Julian Barnes’s first novel since winning the Booker Prize in 2011, The Noise of Time (2015) is a fragmented depiction of life as an artist under the totalitarianism of twentieth century Russia.

In 1936, Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich waits, suitcase at his side, by the lift in his apartment block. It is the middle of the night and the renowned composer stands vigil, fully dressed, prepared to be taken away to the “Big House” for questioning about his political beliefs. His opera 'Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk' has just been declared “Muddle instead of Music” by state newspaper Pravda after Stalin himself has attended a performance. So begins Dmitri Dmitrievich’s conversation with Power.

Jumping forward twelve years to 1948 (another leap year), Shostakovich’s reputation is a little resuscitated, fear pushed back by a few degrees. Dispatched as a representative of the Soviet Union to the Cultural and Scientific Congress for World Peace in New York at Stalin’s request, the composer brushes up against not only Western Capitalism but Western Liberalism too, with all its fuzzy notions about the Communist project in Russia. Delivering a speech prepared for him pronouncing the virtues of the Soviet model of music and condemning fellow composers such as Stravinsky, Shostakovich conducts his duties without voicing any substantial dissent and returns to Russia in tact if with a sense of being openly compromised.

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes book coverThe final movement in this trio of conversations with Power occurs after the death of Stalin. In 1960 Russia is under the leadership of Nikita Khrushchev who has ushered in a more liberal political atmosphere. Yet simply to have survived Stalin’s term puts Shostakovich under suspicion and even in this new Russia the battered composer is not allowed to relax, forced always to exist under the watchful eye of Power. Pronouncements are now delivered with a sweeter smile and yet Shostakovich is under no illusion about his own creative freedom. Informed that he is to be made Chairman of the Russian Federation Union of Composers, one final request is made of Shostakovich: that he join the Party.

Through these three movements, Barnes finds a way to weave into his narrative bigger ideas about Art and Freedom, Bravery and Cowardice. It feels inappropriate to suggest that a man’s life can be used merely as a vehicle to explore interesting ideas but that is, in essence, what The Noise of Time does. There is a certain irony in Barnes appropriating Shostakovich’s life for the purposes of playing with these ideas given the way in which the composer’s personal story was co-opted by the State during his lifetime and how frequently it has been picked over since. In this sense, the discussion around the right to one’s own story flows beyond the pages of the text and to its very creation.

Told through a series of extremely short vignettes (rarely do they spread across more than two paragraphs), the story gives a sense of a life lived under constant fear, existing in staccato movements, never sure what, if anything, will come next. Characters drift in and out of memory and give shape to the disrupted stream of consciousness, but so much is told in snatches. The novel’s world is that of Orwell’s 1984: close, suffocating, and with eyes watching, always watching. It is far from the ideal atmosphere in which art might flourish and yet, through all the constrictions placed on him by the state, Shostakovich nevertheless endured and became recognised as one of the great composers of the twentieth century.

Such did not come without compromise however, and Barnes does not go particularly lightly on his subject. As the threads of Shostakovich’s solipsistic narrative begin to weave together the picture of an increasingly compromised man, there is a sense of self-loathing present in the mind that is demonstrably cracking under the pressure of living in constant fear. And yet the more his subject slips into murky psychological waters, the more Barnes humanises him. This is probably just as well as we get a lot of the darkness in Shostakovich’s life with little of the light and to be able to see the virtue in merely surviving a totalitarian regime, at any cost to personal integrity, allows the reader to connect with the character, if only a little.

