The Noise of Time 
by Julian Barnes.
Cape, 184 pp., £14.99, January 2016, 978 1 910702 60 4
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The figure​ on the jacket – round glasses, hair flopping over forehead, wary stance, music case in hand – is unmistakably Shostakovich. Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich is also the name of the protagonist, a famous and famously persecuted Soviet composer, whose interior monologue is presented in this new novel by Julian Barnes. So there’s no mistaking the real-life basis of the book, even if you don’t read the acknowledgments, where Elizabeth Wilson’s Shostakovich: A Life Remembered and Solomon Volkov’s Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich are cited as sources. Barnes has done something of the kind before with The Porcupine, based on the trial of the Bulgarian communist leader Todor Zhivkov. John Banville did it in a roman à clef about Anthony Blunt in The Untouchable; and the Russian writer Olga Trifonova presented her persuasive and well-researched portrayal of Stalin’s wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva, in the form of a novel. All these bio-fictions are rather good, and The Porcupine comes with an endorsement from Zhivkov’s actual prosecutor. Are the novelists trying to put historians out of business?

From a historian’s point of view, the licence allowed novelists is something to envy. How I would have liked to invent a few interior monologues in my recent book on Stalin’s team! It would have made it so much easier to bring the characters to life. But as a historian you’re not allowed to invent interior monologues, only to quote texts that can be footnoted. Moreover, our conventions generally prevent us from using literary works as sources. When I was working on my book, I forbade myself to reread Trifonova’s novel so as not to internalise her fiction too deeply. It was really annoying to have to do this, since she appeared to have access to some archival documents not available to me. In the end I stuck to the purist position that if it’s not footnoted, I can’t quote it, but not without struggle.

There are other things novelists can do that historians can’t, or at least generally don’t. For example, historians usually tell their story chronologically, since history is about how one thing follows another; and when historians describe an event or introduce a character they tend to give all the relevant information immediately, so that the reader can get a full picture. But novelists can play around with chronological sequence, and they like to withhold information and release it later, forcing readers to adjust their perspective midstream. Then there’s the question of precision. For a historian, it is infuriating not to be able to establish an exact name, date or place. For a novelist, according to Barnes in his acknowledgments, it only adds to the fun if, for instance, he isn’t sure whether the name of Shostakovich’s interrogator is Zanchevsky, Zakrevsky or Zakovsky. ‘Truth was a hard thing to find, let alone maintain, in Stalin’s Russia,’ so let names mutate accordingly.

Being a fact-grubbing historian, I know the real name of Shostakovich’s interrogator (or rather his real assumed name, since he went by his revolutionary nom de guerre). If I were reviewing a historical work, it would be a nice one-upping move to tell you and the author what the name is. But in my new guise as a novel reviewer I won’t disclose the interrogator’s real name.

The two great preoccupations of Barnes’s Shostakovich are his own character weaknesses and his relationship to the Soviet regime (‘Power’). The women in his life get some attention, his male friends less. (That’s probably a difference between this Dmitri Dmitrievich and the historical one, to whom male friendships were very important – but ignore that, it was the historian talking.) The interior monologue is written in the third person, and occasionally reads as if it might be a translation from the Russian (Prokofiev’s ‘night blouse’, for example; the ‘tail suit’ that Shostakovich tells Stalin he needs in a famous telephone conversation), which is all to the good, since one doesn’t want one’s foreign protagonists sounding too English. The prevailing tone is ironic, a form of self-protection Shostakovich hopes ‘might enable you to preserve what you valued, even as the noise of time became loud enough to knock out window-panes’.

The ironic tone doesn’t prevent the novel being a three-part story of woe, each misery worse than the last, for which primarily Power but secondarily Shostakovich’s weaknesses of character are responsible. The disasters fall on every fourth leap year: 1936, 1948 and 1960. Shostakovich expects 1972 to follow the pattern and be the year of his death, only to realise, when it’s over, that the catastrophe was that he survived.

