I read The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes over the course of about a week. It’s a smallish book, coming in at around 200 pages. I could have read it faster, perhaps in two or three days, but from the very first pages, I knew it was a book I wanted to savour.
The novel opens with Dmitri Shostakovich waiting by the lift in his apartment building. A few nights before, Stalin had attended a performance of Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, a well respected, popular, and internationally renowned opera. He and his cronies left after the third act. Shostakovich had also been in the audience, and later picked up a copy of Pravda to read the denunciation of his up until then beloved opera entitled “Muddle Instead of Music.”
Composers are used to bad reviews, of course. All artists are. They are used to criticism of their art, and used to people not understanding their intentions or their vision. But a bad review under Stalin was not simply a bad review. On page 26, Barnes writes of the Muddle Instead of Music review:
“There were three phrases which aimed not just at his theoretical misguidedness but at his very person. “The composer apparently never considered the problem of what the Soviet audience looks for and expects in music.” That was enough to take away his membership in the Union of Composers. “The danger of this trend to Soviet music is clear.” That was enough to take away his ability to compose and perform. And finally: “It is a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly.” That was enough to take away his life.”
Such was life for writers, composers, dancers, actors, any type of artist at all under Stalin. In The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes focuses on the life of Shostakovich, and does a remarkable job eliciting and evoking this era in Soviet history, and a society that didn’t know how not to be afraid.
The novel – and at times it was difficult to remember I was reading a novel and not an actual biography – is lyric and wry, funny and heartbreaking, often surreal, and always beautiful. It is also immensely quotable. Barnes has a gift for conveying feelings and ideas in very few, yet perfectly chosen words, causing me to stop and contemplate before resuming reading. In fact, I flagged over 30 lines, paragraphs, and sometimes even entire pages as potential quotes. Definitely too many to include in a short review, but enough to make me return to the book often, to read the passages again for their sheer beauty, their compact power. The novel’s structure adds to its beauty as well, with paragraphs that are short and succinct. These punchy paragraphs are not without impact. In fact, they trigger a sense of urgency in the writing; quickening the pace at times, and at other points in the story slowing the action down. Much like a composer or a conductor controls the way the orchestra plays music and therefore the way the audience hears it, Barnes is an expert in controlling the way the book is consumed by the reader. The result is lyrical, contemplative, and beautiful.
Back to the lift.
After the performance of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, and Muddle Instead of Music, Shostakovich remained by the lift, night after night. On hearing it ascend, and preparing for the worst, there was relief when the doors opened and it was a merely a neighbour returning home:
“Words were never exchanged because words were dangerous. It was just possible that he looked like a man humiliatingly thrown out by his wife, night after night; or a man who indecisively kept walking out on his wife, night after night, and then returning. But it was probable he looked exactly what he was: a man, like hundreds of others across the city, waiting, night after night, for arrest.”
To me, to any of us sitting comfortably in a country that has never known a dictator, never known revolution or the fear of arrest for no other reason than your beliefs are no longer in line with those of the Party, it is extremely difficult to imagine how people not only lived under Stalin’s Great Terror, but continued to create. Music, poetry, theatre, novels, opera. Art not only thrived, it flourished. Some of the most incredible writing and music of all time came out of the Soviet Union under Stalin. This is mind boggling and fascinating, and is a testament to the power of the human spirit, and to the power of art itself.
Lenin said “Art belongs to the People.” Barnes writes,
“Art belongs to everybody and nobody. Art belongs to all time and no time. Art belongs to those who create it and those who savour it. Art no more belongs to the People and the Party than it once belonged to the aristocracy and the patron. Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time. Art does not exist for art’s sake: it exists for people’s sake. But which people and who defines them? He always thought of his own art as anti-aristocratic. Did he write, as his detractors maintained, for a bourgeois cosmopolitan elite? No. Did he write, as his detractors wanted him to, for the Donbass miner weary from his shift and in need of a soothing pick-me-up? No. He wrote music for everyone and no one. He wrote music for those who best appreciated the music he wrote, regardless of social origin. He wrote music for the ears that could hear. And he knew, therefore, that all true definitions of art are circular, and all untrue definitions of art ascribe it to a specific function.”
The Noise of Time is exquisite, and is currently among my top 5 reads for 2016 so far. I own a copy, and am happy to lend it. I will even remove the 3 dozen post-it note flags for you, so you can insert your own. Because you will definitely want to.