“He had never joined the Party — and never would,” says Julian Barnes on behalf of Dmitri Shostakovich, whose thoughts, some verified, some imagined, he has orchestrated into The Noise of Time. Billed as a novel but more accurately described as fictionalised biographical notes, the book covers three periods in the composer’s life, each described as “the worst time”. It starts in 1936 with Shostakovich thinking himself a dead man, expecting to be arrested after the devastating Pravda editorial “Muddle instead of Music”. Then the narrative jumps to 1948 and a campaign against formalism, which targeted, among others, Shostakovich. The next year he visited America as part of a Soviet delegation; a humiliating experience that required him to deliver a speech he hadn’t written, denouncing Stravinsky, the greatest 20th-century composer in his view. The last part begins in 1960, when Shostakovich gave in to the pressure to join the Communist Party. That was one of the two occasions when the composer’s son saw him cry; the other was when his wife died.
Shostakovich’s life is depicted as a chain of contradictions: some factual, others created by unreliable narrators, including the hero himself. Barnes mentions as his main sources Elisabeth Wilson’s Shostakovich: A Life Remembered and Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich as related to Solomon Volkov, a book whose veracity has been much debated since its publication in 1979. Using the material as a novelist should, Barnes improvises freely, portraying the protagonist as a man of such emotional intensity that the events of his life are overshadowed by his perception of them.
The fictional Shostakovich’s “Conversations with Power”, each more troubling than the previous one, are among the finest examples of Barnes’s prose. Here the use of the third person, with its estrangement, is more convincing than the first-person narrative of The Sense of an Ending, Barnes’s 2011 Booker winner, and almost as fine-tuned as the first person in Nothing To Be Frightened Of (2008), Barnes’s reflections on death, in which Shostakovich appeared too, “a mocker of false hopes, state propaganda and artistic dross”.
While in Levels of Life (2013) Barnes talked of opera as a source of personal consolation, here it is this genre that brings about both campaigns against Shostakovich: the Pravda article followed Stalin’s walkout during a performance of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk; another opera provoked the accusations of formalism. After Stalin’s death, Power turned “vegetarian”, to use Anna Akhmatova’s word. Yet the compromises Shostakovich had to make during Khrushchev’s thaw were “more dangerous to the soul” than in the Stalinist days when there were “only two types of composer: those who were alive and frightened; and those who were dead”.
“What kind of a man buys a scrapbook and then fills it with insulting articles about himself? An ironist? A madman? A Russian?” Although Shostakovich was a quarter Polish, irony was his main, perhaps only, self-defence. His favourite classic writers included Nikolai Gogol, whose satirical works he drew on, starting with The Nose, on which he based his first opera.
Other literary motifs highlight the tragic events recounted in the book. At night, waiting for NKVD officers on the landing outside his flat, Shostakovich measures himself, apparently destined to die at 30, against Pushkin, killed in a duel at 37.
The most ominous presence, however, is manifest only in the book’s title, borrowed from an essay collection by Osip Mandelstam, who had been arrested for his poetry two years before Shostakovich’s ordeal began, and died in a prison camp in 1938. Shostakovich survived the purges, the war (“he had never felt safer”) and the thaw. He died in 1975, shortly before turning 69.
Barnes’s knowledge and love of Russian literature are also evident in quotations that pepper the text. Some recurring proverbs are apt: “cats sharpening their claws on his soul”; “when you chop wood the chips fly”. And the temptation to quote Chekhov must have been too strong for his admirer: “When they serve coffee, don’t try to find beer in it.”
Sometimes this penchant for authenticity backfires. Take, for instance, a reference to Boris Pasternak’s translation of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 66. Barnes imagines how at a reading “the audience would wait keenly through the first eight lines, eager for the ninth: ‘And art made tongue-tied by authority’.” If the Russian listeners did wait, it wasn’t for these very words as none of their equivalents appear in Pasternak’s version: he famously took liberties when translating poetry, so in this stanza there are “thought” with its “mouth shut” (by no one in particular), “reason” and “stupidity”, “kindness” and “evil”, but no “art” or “authority”. The line is intended as a lead-in to an important theme — “Art no more belongs to the People and the Party than it once belonged to the aristocracy and the patron” — but the Russian translation falls flat here. Minor though such inconsistencies are, in a work where subtle details are captured with pitch-perfect skill, they jar upon the ear.
Describing Shostakovich’s obsessiveness — his habits included wearing amulets of garlic when travelling on wartime trains, frequently washing his hands and synchronising clocks — Barnes shows us a man who was happy only at his desk or at a piano keyboard, powerless to restore any semblance of order elsewhere in the world.
Equally eloquent are the book’s reflections on religion, whose demands are compared to those of the state — or of your own consciousness. The picture is one of an artist doomed to struggle, be it against totalitarianism, aesthetic disagreement or everyday circumstances.
To emphasise that little in Shostakovich’s life was black and white, Barnes quotes another Russian proverb, “he lies like an eyewitness”. It applies to most recollections compiled here, including two accounts of a “historic meeting” between Shostakovich and Akhmatova: in one, they sit in silence, in the other, talk for 20 minutes; in both, Akhmatova later remembers: “It was wonderful”. Shostakovich, who dedicated his Eighth Quartet to himself before agreeing that it be dedicated “to the victims of fascism and war”, was used to multiple interpretations: “Sometimes, he thought that there was a different version of everything.”