Culture

Shostakovich and Power

Review: Julian Barnes, ‘The Noise of Time’

Dmitri Shostakovich
Dmitri Shostakovich / AP

In her 1984 memoir, Galina: A Russian Story, soprano opera singer Galina Vishnevskaya details the tragic toll of Stalin’s rule on Soviet poets:

Gumilev was shot.
Blok starved to death.

Esenin committed suicide.
Mayakovsky shot himself.
Mandelstam died in a labor camp.
Tsvetaeva hanged herself.
Pasternak was driven into the grave.
Akhmatova was hounded and didn’t publish for many years.

Not mentioned in this list is Vishnevskaya’s friend, the composer Dmitri Shostakovich, whose own repression at the hands of Soviet authorities is the subject of Julian Barnes’s new novel, The Noise of Time.  Written as a sort of fictional memoir, the novel imagines Shostakovich reflecting back on his Three Conversations with Power (the capitalization is Barnes’s) and how these conversations shaped his life.

Power, of course, is represented most menacingly by Stalin, and Shostakovich’s First Conversation with Power occurs in 1936, at the height of the Purges and following the performance of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtensk—which Stalin attended and which the orchestra had, in a fit of ineptitude, nervousness, or madness, played far more loudly than Shostakovich had scored. The review that appeared in Pravda, the official organ of the Communist Party, a few days later deemed the opera "a muddle instead of music," whose "quacks and grunts and growls" represented a "formalist" danger to Soviet music. The Pravda review threateningly dismissed the opera as "a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly," and it was not performed again in Russia until after the fall of the Soviet Union, almost two decades after Shostakovich’s death.

As Shostakovich reflects in the novel, "This was a Pravda editorial; not some fleeting judgment which might be appealed against, but a policy statement from the highest level. Holy writ, in other words." Moreover, Shostakovich realizes the review isn’t just aesthetic; it is political, and the power of the review’s final line, Shostakovich knows, "was enough to take away his life." When Shostakovich meets, as he inevitably must, with his NKVD interrogator, he learns that not only has his patron and protector Marshal Tukachevsky has been arrested, but that he must return in forty-eight hours and "must recall every detail of all the discussions regarding the plot against Comrade Stalin, of which you were one of the chief witnesses."

This accusation is baseless, but that makes it no less deadly. By this time, Tukachevsky had already been tortured and was to be shot in the head following a show trial the following year. Although Shostakovich is given a momentary reprieve, his life remains in danger, so, "rather than be dragged from the apartment in his pyjamas, or forced to dress in front of some contemptuously impassive NKVD man," he spends his evenings standing with a packed suitcase at the elevator door, waiting to be taken to the Big House in Leningrad. Eventually, Shostakovich suspends his nightly vigils at the elevator, puts his clothes away and his suitcase back under the bed, but the terror never entirely disappears.

This alone is a potent story, and Barnes its Man Booker Prize-winning storyteller. So why doesn’t it work as a novel?

The novel’s first line, "It happened in wartime," contains an early indication of trouble. The mystery of that antecedent-free "it" is meant to draw the reader on, yet instead signals a writer who isn’t sure what he’s aiming at. In fact, "it" refers, in part, to that damning Pravda editorial, though, to his credit, Barnes later undermines the notion that Shostakovich’s fall from favor had been as instantaneous as it seemed, noting, "that as early as 1929 he had been officially denounced, told his music was ‘straying from the main road of Soviet art,’ and sacked from his post at the Choreographic Technical College." Still, there’s something unsure in this "it," an attempt to infuse mystery into a story that severely lacks it. In fact, this absence of mystery plagues the whole enterprise.  The novel lacks a motive force; there’s nothing to unravel, no moments of recognition or epiphany for the characters to undergo and the reader to witness.

Another problem is one of genre: a fictional memoir sounds plausible enough—indeed, all memoirs, and all memories, are fictional to some extent—yet the genre gives Barnes little room to display the kind of narrative ingenuity that make Flaubert’s Parrot and A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters such masterpieces. Barnes attempts to separate plot—the author’s careful arrangement of incident—from story, the larger world out of which plot is fashioned—by rendering many events and reflections out of strict chronological order, yet all are recollections and, as such, feel equally distant from the reader. While the Three Conversations with Power are individually well-crafted, they too lack drama because of their retrospective telling. Barnes seems trapped by what Sir Philip Sidney calls "the historian in his bare Was," his inventiveness penned in, even suffocated, by the extraordinary and largely immutable facts of Shostakovich’s life.

More distressingly for fans of Barnes’s other work—and I consider myself such a fan—Barnes’ British voice seems wholly unsuited to Shostakovich’s Russian story. Though Barnes makes a convincing case that much of Shostakovich’s music was itself ironic, most notably his Fifth Symphony ("A Soviet Artist’s Creative Reply to Just Criticism"), the tenors of Shostakovich’s and Barnes’ irony are not well matched. Shostakovich’s irony, as Barnes rightly notes, is "truth’s disguise," because "the tyrant’s ear is rarely tuned to hear it." In other words, Shostakovich’s irony is that of the dissident, of the hero, even, standing up to oppression. Barnes’s irony, on the other hand, is that of the well-observed anomaly, the perceptive catching-out of dissonance—as in Flaubert’s Parrot, when the narrator discovers two stuffed parrots that are each credited with inspiring the bird in "A Simple Heart." In The Noise of Time, Barnes sifts and sifts Shostakovich’s explanations, which feels less perceptive than defensive. He carefully juxtaposes events and reflections so that no explanation or causality is ever final, or finally explanatory, a tactic that immunizes him from charges of naiveté while sucking all the oxygen out of the story’s momentum.

The problem is stylistic as well. In 1979, Solomon Volokov published Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich. Questions about the book’s accuracy made it immediately controversial, setting off the "Shostakovich Wars" that lasted well into the past decade.  The consequence of this book for Barnes’s novel is damaging. In a sense, Volokov has already captured Shostakovich’s first person account, his "I," forcing Barnes to adopt a free indirect style unsuited to a memoir. While the free indirect style Barnes employs has been used to terrific effect in historical fiction—Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies come immediately to mind—here it has the effect of further deflating a story whose outcome is probably already known by the reader.  In essence, there’s the distance between the experiencing and the remembering Shostakovich, between the remembering Shostakovich and the narrative "witness" of the remembering, and the reader.  Barnes seems to recognize this shortcoming in the Author’s Note to the book, where he acknowledges that "Shostakovich was a multiple narrator of his own life…The Shostakovich bibliography is considerable." In other words, there’s little room for this novel.

In A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, Barnes remarks, "irony may be defined as what people miss." Unfortunately, though they abound in the life and work of Dmitri Shostakovich, Barnes proves an inapt chronicler of these ironies. If, as he claims in The Noise of Time, "tragedies in hindsight look like farces," I wish he’d made just a little room for us to laugh.