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Book review: The Noise Of Time by Julian Barnes

A fictional biography of a Russian composer who compromises his art under state coercion

Shostakovich. Photo: Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images<br />
Shostakovich. Photo: Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images

It’s coincidental that a month before I read The Noise Of Time, I finished Olga Grushin’s The Dream Life Of Sukhanov. Usually, the books I pick follow no thematic order. I am swayed by recommendations, whimsy, Facebook posts, memory. Which means that my reading list is a strange, disorderly beast. But these two sit side by side like reunited long-lost siblings. They’re both set in Russia, their protagonists are artists (even if Sukhanov has abandoned painting), and their immediate concerns are with art—its inherent power, and its (troubled) relationship with the State.

This last, in particular, is of utmost concern, since Julian Barnes’ Dmitri Shostakovich, a real-life Russian composer, lived during the Joseph Stalin era, and Sukhanov, in the decades following his death. The difference between these anti-heroes is that Shostakovich still produces music in the face of immense State scrutiny, while Sukhanov, once a talented Surrealist, works as a party hack at a government-run art journal.

Barnes’ book doesn’t quite hold up the sliver of hope you might expect it to, though. Shostakovich, too, eventually gives in, signing away his soul when he accepts an appointment as chairman of the Russian Federation Union of Composers (which once, ironically, had banned his own operas). At the end of both books, we see defeat. Two sad, solitary figures, hollowed out by a lifetime of artistic compromise.

The Noise Of Time: Jonathan Cape, 184 pages, 699.

Barnes’ book falls within the (newly trendy?) fictional biography genre, along the lines of Colm Tóibín’s The Master (on Henry James), Damon Galgut’s Arctic Summer (on E.M. Forster) and Nuala O’Connor’s Miss Emily (on Emily Dickinson), among others. Considering this, one would expect it to carry the weight of real-life tragedy, that the sense of waste would be heightened, that unfolding events are captured with immediacy. Yet, skilful as Barnes is at swerving between fact and fiction, The Noise Of Time disappoints on crucial counts. It begins terse and cinematic, with the composer standing by his apartment lift at night, smoking, a bag at his feet, waiting to be taken to the Big House. It’s expected, we’re told. That most of his friends have been taken in too. And few ever return. Or return unchanged. This charged scene, though, stands almost alone. The book begins a speedy descent into monologic despair. Narrated in third person (arguably, Barnes’ more compelling characters are written in first—the three voices in Talking It Over, Tony Webster in the Booker-winning Sense Of An Ending), we are offered Shostakovich’s self-loathing, self-critical, and increasingly self-obsessed thoughts. All this while, the character remains empathically removed from the reader.

In The Dream Life… despite Sukhanov’s inherent unlikeability (he’s self-involved to the extreme), Grushin immerses us in her character’s past, salvaging memories and details that, albeit belatedly, serve to humanize him. In The Noise Of Time, we are told Shostakovich loved football, reading novels, playing Patience—but they came across like they’re part of an items’ checklist. Our efforts to build sympathy (and an uninterrupted reading flow) are frustrated by the book’s triptych structure, which has decades missing in between the sections. The people in his life, his wife Nina and his two children, fall off the pages. Towards the end, we are informed abruptly of Nina’s death, and we see him at her grave but remain unmoved. We haven’t journeyed with him through love and eventual loss and grief. Even with his music, we are informed he’s composed a symphony or an opera; we aren’t privy to the joy or pain of artistic creation.

Which is why perhaps his ruminations on art, beautiful though they may be—“Art belongs to everybody and nobody. Art belongs to all time and no time. Art belongs to those who create it and those who savour it. Art is the whisper of history above the noise of time"—seem to come not from Shostakovich, but rather a voice aside, apart. In fact, it reads like the voice of the author (incidentally Barnes’ Keeping An Eye Open, a collection of his essays on art, was published in 2015).

Testimony to his skill though that, despite this, these are some of my favourite sections. When Shostakovich asks a student, “Who does music belong to?" (behind him hangs a banner that proclaims in Marxist fervour “Art belong to the people—V.I. Lenin") she is baffled. “Not being able to answer was the correct answer. Because music, in the end, belonged to music. That was all you could say, or wish for."

Only towards the end, when Shostakovich is grievously unwell but still lingers does some authenticity seep through. We realize that the seeds of this tragedy were in fact sown in the beginning. When we encounter Shostakovich outside the lift, waiting to be taken away. But somehow, he is spared. He thus goes on to live a life of compromise, of composing music approved by the State for its simplicity and joyousness, for its ability to be “understood" by the people. Of denouncing other artists whom he loves in formal speeches.

In short, he lives “long enough to be dismayed by himself". The full force of this lies tucked into a passage we all can relate to even if we’re not prodigious classical music composers. It speaks of how Shostakovich hadn’t had the courage to cross the barbed wire fence “they" erected around him 30 years ago with a warning sign: Do not cross this point. “Who knew what lay—what might have lain—beyond the wire?" In lines like these truly lies the pity of the unknown alternative. The unknowable imagined life.

Janice Pariat is the author of Seahorse: A Novel.

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