Cover of book: The Noise of Time

Julian Barnes
The Noise of Time

Originally The Noise of Time was the title of a series of autobiographical sketches by Russian-Jewish poet Osip Mandelstam – and Mandelstam, who came of age in the early days of the revolution, stands high in the martyrology of the Stalin era. For the crime of writing a short poem critical of the great leader in 1933 he was silenced, sentenced, exiled, and ultimately hounded to his death. So radioactive was Mandelstam’s poetry in the following decades that his widow only preserved his corpus by committing it to memory.

Julian Barnes wants us to recall Mandelstam, even though the English author explores the life of another Russian genius, because the poet’s fate remains a signal instance of the terror that the Soviet state could visit on an artist who displayed courage or deviated from the official Communist Party line. Barnes’s own work begins in 1936, with the January evening when Stalin attended Dmitri Shostakovich’s much-feted new opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, only to leave at the end of its third act.

Two days later Shostakovich – at the best of times a shy, skittish, neurasthenic personality – reads with mounting horror a long and ungrammatical harangue in Pravda. The editorial, titled “Muddle instead of music”, directly attacks the 29-year-old composer and his work: “The power of good music to infect the masses has been sacrificed to a petty-bourgeois, ‘formalist’ attempt to create originality through cheap clowning. It is a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly.”

And that last sentence, writes Barnes, “was enough to take away his life”. This is how The Noise of Time opens: with a moment of totalitarian don’t-choose-your-own-adventure. Each night from then on, writes Barnes, the composer puts on a suit and hat and takes up a briefcase containing three packets of cigarettes. Instead of going to bed he heads to the apartment landing and stands by the lift, waiting for the inevitable knock on the door at a decent distance from his wife and infant daughter.

This is the first of three tableaus from which Julian Barnes’s small yet immensely substantial book is built. The second will occur a dozen years later, when we find the mature Shostakovich on a jet flying out of Manhattan, his conscience stung by an encounter with a Russian émigré composer and likely CIA plant during a cultural exchange to America. The third will take place a dozen years after that, with an ageing Shostakovich in the back of a chauffeured car during the Khrushchev thaw. 

In each instance the composer is at the mercy of forms of transport whose mechanical nature allows him no freedom of individual movement. In each instance a window opens on the farcical life and sublime career of one of the century’s finest composers, admitting a blast of snow and mineral wind. Collectively they invigilate the tortured conscience of a man born into a time and place where creativity is orchestrated by the state: an orchid obliged to bloom in a Petri dish. 

The result is damning. The author finds in his subject’s actions grounds for the utmost contempt. And yet Barnes ends up providing a reverential portrait of a complex man who stubbornly, imperfectly hewed to a more decent life than his enemies would ever allow, or even his friends imagine. As an essay about the practice of art in relation to the state – the public compromises demanded of its practitioners; the subterranean strengths required to sustain such work – this is not just a powerful statement, it is an enduring testament. It is the toughest line this most urbane and unflappable of authors has taken. 

Which is not to say that The Noise of Time is a novel exactly – more a dramatic monologue in the spirit of Robert Browning: one that refracts biographical and historical fact through a literary construct. The work’s over-the-shoulder narrative perspective is soured by proximity to Shostakovich’s subjectivity – memories and opinions (as revealed in the composer’s memoirs, controversially dictated to the musicologist Solomon Volkov in the early ’70s) first brought to sardonic, self-lacerating life by Ben Kingsley in the 1988 film Testimony:

Did any part of him believe in Communism? Certainly, if the alternative was Fascism. But he did not believe in Utopia, in the perfectibility of mankind, in the engineering of the human soul. After five years of Lenin’s New Economic Policy, he had written to a friend that “Heaven on Earth will come in 200,000,000,000 years.” But that, he now thought, might have been over-optimistic. 

But this is more than a droll bit of ventriloquism; it is an effort in which fiction seeks to recuperate the real by creating a counter-narrative to those public lies imposed by the state. As we watch Shostakovich squirm through decades of calculated humiliation, see him recant his own achievement, write jingles for ideologues, permit speeches and articles to be published in his name which excoriate his heroes and friends – even join the party that he promised himself he never would – he holds music in his hands like a cupped egg:  

Let Power have the words, because words cannot stain music. Music escapes from words: that is its purpose, and its majesty.

The Shostakovich who climbs broken from these pages may be a grey congeries of survivor’s guilt, remorse and regret. But he is adamantine when it comes to art. It is music that Shostakovich arrays against the mighty apparatus of Soviet Russia. And in these pages his flawed life becomes a proud gamble on music’s ability to slip the bonds of contingency and meet a destiny greater than that allotted to it by power in all its guises:

Art belongs to everybody and nobody. Art belongs to all time and no time. Art belongs to those who create it and those who savour it. Art no more belongs to the People and the Party than it once belonged to the aristocracy and the patron. Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time.  AF

Jonathan Cape, 192pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 6, 2016 as "Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time".

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