As Seneca’s famous phrase goes, “Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.” It is a sentiment Shostakovich consoles himself with as he considers his own survival and those dissident voices that have been silenced permanently, quashing not only their owners’ criticisms of the state but so too any opportunity they might have had at creating art, even compromised art. It is fitting then, that the titular phrase is borrowed from Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, a noisy critic of Stalin whose life ended in the Gulags. In essence there is a reflection in Mandelstam of what Shostakovich might have been and perhaps what many idealists might have wanted him to be: an angry voice, silenced, all opportunity for creativity extinguished but integrity maintained. There is an implicit criticism of those voices who call for such ‘bravery’ from the safety of foreign countries:
Those who understood a little better, who supported you, and yet at the same time were disappointed in you... They wanted martyrs to prove the regime’s wickedness... How many martyrs would it take to prove that the regime was truly, monstrously, carnivorously evil? More, always more... What they didn’t understand, these self-nominated friends, was how similar they were to Power itself: However much you gave, they wanted more.
Barnes puts into Shostakovich’s mouth a back-handed retort to such opinion in the novel’s final pages:
To be a hero, you only had to be brave for a moment … But to be a coward was to embark on a career that lasted a lifetime … Being a coward required pertinacity, persistence, a refusal to change – which made it, in a way, a kind of courage. He smiled to himself and lit another cigarette. The pleasures of irony had not yet deserted him.
Shostakovich is too sharp a man to be fooled by his own self-deceptions and therein lies his internal tragedy: “He had lived too long… long enough to be dismayed by himself.” His last consolation is that he might have survived long enough to produce music that will outlive him. “What could be put up against the noise of time?” the composer wonders. “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.”

Art as the transcendent force is a familiar theme in Barnes’s writing but whether it can truly carry in it truths about a life that was stifled is open for debate. Is Shostakovich kidding himself, or does he really believe that music will rewrite the skewed history of his life? This is one of the beautifully worked ironies of the novel – just as Shostakovich begins to lose sight of whether he is being ironic or not, the reader feels closest to him. “There could be a smugness to irony… You woke up one morning and no longer knew if your tongue was in your cheek; and even if it was, whether that mattered any more…” The narrative itself is laced with the irony that Shostakovich recognises in his own and the Russian character for the most part but which ultimately fails him. It is one of the things that sets him apart from Power: the ability to appreciate the nuances of irony, in music or otherwise.

Fictionalised biography – the oxymoronic genre – is by no means an easy feat to pull off, particularly in the present example where so little appears to happen in the physical world of the novel with most told from within the mind of the subject. There will be readers who simply dislike the style of inserting an internal monologue into the mind of a historical figure. Barnes is open to this fact and in an endnote recommends for the reader who has not enjoyed his work, a biography of Shostakovich by Elizabeth Wilson, on which Barnes has obviously drawn heavily. Although fictionalised biography exists in a large part to bring the reader closer to the character there is an extreme coolness in Barnes’s prose that can make the reader feel quite apart from the story and many pages can flick by without inciting any strong emotion but then, in true Barnes style, a seemingly innocuous sentence lands a blow so close to the heart as to render the reader quite dumbfounded. I found myself regularly floored by these cerebral insights that burst from the mundanity of everyday existence and speak to something more visceral. Despite these more profound phrases, the majority of the prose is quieter: one is never presented with Shostakovich truly agonising over the choices he is forced to make. Rather, the reader gets the impression of a man who is simply placing one foot in front of another, trying to survive. This feels somehow apt as it is not until you look back on a life that you necessarily notice the defining choices that were made and which shaped it. In a life where continuing existence is always in doubt, it does not pay to view life through too wide a lens and there is certainly a sense that while Existentialism was a philosophical topic for discussion in trendy cafes across Western Europe in the mid-twentieth century, for the artist in Russia it was simply a reality.

The Noise of Time is a hard book to recommend (as good as I believe it to be) as it is an unusual piece and one that will probably miss the mark with as many readers as it hits with. For those not familiar with Shostakovich, picking up the novel may be a daunting feat, dropped into the middle of the composer’s life without any of the regular niceties of fiction as one is. Yet there is something hugely affecting about this short novel, something that transcends the life it depicts and which makes it infinitely readable. Undoubtedly this is what Barnes intends and through Shostakovich’s life he finds a way to discuss the production of art under repressive forces and the value it has to transcend a life and amend a biography, what integrity or the lack of it can do to an artist, and how bravery can be a constructed irony or a quiet resilience. Most of all, there is a sense that life is a survival game in which each player chooses his own method for fulfilling his evolutionary imperative: "Below a certain point, that was what all men became: techniques for survival."

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