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Sunday, April 3, 2016

Review of THE NOISE OF TIME by Julian Barnes

4.5 Stars
This short novel is a fictionalized account of the life of Dmitri Shostakovich, the famous Russian composer, under Stalinism.  Like a triad, a set of three notes in music, the book is divided into three sections, each focusing on a critical moment in his life when he has a “Conversation with Power.”  The first, set in 1936, describes the time just after Shostakovich’s opera is denounced by Stalin; the composer expects to be arrested but though he escapes that fate, his music is banned from public performances.  The second section, set 12 years later, in 1948, has Stalin unbanning his music but insisting he represent the Soviet Union at the Congress for World Peace in New York where he is humiliated by being maneuvered into denouncing his idol Stravinsky.  The third part, once again set 12 years later, in 1960, outlines how Shostakovich betrays his principles by joining the Communist Party.  The three sections mirror the three ways in which Shostakovich feels his soul was destroyed: “A soul could be destroyed in one of three ways:  by what others did to you; by what others made you do to yourself; and by what you voluntarily chose to do to yourself.”

These events described in the book can be found in any biographical article about the composer.  There is no doubt that he outwardly conformed to government policies.  What Barnes has done is to present the inner torment of a man who disliked the regime but felt trapped (as his children and letters suggest).  The interior monologue portrays an anguished, morally compromised man who is battling his conscience.  He describes his conscience “like a tongue probing teeth for cavities, [which] seeks out areas of weakness, duplicity, cowardice, self-deception” and finds “There were many things to accuse himself of:  acts of omission, fallings-short, compromises made, the coin paid to Caesar.”  He believes, “He had been as courageous as his nature allowed; but conscience was always there to insist that more courage could have been shown.” 

The book examines how/if an artist can follow his personal vision in a totalitarian society.  Shostakovich had an experimental style which was at odds with the conservative style favoured by the regime which also wanted grandiloquent music for the masses, not music composed for its own sake.  Is creativity possible if one exists in as state of perpetual fear?   Especially since “in these times, people were always in danger of becoming less than fully themselves.  If you terrorized them enough, they became something else, something diminished and reduced: mere techniques for survival.”

The novel is also an examination of courage and personal integrity.  Shostakovich says, “He admired those who stood up and spoke truth to Power.  He admired their bravery and their moral integrity.  And sometimes he envied them; but it was complicated . . . these heroes, these martyrs . . . they did not die alone.  Many around them would be destroyed as a result of their heroism.  And therefore it was not simple, even when it was clear. . . . And of course, the intransigent logic ran in the opposite direction as well.  If you saved yourself, you might also save those around you, those you loved.  And since you would do anything in the world to save those you loved, you did anything in the world to save yourself. And because there was no choice, equally there was no possibility of avoiding moral corruption.”

The composer concludes he is a coward:  “But it was not easy being a coward.  Being a hero was much easier than being a coward.  To be a hero, you only had to be brave for a moment – when you took out the gun, threw the bomb, pressed the detonator, did away with the tyrant, and with yourself as well.  But to be a coward was to embark on a career that lasted a lifetime.  You couldn’t ever relax.  You had to anticipate the next occasion when you would have to make excuses for yourself, dither, cringe, reacquaint yourself with the taste of rubber boots and the state of your own fallen, abject character.  Being a coward required pertinacity, persistence, a refusal to change – which make it, in a way, a kind of courage.”

There is no doubt that the author’s sympathies lie with Shostakovich.  He is coerced to participate in his own public humiliation; his family and his music are held hostage; and he is tormented by his life-long cowardice.  In the end he is full of self-loathing for his character weaknesses and wishes he had not lived so long:  “So, he had lived long enough to be dismayed by himself.”  He feels the enemy has won:  “And this, perhaps, was their final triumph over him.  Instead of killing him, they had allowed him to live, and by allowing him to live, they had killed him.  This was the final, unanswerable irony to his life:  that by allowing him to live, they had killed him.”  His only hope is that “death would liberate his music:  liberate it from his life . . . a sound that rang clear of the noise of time, and would outlive everyone and everything.”

Barnes has a way with words.  This is not really a book about the music of Shostakovich but it is a book that possesses music.  Reading the quotes I have included gives an idea of his expertise with language.  In this novel, there are several phrases that keep reappearing, like repetition in music, where sounds or sequences are often repeated.  These phrases emphasize ideas and give unity to the whole:  “there is no escaping one’s destiny” and “those with asses’ ears” and “the wolf cannot speak of the fear of the sheep” and “Russia was the homeland of elephants” and “life is not a walk across a field” and “like a shrimp in shrimp-cocktail sauce.”

This is a serious book, but that is not to say that there are no touches of humour.  For example, Shostakovich calls Khrushchev “Nikita the Corncob”.  And there are wonderful sentences like, “Mother Russia had embraced its new Fascist ally as a middle-aged widow embraces a husky young neighbour, the more enthusiastically for the passion coming late, and against all reason.”

I thoroughly enjoyed this book.  It is a fictional biography that perhaps humanizes the composer in a way no factual biography could.  It shows “how things had been under the sun of Stalin’s constitution: a vast catalogue of little farces adding up to an immense tragedy” - perhaps an apt and sad description of the composer’s life.   And it has inspired me to explore Shostakovich’s music.