- A Portrait of the Artist under Duress
201 Pages; Print, $25.95
There survive a few minutes of film footage from 1974 Leningrad. Dmitri Shostakovich, 68 years old—his pale, nerve-wracked face sunken behind bulky black glasses—watches a rehearsal of his opera “The Nose,” a work suppressed in Soviet Russia for nearly half a century. He is a man aged beyond his own years (and he will be dead within twelve months). The camera holds him in close-up. Off-screen, the orchestra plays, the singers sing out, while the music—the inflection of every note—trembles visibly across the composer’s face. He shifts in his seat but the camera clings to him. His mouth and chin quiver uncontrollably. The tendons seem to spasm in his neck. He’s agitated, at points almost gasping. He’s in agony. He’s awash in pleasure. His eyes, hooded for decades and no longer capable of shedding tears, never leave the stage. Finally, finally, this music has its freedom—but Shostakovich the man and artist has never been free.
Reverse the footage. Watch it again. Is this the image of one soul’s tragedy, or its consolation? Has the poor man triumphed at last, or is there some level of suffering beyond which no triumph is possible? In The Noise of Time, his new biographical novel of Shostakovich, Julian Barnes takes up questions like these. “Under the pressure of Power the self cracks and splits,” Barnes writes.
The public coward lives with the private hero. Or vice versa. Or, more usually, the public coward lives with the private coward. But that was too simple: the idea of a man split into two by a dividing axe. Better: a man crushed into a hundred pieces of rubble, vainly trying to remember how they—he—had once fitted together.
Certainly Barnes has seen the film footage, and these words might well serve as a direct response to that face in close-up.
The Noise of Time is an anxiety-ridden Künstlerroman, a portrait of the artist under lifelong duress. Late in the novel Shostakovich reflects, “A soul could be destroyed in one of three ways: by what others did to you, by what others made you do to yourself, and by what you voluntarily chose to do to yourself. Any single method was sufficient; though if all three methods were present, the outcome was irresistible.” Barnes has structured The Noise of Time around three primary episodes of persecution Shostakovich endured, each representing one of those methods of destroying a soul. The novel opens in 1937, amid the Stalinist Terror, when others seek to destroy the composer and he comes closest to losing his life—getting “purged,” as the euphemism goes—for the music he’s written. The year 1949 is the focus of the second part: Stalin sends Shostakovich to New York where, forced to act as a Soviet mouthpiece, he publicly denounces Prokofiev and Stravinsky, though in truth he admires them both, the latter more than any composer alive (here others make Shostakovich destroy himself). And in the novel’s final section, an old Shostakovich thinks back on 1961, the year he joined the Communist Party—when he destroyed himself “voluntarily.”
The episodic structure proves to be an ideal vehicle for Barnes’s prodigious powers of compression, and the result is a stripped-down, almost claustrophobic narrative that transpires entirely within the composer’s mind, articulated through a profoundly inward narrative voice. We are given one man’s anguished existential questions as he recapitulates his struggle for artistic expression within the straitjacket of Soviet society—and as he mourns his consequent failures, concessions, and acts of cowardice along the way.
Barnes conveys Shostakovich’s mental contortions with consistent authorial coolness, and he is relentless in maintaining his novel’s interiority, to the extent that he jettisons virtually every conventional narrative element: scene-setting, description, peripheral characterizations, direct dialogue, even action—appropriately enough, all are purged. What remains are the workings of an artistic consciousness subjected to prolonged house-arrest and held in self...