Book review: The Noise of Time finds Julian Barnes on brilliant form

The Booker-winning British novelist examines three crucial moments in the life of Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich when his integrity was tested and found wanting

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 January, 2016, 6:01am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 January, 2016, 6:01am

The Noise of Time

by Julian Barnes

Jonathan Cape

A bad review was not a trivial matter for a composer in Soviet Russia, especially if the reviewer happened to be Joseph Stalin. In January 1936 an editorial appeared in Pravda, with “enough grammatical errors to suggest the pen of one who could never be corrected”, describing Dmitri Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk as “muddle instead of music”.

The article was followed by a summons to KGB headquarters where the composer was invited to denounce various colleagues: “You must recall every detail of all the discussions regarding the plot against Comrade Stalin.” Luck intervened: this was the height of the purges, and the interrogator himself was arrested before Shostakovich could come to any harm.

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But his music could no longer be safely played and, possibly worse, he got a glimpse of his own large capacity for cowardice. Two more such “conversations with Power” were to occur during Shostakovich’s fraught life: each, in its own way, as frightening, degrading and subtly corrupting as the first. Together they form the central events in the three sections of the gripping new novel by Julian Barnes, winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize for The Sense of an Ending.

The second comes in 1948, when Stalin asks the composer to represent the Soviet Union at the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace in New York the following year. Attempting to refuse on the grounds that his music is currently banned in Russia, Shostakovich finds himself instantly rehabilitated. (There’s a blackly comic moment where Stalin, ruler over time as well as space, informs him that his works “can all be freely played. This has always been the case.”) Dispatched to New York, he is compelled to read a long speech denouncing his idol, Stravinsky, and then further shamed by the smug grandstanding of Nicolas Nabokov (Vladimir’s cousin), an émigré composer comfortably out of Stalin’s reach.

The third “conversation” occurs in 1960, under Khrushchev. Swimming in honours by this point (“like a shrimp in shrimp-cocktail sauce”, as he sardonically puts it to himself), the composer has nevertheless managed to avoid becoming an actual party member. But now this, too, is required of him, and with his usual private excuse that he is doing it purely ironically he rolls over again, resigning himself once and for all to the contempt of history and his own conscience.

In part, The Noise of Time offers itself as a cubist biography in the manner of Flaubert’s Parrot, cycling and recycling choice vignettes through memory and reflection as well as real time, to create an intimately illuminating montage of Shostakovich’s life. It is immediately engaging at this level. Barnes surrounds his anguished central figure with supporting characters drawn from the fascinatingly coupled worlds of music and politics. Prokofiev is a presence; Stravinsky is glimpsed; various cultural apparatchiks of the period whose names have mercifully faded (Pospelov? Khrennikov?) do their odious thing; and of course there is Stalin himself. Explication of the music is kept to a judicious minimum, but the sounds and sensations that informed it (“four blasts of a factory siren in F sharp”) add to the texture. The material, inherently absorbing, is organised into succinct, free-standing passages, some only a few lines long, that draw the reader back to those dark days swiftly and effortlessly.

Precisely why Barnes wants to take us there requires a little more time to understand. Initially the book seems to be settling for the familiar excitements available to any story from this era, when conflict with officialdom was axiomatically a matter of life and death. The confrontations are done well, but the frisson of dread they offer has a comfortably period feel, and they inevitably court comparison with things written out of more urgent, first-hand experience. Stalin is always going to give good value in a novel, and there are some priceless anecdotes about him here (“Who organised the standing up?” he asks furiously after a spontaneous ovation for the poet Anna Akhmatova), but he comes over more as a grinch than the permanent possibility of terror that he embodies when, say, a Bulgakov novel or a Brodsky poem gets in his sights.

The book is, partly, an exercise in cold war nostalgia. But it’s also, more interestingly, an inquiry into the nature of personal integrity. Shostakovich made his accommodations with “Power”, and survived. For some people that damns him unequivocally. For Barnes, the matter is more complicated, and he weighs it carefully. The process brings out all his characteristic qualities as a novelist – his essayistic lucidity, his preference for distillation and abstraction, his sympathetic interest in morally compromised figures, his faith in the transcendent value of art.

Some of these qualities have their downside. I occasionally find his love of putting things in a nutshell irritating: he can turn a nice aphoristic phrase, but there is a simplifying, cosifying tendency that goes along with it, a sort of bedtime-storification of things that takes the edge off anything really disturbing, and it isn’t absent here. Certainly his rendering of Shostakovich’s inner torment isn’t going to give anyone nightmares.

And yet there’s an impressive conviction about the book. Barnes clearly has something at stake in this question of artistic survival. He is unsparing in his presentation of the case against Shostakovich, noting his most shameful acts (such as signing letters against the dissidents Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn ) and finally bringing him to a realisation of the inadequacy of irony as a moral defence: “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 …”

SEE ALSO: The Sense of an Ending reviewed

But at the same time his sympathy with his protagonist is never in doubt. If anything, the more mired in shame Shostakovich becomes, the more Barnes likes him. This is an effect of narrative point of view, whereby it is always through Shostakovich’s consciousness that the indictments against him are made, giving him an appealingly merciless self-knowledge. Partly it’s a consequence of the idea – a questionable one – that great art, by redeeming us from “the noise of time”, trumps everything, and therefore excuses shabby behaviour. And partly – most thought-provokingly – it has to do with an intuition, only half-jokingly suggested, that a certain kind of cowardice may in fact be the most heroic form of courage.

Those values, ultimately, are what the book celebrates: pragmatism, muddling through, goodwill over saintliness, above all the capacity to soldier on even in the full knowledge of one’s “fallen, abject character”. Barnes’s protagonist may be Russian, but his theme is reassuringly English.

The Guardian