“Art made tongue-tied by authority”

This is my review of The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes.

This short novel often reads like a biography but consists in fact of fictionalised reflections on the life of the famous Russian composer Shostakovich. The author’s cool, elegant style and rather contrived structure – three sections, like a musical triad, each covering a leap year at twelve year intervals marking some significant event in the composer’s life – tend to distance us somewhat from the main characters. Although Julian Barnes never lets his punctuation slip, the lack of any clear plot and the tendency for paragraphs to flit back and forth in topic and time create a kind of fragmented “stream of consciousness” effect which at first I found quite unengaging, even dull.

The essence of this book, which also turns out to be the best part of it, is the portrayal of what it is like to live in a society where artistic creativity and freedom of expression are censored, so that it is not enough to keep quiet, one has actively to follow the accepted line, but the goal posts keep moving so half the battle is working out what is expected.

In the first part, the innately neurotic but understandably terrified Shostakovich has inadvertently fallen foul of Stalin in 1936 by producing an opera which, as a sycophantic “Pravda” journalist asserts “had only succeeded outside the Soviet Union because it was ‘decadent and …tickled the perverted taste of the bourgeois with its quacks, grunts and growls… and its convulsive and spasmodic nature derived from jazz' ”. So, every night, standing fully dressed with his suitcase by the lift on the landing outside his apartment, the composer awaits the inevitable visit of the secret police.

1948 finds Shostakovich on a plane flying back from New York crushed by the humiliation of being forced to read an official speech extolling the Soviet music system as “superior to any other on the face of the earth” and condemning musicians who persisted in their "belief in the doctrine of art for art’s sake" with particular venom reserved for the "perverted" Stravinsky, who had claimed asylum in the United States. But what mortifies Shostakovich even more is the “suave offensiveness” of the Russian defector to the CIA who grills him without mercy, forcing him to confirm that he “personally subscribes” to every one of the bigoted assertions he has made. Julian Barnes employs the vivid image of a parrot banging its head on every step as it is dragged downstairs by a cat to show how even a famous composer cannot risk expressing his true opinions.

By 1960, Shostakovich is drowning his guilt in the vodka for which he has developed a head, to mask his guilt over having taken the final step of agreeing to join the Communist Party. It is ironical that, at a time when the worst of the terrors seem a thing of the past with the death of Stalin, the composer gives in to constant badgering thus laying himself open to the charge of being Krushchev’s stooge.

This novel is an acquired taste, perhaps including a liking for classical music and some knowledge of recent Russian history, but repays rereading and contains some interesting ideas. I assumed the “Noise of Time” was unmusical cacophony of any discordant age, but it is in fact culled from a book of the same name by the Russian poet. Osip Mandel'shtam.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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