The Noise of Time

Fictional biography of a Russian Composer who had to compromise his art under state coercion.

Steven Spielberg’s 2012 biopic Lincoln was a good movie but it was too long to make you want to re-watch it. I saw the movie in a nearly vacant theatre. One particular scene has refused to fade away from memory. It was where the visually convincing Daniel Day-Lewis playing Abraham Lincoln explains the Greek mathematician Euclid’s first common notion, “Things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other.” Lincoln was, of course, trying to drive home the point that all men are equal. This was 1864. The Northern and Southern States were locked in a Civil War.

But the question that precedes this scene is the one that has intrigued and shall, I believe, continue to intrigue me. Lincoln asks the young stenographer,

“Do you think we choose the times into which we are born? Or do we fit the times we are born into?”

Dmitri Shostakovich, the legendary Russian composer could have wondered on similar lines.

Julian Barnes returns to fiction after his 2011 Booker Prize-winning novel, The Sense of an Ending. The book, The Noise of Time, borrows its title from the memoirs of Osip Mandelstam. The poet, Mandelstam was one of the fiercest critics of Stalin. During the Great Purge of the Great Terror, he was arrested and sent into exile. He died in a Vladivostok transit camp in 1938.

The subject of The Noise of Time, Dmitri Shostakovich was not like Osip Mandelstam. Mandelstam was courageous enough to stand by what he believed. He never compromised his art. Shostakovich, on the other hand, was coerced into submission by the authorities of Stalin’s regime and yet, his music found a way to flourish.Julian Barnes tries to understand an enigmatic genius.

The book, narrated from a close third person observer’s point of view, follows a triptych structure with each part beginning on a leap year and divided by twelve years each.

The first part – On the Landing begins in the year 1936. It was the time of the Great Terror. Julian Barnes narrates this in a cinematic noir fashion. Dmitri Shostakovich is standing by the lift, with a case resting on his calf, waiting to be taken away to the Big House where he would meet Zakrevsky. He had never heard back from his friends who had gone there.

“All he knew was that this was the worst time.

He had been standing by the lift for three hours. He was on his fifth cigarette, and his mind was skittering.”

An incriminating editorial on Pravda criticising his opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” appears “with enough grammatical errors to suggest the pen of one whose mistakes could never be corrected.” The opera that had been applauded everywhere in the previous two years from New York to Cleveland, from Sweden to Argentina was now criticised because it was ‘non-political and confusing’, and because it ‘tickled the perverted taste of the bourgeois with its fidgety, neurotic music.’

Shostakovich, therefore, anxiously waits for his first “Conversation with Power” – an interrogation by NKVD which could result in exile or worse, death.

Julian Barnes writes, ‘Why he wondered, had Power now turned its attention to music, and to him? Power had always been more interested in the word than the note: writers, not composers, had been proclaimed the engineers of human souls. Writers were condemned on page one of Pravda, composers on page three. Two pages apart. And yet it was not nothing: it could make the difference between death and life.The engineers of human souls: a chilly, mechanistic phrase. And yet…what was the artist’s business with, if not the human soul? Unless an artist wanted to be merely decorative, or merely a lapdog of the rich and powerful.’

His close association with Marshal Tukhachevsky wouldn’t help his cause either. The Great Purge had already taken away Tukhachevsky and Shostakovich was supposed to recall every detail of all the discussions regarding the plot against Stalin.

Death seemed inevitable. ‘His name and his music would be obliterated. Not only would he not exist, he would never have existed. He had been a mistake, swiftly corrected; a face in a photograph that went missing the next time the photograph was printed.’

However, luck was on his side. Zakrevsky himself had fallen under suspicion, interrogated and then, arrested.

Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, approved by Stalin’s musicologists, is premiered in November 1937 in the Hall of Leningrad Philharmonic. The instant and universal success of his Fifth Symphony was duly analysed by the Party bureaucrats and tame musicologists. They came with an ‘official’ description of the work by calling it ‘an optimistic tragedy’. Dmitri Shostakovich had escaped from the Great Terror but his life under Stalin’s reign had just begun.

The second – On the Plane begins after World War II, in the year 1948. He has returned into the good books of the State after the tremendous success of his “Leningrad” Symphony. Shostakovich has his second conversation with Power, a telephone call with Stalin. Shostakovich leaves for the US on a propaganda tour where he delivers the speeches in “muttered monotone” to make it clear that he is performing the duty of the State. These speeches are filled with criticisms on him and his works, mainly the works of Stravinsky, the composer he admires most.

After one such talk, he is further embarrassed by the question posed by Nicolas Nabokov (the first cousin of the famous Russian writer, Vladimir Nabokov), under pay by the CIA. He is coerced to reiterate his endorsement of Zhdanov, the man “who had persecuted him since 1936, who had banned him and derided him and threatened him, who had compared his music to that of a road drill and a mobile gas chamber”.

