After finishing Mr Wilder & Me, I was hoping to start reading Jonathan Coe’s Brexit novel Middle England. However, I knew that if I did that, I would never finish it in time for today’s review. Instead, I went to my Audible library to find a quick read that I’d been putting off. I guess the melding of fact and fiction in Mr Wilder & Me made a bit of an impact on me because I went with this Julian Barnes book. I don’t know as much as I should about classical music and I don’t know as much as I’d like about Russian history. I did know enough about the Stalin’s Russia to have been excited about this one. Could I have done with knowing more about Shostakovich before I went in? Possibly but, then again, wouldn’t I find out everything I needed to know?
All I know is that this is the worst of times.
I’ve just finished reading Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time and I’m trying to get my head around it enough to write a review. Barnes is one of the best writers around and his books have the ability to get under your skin. Even a seemingly quick read like this is packed full of greatness that it requires time to get over. Not least because of the skilful way in which the writer blends fact with fiction. In this short novel, Barnes gives a voice to Dmitri Shostakovich a composer in Soviet Russia. Taking its name from the memoirs of poet Osip Mandelstam, this is another of those fantastic fictional memoirs but there is so much more to this book. Barnes has a great deal to say about the relationship between power and art. It speaks of integrity and courage and, most importantly in this context, their failings.
Mandelstam was outspoken in his opposition to Stalin and it sealed his tragic fate. Barnes’ use of this title sheds new light on the composer. In the three sections of the novel, Shostakovich comes face to face with real power on three separate occasions. Each time, he finds his nerve failing him. When put to the test, he finds that he cannot stick to his principles or belief and, as most people would, favours self-preservation. These decisions haunt him throughout the novel but it is also understood that survival is a natural human instinct. He does what he needs to for himself and his family. Yet his conscience never feels clear and he is left regretting his decisions into his later life. Barnes manages to capture the inner turmoil in all its tragic and regrettable glory.
As one would expect with Stalinist Russia, the threat of violence hangs over everything and Barnes really does get the tone of Shostakovich’s three major meetings just right. The book opens with the news that Stalin has denounced the composer’s latest work, the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. In turn, this sees him being declared as an enemy of the state and called in for interrogation. When forced to condemn his friends for a plot to kill Stalin, the young man knows that the odds are against him either way. It is only a stroke of luck that he gets out alive. It is this encounter that sets the tone for his future years as we see him begrudgingly agree to the terms forced upon him by the powers that be.
The intimate third-person narration allows us to see into the troubled mind of the composer as he comes to terms with his position. There is something incredibly unsettling about the very literary way that the composer’s thoughts are conveyed to us. The language itself is beautiful but feels so unnatural. It doesn’t seem like the way that people think, which helps highlight the tortured mind of the artist. It also blurs the lines between Shostakovich’s own thoughts with Barnes’ ideas about Shostakovich’s own thoughts. You know this is Barnes’ creation but it could also feasibly be the terrified thoughts of a man facing up to his possible death. It’s not the kind of narrator that everyone will be able to connect with but it certainly adds to the atmosphere of the novel.
He’s also not an easy figure to love and the novel is steeped in hatred. Suffering from his own self-loathing, Shostakovich shows real rage towards everyone. His life has left him with an inability to feel much sympathy and can find a reason to criticise anyone. He feels rage at the Westerners he meets who defend communism just as much as he resents those who sympathise with him. Life in Stalinist Russia was not something that anyone else could understand. As Shostakovich says himself, “it was impossible to tell the truth here and live”. This is where the link with Mandelstam comes back so strongly. He told the truth and he died. What did it achieve? His death, mourned and remembered by some, didn’t change anything. What other choice did Dmitri have? But does that make it any easier? The Noise in Time is the story of a man who is weighed down by his innate need to stand up for his beliefs while living in a country in which that is simply not possible.
This isn’t a book that wants to paint the composer as a coward and it is not simply an exploration of courage in the face of power. This is a book that offers sympathy towards a broken and beaten man. Instead of standing with his political convictions, Shostakovich stuck to his artistic ones. Is this enough? Does great art really excuse moral weakness? Is Shostakovich’s refusal to make a stand actually, in a weird way, a brave choice? There is an awful lot to unpack with this novel but it is a rich and rewarding reading experience. It celebrates survival and a refusal to give up. This book doesn’t feel particularly Russian but is, instead, full of that British stiff upper lip.