By Rahul Vaidya
Title: The Noise of Time
Author: Julian Barnes
Publisher: Jonathan Cape, 2016
Somber meditation on art and politics
The Noise of Time is a new novel by Booker Prize winning author, Julian Barnes. It is based on the life of Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich, a renowned Soviet composer, whose work spanned a 40-year career from the 1930s till 1970s. The title, The Noise of Time, is taken from the work of Osip Mandelstam, a poet and essayist who fell foul of the Soviet regime in the 1930s and died in Siberia in 1938. In contrast to this ‘heroic’ figure, Shostakovich remained controversial because his survival under Stalin was seen as a mark of his compromise with power. However, Shostakovitch’s memoir, which he titled Testimony, shows the immense mental struggle and torture he went through for the choices he made. It is another matter that the authenticity of this memoir is under question. The Washington Post questions just how far Barnes had actually immersed himself in Shostakovich scholarship, or Shostakovich’s music, before writing his novel. Shostakovich’s purported memoir appears to have been written less with than by another author (Solomon Volkov), and scholars are wary of treating it as fact. And yet in his novel’s acknowledgments, Barnes says that he treated Volkov’s work as “a private diary” and one of his main sources.
However, leaving aside the questions of authenticity and assuming some creative freedom for fictional biographies to tackle the philosophical questions of art, politics, and life, as Barnes does here, I would like to comment on how far he has succeeded in this endeavor.
For this, it is necessary to keep in mind the larger context of art and politics in Soviet and communist societies. The West has been long fascinated with the literary works of Soviet dissidents. The long shadow of the Cold War, multi-layered propaganda and the patronizing attitude of Western literary establishments have meant the rewarding of several disappointing artistic outcomes only for the sake of their anti-communist/ individualistic worldview. The list is long. From Cancer Ward and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Solzhenitsyn to Gao Xingjian’s Nobel Prize winning, Soul Mountain or Svetlana Alexievich who won the Nobel in 2015 for her oral history of Soviet times.
It is certainly a tricky business to creatively engage with topics as enigmatic as Soviet artists and Soviet life. From overtly propagandist and simplistic, to naively sentimental, the art around this has failed to go beyond the monochrome. Even George Orwell did not succeed greatly with the modern fable that Animal Farm was. The fable was essentially a crude formalist maneuver of a covert political critique and not dystopian art asking fundamental philosophical questions. Later, in 1984, Orwell engaged with modernity and its representational structures, as well as its crisis, allowing the emergence of the theatre of the absurd.
Barnes has chosen a fictional biographical form for his novel and has focused on three significant events from Shostakovich’s life. First, there are his encounters with Power. The years are 1936, 1948 and 1960. His opera, ‘Lady Macbeth of Mtsenk’, is heavily criticized by a Pravda editorial, supposedly written by Stalin himself. He was put under an enquiry, which was mysteriously halted. He continued to survive under fear and produce breathtaking music till after the war in 1948, when Stalin himself called on him to be part of Peace Delegation to the U.S.A. In Barnes’ words: “Shostakovich, repentant, had composed a Soviet artist’s creative reply to just criticism.” However, it reinforced the fact of having committed the original sin. Any rehabilitation proved the guilt of the original crime. Later, under Khrushchev, he was persuaded to become a ‘member of the Party’ in order to prove that “things had changed, and the horrors under Cult of the Personality were behind.”
To Barnes’ credit, he has picked these encounters as significant markers in shifts in political processes and how art remained hostage to it no matter what. He has also not spared the West and its support for Soviet dissidents as it demanded of them more courage, i.e. being murdered. Especially telling is the episode where Shostakovich is interrogated by Nicolas Nabokov, a Soviet dissident who migrated to U.S.A and was supposedly in the pay of the CIA. Throughout the work, Barnes has explored the notion of courage and has maintained,
Shostakovich stood his ground, paid Caesar his due (and Caesar was very greedy in those days), wrote his private as well as his public music, protected his family and hoped for better days. There are more forms of heroism than the obvious ones.
The entire book is the journey of an artist in the shadow of Lenin’s remark that ‘arts belongs to people’. Barnes shares this vision partially and maintains that the artists dream of
all arts coming together in one glorious joint project. Music and literature and theatre and film and architecture and ballet and photography would form a dynamic partnership, not just reflecting society or criticizing it or satirizing it, but making it. Artists, of their own free will, and without any political direction, would help their fellow human souls develop and flourish.
However, he is ultimately critical of this sort of a project. His answer to the question, ‘to whom does music belong’ is “music, in the end, belonged to music. That was all you could say, or wish for.” While it may seem like an old ‘art for art’s sake’ sort of an escapist route, Barnes invokes an important issue of bureaucratization. Bureaucrats “had soon arrived to take control of the project, to leach out of it the freedom and imagination and complication and nuance without which the arts grew stultified.”
This question goes to the heart of the problems of art in the Soviet Union as well as art in post-revolutionary society as such. What the role of art in such societies should be depends on the political choice of acknowledging the existence of class struggle and alienation, even post-revolution. If we are to accept that revolution has happened, the ‘New Man’ should emerge and all creative efforts should converge uncritically upon this. Optimism and uncritical celebration of traditional art forms as true expressions of ‘people’s art’ cannot be taken as a Leftist art project.
While this meditation over role of art vis-à-vis politics and life informs much of the narrative of The Noise of Time, one is left wondering about the structural aspects of the novel itself. A fictional biography focusing on key events and relegating personal life to the background is an understandable exercise. However, the encounters with Power remain at a derivative level. It is as if one is witness to a ‘dream within a dream’. While normally such construction should heighten the impact of the tragedy, the meditation occupies and interrupts much of the narrative. Barnes, who masterfully authored reconstruction of real life events in his Arthur & George, falls short in the narrative here. The complexity and tragedies of life are encapsulated in quotable sentences rather than narration of life events or interactions with other fellow companions, or friends and acquaintances.
In the end however, Barnes’ novel is a serious work by a serious author and requires patient reading and pondering. It meditates over ‘the noise of time’, the celebration of mediocrity and convention in the name popular art – a phenomenon not exclusive to the Soviet Union or Communist societies of the 20th century. His celebration of an unlikely ‘heroic’ figure remains part of the large cannon of literature we talked about earlier; it doesn’t challenge that cannon. It certainly reminds one of Orwellian dystopia; however, its focus remains limited. Totalitarianism is one logical symptom of the project of modernity itself. Barnes doesn’t try to explore this. His music thus gets lost in the noise of the times that we live in.
Rahul Vaidya is an independent researcher from Delhi. His interests are Marxist theory, culture, literature, politics, and economics.
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