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the noise of time

11 august 2018

I first spotted Julian Barnes' novel The Noise of Time a few weeks ago as Tidens larm, its Swedish translation, in a bookstore in Stockholm. You know you're not able to keep up when one of your favorite writers publishes a novel and you aren't aware of it till two years later when it fetches up in Sweden.

I was several pages into The Noise of Time before I realized it was about the composer Dmitri Shostakovich. That's not a complaint. There's an air of mystery about the first 40 pages of Barnes' novel that is more compelling than the thorough exposition that follows.

We meet Shostakovich at the height of Stalinist terror. At first a favorite of the regime, the composer has fallen out of favor after the 1934 premiere of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Sure that he will be dragged off to prison and execution in the middle of the night, Shostakovich takes to sleeping with his clothes on, and then to standing all night in the corridor of his apartment building, his bag packed, ready to ride the elevator down to the gallows. Eventually he is summoned to a cryptic interrogation – and then, as arbitrarily, set free.

Did it really happen? Barnes says in an afterword that this part of the story is thinly sourced and depends on the composer's own shifting autobiographical memory. Perhaps for that very reason, it's the most promising part of Shostakovich's story for a novelist to recreate. Once we are on better-documented ground, a lot of the energy goes out of The Noise of Time.

Much of the rest of the novel consists of anecdotes culled from various biographies and memoirs. I'm not really complaining about that either. I like anecdotes, and the ones that Barnes retells are likely to comprise nearly everything I'll ever know about Shostakovich. The Noise of Time takes on a brief-life feel instead of getting under its subject's skin. If, as Gertrude Stein told Ernest Hemingway, "remarks are not literature," then anecdotes are not art.

These artistic limitations of The Noise of Time are the odder because it becomes an argument about art. Barnes delivers quite a bit of rhetoric alongside his biographical storytelling. It's not exactly the most nuanced of arguments, either:

[Shostakovich] knew … that all true definitions of art are circular, and all untrue definitions of art ascribe to it a specific function. (98)
To stay with the Gertrude Stein theme, a rose is a rose is a rose is a … "Art for art's sake," as the circular saying goes. It's both true and facile. I don't detect any irony behind it, either. Shostakovich, in Barnes' reckoning, is a coward, a temporizer, a guilt-stricken, hijacked fellow traveler. But when he thinks about music, his thoughts become pure, and curiously bland.

After all, why does "art for art's sake" always have to be the answer to rhetoric? Why can't good art also have a function, sometimes? Not, obviously, some bullshit Stalinist function, but some positive cultural work to do in the world, work that reflects its creator's values? Barnes is enough of a postmodernist for me to suspect a sort of circularity in his own rhetoric: art, he seems to say via the thoughts of Shostakovich, must have no function, but he's using his own novel to make arguments in favor of disinterested art, against tyranny, against bullshit.

Ultimately there's a bit of a paradox at work, as befits postmodernism. By moving toward anecdote and rhetoric, Barnes forgoes the opportunity to write a strongly aestheticist novel, one that would use Shostakovich's dilemmas and demons to underpin a formally exciting exercise in empathy. We get a fairly prosaic piece of work, one that drops some names from the musical canon, makes its protagonist a kind of Soviet Forrest Gump, and generally gets him from cradle to grave accurately enough.

But there are other ways to play it. I've only read a few fictions about composers; there aren't many to start with, and I have read only at the odd edges of that small genre. Writing stories about composers is difficult because their art is non-representational; writers and painters get a much wider representation. But in recent years, I have read Marta Morazzoni's story "La Porta Bianca" (about Mozart) and Jean Echenoz's novel Ravel.

Both Morazzoni and Echenoz work obliquely; Morazzoni doesn't even name her protagonist, or any of his works. (He couldn't be anybody else.) Echenoz does mention the Bolero, and the piano concerto for the left hand; but he is more interested in stray details like Ravel's signature and his shoes. Barnes, to be sure, includes a lot of bibliographical minutiae about Shostakovich: his drinking, his smoking, his ephemeral habit, while traveling in a typhus-infested train, of wearing garlic amulets around his arms. But where these are sidelights on Barnes' composer, they seem to be the central personality of Echenoz's. Neither novel is truer, perhaps; but Echenoz, like Morazzoni, makes greater artistic use of the hidden byways of an artistic personality.

Barnes, Julian. The Noise of Time. New York: Knopf [Penguin Random House], 2016. PR 6052 .A6657N65