Monday, January 09, 2017

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

Julian Barnes has always written well about music and in his first novel since the Booker winning "The Sense of an Ending" he gives a narration of the life of Shostakovich. Made up of short, emblematic paragraphs, the novel is like a diary, so though we were in Shostakovich's head and sensibility at all times, its written from the third person. This gives the novel both an intimacy and a distance. The intimacy works because this is an artist in extremis, under Stalin's Russia, whilst the distance sometimes means that Barnes overwrites or over explains what is happening. I guess there's a difficulty with an obvious historical fiction where we are trying to be in the protagonists head - yet that wasn't a problem in "Wolf Hall" or even "The Damned United" - so I think that uneasiness between the two modes is partly because Barnes' Shostakovich is both knowable and unknowable.

The novel starts with an anecdote. Two men on a train during the war. The train stops unexpectedly. The two men get off and share a vodka with an amputed beggar on the station. The scene is strange, gnomic. It doesn't pretend to know who the other man is, or the beggar, or even where they stopped. This allusiveness has a purpose. We are drawn into the head of Shostakovich, a man who is so enveloped in his music, that he doesn't have the mental space to consider what is happening around him. Or rather, the thing happening around him, the purges, the show trials, the displays of power, has so little to do with music - and yet he finds, under Stalin there is nothing more untrue. The music has everything to do with this. A review in a newspaper of his Shakespearean opera calls his music a "muddle" - its not even a review, but an editorial. Shostakovich, Russia's premier composer, is suddenly a persona non grata. In his flat he waits each night on the stairway with his suitcase packed, so that when they take him away they won't disturb his wife and child.

Barnes' novel is brilliant at setting out this claustrophobia, this fear, this sense of uncertainty. The culture of Stalin's Russia is one that makes nobody safe, not for long. Worse than being denounced almost, is being favoured, for being favoured is no guarantee. Whereas after the Russian revolution art and music flourished for a while, by the 1930s there is a new sense - where all art has to be for the benefit of the revolution, and for the common man. Like Mao's Cultural Revolution later in the century, or the killing fields of Cambodia, the 20th century communist ideal found no room for art that it considered bourgeois. Ordinary Russians would whistle his "Song of the Counterplan", a piece of film music that accompanied a Soviet-realist art but by the time of his 5th composers were also on the frontline of Stalin's all encompassing power. :Lesser composers disappeared, greater ones fled the country to America. Yet Shostakovich stayed. He wrote the "patriotic" "Leningrad" - his 7th symphony - and his stock rose. The book flits back and forth in time. The first part - where he is suddenly at risk, his music denounced, is powerful, the more so for their being little back story or context. This is a Kafkaesque tale of a man suddenly at the whim of "power". (Barnes talks about Shostakovich's 3 conversations with - capitalised - Power.)

It feels a very current novel. Wasn't Pussy Riot's incarceration a canary in the coalmine of Putin's Russia's new religious-backed authoritarianism. There are echoes throughout history of strong men cracking down on not just political dissent but perceived artistic dissent. In this hall of mirrors Wagner is disallowed until the Hitler-Stalin pact and then he is played, before being disallowed again. On a trip to America, Shostakovich is given a script in which he denounces - amongst others - Stravinsky, his musical idol. The Russian system is so debased that the only people who can buy musical manuscript are those approved by an officially sanctioned composers' union. How to explain this control to a west where - after the war - certain on the left will forgive Stalin anything, because he is not a fascist?

The short book gives a real good sense of the paranoia of the age; our Shostakovich tells something of his own history - his own loves and life are sketched out. It feels a not entirely successful telling however, - that distance that comes in, where Barnes interjects and lets us know some of the backdrop. An always consummate novelist, latterly - in this, and in "The Sense of an Ending" - he sometimes proscribes too much, and sometimes, for effect, holds things back. A more knowing Shostakovich might have been a more useful narrator. The real thing - the creation of the music is offstage - yet there are hints at his genius; that opening anecdote is returned to. "The noise of time" is referred to portentously on occasion.

You almost need to read the book with a biography of the composer next to you, and the "Leningrad" on repeat. It's a fine, tantalising novel, well written, engaging, but which perhaps doesn't quite succeed in its ambitious retelling of this tale. There is much atmosphere, and the sense of foreboding of Stalin and then Krushchev's Russia is compelling, but I'm not sure its much more than a very elegant exercise at the end of the day. Yet that's probably fine as well, as the prose does offer a little bit of music of its own. The short block paragraphs are like a musical score, and our Shostakovich can hear the music in his head, and in turn, we can hear his voice in ours.

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