The Noise of Time: A Novel
Reviewed by Andrew Stout
In addition to being one of Britain’s most esteemed contemporary novelists, Julian Barnes has distinguished himself as an eloquent and knowledgeable commentator on art. His most recent book of essays, Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art (2015), is a series of reflections on the works of (mostly) French painters. In The Noise of Time Barnes is again reflecting on art – though this time it is the music of the Russian composer Dimitri Shostakovich, and the commentary comes in the form of a novel.
From one perspective, the entire narrative is a meditation on the role of the artist. It is a meditation rooted in the specific circumstances of Shostakovich’s life and his conflicts with Soviet authorities. It asks questions about destiny, time, cowardice, courage, and the artist’s use of irony. Shostakovich ran afoul of the party for the themes of his early opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, which was denounced as “Muddle Instead of Music,” in the party paper Pravda, conceivably written by Stalin himself. This incident is the catalyst for the story’s drama, and the review’s final line sets an ominous tone: “It is a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly” (27).
The story is composed of three parts or movements. A series of three leap years – 1936, 1948, and 1960 – frames these movements. In the first, Shostakovich stands by the elevator of his apartment building, waiting to be picked up for questioning by party officials for his supposed involvement in an assassination attempt on Stalin. As he waits, he reflects on his early life, idealism, and the seemingly inevitable nature of his conflict with the state. Did his refusal to compromise his artistic standards and fall in with party tastes make this conflict inevitable? Or was he doomed by the simple contingent fact that on one night in January 1936 “Stalin decided to go to the opera” (38)? It makes perfect narrative sense that these questions of destiny, fate, and freedom would be raised in the context of a totalitarian state, a state that determines what counts as fact.
The second movement sees Shostakovich flying back from a humiliating official visit to the United States. With the immediate threat of state abduction gone, the novel turns to consider the nature of art in a society where all cultural endeavors are directed toward utilitarian ends. Can real art continue to be crafted in a situation where the criteria for art serves a particular (and in this case, fascist) political agenda? Perhaps irony provides the path to artistic integrity and truth. Shostakovich’s despair is no longer immediate. Rather, it is now quiet and mundane. Before, he had been afraid that Power – Barnes’s ominous moniker for Soviet government – would cut his life short. Now the immediate threat of death is gone, but he is no longer confident that he is capable of composing substantive music. Perhaps the compromises he made with Power in order to survive have created conditions in which it is impossible to create real art.
Here, Barnes skillfully draws out one of the difficult questions surrounding a figure like Shostakovich. Moving through his interior dialogue, his mental and emotional wrestling with himself, we can feel along with him that martyrdom is never as simple an option as it seems. Others are always implicated. It is especially complicated for an artist with no specific political agenda.
In the final movement, Shostakovich sits in his chauffeured car. At his late stage of life, he is actually honored as a national treasure by a less sinister Soviet government under Khrushchev. He is now left to passively deliberate which is worse, being actively threatened or being broken. The movement of the book is from a time of immediate threat to tense coexistence and, finally, to quiet resignation. But as Power becomes less demanding, deference to it becomes more incriminating. In the end, even irony fails as a path of resistance. He had tried to speak only with his music, relinquishing control of its interpretation and hoping that it would transcend an atmosphere of propaganda. Ultimately, this was not enough. Power finally required him to offer his explicit allegiance: “This was the final unanswerable irony of his life: that by allowing him to live, they had finally killed him” (193).
The novel consistently describes Shostakovich’s music in terms of escape: “Music escapes from words: that is its purpose, and its majesty” (60). Even his own death would provide a kind of escape: “What he hoped was that death would liberate his music: liberate it from his life” (195). This is a story of inner struggle and outward compliance. It expresses the hope that art can survive and transcend the conflict of ideologies and historical contingencies. This is how Barnes ultimately expresses this hope through Shostakovich: “What could be put up against the noise of time? 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” (135).
One of Barnes’s strengths as a writer is his ability to find the drama – both psychologically and in terms of plot – in situations that would otherwise appear uneventful. He communicates the urgency of the unremarkable. This quality suits Barnes to writing about Soviet Russia where the threat of an all-seeing power looms over mundane life. It particularly suits him to writing about Shostakovich, an artist whose life was not cut short by that power, but instead had a constant and debilitating shadow cast over it. The exterior circumstances of the novel primarily display Shostakovich as a passive agent. However, the narration of his tumultuous interior life reveals an artist who struggled for authenticity and integrity. Barnes has composed a work of brilliant efficiency, tension, and intellectual depth.