The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes is a collection of three moments in the life of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. The first takes place in 1936 when Shostakovich is 31 years old; the second in 1948, when he is 43, and the third in 1960 when he is 65. Each section begins with the phrase “All he knew was that this was the worst time.” Each section centers around a terrible event in Shostakovich’s life, but is also the occasion for reminiscing about his life to that time. And each is in a leap year, which everyone in Russia knows brings bad luck.
The first section centers on Stalin’s decision to ban Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Although the opera had been performed to applause earlier in Russia and in the West, Stalin first heard it in 1936 and left before the end of the performance. The next day the opera was reviewed in Pravda with the title “Muddle Instead of Music.” The second section deals with with a visit by Shostakovich (who was then the most famous composer in Russia) to New York as part of the Russian delegation to the Congress for World Peace. There he was forced to deliver an anti-American speech which included condemnation of decadent American music, and specifically that of his idol Stravinsky. In the final section he has been forced to accept appointment as Chairman of the Russian Federation Union of Composers and consequently forced to become a member of the Communist Party.
Julian Barnes shows Shostakovich in these three Conversations with Power balanced among the need to continue writing music that can be performed, his fear that he will be killed if he protests, and his cowardice at betraying his principles by aligning with Power. The “solution” Barnes has Shostakovich takes is “irony”: a stance that acknowledges both his need to write music and his need to accommodate his principles and beliefs to an authoritarian system that arbitrarily banishes or murders its supposed opponents (and their families):
All his life he had relied on irony. He imagined that the trait had been born in the usual place: in the gap between how we imagine, or suppose, or hope life will turn out, and the way it actually does. So Irony becomes a defence of the self and the soul; it lets your breathe on a day-to-day basis.
One of the larger questions that has been raised about Shostakovich was the degree to which he believed or opposed the Soviet ideological positions he was forced to take in public--and concomitantly, the degree to which his music adhered to or resisted a Soviet musicology. These questions were present during Shostakovich’s life and continue to be a part of his legacy. They became even more intense in 1979 when a book entitled Testimony, purporting to be Shostakovich’s memoirs, were published by the Russian musicologist Solomon Volkov. Testimony portrays Shostakovich as a dissident and his music as veiled criticism of Soviet authoritarianism. The legitimacy of the book—was it really written by Shostakovich or not—became an academic battle, sometimes called The Shostakovich Wars.
Barnes is not writing a biography, and in the Afterword he states that he uses the views expressed in Testimony as those of a “private diary.” Thus Barnes’ Shostakovich is a complex person who spent his life negotiating the real and potentially fatal dangers of writing music in an authoritarian regime. This produces an equally complex novel, where the reader wanders between demonstrable historical fact, potentially autobiographical information, and the novelist’s examination of the responsibility of the artist to music and music to society.
The title of the book is borrowed from Osip Mandelstam’s memoirs, and is hence another irony—because Mandelstam, unlike Shostakovich—was outspoken in his criticism of Stalin and died in a transit camp during the Great Exile. Shostakovich puts music against the noise of time, but “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.”
In Julian Barnes’ novel, Shostakovich’s last wish is that “death would liberate his music: liberate it from his life.” That it should be “just music” is “all a composer can hope for.” The Noise of Time makes one wonder if such a liberation is possible.