The first disaster is the condemnation of Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in 1936, experienced by him as a prelude to the Great Purges, when he feared an arrest that never came. The novel’s first scene has Shostakovich hovering in the evening by the lift outside his apartment, suitcase packed, so as not to be surprised by the security police if they come for him at night. The next disaster is a dressing-down at a disciplinary meeting of the Composers’ Union chaired by the Politburo member Andrei Zhdanov in 1948, followed by further humiliation on his trip to America as Soviet representative at the World Peace Congress where he is trapped into an unwilling betrayal of the émigré Stravinsky. The last, in 1960, is Shostakovich’s belated joining of the Communist Party. His failure to resist the badgering of Power, defanged though it now was under Khrushchev, humiliated him and brought criticism instead of the usual adulation from friends and erstwhile admirers in the intelligentsia.

This Shostakovich is not a hero. Evasion and irony are his habitual responses to pressure, whether from his mother or the Soviet regime. He is anxious, indecisive (outside the musical realm), something of a coward. A ‘thorough-going neurotic’, even a ‘hysteric’, in his own self-diagnosis. His mother and his scientist wife, Nina (Nita to her family), are the dominant characters in his immediate milieu. ‘Sometimes, after a successful concert, when he had received applause and money, he felt almost capable of becoming that elusive thing, the man in the family. Though at other times, even after he had left home, married and fathered a child, he could still feel like a lost boy.’ Only in the realm of music does he have real confidence, but there it is unshakeable. When people tried to make him change something he had written, he would give agreeable but evasive answers, promising to ‘make that change next time around’, but he never did. Why not? ‘Because his decisions, and his instinct, had been correct.’

With his opening and closing vignettes focusing on Shostakovich’s random encounter with a crippled beggar at a railway stop, where the clinking of vodka glasses produces ‘a perfect triad’, Barnes is clearly signalling that Shostakovich the musician was alive to the occasional pure consonances of sound in the noisy chaos of the outside world: an unnamed observer helpfully informs us that Dmitri Dmitrievich noticed the triad because he ‘was listening, and hearing, as he always did’. In fact Shostakovich doesn’t do a lot of listening and hearing of music in Barnes’s monologue – a mention of a factory whistle in F sharp, plus the perfect triad, is about the extent of it.

Power – capitalised, almost personified – preoccupies Shostakovich. He has the Russian, or at least Soviet, intellectual habit of seeing the regime (‘Power’) as an antagonist that threatens his individuality, brooding about its intentions while simultaneously satirising its style. Shostakovich is not a man who defies Power. While he says he admires the ‘bravery and … moral integrity’ of those who stand up to it, it’s a rather double-edged tribute, since he notes that dying as a martyr gives satisfaction both to Power, which wants to get rid of you, and to annoyingly attentive Westerners, who can ‘sympathise and feel superior’. In addition, the choice of martyrdom is one that puts those close to you at risk too. Perhaps it’s harder to be a coward, he concludes, in a typical twist of the cliché’s tail:

To be a hero, you only had to be brave for a moment … But to be a coward was to embark on a career that lasted a lifetime … Being a coward required pertinacity, persistence, a refusal to change – which made it, in a way, a kind of courage. He smiled to himself and lit another cigarette. The pleasures of irony had not yet deserted him.

He would never be ‘loved by Soviet power’, Barnes’s Shostakovich reflects, because he comes from a suspect milieu, the liberal intelligentsia of Leningrad. But then later, after Stalin’s death, he was loved, and that was almost as bad. He had hated ‘grabbing hands’ since childhood, and he hated feeling Power’s ‘grabbing hands’ on him even when its intentions were relatively benign.

Unlike Power and unlike his mother, Nina managed to look out for Shostakovich’s welfare without grabbing. But there was a downside to this detachment, since in their open marriage the lover she took proved more durable and important than any of his. He is ‘A.’ in Shostakovich’s interior monologue, unlike the other characters, who all go by their real names. Nina was with ‘A.’ in Armenia when she suddenly fell ill and died in 1954. A recurrent motif in the monologue are the ‘red roses on [Nina’s] grave, strewn all over. Every time he [Shostakovich] visited. And not sent by him … He found the sight comforting. Some people would not understand this.’ To Shostakovich, it was ‘quite understandable, if, at times, painful’, that another man should have loved someone ‘so full of joy and life … so comfortable in her own skin’. The converse, that Nina loved another man, is something his monologue circles around without addressing.

