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Reviews

The Noise of Time

Clare F. Hobba

Julian Barnes
Vintage, 192pp

 

The Noise of Time is Julian Barnes's first novel since his Man Booker winning The Sense of an Ending. The protagonist is the Soviet composer Shostakovich. Yet it is not strictly biographical for the subject of the novel is not the life story of the composer, but rather the moral question of how far an artist may compromise in order to be allowed to continue making music, or even to save their own life.

That this is the case is shown by the fact that when we first meet our protagonist, we don't know his name, only that he is in trouble. The novel plunges us straight into the heart of the nightmare situation in which Shostakovich finds himself when he displeases Stalin.

The book is elegant and profound. It uses the motifs of certain episodes, certain conversations over and over again, helping the reader, like Shostakovich himself, to reflect upon his changing relationship with 'Power'.

Because Barnes has been very disciplined about maintaining his focus on the relationship between Shostakovich and the bullying and domineering Russian regime, there are other aspects of the composer's life which must have been hugely important to him, but of which we see very little, for instance, his creative process as a composer, his love life and his home life.

It is not just that these elements might be appealing to the reader, but they are very germane to his struggle. The music is what brought him to the notice of the authorities. He was not a politician, a soldier, nor a leader of men. To be a composer was his particular metier and was the one which placed his head above the parapet. The question of whether he might have changed to some less conspicuous occupation is never discussed. Yet in order to remain a composer within the Soviet Regime he compromises his very power of composition. Towards the end of the book he asks himself how much bad music a good composer may be allowed to get away with: 'He had written a lot of bad music for a lot of very bad films.'

Perhaps it is at this interface of pragmatism and artistry that the least admirable characteristics of Shostakovich emerge. He is not seeking to preserve his relationship with the regime so that fabulous music might persist, but so that he might persist.

On the other hand, the area where perhaps he is more of a hero than he might, at first appear, is in his family life. He worries that if he is condemned, his wife might also be executed, his tiny daughter placed in a Siberian Orphanage for Enemies of the State and told that she had been abandoned by her parents. Thus it is not merely to save his own skin and to protect himself from torture that Shostakovich first compromises with the state, but to protect his family.

Barnes does not labour this point, but selects a striking quotation from a poem by Yevtushenko to encapsulate it:

'In Galileo's day, a fellow scientist
was no more stupid than Galileo.
He was well aware that the Earth
revolved,
But he also had a large family to feed.'

Barnes describes how Shostakovich makes his compliance with the Soviet State bearable for himself by delivering what is asked of him with irony. The monolithic and humourless regime is particularly lacking in ability to detect irony. Shostakovich's comically over-earnest expressions of praise and loyalty look merely like what is due to the state.

Yet another poem by Yevtushenko, (not quoted in the novel), shows how irony cannot protect the integrity of its user indefinitely:

'[Irony,]You have buried us alive.
Bitter knowledge has made us powerless,
and our weary irony ironically
has turned against ourselves.'

This is certainly how Shostakovich feels by the end of the novel, forced after many delicate protestations to join the Party by Kruschev and to assume the chairmanship of the Russian Federation Union of Composers, he appears to have opted in to the mainstream Soviet ideal and irony is no longer sufficient defence - his conscience plagues him. But he loses the will to rebel, even signing denunciations of Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov.

Barnes is enormously sympathetic in his treatment and explanation of Shostakovich's behaviour, showing him broken by decades of attrition with the Party. Yet even as his apologist, Barnes cannot avoid mentioning the notion of a Faustian pact, for Shostakovich's relationship with the totalitarian regime may have caused him pain, but eventually guaranteed him a career in the Soviet Union. Another resonant motif is the story of Jesus who tells the Pharisees to render unto Caesar what is Caesar's. To what extent may Art be likened to money. What ownership does the State have of Art? Shostakovich feels this story is relevant to his dilemma, but cannot quite apply it.

The lack of consideration of Shostakovich's creative process seems an omission. While The Noise of Time considers in depth the morality of the composer's actions, it does not delve into how he managed to persist in composing new music. Nor does it ask whether he felt that the act of artistic creation raised him above ordinary morality or whether he felt it his duty to preserve his own genius. Instead, his music is treated as a constant - something which places him in the public notice (and in the Party firing line) but is not itself an ongoing process.

Yet the novel is bracketed by an anecdote. It hinges on the clinking of three vodka glasses in a toast. The surroundings are ravaged by war, but amid it all, Shostakovich hears a perfect triad of notes and smiles to himself - for him, music transcends the ugliest of circumstances.