: ‘The Noise of Time’

Some congratulated him on his endurance, his refusal to submit, the solid core beneath the hysterical surface. He saw only what was gone.

Dmitri Shostakovich is lauded today, as he was in his lifetime, as one of the central composers of the 20th century classical tradition. Despite his sustained popularity, he has divided musicologists and performers alike for his seeming inability to engage with the innovative experiments of his contemporaries. The maestro Pierre Boulez once argued that:

The musical substance of his work is trivial. Okay, I can accept that he worked under great pressure, that he was afraid and that he rebelled discreetly. But, for me, that’s not enough of an excuse.

In his latest novel, The Noise of Time, Man Booker Prize-winner Julian Barnes delves deep into the story of the man behind the music. He attempts to elucidate the pressure and fear to which Boulez alludes and, perhaps, to explore the extent to which individuals can passively rebel against autocracy in cases such as the Soviet Union.      

Barnes builds his narrative around three key incidents in Shostakovich’s life, which he terms his three “conversations with Power.” Through these conversations the reader is shown the gradual destruction of the composer’s soul, a process which is ironically exacerbated as the danger to his life decreases. The first conversation takes place at “the Big House” in Leningrad, the city’s base for the security services and interior ministry. Following the condemnation of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in an editorial by Pravda, the state newspaper and mouthpiece of Stalin, a young but artistically confident Shostakovich is convinced he will be removed to the gulag. He is only reprieved by the arbitrary removal of his main accuser, allowing him to escape bodily peril and rebuild his career. The second is a phone conversation with Stalin himself, in which the dictator secures his agreement to act as a peace envoy to New York, despite the composer’s qualms about supporting the regime. During the trip he is forced to denounce the works of Stravinsky, whom he greatly admired, and to reiterate his constant belief in Lenin’s maxim that art belongs to the people. Finally, we are shown his ultimate submission to tyranny, as he is persuaded to join the Party in his old age.

There is something distinctly Orwellian in Barnes’s rendering of this capitulation, as the composer’s ability to quietly rebel is finally extinguished and he becomes part of the faceless establishment which he abhors. Allusions to Faust might also be appropriate in the transactional nature of the final conversation: Shostakovich’s once condemned opera is rehabilitated and his reputation is finally cleansed of disgrace. Though his public persona has attained glory, privately he has condemned and disgraced himself, described by Barnes as “a man crushed into a hundred pieces of rubble, vainly trying to remember how they – he – had once fitted together.” Though these conversations take place between senior government officials and a national celebrity (insofar as a celebrity could exist in the Soviet Union), this is by no means the tragedy of a defeated hero. Instead Barnes examines the effect of such events on a man who is essentially a coward: his private life reliant on alcohol and a series of quite maternal wives, unable, in his public life, to take a noble last stand in the face of the oppression that guided and limited his work.              

51wBPUwJ9ML._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Some reviewers have questioned the style of Barnes’s prose, one describing it as bearing the hint of a patronizing history lesson.” He has been criticized for being too narrative or descriptive, and for not engaging enough with the emotional aspects of his characters. Much of the novel, with the exception of the “conversations,” mixes a fast-paced recounting of the composer’s life-story with more philosophical deliberations on the conflict he experiences. There are times when people already familiar with the life of Shostakovich might feel like they are reading an especially erudite Wikipedia article, but the intended effect is surely to reimagine the internal wrangling in the composer’s mind during the external events described. The occasionally repetitive biographical sections are not (just) Barnes showing off his extensive research – they are rather the constant repetition of such events in Shostakovich’s head, as he attempts to place his life in a coherent context. A similar explanation can be made for the philosophical posturing interspersed throughout the narrative. Opaque musings such as “The worst time was not the same as the most dangerous time. Because the most dangerous time was not the time when you were most in danger,” are not an attempt to befuddle an idle reader, but instead reflect a tortured and cowardly artistic mind trying to make sense of a varied and continual bombardment by the forces arraigned against him.        

Barnes’s mastery of form consolidates the impression that we are witnessing the inner workings of a tortured artistic mind. The novel is built around three central episodes, akin to the movements of a concerto, which each contain an outpouring of fragmentary paragraphs of varying length. These fragments stylishly mimic the workings of human consciousness: I for one don’t think in chapters. They also enable the reiteration of motifs such as the tonal triad made by the chink of three vodka glasses, or the roses strewn by someone else on the grave the composer’s second love. When long passages are read in a single sitting the effect of this fragmentary layering becomes clearer. A rhythm develops which at times is as strong as music, and no less compelling.      

When all else failed, when there seems to be nothing but nonsense in the world, he held to this: that good music would always be good music, and great music would be impregnable.

Though this passage appears in the midst of the novel, it seems to be Barnes’s ultimate conclusion about his subject’s relationship with the world in which he found himself. Those in power during his lifetime alternate between glorifying and condemning Shostakovich, in both cases horribly misinterpreting his oeuvre, but the composer finds small solace in the knowledge that his music will outlast his lifetime, evidence of his genius and his refusal to musically concede to the tyrants above him. To the weak and cowed composer, there is the resolution that “art is the whisper of history above the noise of time.” To adapt Larkin’s famous and misinterpreted line, Barnes seems to suggest that at the conclusion of our earthly struggles, what will survive of us is art.

As Shostakovich’s quiet descent into depression and submission is laid out before us, however, it becomes apparent that Barthes believes art does not survive “of us.” Instead, great art endures ceaselessly, regardless of human intervention. Unlike the somewhat clichéd idea that performance can be a transcendental or “otherworldly” revelation, espoused in works such as Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music, Barnes suggests that music exists outside of conscious performance, unrestrained by human iteration. The novel ends with reference again to that sublimely understated tonal triad created by the vodka glasses. It is this matter of timely coincidence, an accident of noise which occurs from the most banal of exchanges, which provides Barnes’s Shostakovich with his consolation.

Ben Horton

‘The Noise of Time’ is published by Jonathan Cape and is currently available in hardback, RRP £14.99.

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