The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016.
Summary: A work of fiction, exploring the inner world of composer Dmitri Shostakovich, as he seeks both to survive and maintain artistic integrity in the totalitarian milieu of Soviet Russia under Stalin and Khrushchev.
A meme spoofing the “Mozart effect” that came across my newsfeed today underscores the dilemma composer Dmitri Shostakovich faced in these words:
The Shostakovich effect: Child only expresses themselves in parent-approved ways.
Shostakovich lived under a tension between artistic integrity and the requirements of a regime that decided that art must be for the people and advance the interests of Power. Novelist Julian Barnes, winner of the Man Booker Prize, explores the interior life of Shostakovich in a work of fiction through an “inner monologue,” over the course of the composer’s life, as he wrestles with the relationship between artistic and personal integrity, between pursuing one’s artistic muse, and living to compose another day.
The novel proceeds by chronicling three “conversations with Power” that occur at twelve year intervals. The first follows a 1936 performance of his opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which had received much foreign and national acclaim and had attracted the attention of Stalin, who attended a performance and was not please as evidenced in an article in Pravda titled “Muddle and Not Music”, denouncing Shostakovich as a “formalist”. Not only were his works suppressed but he is called in for an interview with Zakrevsky at which he must denounce his work and confess his errors in a second interview. The interview never occurs and Zakrevsky disappears, as do a number of artists. He is not called back, nor “disappeared,” but lives under a cloud and turns to composing film music, which Stalin favors, and the Fifth Symphony, a more conservative work that gained great acclaim and put him back in favor.
The second conversation with Power comes after a second period, following World War Two, when his works had once again fallen in disfavor. He receives a personal phone call from Stalin in 1948, requiring him to go to New York for the Cultural and Scientific Congress for World Peace. He attempts to resist but relents, even beginning to give a speech written for him, only to have the remainder given by a translator. This is followed by an embarrassing confrontation with Nicolai Nabokov, where he is questioned as to whether what was read truly represented his views, to which he assents. Still, because of this, and his composition of Song of the Forests, he enjoys Stalin’s favor and is rehabilitated after the denunciations in the previous years.
The third conversation comes in 1960, under Nikita Khrushchev, where he is asked to become General Secretary of the Composers’ Union, which requires him to join the Communist Party. On the one hand, he can help and represent composers, and yet this appeared and has been criticized by many as another concession to power. Indeed, his access to dachas, limousines, and other perquisites enjoyed by party members set him apart from the struggles of other artists, and also give him greater latitude in his composing work.
And here is the struggle narrated via Shostakovich’s interior monologue. On the one hand, we see a composer who only ever is seeking to write music answering to his artistic vision. Yet we see a man who also lives in fear and conflict with himself, and in his relationships and expects (wants?) to be dead by 1972 (he died in 1975 from lung cancer).
We don’t tend to hold up as heroes those who appear to “toady” to Power. And yet there is the undeniable power of works like Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet, written after some of these accommodations. Barnes novel raises questions of whether the personal conflicts might even shape the artistry of such works. He portrays an artist who hopes in the end his music will rise above “the noise of time” on its own merit rather than heroism or accommodations of the artist to Power. Time will tell, but Barnes, in an elegant and compact work, delves into the complexities that resist our simple verdicts.