I have recently read The Noise of Time, the new book about the Russian composer Dmitry Shostakovich by Julian Barnes, which my husband acquired on the very day it was published. He devoured it in a day or so and passed it on as he thought it would be of interest to me on account that I like Shostakovich’s music – well, some of it, at any rate – and because I grew up under communism.
I’ve read a few other books by Julian Barnes and I generally enjoyed them; Arthur and George was excellent. This book, however, didn’t start well for me: before I reached page ten I began to conclude that Barnes was writing about something banal in a manner that could not be but irritating to those ‘in the know’. I mean, was he actually telling me that living under a dictatorship was no fun? No kidding?!… Did he really think he was revealing some profound insight when for all the world he was merely describing the blindingly obvious?… What could this Englishman, who never lived under dictatorship, know about the matter anyway? I commented on this to my husband, who didn’t even look up from his newspaper as he replied, “Yeah, I thought you’d feel that way.”
I didn’t need him to tell me that I was doing the author a massive injustice of course. First of all, for all my righteous indignation, there was the small fact that I’m in no way ‘in the know’. Because although I did grow up under a communist regime, that regime was a far cry from Stalinist Russia and its purges of intelligentsia. Famously nicknamed ‘goulash communism’, the regime in Hungary in the 1970s and 80s was as mild as any dictatorship conceivably can be; in fact, in retrospect it seems more laughable than fearsome (I really ought to write about it someday). In any case, I got over my initial irritation quickly; and I have to concede to Barnes that he did understand the background against which Shostakovich’s life played out perfectly.
A Biography of Shostakovich: Nothing More, Nothing Less
Barnes’s novel starts off with Shostakovich standing on the landing in front of the lift in his apartment block with a little suitcase in his hand, waiting to be taken away by the secret police. Not wanting to be dragged out of bed in front of his family, he gets ready and waits by the lift, all night. Every night. Bizarre? Yes. So bizarre that it’s true – Barnes didn’t make this up: Shostakovich spent entire nights waiting in front of the lift door. (As to whether he was taken away in the end or not, I’ll let you read the book to find that out.)
I had expected The Noise of Time to be an exploration of the collision of the artistic genius and its need for free expression with the dictatorship but it wasn’t that (which I found disappointing). One of the reasons for this would be Shostakovich’s character itself: he was no hero and tried to avoid conflict with Power at all costs. Barnes, who did a fine job of getting into the head of his protagonist, passed no moral judgment on Shostakovich for this, at least not explicitly, and nor will I. I’ll reserve judgment for the figure of Nicolas Nabokov instead (yes, you heard me right, Nabokov, in preference even to all the overzealous servants of the regime): There’s a scene in the novel in which Nabokov, who never had to live under any sort of dictatorship in his life, hectors Shostakovich in a press conference, showing him up for a coward and a spineless puppet of the Soviet regime. This too, like the waiting by the lift, did happen: and frankly, based on this scene I consider Nabokov a colossal arsehole; I mean how damnably easy it is to be heroic and principled when you’ve got absolutely nothing at stake.
The opening image of Shostakovich standing by the lift door suitcase in hand is powerful but it didn’t reveal so much about living under dictatorship as about Shostakovich’s mind set. The man had clearly spent a life time in terror trying to write music and only wishing he was left alone to do so. I had a look at pictures of him on the internet and I couldn’t see one where he didn’t look worried. He looks as if he would be physically incapable of smiling even, so prominent and permanent looking is the downward curve of his mouth on these images.
Ultimately, the book fails to go beyond being a well-written biography of Shostakovich in the form of a novel. I felt there was too little exploration of the question of artistic liberty: the very stuff Shostakovich was so manifestly denied. I’d say it’s well worth the reading if you’re interested in the life of Shostakovich, or if you know nothing about the limitations on artists in the Soviet Union… or indeed, if you just generally enjoy Julian Barnes’s books. Otherwise, I wouldn’t bother.