The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes (Knopf, May 2016) Review by Pauline Fairclough

The Noise of Time
by Julian Barnes
(Knopf, May 2016)

Review by Pauline Fairclough

In Julian Barnes’s early novel Flaubert’s Parrot, the narrator observes that history often behaves like a piglet evading capture, making those who chase after it look ridiculous in the process. We wish to understand the past—its people, its events, the feelings shared, the beliefs held—but it slithers infuriatingly from our grasp. Figures from the musical realm can be especially enticing in this regard. We hold our heroes dear, and composers, wreathed in the romance of bygone ages, command adoration centuries after their passing. Yet notwithstanding the music left behind, not to mention their preserved apartments and all the accoutrements of the hero cult—death-masks, instruments once played, locks of hair, manuscripts, letters, and memoirs—they themselves remain stubbornly unknowable. And this is why we attach such importance to the fragments composers leave behind: they seem to breathe the air of an extraordinary life once lived. Relic-wise, Shostakovich-worshippers are richly rewarded: his widow still lives in their old apartment; there are plenty of people alive who remember him, including both his children; and hundreds of his letters to friends and colleagues survive. By comparison, anyone who has tried to trace Beethoven’s life in Vienna and its suburbs will find that no apartment survives that is guaranteed to be the one he once lived in; pianos are contemporary, not the ones he once owned; papers and books were stolen literally hours after his death and even hair from the composer’s head was plundered by those who ostensibly came to mourn him. No amount of staring at artifacts and gazing hopefully up at what might have been his apartment window can bring this larger-than-life figure a whit closer.

The reasons why Shostakovich should be such an irresistibly enigmatic figure—comparable indeed to Beethoven in mystique—lie not only in his music, but in the life of the man himself. Cursed by the misfortune of living in interesting times, Shostakovich survived the terrors of Stalinism—a whirlwind that came within inches of sucking him into its vortex—and his relationship to Soviet power was always difficult. He was a deeply ethical person forced to make compromises that caused him great anguish, yet he was considered by his fellow citizens to have acted as a faithful scribe of his times—a human Aeolian harp responding to the fear and madness around him. Barnes’s Shostakovich is a man painfully aware of his imperfections as a human being, but one unwavering in his self-belief as a composer. His music is the legacy he clings to even as he more or less writes off his own life as one lived too long.

How enigmatic was the man himself? The short answer is: very. Once past the heady years of his youth, he was obsessively private and would certainly have been dismayed by the publication of letters to his two closest friends, Isaak Glikman and Ivan Sollertinsky. Both treasured their correspondence from him, and all the surviving letters have now been published in full, though the legacy itself is patchy. When being evacuated from Leningrad with the Philharmonia during the blockade, Sollertinsky took with him to Siberia every scrap of correspondence that Shostakovich had ever sent him, including torn fragments of paper and postcards. Glikman, through no fault of his own, lost all of his during the Leningrad blockade and so his published letters from Shostakovich begin in 1941, with those written during their years of evacuation. Sadly (for us), very few letters to his mother survived, because one of the very first things Shostakovich did when he arrived at her apartment after her death was to go straight to the place where he knew she kept his letters, and diligently feed each one into the stove. Throughout his life, he openly disparaged those who, as he saw it, betrayed the privacy of loved ones after their death. And he had begun to feel particularly squeamish about memoirs. The poet Evgeny Dolmatovsky, with whom Shostakovich collaborated on his least distinguished works (the cantatas The Song of the Forests and The Sun Shines Over Our Motherland), once asked Shostakovich if he might read through and approve of a little personal sketch he had written about him. The response was immediate and lacerating: the composer wanted nothing to do with “Shostakovich in his bedroom slippers” and simply refused to read it, let alone annotate or correct it.

