The Noise of Time – Julian Barnes

[I read this book in its three sections, writing about each one before reading the 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 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. It’s such an iconic image it forms the basis of the stylised image on the front cover. The bespectacled, worried-looking young man peers back over his shoulder, expecting the worst.

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 tells the truth—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 Shostakovich 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, overriding 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. As if—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. It’s OK—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.

1 June 2019
Part 2—On the Plane
It’s two-and-a-half years since I last wrote, and when I picked up the book again I realised why I’d left it so long. This isn’t so much a novel as a thought experiment—one that Barnes has tried at least once before: pick a harrowing case from history and imagine what it would be like to be the main protagonist. It’s fiction based on fact and, done well, it can be as good as any fiction ever written. (This isn’t just hyperbole. Tolstoy does it with Napoleon in War and Peace, and it doesn’t get much better than that.) In Arthur and George, another of Barnes’s efforts in this hybrid genre, he got it right. I’m always happy to get my history from novels, and we get plenty of facts we knew nothing about and insights into a Britain that seems alien now. But, at least as interesting for the novel-reader, we care about the plight of poor old George Edalji as he suffers an appalling miscarriage of justice. However…

…with The Noise of Time I’m simply not feeling the same gut-wrenching connection to Shostakovich, a composer I love, as I did to poor unknown George. I had expected to find it fascinating before I read any of it, and there’s just as much history being served up—if we thought Edwardian Britain was alien it has nothing on Soviet Russia. But it always feels like what it is, a lot of research repackaged into something else. As I thought for the fifth, sixth, seventh time or whatever how terrible those times were, I got the feeling that Barnes must have felt exactly the same while he was doing the research. But he’s a novelist, not a historian. His job is to bring something extra, that connection to the protagonist’s inner life I remember from Arthur and George. But I’m not getting that. When I went to hear Barnes speaking about this novel when it had just been published, he spoke about the appalling facts of the case. These were enough to make me want to read it, but… what I can’t remember Barnes talking about was achieving the necessary leap of empathy.

So what do we get? Another low-point in Shostakovich’s life, twelve years on from the first, and another framing device. He’s flying back from New York, as part of a Soviet delegation in the late 1940s. He never wanted to be a part of it and, true to guilt-ridden form, he feels he’s betrayed everything he believes in. He knew beforehand how ‘Power’ works, how he would, in effect, be a puppet dancing to the Party’s propagandist tune. Barnes brings it to a terrible head with the two speeches that Shostakovich had effectively been forced to give. They are written by Party apparatchiks, obviously, and Shostakovich does his best to disassociate himself from the first one by reading it in a monotone. It’s short, he sits down, he hopes nobody believes he meant a word of it… and is surprised by the applause. The second is so long he only reads the first page, in the same monotone, before leaving the Russian translator to carry on with the rest of it. Barnes does his best to get us inside Shostakovich’s head, so we’re there as he remembers the translator reaching the subject of a particular expatriate. The audience is told not only of the cowardice of Shostakovich’s favourite composer, Stravinsky, but of how his music is discordant nonsense with no connection to the people. He regrets not reading the speech himself. Surely, he thinks, he would have been able to convey something of his true feelings, through his expressions and body language?

How much do we care? It’s horrible that a sensitive man like him should have to parrot the same words about another composer that the Party has so often levelled at him. We know all about it by now, having seen how Power’s favourite device is to insist on the musical failure of the composers it blacklists. We know that sometimes it doesn’t just lead to artistic oblivion, but death—which is exactly why Shostakovich has absolutely no choice but to do the Party’s bidding in New York. He had told Stalin, personally, that he couldn’t possibly visit a country where his music is praised when, even long after he has been brought back into the fold in the Soviet Union, no conductor dares to play the works of this dangerous man. He is currently blacklisted, and reminds Stalin of the fact—which is when we see what true dictatorship means. Stalin tells him it can’t be true, or that if it is it’s a mistake that someone will have to pay for. He knows about Shostakovich’s reputation in the rest of the world, and has no interest in why this might be. But he needs him in New York with the others. As a last-ditch attempt to put off the inevitable, Shostakovich tells the great leader he can’t afford the expensive tail-suit. Stalin orders one to be made, and at the end of Part 2 it’s the only good thing to have come out of the trip.

