Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, July 2, 2018

Julian Barnes, _The Noise of Time_

AT 197 PAGES, and small pages (7 and 1/2 inches by 5 inches) at that, The Noise of Time may actually clock in at a lower word count than the pages devoted to Shostakovich in William Vollmann's 2005 novel Europe Central. Shostakovich's life makes excellent novel material--a brilliant artistic talent living in a particularly fraught time in a particularly terrifying society, his story illuminates a number of the corners of art's relationship to power.  And fiction can simply slide past the tiresome accusation-and-apology ping-pong match that the biographical material on Shostakovich gravitates towards and imagine itself into Shostakovich himself.

But--if you have already read Europe Central, would this be worthwhile? I'd say yes. Barnes's version is more compact and construct, focusing on three moments when Shostakovich was caught in the crosshairs.

First, the period after his opera The Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District had been accused of being too formalist, out of touch with the people; Stalin himself disapproved, apparently, and Shostakovich lived from day to day, night to night, expecting to be hauled to the gulag.

Second, the flight back to Russia after a 1949 public appearance in New York City where he was called out and made to look like a stooge by Nicholas Nabokov (who made his own Cold War compromises, it sounds like).

Third, in 1960, his being strong-armed into joining the Communist Party in order to show the world that everything is dandy now that Stalin is gone.

Barnes's portrait is more intimate, more interior than Vollmann's, without the sense of unfolding history that was part of Vollmann's novel. Shostakovich's famous Leningrad Symphony goes unmentioned, for instance.  The texture of the two novels is quite different, Vollmann summoning up the swirl of a chaotic time in history, Barnes eavesdropping on the composer's thoughts when he is alone, in the wake of traumatic encounters.

The two novelists both seem sympathetic, though, and for similar reasons; both see Shostakovich as man who was doing his best to survive and keep writing music, not interested in martyrdom but not simply caving either, instead trying to placate whom he needed to placate while still finding ways to do work that mattered in constrained circumstances.

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