Julian Barnes’s The Noise of Time is a third-person, intimate narrative of the workings of Shostakovich’s mind, interspersed with memories that fill in useful back-stories to the composer’s present. We see Shostakovich at the worst times of his life: his night-time vigils at the elevator door in May 1937, waiting for the NKVD to come and arrest him; the humiliating trip he was forced to undertake to America in 1949, as part of a Soviet “peace delegation”; and the occasion of his being pressured into joining the Communist Party in 1960. But because his mind constantly flits back to earlier years, the narrative offers us—even if only in fictionalized form—something we do not already have: an unbroken thread connecting the young Shostakovich with the old. Barnes’s aged Shostakovich “wondered what the young man with the skittering mind would have made of the old man staring out from the back seat of his chauffeured car.” This, precisely, is what we want to imagine when we read this book. What does Barnes make of the dislocation between the young Mitya and the elderly Hero of Socialist Labor? What happened to the vivid, brilliant boy as he survived the horrors of Stalinism and war, found himself embraced by Soviet power, and grew into his difficult, infirm old age? It is a dislocation we hear in Shostakovich’s music, and one of the primary reasons why the figure of Shostakovich himself is simultaneously so attractive and enigmatic.

Though the narrative ostensibly starts in 1937, Shostakovich’s memories are so vividly painted that it is easy to imagine the teenage composer, escaping his mother’s protective clutches for the first time and spending an idyllic summer with his first love, Tatyana Glivenko: a portrayal beautifully rendered by Barnes. Much later in life, Shostakovich reflected that that month had been the happiest in his life; and indeed Glivenko is a recurring idée fixe in the novel, which surprised me slightly—though it shouldn’t have done, since none of us can know how Shostakovich felt about his string of lost loves as he grew older. Barely any mention at all is made of Elena Konstantinovskaya—the “Lyalya” with whom he fell so deeply in love that his marriage to Nina Varzar broke up; they actually divorced, only to remarry later the very same year. (Shostakovich’s horror at seeing his love letters to Konstantinovskaya surfacing in a Sotheby’s sale decades after his death can well be imagined.) And no mention is made of Galina Ustvolskaya, Shostakovich’s one-time composition student and distinguished composer in her own right, to whom he allegedly proposed marriage twice (rejected both times).

Surely no other composer has been treated as proprietorially as Shostakovich has been since his death in 1975. The inadequate binaries of totalitarianism used to be invoked with wearying regularity: was he a loyal communist or a secret dissident? “Debate,” such as it was, has thankfully moved on in the last decade or so, but we still like to ponder his career along blurrier lines of the same kind: what form, then, did his disaffection take, and what should we make of all his official successes? Barnes has his own stance on this—it would be almost unimaginable for him not to have—and so, inevitably, his version of Shostakovich will not map easily onto everyone else’s. Of the hundreds of facts and anecdotes about the composer, Barnes had to select, polish, and interpret. For instance, he chose to have Shostakovich regard his revision of Lady Macbeth as “deformed,” but Glikman, who was tasked with altering the libretto, insisted that the revisions were those of an older, wiser composer whose wishes should be respected. Barnes’s aging Shostakovich reflects on the dismal signing of denunciations including that of Andrei Sakharov, yet his widow, Irina Shostakovich, has long since told the story of how Shostakovich never did, in fact, sign that letter, but had his signature added against his will. Most striking of all to me, Barnes’s Shostakovich has no discernible sense of humor. He repeats the priceless anecdote about how Shostakovich was sent a personal tutor to instruct him in Marxism-Leninism: one day his teacher asked, “Who are you in comparison with our great Leader?” and Shostakovich, recalling the text to Dargomizhsky’s comical song, in which a similar question is posed, deftly quoted in reply, “I am a worm.” In Lev Lebedinsky’s telling, Nina Shostakovich reported this conversation (at which she was present), laughing till tears ran down her cheeks; yet none of the hilarity transfers itself to Barnes’s Shostakovich. And I think there is a reason for this: the protagonist of The Noise of Time is a bleak and broken figure, one who looks back on happier times not with joy, or humor, but with a permanent sense of loss. In Barnes’s words, Shostakovich was “a man crushed into a hundred pieces of rubble, vainly trying to remember how they—he—had once fitted together.” The sense of dislocation, of a man who cannot reconnect with his younger self, is total. This Shostakovich, in his old age, sees “only what was gone” and awaits his own demise with a grim eagerness, believing he had lived too long.