The third and final section – In the Car begins with Shostakovich in the back of a chauffeur-driven car. It is 1960. Stalin had died years ago and in his place was Nikita Khrushchev. Things were not going to be darker, as they were before. However, things were worse still.

‘All he knew was that this was the worst time of all.

The worst time was not the same as the most dangerous time. Because the most dangerous time was not the time when you were most in danger. This was something he hadn’t understood before.’

He had now become a hunchback “morally, spiritually.”

‘Before, there was death; now, there was life. Before, men shat in their pants; now, they were allowed to disagree. Before, there were orders; now, there were suggestions. So his Conversations with Power became, without him at first recognising it, more dangerous to the soul. Before, they had tested the extent of his courage; now, they tested the extent of his cowardice.’

Here comes his final conversation with Power. One that would make Shostakovich realise that he had committed the greatest mistake of his life — he had lived too long. The unctuous functionary tries to force Shostakovich to head the Russian Federation Union of Composers.

He takes comfort in reciting to himself ‘Career’, a poem by Evtushenko,

‘which described how lives are led beneath the shadow of Power:

In Galileo’s day, a fellow scientist

Was no more stupid than Galileo.

He was well aware that the Earth revolved,

But he also had a large family to feed.

It was a poem about conscience and endurance:

But time has a way of demonstrating

The most stubborn are the most intelligent.

Was that true? He could never quite decide. The poem ended by marking the difference between ambition and artistic truthfulness:

I shall therefore pursue my career

By trying to not pursue one.’

Shostakovich then commits the greatest mistake of his life. He agrees to head the Russian Federation Union of Composers.

‘Under the pressure of Power, the self cracks and splits.’

Shostakovich finally comes to terms with himself — that he was a Coward. He comforts himself in the ‘pleasures of irony’.

‘But it was not easy being a coward. 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. Being a coward required pertinacity, persistence, a refusal to change — which made it, in a way, a kind of courage.’

He betrays himself later as he signs public letters denouncing the great writer, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, although he admired the novelist and reread his works often.

‘Life was the cat that dragged the parrot downstairs by its tail; his head banged against every step.’

He patiently awaits his death for it ‘would liberate his music: liberate from life itself.’

Julian Barnes is a writer who constantly experiments his style. ‘The Noise of Time’ doesn’t quite disturb you in the way ‘The Sense of an Ending’ did. The latter ended like Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony fortissimo, and in the major. The former ends it pianissimo and in the minor. This is a masterpiece in its own right.

There are two wonderful scenes that I shall cherish from the book.

One is where Shostakovich asked a girl student, ‘Whom does art belong to?’. Behind him, there was a huge banner of Lenin with a quote written in capital letters, “Art belongs to the People”. The girl failed to notice and doesn’t answer. Shostakovich tried to help her with a suggestion, ‘Well, what did Lenin say?’ but she failed to locate the answer. In his opinion, she had done well. In his later years, reflecting on this incident, he felt ‘Not being able to answer was the correct answer. Because music, in the end, belonged to music. That was all you could say, or wish for.’

The other scene is subtle. In his Moscow apartment, there were two pendulum clocks that struck at the same moment. They were made to. His daughter, Galya would be in the dining room holding back the pendulum with one finger while he would be doing the same to the pendulum clock on his study. They would release the pendulums when the time signal sounded. ‘He found such orderliness a regular pleasure.’ Later, he had once visited Cambridge, in England, as the guest of a former British Ambassador in Moscow. The family there too had two pendulum clocks. But, they wouldn’t chime together. When Shostakovich offered to adjust them, the family would politely refuse his offer saying that they preferred the two clocks striking separately. In that way, if you missed the first one, the other would confirm the time. This had no doubt irked him.’ He wanted things to chime together. This was his fundamental nature.’

Unfortunately, for Shostakovich, what he desired from life and what he received from life were completely at odds. You want to know more about his failed love affairs and marriages. You want to know more about the lives of other artists — from the poet Anna Akhmatova to composer Sergei Prokofiev. But this is about Shostakovich, his music and Power’s relationship with them. The Power of its time would try to silence his music. But his music would silence the noise of time.

The Noise of Time

Author: Kavir Nair

A bespectacled lad from the filter coffee preferring south Indian coastal city of Chennai. The Japanese coined a word just for me - Tsundoku, which means the act of buying a book and leaving it unread, often piled together with other unread books. Although I must add, having an unread library is the way I could truly honour the late Umberto Eco. When not watching movies in theaters or beach walking on Marina, you can find me at home reading a book or writing a journal or Netflixing. While I do all this as Ravi Kiran, my alter ego - Kavir Nair needs an exclusive space to write. Hence, he has chosen this abode.

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