- - Thursday, July 28, 2016


By Julian Barnes

Alfred A. Knopf, $25.05, 197 pages

In his remarkable new novel, Julian Barnes tells the story of the Russian composer, Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich, and how the “noise of time” surrounding his life, be it the adulation, humiliation, prestige and dishonor heaped upon him, or the pressure of “Power” to write music “for the people,” affected him.

Shostakovich was a complex man, a talented pianist and great composer. Though he repudiated artists he admired, submitted to the demands of Power, he nevertheless was able to compose great works. “What did he value? Music, his family, love … The order of importance was liable to change.”

It is not clear whether Shostakovich’s actions were motivated by cowardice, fear of reprisal, political pressure, or a desire to please. Julian Barnes has taken all these motives into account. “The Noise of Time” is not a biography, although its biographical facts are correct, but a caustic, elegant novel exploring the inner life of a conflicted man and his view of the world.

Shostakovich was born in 1906 and died in 1975. His first marriage was based on free love to a woman “so full of joy and life, so outgoing, so comfortable in her own skin;” his second was a mistake; and his third — to a woman almost 30 years his junior — was a very happy one. His opera, “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,” was banned in Russia but a success in the West. Power (that is, Stalin, “the Great Leader”) termed his music “formalistic;” Pravda called it “Muddle Instead of Music.” His music was compared to that of “a road drill and a mobile gas chamber.”

Yet he was declared a hero of the Soviet Union when he composed “music for films and ballets and oratorios which glorified the Revolution … His Second Symphony had been a cantata celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Revolution, in which he had set some quite disgusting verses by Alexander Bezymensky.” He hated “Power” but became a member of the Party.

The book is divided into three parts. The first, “On the Landing,” deals with the composer’s fear of Power, which exiled or executed artists in disfavor. Shostakovich twice was denounced. “They always came for you in the middle of the night. And so, rather than be dragged from the apartment in his pyjamas, or forced to dress in front of some contemptuously impassive NKVD man, he would go to bed fully clothed, lying on top of the blankets, a small case already packed on the floor beside him.”

When he decided to spend the nights on the elevator landing, the “case resting against his calf was there to reassure him … It made him look as if he were in charge of events rather than a victim of them …”

The second part of the book, “On the Plane,” is centered on Shostakovich’s humiliation at the Cultural and Scientific Congress for World Peace, held in New York, which Stalin forced him to attend. Questioned by Nicolas Nabokov (writer Vladimir’s cousin), the composer “personally subscribe[d] to the banning from Soviet concert halls of the works of Hindemith, Schoenberg and Stravinsky.”

Shostakovich met, and was well-received in New York by writers and musicians. He received a scroll, signed by 42 musicians, thanking him for his visit. “These had been his spoonfuls of honey in a barrel of tar.”

The third section, “In the Car,” focuses on the composer’s rewards, his dacha, his car and chauffeur. But even after Stalin’s death, while fear lessened under Krushchev, Power still controlled his life. “Nikita the Corncob … would go into tirades about ‘abstractionists and pederasts’ — they being obviously the same thing.”

“The Noise of Time” is ironic and witty. It offers an aphorism on almost every page — for example, “To be Russian was to be pessimistic; to be Soviet was to be optimistic,” or “Perhaps courage was like beauty. A beautiful woman grows old; she seeks only what has gone; others see only what remains.”

Mr. Barnes uses sarcastic similes. In discussing how Wagner was in and out of fashion, depending on Stalin’s mood, he writes: “When the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed, Mother Russia had embraced its new Fascist ally as a middle-aged widow embraces a husky young neighbor, the more enthusiastically for the passion coming late, and against all reason.”

“The Noise of Time” deals with questions of the relationship between art and politics, between art and conscience, between courage and survival. Delicious tidbits of Russian idiosyncrasies mask an underlying theme of great sadness.

In sum, “What could [Shostakovich] 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.”

Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.

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