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Review: The Noise of Time, by Julian Barnes
Knopf, 2016. 201 pp. $26

How can an essentially plotless novel about a man’s career path be so riveting? And how can the narration, which sprays the protagonist’s thoughts like atomic particles that ricochet and rebound, feel like seamless, inevitable chemistry?

When the protagonist is the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, and the author is Julian Barnes, that’s how.

Dmitri Shostakovich, 1950 (Courtesy Roger & Renate Rössing, Deutsche Fotothek, retouched, via Wikimedia Commons).

Dmitri Shostakovich, 1950 (courtesy Roger & Renate Rössing, Deutsche Fotothek, retouched, via Wikimedia Commons).

The story, to the extent that there is one, begins in 1936, when the Helmsman, Josef Stalin, attends an opera, a singular event in itself, only to leave in the middle. The next day, an editorial in Pravda attacks the composer, D. Shostakovich, for making “muddle, not music.” Be it known that the Helmsman’s love for and understanding of that art go no further than tapping his foot to songs from his native Georgia, and that the opera in question, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (I kid you not) has been performed for months to good notices. None of that matters, of course.

What matters is that untold numbers of people have already died for less. As Lenin said, art belongs to the people, which, under his successor, means that anything that may be construed as antirevolutionary, anti-Soviet, or possessed of occult or insidious influences must be stamped out. Naturally, captive pens will do the necessary construing, as if Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk were reactionary trash, everybody had known it from the get-go, and the groundswell of criticism were spontaneous. Shostakovich must confess his sins and be reeducated.

But even that may not be enough. Rumors fly that Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky, decorated war hero and architect of Soviet grand military strategy, has been arrested. And when he’s executed for plotting against the Great Leader, Shostakovich’s days are numbered. Why? Because the late marshal, who loved to play the violin, was the composer’s friend.

Since we know that Shostakovich outlived Stalin (and Krushchev, whom he privately disdains as Nikita Corncob), the question isn’t whether the composer will be murdered or exiled to the gulag. It’s how he handles that possibility and the problems that survival poses afterward.

Yes, survival has its problems. Since the state has protected him, every several years, an emissary comes from on high, like a tax collector who must be paid, except not in money. For instance, open letters are published under Shostakovich’s name excoriating Stravinsky, whom he admires above all other twentieth-century composers; Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whom he also respects (and whom, he suspects, has actually downplayed the true horrors of the gulag); and the dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov. As Shostakovich muses late in life:

Being a hero was much easier than being a coward. To be a hero, you only had to be brave for a moment–when you took out the gun, threw the bomb, pressed the detonator, did away with the tyrant, and with yourself as well. But to be a coward was to embark on a career that lasted a lifetime. You couldn’t ever relax. You had to anticipate the next occasion when you would have to make excuses for yourself, dither, cringe, reacquaint yourself with the taste of rubber boots and the state of your own fallen, abject character.

Barnes makes brilliant use of circumstances surrounding his protagonist’s birth. His parents wanted to name him Boleslav, but a priest told them they couldn’t–and they bowed to his authority. Name the boy Dmitri, like his father, the priest said; and the future genius became Dmitri Dmitreyevich, a repetitive moniker that has no music to it. Even his name is a surrender to authority.

However, The Noise of Time would be a dull, excruciating rant if its subject were simply a coward. Things aren’t that simple; how could they be? While Shostakovich waits to be dragged away to prison and death–he spends his nights by the elevator outside his apartment door, suitcase packed–he knows that not just his friend Tukhachevsky but members of his wife’s family have been arrested. If he goes too, what will happen to her and their children, or her other relatives? Other people he knows, whose only crime is to have been his friends? When critics living in the West beseech him to “make a statement,” he answers (silently, of course) that they have no idea how much that would cost or how little it would accomplish. At the same time, he understands what they’re saying.

Dmitri Shostakovich comes across as a complicated man, a celebrated figure at the pinnacle of his profession, yet living in an abyss of conscience. Julian Barnes has made fine literature from his predicament.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.