Julian Barnes said something in an interview recently: that he was glad he won the Booker in his 60s and not when he was in his 30s. His work since the big prize seems to bear testimony. In 2013 he wrote an absolute gem, a memoir that was a meditation on grief: Levels of Life. In 2016 he’s written ‘The Noise of Time’ a meditation on integrity this time. Almost all of his recent works seem to happen entirely inside the head of someone. In an inversion of what they teach in creative writing programs, he exclusively seems to tell; not show. And still take the literary art form to its farthest in terms of exploring the human condition.
The Noise of Time chronicles the internal turmoil of one of 20th Century’s greatest and most persecuted composers: Dimitri Shostakovich. It’s a slender book of under 200 pages in three parts. We meet Shostakovich in the first part standing near the lift of his building, waiting for the secret police to get him. He doesn’t want his child or wife to see him being dragged away. Pravda, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Soviet Union, had called his masterpiece Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District muddle instead of music. We realize, even literary and art criticism can be literal death sentences during the Great Purge.
Shostakovich’s mischance is that he doesn’t get a bullet on the back of his head for writing music. Instead, something worse happens. Power decides to use his talent and direct it in the proper Soviet way. That is the fundamental tension Barnes explores: being brave is easy and requires merely one act of defiance with little thought while being a coward is a lifetime effort. The composer is sent to New York to showcase Soviet music. There he reads out speeches that are handed to him; to his dismay he finds that in those speeches he’s denouncing his own music and that of his hero Stravinsky. Julian Barnes writes,
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 away 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. Being a coward required pertinacity, persistence, a refusal to change – which made it, in a way, a kind of courage.
The ways that Shostakovich’s mind explains his own deep shame at his cowardice is a brilliant device. We are let into his world where everyone else’s cowardice blinds them from appreciating the necessity of his own. Much the same way he seems to not recognize theirs. This includes Communists and Capitalists alike; and some erstwhile Russians with famous last names under the pay of the CIA who come to humiliate him in New York.
In his later years as ‘Power turns vegetarian’, there are no longer any purges or labor camps. But Power still dictates what can and cannot be done. It co-opts those who can to do the things it wants done; thereby precluding what it doesn’t wish for. Shostakovich is coerced into becoming General Secretary of the Composers’ Union; a position where he’s compelled to read out ever more speeches that aren’t his own. Not just that, articles condemning formalism or other bourgeois tendencies in music appear under his name on the Pravda. The depressed last years of his life where he seems obsessed with his own mortality make us agree with his assessment: the central trouble with modern life is that we live too long.
There are sections of ‘The Noise of Time’ that eerily reminded one of India in 2016. And how the farce of nationalism that India seems to be reeling under is a familiar chapter in the history of the world. Every time there is a taunt of ‘anti-national’ that’s thrown at an artist or any other person, we’d do well to remember this,
Art belongs to everybody and nobody. Art belongs to all time and no time. Art belongs to those who create it and those who savour it. Art no more belongs to the People and the Party than it once belonged to the aristocracy and the patron. Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time.
This is a beautifully written novel that calms a noisy head. It gives hope that there is after all only despair to look forward to. And we might as well learn the ironic sensibility that seems the only recourse. Until the time we don’t have to worry we’ve lived too long, that is.
A version of this appeared here.