“Lenin found music depressing. Stalin thought he understood and appreciated music. Khrushchev despised music. Which is the worst for a composer?”
Julian Barnes’ does not answer this question in his biographical fiction “The Noise of Time”, which examines Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich’s life and travails in the Soviet Union. Shostakovich is a facility for Barnes to question whether Art will ultimately conquer Power; the latter presumably being more fleeting despite its repetitiveness.
“What could be put up against the noise of time? Only that music which is inside ourselves- the music of our being- which is transformed by some into real music. Which, over the decades, if it is strong and true and pure enough to drown out the noise of time, is transformed into the whisper of history.”
You can consider four personality types: believer; collaborator; critic; and martyr. Barnes’, or at least Shostakovich as interpreted by Barnes, viewed liberal critics of the Soviet Union, who criticized outside the reach of an authoritarian regime, to be no different from the autocrats who required propaganda from their artists. Shostakovich loved Stravinsky for his music, but thought no more of him and Nabokov for their criticism than he did of Stalin. Shostakovich, did not believe in the Soviet system, but did not martyr himself. According to Barnes’ his cowardice, protection of family, materialism, or wish to be left alone to be a musician, made him a collaborator.
This is not a particularly well written novel. It is principally based on Elizabeth Wilson’s Shostakovich: A Life Remembered. There is no real discussion or analysis of Shostakovich’s music. It could be read as non-fiction, except some of its rare dialogue seems unrealistic. Shostakovich who fears the Stalin has ordered his death purportedly receives a call from Stalin requesting that he attend the Cultural and Scientific Congress for World Peace in New York. The dialogue has Shostakovich giving Stalin one excuse after another why he cannot attend: he is sick; he can’t fly; he does not have a tail-suit; that his music is not being played in the Soviet Union. It reads like a conversation between a teacher and a young student who has forgotten his homework. Worse, there is very little imagined dialogue in the novel. It is a narration as if it were non-fiction.
“The Testament of Mary” which I reviewed, imagined the cruxification of Christ from the vantage point of his mother, Mary. Colm Toibin’s biographical fiction, demonstrates imagination, not recounting of a secondary source work of non-fiction. As a character, Barnes’ did not create in my mind the fear of death that Shostakovich would have had waiting outside his apartment in anticipation of being taken away, tortured and killed.
I can’t subscribe to Art being immune from subjectivity and control outside of political power. There may be universality in creation for the sake of creation (without recognition), but that is individualistic and will not aggregate to be a “whisper of history”.
Julian Barnes has written better, and will write better than “The Noise of Time”.