Nina, and Shostakovich’s first love, Tanya, are constant presences in his unconscious. With male friends largely absent, important male presences are few, with the exception of two foils: Tikhon Khrennikov, head of the Composers’ Union, on whom Shostakovich lavishes sarcasm, and Sergei Prokofiev, his (unacknowledged) rival for top spot in Soviet music, returned from emigration in 1936. In Shostakovich’s view, Prokofiev was still an innocent in Soviet life. When people criticised his music, Prokofiev thought of it as a problem to be solved – ‘just a question of how the accommodation could be made so that he could go on being himself and writing his music’. His response was: ‘look, I have a multiplicity of styles, just tell me which you would prefer me to use … but that was not what they wanted of him; they wanted real conviction.’ In an odd aside, Shostakovich says Prokofiev ‘completely failed to see the tragic dimension of what was happening’. It’s not clear to me if there is meant to be any irony in this comment, either on Shostakovich’s part or the author’s: was it self-evidently a virtue in Shostakovich to experience every personal slight or setback as a tragedy?

Barnes’s Shostakovich exists in a tragic dimension and sometimes lapses out of his habitual irony into a mode of exalted generalisation. The book’s title comes from an early autobiographical prose work by the poet Osip Mandelstam, Shum vremeni (1925), where the shum in question is the noise or disturbing clatter of an age whose clamorous demands drown out the voice of the individual. ‘What could be put up against the noise of time?’ Barnes’s Shostakovich reflects at the end of the book. ‘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.’ This cloudy sentiment sounds more like Mandelstam, with his Silver Age liking for symbolic abstractions, than the Soviet-formed composer, for whom ‘true’ and ‘pure’ usually demanded inverted commas. The dissonance is not just with the historical Shostakovich but with Barnes’s irony-prone fictional one. It’s one of the times I couldn’t shake off a historian’s question: did Shostakovich ever actually say things like this? Not that Barnes isn’t entitled to speculate that Shostakovich talked in this way to himself, even if he didn’t do it in public. But I find it unconvincing even so.

Musing on death, which Shostakovich does a lot of in the last section of the book, Barnes has him hoping

that death would liberate his music: liberate it from his life. Time would pass, and though musicologists would continue their debates, his work would begin to stand for itself. History, as well as biography, would fade: perhaps one day fascism and communism would be merely words in textbooks. And then, if it still had value – if there were still ears to hear – his music would be … just music.

Shostakovich may have said something like this, but it’s not Power that put ‘history’ (the artist’s struggle) and ‘biography’ in his music, but Shostakovich himself. Take that away, and a lot of his appeal to audiences, both Russian and Western, would disappear. But I’m not even certain that taking it away is musically feasible. What would you do about all those quotations – of himself, his friends and lovers, the Revolution, the church and so on – that give his later works the quality of music à clef?

In the year he joined the party, 1960, Shostakovich wrote his Eighth String Quartet, a work whose general affect is tragic, despite a touch of his habitual ironic-banal idiom as a counterpoise. He told friends that in his mind the work was dedicated ‘to the memory of the composer’, and it is in fact (musically speaking) infused with the motif derived from his personal motto, DSch (D-E flat-C-B, which in German more or less corresponds to his initials). The motto appears in at least ten of his works, though never as obsessively and as frequently as in the Eighth Quartet. The published score bore a dedication ‘To the Victims of Fascism and War’, which, as Barnes’s Shostakovich reflects, ‘would no doubt have been viewed [by Power] as a great improvement. But all he had really done was turn a singular into a plural.’ From someone who had received all the honours and material rewards the Soviet Union had to offer, while at the same time winning the intelligentsia’s adulation for his music’s perceived dissident message, this is a bit rich. Of course, there is irony in Shostakovich’s telling of this story, but not enough; and one of the functions of Shostakovich’s irony is to pre-empt other people’s alternative versions. Barnes’s Shostakovich, and probably the real one as well, was dead serious about being the victim whose suffering epitomised (exceeded?) that of all the rest.

