Thursday, March 03, 2016

'The Noise of Time' by Julian Barnes

3 March 2016

The composer Dmitri Shostakovich certainly lived in interesting times. Julian Barnes' new novel 'The Noise of Time' (which I have just finished reading as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Daniel Philpott) fictionalises the remarkable true story of an artist constantly challenged by the controlling interest in his art taken by the Soviet state. In 1936, when Shostakovich's opera 'Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk' (described by Pravda as “muddle instead of music”) is banned, apparently at Stalin's behest, the composer assumes it is only a matter of time before he will be forced to surrender his life. Reluctant to flee into exile (as Stravinsky had done), and concerned for how his actions will impact upon the lives of his family and friends, Shostakovich finds himself a reluctant collaborator with Stalin's regime. Is he coward or pragmatist? It is scary to wonder how we each might have behaved in a similar situation. Julian Barnes suggests that the composer's yearning to continue living and composing steers him away from martyrdom but leads him into uncomfortable compromises. In 1948 when Stalin asks the composer to represent the Soviet Union at the Congress for World Peace, Shostakovich arrives in New York shortly after a Russian woman has defected by jumping out the window of the Russian Consulate building. A protester on the street outside the building holds a placard imploring “Shostakovich! Jump thru the window!” but, of course, he doesn't. 'The Noise of Time' is a fascinating book but feels more like a biography than a novel. Although Julian Barnes has imagined Shostakovich's point of view and describes particular scenes in detail, the book presents a fairly factual account of his life. The narrative structure, built around three key moments, each twelve years apart, and featuring several recurring themes and motifs, has the feel of a piece of music – a literary symphony. But it's a melancholy refrain about an imperfect man coping badly with an impossible situation. Shostakovich lived until 1975 and, towards the end of his life, made increasing use, in his string quartets, of the musical instruction 'morendo' (dying away). As Julian Barnes says: few composers finish their lives with a major chord played fortissimo.



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