Yet was Shostakovich really such a broken figure at the end? I am reminded of responses by some of his friends when Solomon Volkov’s Testimony was first published, who felt the sarcastic composer relayed to the world by Volkov was not the warm, often funny, person they had known. Others, of course, felt that Shostakovich truly was a sardonic, angry person, who simply knew how to conceal those parts of his nature to those who would not understand them. Everyone who knew Shostakovich had their own picture of him, and they could be very contradictory, as Elizabeth Wilson captured with such integrity in her collection of memoirs, Shostakovich: A Life Remembered (Faber, 1994 and 2006). Ultimately, we all choose the Shostakovich we want to believe in. Barnes has chosen a figure not unlike Volkov’s: embittered and beaten down by life. For him, the insouciant, brilliant Mitya is so completely alienated from the elderly composer that they seem like entirely different people—even (so he imagines) to Shostakovich himself. But this isn’t the Shostakovich I imagine when I read his letters to Sollertinsky and Glikman: there, the connection between the Leningrad wunderkind and the old Moscow veteran holds true. The warmth and affection never falters; he was chuckling over Glikman’s last letter to his dying day and was touchy about being asked what his “last work” was, as though he might not live to compose another. On the eve of his last trip to hospital, Shostakovich was making plans to rehearse the Viola Sonata with its dedicatee, Fyodor Druzhinin, once he got out: even right at the end he was planning, hoping, working. So long as he could compose, life never entirely lost its savor for Shostakovich.

Right at the end of the book, the theme first hinted at in the opening vignette is stated explicitly: that Shostakovich’s music is, in the end, music which may one day exist above and beyond the literal facts of his own life. This may sound superficially inoffensive, even anodyne; in reality, it is anything but. Consider this assertion: “Time would pass, and though musicologists would continue their debates, his work would begin to stand for itself. History, as well as biography, would fade; perhaps one day Fascism and Communism would be merely words in textbooks. And then, if it still had value—if there were still ears to hear—his music would be ... just music.” If this is Barnes’s closing benediction upon his troubled subject, it could hardly be more problematic. For is there any reason, really, why any composer—any artist—would want such a fragmentary posterity? To have one’s work simply floating in the ether of history, disconnected from the world that produced it, and from the people whose existence helped inspire it? Shostakovich is at his most fascinating when heard as a true child of his time: which is not to say that the specter of Stalinism lurks behind every note he wrote, but it does mean that those who lived and worked alongside him (the brilliant Vsevolod Meyerhold, the film directors Leonid Trauberg and Sergey Eisenstein, the entertainer Leonid Utyosov, the poet Anna Akhmatova, the writers Mikhail Zoshchenko, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Sollertinsky himself, amid countless others) are all, in some way, a part of what made Shostakovich Shostakovich. He was a composer intimately connected with the world immediately around him. Does there ever come a point when music is “just music”? Yes of course—if we are continually invited to hear only the notes, and forget about their composer, or the world that shaped them. This is not just a question of fading human memory but also of ideology—of the way history is written. For some, this is a victory of “timeless” music over the banality of real life; for others it is nothing less than castration. Why, indeed, should any artist wish for such bland receptive innocence? Would Shakespeare have longed for such a context-free reading of his plays in an era that knew nothing of Elizabethan England, or would Bach have wished for a desacralized reception of his Passions, consumed by audiences who had never heard of the Lutheran faith?

The fickleness of human memory, and the slipperiness of history itself, means there can never be any guarantees when it comes to understanding the cultural artifacts left to us. Interpretation is endlessly variable: we cannot insist, we cannot dictate; but we might be very careful what we wish for. I am not so sure that a historical vacuum is what Shostakovich wanted for his music; but none of us are his gatekeepers, and Barnes is free to re-construct his own Shostakovich, as we all are. For some readers, there may be a little too much Solomon Volkov lurking in the background of Barnes’s tormented protagonist (there was for me, at least), but for those who prefer their Shostakovich in darker colors, The Noise of Time will ring true. This is a novel, after all, not a biography; so we have Shostakovich exactly as Barnes himself imagines him to be: not a hero, but a great composer whose music aspires to transcend the very clutches of history itself.


Pauline Fairclough lectures at the University of Bristol and publishes on Shostakovich and Soviet musical culture. Her most recent book, Classics for the Masses: Shaping Soviet Musical Identity Under Lenin and Stalin, was published by Yale University Press in April 2016.