The Noise of Time, by Julian Barnes (Knopf, 2016), is a fictional biography of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. It’s also a history of the era of Joseph Stalin and his efforts to regulate the arts and the individual. Control meant not only censorship but also liquidation—composers and others in the arts who were seen as hostile to the Party were imprisoned and often murdered.
Shostakovich has to struggle with his own inclinations as an artist—the products of environment, upbringing, genetics—and the expectations of the government. Does he rebel openly (in which case his likely fate would be death and an early end to his career) or does he accede to the government’s demands, forfeiting his artistic integrity? There were many who chose one path or the other. Or does he take a middle ground, negotiating between the two extremes? Is there any way to maintain integrity in such a situation?
The novel occurs in three sections: the first concerns Stalin’s reaction in 1936 to Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Up until that point a successful young composer with many prospects as well as a university professorship, Shostakovich sees Stalin and other government officials at a performance of the opera and then notices halfway through that they have left the theatre. Reviews in Pravda and other newspapers make clear that Shostakovich has lost favor, that his opera has been accused of excessive formalism and elitism, that it is not suitable for the “people.” He loses his University position, performances of his music are banned, and he lives in fear for his life. Much of this section takes place as Shostakovich waits on the landing outside his apartment in expectation of the arrival of police to cart him off to prison and worse. The second section involves a Peace Convention in the 1950s held in the United States where Shostakovich represents the Soviet Union. He has gradually regained some favor with the government. Stalin calls him up to invite him to represent Russia. After much demurring, Shostakovich agrees when Stalin offers that his music can again be performed. At the convention speeches are read in Shostakovich’s name (speeches he didn’t write) which attack composers he respects (mainly Stravinsky) and express views he doesn’t hold. He expects his own passivity, his own failure to deliver the speeches, to somehow free him of responsibility of their contents. He considered the experience humiliating. The third section focuses on Shostakovich in old age. He is pressured to join the Communist Party, an act that would signify his conflicts with the government have ended. He finally does join, under duress, after the government agrees that his Lady Macbeth opera can again be performed-- after some changes (including a name change).
Throughout his career, although he writes great music to the end of his life, Shostakovich is increasingly compromised. In the end, living in a government-provided apartment, the recipient of numerous government accolades, allowing the government to write newspaper articles in his name expressing views he does not hold, he has become a tool of the government.
Shostakovich sacrificed his own personal integrity for the sake of an artistic career. He does have the career. He does write great music, but at a cost.
On the one hand The Noise of Time suggests that no person could survive the Stalin regime without compromise. It considers the dangers of attempting to negotiate the extremes between giving up one’s life to preserve one’s integrity (and family and friends) and completely giving oneself over to Stalin’s government. Shostakovich, for the middle and late portions of his career, manages this negotiation by acquiescing.
In the novel, Shostakovich’s encounters with government are expressed as encounters with Power. The novel considers the difficulties of maintaining one’s identity in any situation where Power is involved—where one’s personal inclinations (artistic inclinations, may be) conflict with the expectations and pressures of Power. The Stalin regime and Shostakovich’s experience of it may be an extreme example, but it is still representative of the point: the conflict of the individual self vs the collective, whether the latter is a government, a company, a religion, a university, or whatever. In this sense Shostakovich is the representative modern man.
The novel’s critique of Stalinism and its war on the individual is devastating. It novel is densely and beautifully written. It’s point of view is external. It focuses on Shostakovich as the main character but provides contextual information. It’s not first person but rather told through an authorial third person narration, so that we see Shostakovich from his own point of view but also in the larger context of his biography and of his age.
The Noise of Time as I take it is a phrase that means music—sounds made with rhythm and structure. It also refers to the passage of time and the changes that occur as the years pass.