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'The Noise of Time' Considers the Artist's Place in an Oppressive State

In this fictional account of composer Dmitri Shostakovich, Barnes reveals the inner conflicts of a man trying to live by a set of principles in a shfting time and place.

The Noise of Time

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Length: 224 pages
Author: Julian Barnes
Price: $25.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2016-05

In some ways, The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes' new novel, brings up familiar concerns and themes we've seen the author explore before. It's got the fractured sense of biography Barnes brought in Parrot, Parrot, his book about Gustave Flaubert. It's also got a sense of a wide-open and complex life lived (and emotions and actions concealed) outside of the words on these few pages, something that has run through much of Barnes' short fiction as well as other novels like The Sense of an Ending and Talking It Over.

But this novel, recounting the life of composer Dmitri Shostakovich, also opens up its own set of questions and offers Barnes a chance to twist his known talents into new shapes. The book gives a fictional account of Shostakovich's life in Russia under the watchful eye of Stalin and then Khruschev. The book centers on three "conversations with Power" Shostakovich has, and in shaping these encounters, told to us in the fragmented recollections of the composer, we get a sense of the artist's place in an oppressive state. But we also get to see the inner conflicts of a man trying to live by some set of principles in a time and place that constantly shifts its own and expects you to follow suit.

Shostakovich begins the book as a successful young composer until an article, titled "Muddle Instead of Music", condemns a recent opera not just as bad, but also "leftist". "The danger of this trend to Soviet music is clear," the anonymous critic states, and it is here that Shostakovich fears for his life, as art in opposition to Stalin is likely to get you killed. And so the composer spends the first part of the book waiting by an elevator outside his residence, bag in hand, hoping to be taken into custody outside of the view of his family. Though his memory drifts away from the moment -- to his youth, to past loves, to the ways in which your cigarettes define you -- there's a palpable dread to this first section. As Shostakovich is interrogated by a man named Zakrevsky, all that worry and the certainty of death (for him and his friends) takes hold:

He realized that Tukhachevsky must have been arrested, that the Marshal's career was over, and his life as well; that the investigation was just beginning, and that those around the Marshall would soon vanish from the face of the earth. His own innocence was irrelevant. The truth of his answers was irrelevant. What had been decided had been decided.

Here we can feel Shostakovich hemmed in, trapped by the structure he lives under, one he seeks to be ignored by. He doesn't want to serve, nor does he want to rebel. He is, by his own definition, a "non-Party Bolshevik".

That Shostakovich survives this ordeal is both a relief and the start of new anxieties. The version of this man Barnes paints for us is that of an anxious, sometimes superstitious person. He feels deeply tied (and was, in a way) to leap years. He realizes that living through these oppressive indignities might be worse than being killed by them. Especially when, in part two of the book, he is compelled to condemn Russian expat composer Stravinsky in service to the Party.

The composer often, especially in parts two and three here, reads statements written by others for him. His voice is taken away, and yet Power plays with his ability to express himself. As his fame grows and he complains about his work that has been banned in Russia, Power plays with him, suggesting "none of your works have been forbidden. They can all be freely paid. This has always been the case." There's almost a dark humor to these moments, something as absurd as it is steely and calculated about the way Power plays with the composer here. You can feel it twist up and confuse Shostakovich, but you can also feel his despair at being unable to shake its influence.

The composer makes reference to Boris Pasternak's translation of Shakespeare's sonnets, especially one line in Sonnet 66 which reads: "And art made tongue-tied by authority." This does and doesn't sum up Shostakovich's life's work. He becomes famous, and even becomes revered in his home country after Stalin's death. But he is also still deeply oppressed.

One of the great tricks of this book is showing how that oppression gets internalized. It's not in outside commands, but in the roiling inner life of self-doubt and worry and constant challenges to one's own integrity that keep artists down. If the book is about the artist's place not just in the world, but in their country, in history, in and politics, then Shostakovich shows us all the complexities of that role.

His life under Khruschev doesn't get easier, the commands just come with a lighter touch, and Shostakovich drifts farther from his convictions. He joins the party and signs documents condemning fellow artists. His life after Stalin appears to all outside him as freer, and yet he gets more bogged down.

The Noise of Time drifts away from present action more and more as the text moves on. The book covers a long stretch of time, and as Shostakovich ages the looking back takes hold of the narrative. He seems compelled to find order and reason in his life, in his successes as a musician and in the ways he has been tested and maybe defeated by his country. He has strong-held beliefs about what he does, and we see these rise confidently to the surface late in the book:

What could be put up against the noise of time? 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 is one of several statements of principle Shostakovich -- and, by extention, Barnes -- makes in the novel, but each one feels more like a cul de sac than a conclusion. Around these statements the confusion of life still hangs like fog, and the final tension is between where Shostakovich's beliefs clash with the life he has lived.

This tension serves to focus more on the dilemma of the artist than the terrors of living under a leader like Stalin. There's no real sense of the terror writ large, replaced instead by the existential dread of this one man. We don't ever quite see it emanate out to others in any clear way. This is, in some ways, a limitation of the text.

Yet, in other ways it doubles the isolation the artist is made to feel in the life contained in these pages. These kinds of double-edges make the story more structural complex and sometimes discordant. Through three sections -- titled "On the Landing", "On the Plane", and "In the Car" -- the composer is in between, neither here nor there, and the uncertainty is palpable. But there's also a musicality to this structure, to the way Shostakovich remembers, that at least gives a familiar shape to such anxiety.

The parts of the book are broken up into little sections rather than chapters, like notes that can both ring out and get cut off, some that come quick and some that slow down the tempo. The three parts that comprise all these notes too sometimes work thematically in unison and sometimes ripple against each other. They are sometimes a three-part harmony, and other times things ripple up against one another.

In The Noise of Time, Barnes digs into the life of the oppressed artist with beautiful language and deep empathy, and if the world around Shostakovich gets obscured, it's this combination of anxiety and peace -- of the cacophonic world rendered minutely clearer through melodic memory -- that makes the story ring true.


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