A coward’s life
The noise of time
Julian Barnes, Jonathan Cape, January 2016
Concluding a recent talk about life-writing, Julian Barnes wryly asked for a disclaimer to be placed into any future biographies of him: “This is not how I was; this is what I am like when I’m being biographed”. Of course, it is difficult enough capturing the ‘truth’ about a subject in a straight biography; Barnes’s fictional account of Shostakovich’s life asks us to believe, at least for a short while, that we are reading is the true, internal monologue of Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich. In this it succeeds marvellously.
The novel’s structure is simple: a prologue and three chapters, each recounting an episode of the subject’s life. In the first Shostakovich believes he is about to be purged for his newly unpopular music; in the second he is returning from a propaganda tour of the US; the third seems him settling into respectable old age, plagued by the many moral compromises he has had to make. Throughout all this, Shostakovich—who in spite of his many failings is essentially a likeable character—maintains an attitude of innocent bafflement at his relationship with the state, bemoaning for example that he “had been conscious from the beginning that it was necessary to render unto Caesar that which was Caesar’s. So why was Caesar angry with him?”. The sixty years that have passed since de-Stalinization have endowed the reader with a smug sense of hindsight, but Shostakovich as painted by Barnes is able only to muddle through life and hope for survival.
The novel’s title, The noise of time, is taken from the work of Osip Mandelstam, himself a victim of the Stalinist purges. Barnes has weaved a number of cultural references, principally Russian, throughout the novel: stories about Shostakovich’s fellow musicians, contemporary or historical, and several folk sayings, so alien and yet somehow so familiar to this reader’s ear: more than one character is described as knowing as much about music “as a pig knows about oranges”. Shostakovich’s idea of Russia is a continuum with its past, a vision of the country with which he is at ease, but which is tragically out of step with the Stalinist reality. Overnight, and on the whim of Josef Stalin, Shostakovich goes from being a celebrated artist to a national pariah. Ultimately, to continue working, the composer must surrender his integrity and his identity and become an instrument of the state.
So complicit is Shostakovich in the rewriting of his self—a particularly chilling moment comes when he denounces the artists he deeply admires—that it becomes difficult to disentangle the private and the public figure. It would be tempting to condemn the composer for the betrayal of his ideals, but Barnes so convincingly paints the terror of the time that Shostakovich’s small acts of bravery are magnified: in the first chapter we find the composer waiting by the lift of his apartment building because he wants to meet his captors head on and spare his daughter the sight of her father being taken away. And he deplores the conducting style of Toscanini as dictatorial, asking why anyone would treat an instrumentalist with such disrespect. Shostakovich is a kind man in an unkind time, which in itself is a sort of defiance.
So by his many acts of cowardice, Barnes shows us, Shostakovich ensures his own survival and the endurance of his music. Rather like the librarians of Baghdad who smuggled out ancient texts to protect them from the US invasion and subsequent anarchy, Shostakovich smuggled his musical masterpieces under the cover of his identity as state puppet. ‘Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time’: Shostakovich’s whispers have outlasted the noise of the Soviet Union. Perhaps the coward can triumph after all?