Paul Simon reviews The Noise of Time, by Julian Barnes.
A Pravda editorial early in 1936, possibly written by Stalin himself and more probably merely with his knowledge, is the hinge upon which Julian Barnes’s imaginings of Dmitri Shostakovich’s interior life turns. In this ruthless appropriation of the great Soviet composer for his own anachronistic liberal fantasies Barnes, in the book’s opening section, has the composer at his Leningrad apartment, suitcase packed, as he awaits a visit to take him to the “Big House” after Pravda’s criticism of his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District.
The second section starts in a plane returning from New York, where the rejuvenated composer muses upon his experiences as part of a Soviet cultural delegation to the US in the 1940s and the third is prompted by a car journey some 25 years later as the elderly Shostakovich reflects upon the tumultuous musical and political times through which he has lived.
Any reader familiar with David Pownall’s anti-Soviet theatrical travesty Masterclass, or the numerous biographical texts based on Solomon Volkov’s Testimony, should give The Noise of Time a wide berth. Like those works, this is a novel without subtlety, nuance or context. Every Shostakovich work in a major key is sarcasm, while those in a minor one are a criticism of the Soviet system.
Its enervating Manichaeism presents on the one hand a composer in all his glorious, pure individualism and doubting integrity and on the other the bureaucratic, relentless and unyielding presence of “Power” — the Communist Party. In this cartoonish universe, detached entirely from the achievements and challenges of Soviet life, Shostakovich is not the protagonist. It is Barnes himself, projecting his identity into a Soviet simulacrum in which the Barnes-Shostakovich incubus as a liberal hero struggles with the unreasonable demands of a society in the process of change, as well as his own interior demons.
Thus Barnes-Shostakovich laments his late father: “Had he lived any longer, he would have watched the Revolution turn sour, paranoid and carnivorous.”
Even so, that persona acknowledges the need for composers, as engineers of the human spirit, to represent something more than their own immediate needs and vanities. Yet even at this point of collectivist realisation, Barnes-Shostakovich rages against the democratic hope of the Soviet system that miners could one day also become composers.
Barnes has it in particularly for Tikhon Khrennikov, head of the Union of Soviet Composers from 1948, yet the greater reputational mugging is reserved for Shostakovich himself. That the composer both prospered and suffered under the Soviet system is undeniable, as is the fact that he confounded and exasperated in equal measure. But Barnes in his alter ego guise seeks to appropriate this quintessentially Soviet citizen as one of his own — out of time, out of culture and out of reality.
The great composer is merely a useful vehicle for Barnes to revisit the tiresome concept of the mighty artist standing alone and omnipotent against collective imperatives, of which he is actually a part. Barnes is too worldly and experienced an author to have framed his novel in such a laborious and lamentable way by accident and it’s thus difficult to view it as anything other than the bilious outpourings of a useful idiot for the anti-Soviet brigade.
The Noise of Time is published by Jonathan Cape, £14.99. This review was first published in the Morning Star.