In keeping with the current vogue for entwining fact and fiction, Julian Barnes’s latest novel is a fictionalised account of Dmitri Shostakovich’s un-easy relations with the Russian state in the days of the USSR. The tentacles of Soviet tyranny would come for the composer at twelve-year intervals: in 1936, in 1948 and 1960; The Noise of Time is split into three sections corresponding to these three moments in his life. We encounter him variously ‘On the Landing’, ‘On the Plane’ and ‘In the Car’ (respectively: awaiting arrest during Stalin’s purges; on his way to the United States as part of a state-sponsored visit; and on his way to join the Communist Party), each time pondering how to reconcile his moral responsibilities with the need to stay alive. The relevant organs of the communist state have deemed his output to be excessively formalistic, insufficiently attuned to the working man’s sensibility, a charge of secular heresy that puts his life in danger. He learns that the dilemma of an artist living under totalitarianism is not just a straight choice between integrity and corruption: ‘There was a third choice: integrity and corruption’.
This finding will no doubt resonate with anyone who has lived under dictatorship, as will the concomitant observation that, in such circumstances, irony ‘becomes a defence of the self and the soul; it lets you breathe on a day-to-day basis’. Such a dialectical existence exacts a toll on the conscience: Shostakovich ultimately eluded the executioner’s bullet (he died of lung cancer in 1975), but we find him racked with a kind of survivor’s guilt, ashamed of the compromises he has made and suspecting himself to be, at heart, a coward. He acknowledges, in his more circumspect moments, the impossibility of taking heroic stands under a regime which targeted not only its opponents but also their loved ones: ‘The system of retribution had been greatly improved’, he notes sardonically, ‘and was so much more inclusive than it used to be’. And yet there persists a niggling remorse at having allowed himself to be co-opted as a poster-boy for a murderous regime: ‘There were many things to accuse himself of: acts of omission, fallings-short, compromises made, the coin paid to Caesar’.
Running parallel with these reflections is a self-flagellating litany of perceived failings in his personal life, the cowardice he believes he has displayed in his dealings with his mother and his romantic partners. When, in the final part of the triptych, he finally succumbs to official pressure to formally join the Party (as a necessary prerequisite to his appointment as Chairman of the Union of Composers), he sees this as the perpetuation of the habit of a lifetime. Many years prior he had been too scared to inform his mother of his marriage – knowing she would disapprove of it – and now, in his mid- fifties, he was scared to tell his children that he was joining the Party, for the same reason: ‘The line of cowardice in his life was the one thing that ran straight and true’.
In his self-doubt he reappraises the small sallies of ironic subversion that had once brought him some measure of comfort. What did it mean, for example, to insert a barely detectable anti-authoritarian slight into a composition if nobody actually got the message? ‘They missed the screeching irony of the final movement, that mockery of triumph. They heard only triumph itself, some loyal endorsement of . . . life under the sun of Stalin’ s constitution’. He likens these gestures, in their petulant and solipsistic futility, to a drunken beggar’s mooning of respectable folk. So much, then, for the redeeming power of irony. It remains only to bitterly denounce the hypocrisy of more fortunate artists – émigrés who have washed their hands of Russia (of Stravinsky: ‘Did he utter a single public word of protest while breathing the air of freedom? That silence had been contemptible. . .’), and naive fellow-travellers like Pablo Picasso, who ‘had spent a lifetime painting his shit and hailing Soviet power. Yet God forbid that any poor little artist suffering under Soviet power should try to paint like Picasso. . .’.
Lest there should be any doubt that this book is a meditation on the relationship between art and power, the apparatus of the Soviet state is frequently denoted with the signifier ‘Power’, with a capital ‘P’. This is at best a kind of obsequiousness, attering the middlebrow reader with philosophical trappings. It can be occasionally gratifying, or at any rate edifying, to connect the dots oneself, to draw one’s own inferences. The need for subtlety is perhaps all the more pertinent when the work in question is concerned with abstract, existential questions rather than plot-driven narrative. Alas, lovers of nesse and allusiveness will find none here. Like an over-zealous parent, Barnes is just a little too eager to coddle the reader by hammering home every iota of meaning. The result is a leaden, oppressively over- worked prose that lapses all too frequently into a platitudinous dirge.
A vignette reflecting on the quasi-dictatorial function of an orchestra conductor is characteristic. Barnes relates how ‘The maestro, harsh though he might of necessity be from time to time, was a great leader who must be followed’. This would have sufficed, but Barnes feels the need to add: ‘Now, who would still deny that an orchestra was a microcosm of society?’ Then there is the thematic repetition, an attempt at stylistic effect that falls at. The observation that, in certain circumstances, death can be preferable to life, is trite enough if uttered just the once; its profundity is certainly too cheap to merit the status of recurring motif. (‘[I]t is always possible to bring the living to a lower point. You cannot say that of the dead.’) Later: (‘[T]he final, unanswerable irony to his life: that by allowing him to live, they had killed him.’) Similarly, an arch mangling of Marx’s famous dictum on tragedy and farce (‘Tragedies in hindsight look like farces’; elsewhere, Stalinism is ‘a vast catalogue of little farces adding up to an immense tragedy’) is over-played and over-egged. This novel is only 180 pages long; cramming it with repetitious and self-referential riffs imbues the whole with a timbre of sententiousness, which is only exacerbated by the proffering of such commonplace, drearily hackneyed insights as: ‘Perhaps this was one of the tragedies life plots for us: it is our destiny to become in old age what in youth we would have most despised’. And there is no excuse whatsoever, communist terror or no communist terror, for a serious author closing out a novel with the line: ‘And perhaps, finally, this was all that mattered.’
There is a screaming, elephantine irony at the heart of this work: in its insufferable piousness, The Noise of Time is in its own way every bit as cloyingly programmatic as the socialist realism it purports to lampoon. For it is a novel in which political and philosophical exposition takes absolute priority over formal considerations, in which art is made to submit to the higher claim of the grand narrative. Being on the ‘right’ side does not confer any special exemptions; a novel that proselytises against tyranny is still a proselytising novel. But the book’s stylistic failings, though considerable, are perhaps less signi cant than its subject-matter. That an author wishing, in 2016, to explore the relationship between art and power should choose as his subject the amply documented horrors of the Soviet era speaks to the intellectual limitations of the brand of liberal humanism with which Barnes is synonymous.
For anyone interested in addressing the subject from a 21st-century perspective, there would be plenty to get stuck into. Consider, for example, the soft power that manifests itself in the corporate-sponsored arts prizes which play such an important role in shaping contemporary culture. Or, from the other side of the political spectrum, the ultra-leftist zeal of an emergent movement – originating on the campuses of US universities – that would sanitise the literary canon and, by extension, art in general, by expunging from it all traces of racial and sexual discrimination in the name of egalitarianism and empowerment. It is a movement that claims as justi cation the mantle of historical progress and the levelling of power, much as the Bolsheviks had done. At sixty-nine, Barnes may be forgiven for disregarding Baudelaire’s famous imperative, il faut être de son temps, and taking refuge in a world of more straightforward moral certainties. But he might, at the very least, have written a book that was less pompously pontical, less transparently ingratiating and less painfully patronising.
The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes, Jonathan Cape, 2016, 192pp, £14.99 (hardcover)
By Houman Barekat