by James Wilson
Julian Barnes has always struck me as being a ‘thinking man’s novelist’, by which I mean no disrespect to the intellects of some of his contemporaries, like, for example, Martin Amis or Ian McEwan. But many novelists have a ‘hook’, or particular quality that resonates repeatedly in their work – Amis’ style and technical wizardry, McEwan’s fascination with disturbed and disorienting experiences. Barnes’ novels are typically rather quiet and thoughtful, and if his recent book, The Noise of Time (2016), is not a thinking man’s novel, it certainly is a novel about a thinking man – specifically, the 20th century Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. Biographical fiction, treating artists in particular, is a genre that Barnes has experience in: in Flaubert’s Parrot (1984) and Arthur and George (2005), he extensively reimagines the lives, and thoughts, of the 19th century French novelist, and Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle; and arguably his most famous novel, A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters (1989), devotes one to the French painter Gericault.
The plot of The Noise of Time, if we can accurately say it has a plot, in actuality consists of three ‘moments’, as it were, in the life of Shostakovich: one while he is waiting for an elevator, a second while he is on an airplane, and the third, much later in his life, when he is in the back seat of his Communist Party-provided car, while staring at his chauffeur’s ear. Barnes’ technique is to stretch these moments out by filling in not what his subject was actually ‘doing’, but what he was thinking. In the edition I was reading, the wait for the apartment building elevator to get to his floor begins on page 15; the elevator actually arrives on page 53. The novel is quite literally composed of thoughts and very little else.
But the thoughts of Dmitri Shostakovich, in Barnes’ imaginative recreation, are as fascinating as any action-packed plot. Barnes’ interest in this artist’s thoughts extend not only to the musical and artistic insights of what the Soviet state called ‘the greatest composer of the 20th century’ (though for any music lovers among its readership it will certainly provide both musical insights, particularly to the symphonies, and some delicious gossip, especially about contemporaries, Stravinsky and Prokofiev, who, unlike Shostakovich, ‘sold out’ to the West), but, even more importantly, one suspects, for readers concerned with ‘theme’, to ‘the soul of man under socialism’, to borrow a phrase. Barnes’ primary interest in the novel is with Shostakovich as artist under the tyranny of Stalin and Soviet ‘Power’. In point of fact, the book opens with Shostakovich waiting for an elevator in the middle of the night, as he does every night, because he fully expects them to come and take him away, for the interrogation, ending with the bullet to the back of the head. He prefers to wait in the hallway outside his apartment because he does not want his wife and children to be awakened, and to watch him being taken away. This is fact, not fiction.
What lends a freshness to yet another novel of mid-twentieth century Stalinist terror is that Shostakovich, unlike Stravinsky or Prokofiev, both of whom left Russia for the west, or Solzhenitsyn or Sakharov, both of whom Shostakovich publicly denounced, is generally perceived as a willing spokesman for Stalin and the Soviet Union. By the time of his death in 1975 he had become a member of the Party, and served on the ‘Supreme Soviet’, the most authoritative legislative body of the USSR. We are reminded on a number of occasions by the ‘remembering’ Shostakovich, that his “Second Symphony had contained four blasts from a factory siren in F sharp.” Another of his symphonies was composed to the memory of Lenin. Barnes seems to want to try to understand the – apparently contradictory – forces which drove him to be both a great composer and artist, and at the same time a willing participant in state terror, torture and the systemic suppression of freedom and truth. It’s an interesting sort of pickle.
It also, in my view, is a novel which is as much ‘about’ today’s world, as the Soviet era. In Arthur and George, Barnes had written a novel set in the Edwardian era and ostensibly about a legal case against George Edaiji, a Parsi Englishman, who was wrongfully charged and convicted of a crime. Barnes raises questions about racial profiling which were arguably more relevant to 2005 England than to 1890s England. Similarly, The Noise of Time, which might reasonably be understood as meaning ‘the cacophony of history’ – and what that does to the purity and truth of music, may, I think, be read as musings by Barnes about the role of the artist in a western world that has become beset by new – and some old – perceptions of nationalism and isolationism, and contrasting views of internationalism and diversification. Barnes completed the novel in 2015, the year before the Brexit vote and the election of the current US president. As a long-standing Francophile, who divides his time roughly equally between England and the continent, one can imagine that Barnes voted Remain. Repeatedly in this novel, Barnes recreates a time of great conflict between the all-powerful state, together with mass hysteria, and individual freedom and truth. For Shostakovich, there is “Nothing but madness in the world.” He is forced to compose within the revolver-wielding and ever-threatening communist state’s requirement of the need for art to please the people, and not to become corrupted by esoteric western formalism. It is very much a struggle between art and propaganda, or between truth and ‘fake news’; very much a choice between standing for principle and going with populism. The Noise of Time is of our time as well as of Shostakovich’s.