The Noise of Time – Julian Barnes

[I am reading this book in its three sections, and so far I have read one. I write about each section before reading on, so I don’t know what will be coming next.]

5 December 2016
Part 1 – On the Landing
The setting, on the landing outside Shostakovich’s flat in early 1937, is a framing device. It’s also Barnes’s way of foregrounding one of the routinely bizarre aspects of life under Stalin: Shostakovich knows that he is not the only one in the city who will be standing on a landing in the middle of the night with a small suitcase, waiting for the men from the Big House to come up and arrest him. By waiting outside the flat they, like he, hope to avoid the upset of the bang on the door. Shostakovich has a wife and young daughter in the flat, and he wants to save them what anxiety he can. The image of bespectacled, worried-looking young man peering back over his shoulder becomes the basis of the front cover.

Is Stalinist Russia becoming a favourite haunt for English novelists? I’ve recently read Helen Dunmore’s The Betrayal, set fifteen years later but full of the same constant awareness that a fruitful professional life can end in death if the Party – Barnes always calls it ‘Power’ – decides it. In Dunmore’s novel it’s a fictional doctor who comes under the arbitrary scrutiny of a Party apparatchik. Barnes chooses a real figure, and describes in some detail the real event that marked his (apparently temporary) fall from grace. His opera Lady Macbeth of Mtinsk had been well received since its premiere in 1934, had been performed all over the world as well as in Russia – but then Stalin listens to it, seated in the Party equivalent of the royal box above the percussion section. Oh dear. Shostakovich, anxious at the best of times, sees how the loudness of the percussion, coupled with a string section playing more loudly and frantically than usual, is going down very badly with the honoured guest. Party officials turn and pull faces in sight of the figure hidden by the curtain, and are clearly making sarcastic comments. By the fourth act, Stalin’s box is empty.

Three days later, Shostakovich reads the leader comment in Pravda that seems to spell the end of his professional career. Within days, critics who had praised Lady Macbeth explain how the wool had been pulled over their eyes (or ears) by this Leftist composer’s bourgeois tricks. And so on. A marshal, a music-loving friend who had been his protector since his student days, writes a letter to Stalin – but the sight of the sweat pouring from him as he writes becomes a recurring image of the visceral fear this man can arouse. The following year, the week before Shostakovich’s first night on the landing, the marshal has been arrested. The composer doesn’t realise this until, having been invited for an interview at the Big House, he is asked how often he met with the marshal, and what conversations he took part in regarding the assassination attempt against Stalin. Shostakovich replies that they only met for musical evenings, and politics were ‘left at the door with the hats and coats’ – but the interrogator doesn’t want to hear this. He tells the composer he has 48 hours to remind himself of what was really discussed: he will have to return in two days with a better story.

But Shostakovich, it seems, is almost impossibly lucky. When he returns, the marshal (or whoever) conducting the interrogation is nowhere to be seen, and is apparently under investigation himself. To seasoned readers of memoirs and novels about this era, this is not at all surprising. But that’s some escape. Other people, including his friend the marshal and a musicologist he knows, are executed for treason shortly afterwards.

All this is told in fragments, along with other details of Shostakovich’s biography and his thoughts about his own personality. In snippets, we find out about his shyness, his theoretical stand for free love, his first (determinedly unmarried) relationship with the woman he later tries to make jealous by marrying somebody else…. In his life, only music is simple, logical and safe. Only as a musician does he consider himself unassailable, confident enough to override the opinions of anybody who want to change some aspect of a work during rehearsal. His mother was, and remains, domineering. His father had done whatever he needed to do for a quiet life – including allowing the priest to christen his son Dimitri, not his own choice at all. (There’s a running thread about names, which I’m sure Barnes will come back to. And there’s plenty of name-calling too, where ‘bourgeois’ is half-way to a death sentence.)

Now, the 30-year-old Shostakovich has a wife, and the arrival of their daughter has made him more settled in his emotional life. Only joking – it’s during the pregnancy that he discovers that his planned concerts are either to be cancelled or re-advertised as featuring work by an ‘enemy of the people’. But… the ‘On the Landing’ framing device comes to a close along with Part 1. After ten nights, he begins to hope that nobody’s coming, and that the apparent non-reappearance of the interrogator is permanent. Eventually, he even unpacks his suitcase. They would probably have confiscated his cigarettes anyway, he thinks, the artists’ cigarettes that seem to be a marker for who he is, as everybody’s do…. (Nobody smokes the same brand as Stalin in his presence, and tend to save any he offers them like holy relics. So much of the new politics is like religion – Barnes even spells it out, rather clumsily, in case we haven’t got it: ‘Yes, he knew the formulae and the protocols, whatever name the church might go by.’) Every aspect of behaviour in this universe is standardised. Shostakovich got into trouble when he was accused of forgetting how to write music according to the Party’s supposedly proletariat-centred rules.

Ok. But, against all his expectations – and Barnes doesn’t go into any details of how the miracle happens – by the end of the year he finds himself welcomed back into the fold. His great Fifth Symphony, a masterpiece of irony and false triumphalism (among other things), is packaged as ‘A Soviet Artist’s Reply to Justified Criticism’. It becomes the subtitle of the work, and immediately everybody assumes – wrongly, if we are to believe Barnes – that the words are his own. Fine. If people want to take the pathos as representing the people oppressed by Capital, and the triumphalism as a serious celebration of the Soviet project, that’s ok by him.