The humour, what there is of it, is as dark as it gets. Part of this section has to do with the insights we get into the misery of having fans abroad. Here he is, a dedicated artist living in a country run according to psychopathic rules in which not even suicide is an option. The repercussions for his family would be catastrophic, and he knows that not only his reputation but all his works would be destroyed in the country that is at the heart of all he writes. His many admirers in Europe and America try to be sympathetic, but this only brings more torture. The problem is that none of the well-meaning foreigners who contact him, or visit the Soviet Union on rigidly chaperoned visits, has the faintest idea of what he is living through. They comment on how good the food is, how many smiling faces they have seen… and so on, and on. He has to be careful, of course, knowing the delegations’ minders are also listeners, so he criticises nothing. When, in the course of a conversation about the process of composition, he mentions that manuscript paper is only available through the Musicians’ Union, he later receives a parcel of it from America. They’re clueless.

Enough? It’s interesting, but it’s a problem that Barnes decided to tell poor Dimitri’s story through this series of often unconnected narrative snippets. The family is mentioned briefly now and again, for instance, but do we care? (And yes, I do know I’ve asked the question before.) It seems to me that Barnes is making it hard for us. We’re there, sort of, when he’s plunged into a crisis, it’s terrible, and… we move on. We can sympathise it the terror, but I wonder why there’s so little dramatic tension. Maybe some will come along in the final part.

8 June
Part 3, to the end—In the Car
Nope. Drama isn’t what it’s about, because this story’s following one inexorable line to where it’s going. I’ve mentioned Shostakovich’s thoughts of suicide before, and they don’t go away just because Stalin’s dead. The ‘cult of personality’ is the Party’s handy euphemism for everything bad that happened under him, but there are worse things than personalities. ‘Nikita the Corncob’ has his own, and his own tastes, and a lot of the bullies from the old days are gone. But the bullying carries on regardless. It might take the form of reasonable-sounding requests that Shostakovich take this course of action, or that, but at bottom he has no more choice in the matter than he ever had. To become the head of the Musicians’ Union, a role he really, really doesn’t want to fulfil, he will have to do the one thing he has always stood out against, and become a Party member.

It’s why, as in the first two parts of the book, the opening line is a variation on how this is the worst of times. He wonders how it happened and, as ever, blames himself. He is sure his friends will turn their backs on him, his reputation will be soiled forever… and so on. Worse, the image of his younger self keeps coming into his mind, and he is always contemptuous of the old man he has become. He’s long ago given up the idea of suicide, despite the image that also comes to him, of an (imaginary) stash of pills in the bathroom. He blames himself for not having the energy to see the project through, even though it’s not a project at all, only a wistful envy of the dead. He’s lived too long. In fact, near the end, he’s expecting that he’ll die during the next leap year. All the bad things have happened during leap years—the denunciation in Part 1, the appalling compromises of the New York trip, the new humiliations under the so-called Thaw. Why not the one thing that will finally free him from the whole damned lot of them?

And free him from his own thoughts, of course, the worst torture of all. I can’t remember whether the narrative makes this explicit, but there’s little else in this relentlessly downbeat final section. Having to live every day with the knowledge that whatever the pressures, he should have managed better—or, almost as bad, he imagines what his life would have been without those pressures in the first place. All those unwritten operas leave him almost with a sense of bereavement. He’s still writing, of course, but if he wasn’t free in the days of Stalin, nor is he now. The Corncob is a philistine, and the people who are really in charge—this is before his own unlooked-for elevation to the top job—make sure he can never write freely. Lady Macbeth of Mtinsk, which had come up for re-evaluation after revisions, is given the thumbs-down for no discernible reason. But it’s clear from the pseudo-musicological turn taken during the meeting that the dead hand of the old guard is as active as ever.

Does this all sound a bit downbeat? It ought to, because this final section is frankly depressing. Barnes, during the course of his research, must have found himself inside the mind of a pessimistic, hypersensitive soul whose sense of failure against impossible odds… etc. I’m becoming repetitive, because Barnes does. There are occasional snippets during which the focus shifts, as to when Shostakovich tries to convince himself that the ‘open’ marriage he has with ‘Nita’ is anything other than her way of being able to love, and share most of her life with, another man. Whenever he goes to her graveside—like everyone else, she gets to the cemetery in the end—there are always roses from his rival. Shostakovich himself had affairs, he tells himself, as though that makes them equal. He’s only fooling himself, except even he doesn’t believe it.

There are other things too although, having finished reading the book a couple of days ago, I’m already struggling to remember what they might be. His own privileges, like the chauffeur-driven car he’s riding in in Part 3’s framing device and the dacha, the travelling rights, the… etc. There are a second marriage, a failure, and a third, which seems to suit them both. And, thank the lord—or whoever a man like Shostakovich might thank for such a thing—he’s had two heart attacks and can feel another one coming on. He knows because the effect of the functioning-alcoholic levels of vodka that he drinks is subtly altered. It won’t be long now, he thinks. And as for this reader, I won’t have to wait any time at all. I’m done.