The Art of Fear

A novelistic re-imagining of the life of Dmitri Shostakovich.

Review of Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time.
Financial Times | 15 January 2016.

On January 28 1936, Pravda carried the most chilling music review of the 20th century. “Muddle Instead of Music” was an unsigned editorial but many suspected that Stalin himself had penned it: only a dictator could get away with so many grammatical errors. Two days earlier he had walked out of an opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, leaving its composer Dmitri Shostakovich white with fear. Until then, the work had been acclaimed worldwide, but now the 29-year-old’s success was turned against him: “Is it not because the opera is non-political and confusing that they praise it? Is it not explained by the fact that it tickles the perverted taste of the bourgeois with its fidgety, neurotic music?” An opportunity for clear, realistic art that could uplift the people had been squandered by this straying into dissonance, cacophony and “formalism”: “It is a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly.”

The short text changed Shostakovich’s life utterly. He cut it out and started a scrapbook of all the attacks against him orchestrated by the Party, studying them carefully, working out how to survive the coming terror. “Now they were not just reviewing his music,” we read in The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes’s novelistic reinhabiting of the composer’s world, “but editorialising about his existence”.

In the first movement of the book, we sit with Mitya as he waits night after night, fully dressed in the hallway of his apartment block, waiting to be taken to the Big House for questioning. He has already been there once, but his interrogator has himself been arrested; now he fearfully expects another summons. In the end it does not come, and so while many of those close to him disappear, he survives the 1930s. Shelving the difficult Fourth Symphony, he emerges triumphant with the Fifth, subtitled “A Soviet Artist’s Creative Reply to Just Criticism”. Before it has ended, audience members begin standing up in homage; the final ovation lasts over an hour.

The story of Shostakovich and his long dialogue with power has often been told; but it remains elusive, awkward, unresolved. As with much of this artist’s life and work, the ratio of irony to sincerity in that symphonic subtitle is hard to read. Sardonic self-control or utter self-abasement? Do such ideas even apply to a social fabric pulverised by the longest totalitarian experiment in history? Some have seen an artist who allowed himself to be moulded into the archetypal Soviet composer, a showpiece for the regime. Others have argued for a secret dissident encoding messages and ironies in his music — if you only know how to listen for them.

The Noise of Time makes itself interesting by refusing such stable positions. It is a short work that dramatises an aesthetic and ethical muddle of enormous complexity — a life of immense musical triumphs counterpointed with endless compromises, humiliations and small defeats. Barnes’s strategy for negotiating it all is an episodic, diary-like work that is probably too fragmented, fidgety and neurotic to be called a historical novel, but is certainly thick with period detail. Associative and non-linear, it flits between different moments of Shostakovich’s long and prolific career, its narrative centre not entirely clear, sometimes ghostly. But its deep structure, like that of western harmony, is triadic. “1936; 1948; 1960. They had come for him every twelve years. And each of them, of course, a leap year.”

Nineteen forty-eight is when Stalin telephones and asks him to promote Soviet artistic freedom at a peace conference in America. Dmitri is brave enough to bargain with the Great Helmsman, asking how he could possibly do this if some of his works remain banned in his motherland? The ban is immediately lifted and, for his courage, he is rewarded by being made to read out a pre-prepared speech in the (fittingly named) Perroquet Room of the Waldorf Astoria, New York. In it, he hears himself condemning Igor Stravinsky, the composer whom he venerates as the greatest of the century. “Later, he told [the conductor] Mravinsky that it had been the worst moment of his life.”

And 1960 is when he joins, or is forced to join, the Communist party, dealing with bureaucrats who want “an optimistic Shostakovich”, functionaries with “an average ear for music, but perfect pitch when it came to power”. “How much bad music is a good composer allowed?” the disembodied narrative voice asks at one point. And how certain was it that covert meanings and musical ironies would be apparent to an audience? “You imagined you were issuing a beam of ultraviolet light, but what if it failed to register because it was off the spectrum known to everyone else?”

Reflecting on a paradox of writing historical fiction, David Mitchell has remarked that “the more Moleskines you fill with the fruits of research, the more determinedly it must be hidden”. Barnes is not in the business of hiding his research, however. While his previous novel, the Man Booker Prize-winning The Sense of an Ending (2011), unfolds within a very small fictional terrain — one in which even the smallest domestic chore can unleash a torrent of rhetorical questions — The Noise of Time is stuffed with world historical detail. It darts from one astonishing scene to the next, lurching from the spectacular to the banal. In New York the composer goes to a pharmacy for some aspirin; 10 minutes later, a shop assistant is seen fixing a sign in the window: DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH SHOPS HERE.

The price for this is a certain attenuation elsewhere. Other characters, particularly women, read largely as ciphers. At points The Noise of Time comes across like Julian Barnes writing impressionistic notes towards a life of Shostakovich — which of course it is; but sometimes one might like to forget that, to have more narrative momentum accrue. Rather than the full orchestral treatment, then, we have chamber music: a series of spiky preludes, études or tone poems — tonally unstable ones, like most else about this life. What I was most grateful for was the way that the book returns us to the music itself, that immense 20th-century oeuvre that contains everything but confirms nothing. For if Shostakovich was a man famous for saying nothing memorable in public, it is also worth remembering Boris Pasternak’s words after hearing the Fifth: “He went and said everything, and no one did anything to him for it”.