The Noise of Time​ is a brilliant impersonation, both as a novel and as a portrayal of the ‘real’ historical Shostakovich. Still, my generally admiring reaction included an element of dissatisfaction, and it took me a while to work out what it was. Something about the interior monologue form? Then I realised: it wasn’t the form of the monologue, or its content, but the fact that I had heard it before. It’s the same characterisation that Solomon Volkov gives in his ventriloquist Testimony (remembered Shostakovich table talk, misleadingly cast in the form of memoirs – but that doesn’t matter in this context); that admiring friends reproduce in Wilson’s book and the composer’s son, the conductor Maxim Shostakovich, echoes in various interviews; that Wendy Lesser picks up on in her biographical reading of the string quartets; and that the quartets themselves offer in musical rendition.* In all of them, Shostakovich is the little man struggling with an oppressive and banal Power, partially defeated but never giving up his own sense of self and hence unconquerable. The quintessential Romantic hero, in other words, recast for a Western audience in Cold War terms (the artist crushed by the totalitarian state), with the added post-modern appeal of irony and self-referentiality.

As I read the book, I sometimes wondered why Barnes had decided on a monologue for Shostakovich, given that Flaubert’s Parrot brought a multitude of perspectives to bear on its subject, Talking It Over gave us three versions of a love triangle, and even The Porcupine presented two opposing voices, the defendant (Zhivkov) and the prosecutor, as well as a kind of Greek chorus of Bulgarian locals. No doubt a Shostakovich-Stalin dialogue would have been hackneyed, but there were surely possibilities in playing Shostakovich off against one or both of his alter egos, the men whose prestigious possession of foreign motor cars rankled – namely, Prokofiev and ‘A’. Prokofiev was the man who, not understanding the tragic dimension of his situation, persisted in behaving as if he were an 18th-century composer trying to satisfy a difficult patron. ‘A.’ – I will observe Barnes’s prohibition on naming him, though I am not sure of the reason for it – was, in addition to being Nina’s lover, a Soviet success story (as a physicist) who apparently enjoyed it.

With Shostakovich, I’ve decided, the biographer has no choice. As soon as I started to play round with multiple-voice versions of the story, I realised that Shostakovich and all the Shostakovich ventriloquist testimony would sabotage the effort. If your subject is a passionate solipsist, you just have to give in and let him have the floor. That mild manner is deceptive: the Soviet ‘Red Beethoven’ (and, incidentally, he was probably redder than Barnes’s version allows) may sometimes skulk in the wings but he must always be the centre of the drama. His ‘DSch’ motto ranks as one of the great assertions of self in modern music. Perhaps it’s ironic, or perhaps just bizarrely predictable, that it took a supposedly collectivist society to produce the 20th century’s most rampant musical individualist.

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Vol. 38 No. 6 · 17 March 2016

Reading Julian Barnes’s The Noise of Time and Sheila Fitzpatrick’s review of it, I’m reminded again how difficult it is to write a fictional, or for that matter biographical, account of a composer as opposed to a painter or writer (LRB, 18 February). With a painter or writer there is always something to describe or quote, but with the composer we either hear music or we do not. In some ways poets have it easier, and there are any number of very successful poems about composers in the recent anthology Accompanied Voices: Poets on Composers from Thomas Tallis to Arvo Pärt, edited by John Greening. Still, the fictional attempts to get through, somehow, to the imaginative centre of a composer have a distinguished history, from Eduard Mörike’s charming Mozart’s Journey to Prague to the terrifying Doctor Faustus of Thomas Mann to recent attempts to imitate the structure of a work in Burgess’s Napoleon Symphony and the experimental novel about Anton Webern, Michael Mejia’s Forgetfulness. As for Shostakovich, the novel that Fitzpatrick might have mentioned is William T. Vollmann’s Europe Central, which places the author’s imagined composer in the social and political context of military invasion and Stalin’s terror.

John Matthias
University of Notre Dame, Indiana

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