The Noise of Time is a fictionalised biography of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, and his fate as a composer living under Stalinist rule. The major themes of this book, as we might expect, are the relationship between art and state control (the capitalised “Power” in Barnes’ book), and the problems of maintaining personal and musical integrity in the face of such Power.

The book is split into three sections. Each of these follows Shostakovich through a significant event or moment in his life, wherein he experiences one of his “conversations with Power”. The first section focusses on the nights following a damning review of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in Pravda: the official newspaper of the Communist party. He spent each evening waiting on the landing of his apartment building in full expectation of his own arrest. It was 1936, and the beginning of what became known as the Great Terror, in which many of the composer’s friends and relatives were imprisoned or killed as enemies of the state. The second section follows his diplomatic trip to America where he famously read a pre-prepared statement publicly agreeing with the Party line. This included condemning his own earlier work, and the work of one of his heroes, Igor Stravinsky. In doing this, he was exposed as a mouthpiece for a regime which, at least privately, he didn’t support. The final section sees an older Shostakovich in the back of a chauffeur-driven car. Strong-armed into becoming a member of the Party and the Chairman of the Russian Federation Union of Composers, he falls deeper into shame and regret, just when to all outward appearances his successes seem so assured.

It may be useful to see the three parts of Barnes’ novel as three distinct movements in the musical sense of the term, with each part imbued with a different pace and tone. From the static limbo of the landing, where Shostakovich’s life and the lives of his family and friends are in a perpetual, unspoken danger, we progress, in a section where Shostakovich’s public speech runs counter to his private thoughts, into the detachment and distance from reality symbolised by the plane, and finally, with Shostakovich as a Party member, to the claustrophobic interior space of the chauffeur-driven car.

Given the subject matter, it is not surprising to find that the form of Barnes’ novel, as well as some of the narrative passages, have clear musical influences.

As a composer, Shostakovich is known for the way in which he draws on a range of modes and influences to inform his compositions, particularly the less conservative compositions he was condemned for.

In his book, Barnes invokes the musical ear of Shostakovich, attuned to the sounds of daily life as well as of music, both classical and popular, in one of the opening passages.

The cacophony of sounds in his head. His father’s voice, the waltzes and polkas he had played while courting Nita, four blasts of a factory siren in F sharp, dogs outbarking an insecure bassoonist, a riot of percussion and brass beneath a steel lined government box

These sounds are pulled from various periods within Shostakovich’s biography: from his childhood, his marriage, his own compositions, and two ill-fated performances of his works; one made ridiculous as it set dogs barking, the other made dangerous by the disapproval of Stalin in his steel lined government box. The coalescence of these disparate sounds brings some of Shostakovich’s compositional methods into Barnes’ narration in a really interesting way, as well as foregrounding aspects of his biography that will appear later in the book.

Overall, music is represented in Barnes’ novel on at least three different levels. It is a means of propaganda and control, a means of subverting that propaganda, and a pure art form, free from the petty politics of history.

Shostakovich is thought to have exploited the abstractions of music in order to introduce irony and mockery into his supposedly glorifying works. Barnes’ novel describes Shostakovich’s triumph at the hidden meaning in his Fifth Symphony, perhaps one of his greatest works:

The phrase also permitted those with asses’ ears to hear what they wanted to hear. They missed the screeching irony of the second movement, that mockery of triumph. They heard only triumph itself, some loyal endorsement of Soviet music. Soviet musicology, of life under the sun of Stalin’s constitution

But in the battle between art and power, this triumph is short-lived. As an older Shostakovich ruminates:

A farm boy throws an apple-core at a passing, chauffeur-driven car. A drunken beggar pulls down his trousers and bares his bottom to respectable folk. A distinguished Soviet composer inserts subtle mockery into a symphony or a string quartet. Was there a difference, either in motive, or in effect?

This pessimism is tempered by the moments of the novel where the greatness and purity of music are celebrated:

When all else failed, when there seemed to be nothing but nonsense in the world, he held to this: that good music, and great music was impregnable. You could play Bach’s preludes and fugues at any tempo, with any dynamics, and they would still be great music, proof even against the wretch who brought ten thumbs to the keyboard. And in the same way, you could not play such music cynically.

So what is music in relation to Power? A battleground for competing ideologies, or a pure and timeless form that outlives its formative conditions?

The answer to this can perhaps be found in the framing narrative. This narrative, separate from the chronology of the main novel, describes a train journey undertaken by Shostakovich during the Second World War. While waiting on the platform, his carriage is approached by a war veteran and double amputee who is now a beggar. Shostakovich, an unnamed companion, and the beggar share a couple of glasses of vodka. This moment of friendliness, relaxation, and enjoyment amidst the outbreak of war, and of typhoid, cuts through the horrors of personal experience to something more profound. It is captured in the ringing out of the three vodka glasses, each filled to different levels. The sound of their toast: a perfect triad.

…a triad put together by three not very clean vodka glasses and their contents was a sound that rang clear the noise of time, and would outlive everyone and everything. And perhaps, finally, this was all that mattered.

This final realisation is both hard-won, and in the context of the novel, tinged with doubt. Is it a true triumph for art over power? Or, like Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, are we as readers simply “those with asses’ ears to hear […] what they wanted to hear”–in this case, hearing some semblance of a happy ending?

I would like to believe in the hope represented by this triad ringing out from the clinking of dirty vodka glasses, and, there is support for such a reading in the rest of the novel. Despite its often pessimistic outlook, The Noise of Time cultivates oases of freedom, joy, contentment, and rebellion in music, and chooses to foreground that aspect of the form at the end of the novel. For me, then, the final note rings true.

Barnes’ novel is a superbly crafted portrait of a conflicted composer working in dangerous times. In a work of thematic depth and technical skill, Barnes’ writing successfully absorbs a sense of Shostakovich’s music into the text, and captures, through this one fictionalised life, the essence of broader historic struggles between art and power.

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The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes
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