“It,” the indefinite pronoun, is worked to dramatic effect in the opening section of Julian Barnes’s The Noise of Time. The narrator seems to offer “destiny” as one antecedent for "it," but perhaps “constant anxiety” or, more terribly, “mortal fear” will do. The very vagueness hints at an all-pervading presence, that of the leader, Stalin, and his arbitrary use of power. Barnes’s subject is the composer Dmitri Shostakovich, and his novel takes us into the artist’s mind at three stages of his life. The style itself, indirect free, allows a verbatim register of the character’s thoughts, yet often moves to a third-person expansion in a more objective vein. The novel we read is a test case, a long invitation to judge the artist’s response to his art in conditions unique and threatening. “The one simple fact about the Soviet Union: that it was impossible to tell the truth here and live.” The noise of time, the clamor of a repressive regime in its attempt to further history, threatens everywhere to cancel true music. Indeed one of Barnes’s many poignant aphorisms does the heavy lifting: “Art is the whisper of history heard above the noise of time.”

Barnes, now seventy years of age, belongs to the same generation of British writers as Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, and Christopher Hitchings. He may not have attracted as much attention as these other writers—at least here in the United States—but his fiction has always been formally challenging and happily demanding. His book-length essay Nothing To Be Frightened Of is a meditation on mortality, and he is also a perceptive art critic and historian. That he should focus on a major artist and take up questions of integrity, art and politics, and artistic witness, indicates a mature achievement as a novelist. The book is a deeply satisfying exploration of a major figure.

The artistry of this novel lies in its ability to sustain the tension between noise and music, to involve us in the struggle—nay, the self-abasement—to which Shostakovich subjected himself to sustain the music despite the noise. Barnes makes vivid the personal cost of the composer’s compromises; we read something like an apologia for cowardice, in which his betrayals paradoxically demand more of him than martyrdom. An interview in New York with Nicholas Nabokov (cousin to Vladimir), a fellow Russian composer who has become an agent of the CIA, allows us into Shostakovich’s mind. The savage exposition in a public forum of all the compromises he has been forced to make are set out in painful detail. Shostakovich is Stalin’s poodle, his dog, and his answers are those of his master’s voice: “He had been led through the maze to the final room, the one containing no food as a reward, merely a trapdoor beneath his paws.” This is the worst moment of his life.

The chronological focus moves from the young composer’s condemnation by Stalin for his “muddle not music” (the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk), through his return to favor in the late 1940s when he represents the USSR at an international peace conference in New York, to his last days as an establishment figure caught in the rigid frame of “greatest composer” and official puppet spokesman on all things musical.

The novel's elliptical form and sudden shifts in time and focus build up Shostakovich's habits of mind almost as in a collage. In Part One he stands, suitcase in hand, opposite the elevator doors outside his flat in Moscow, ready to be arrested at any moment. He would rather be prepared and go quietly than be tumbled out of bed by the dread knocking of the police. As he waits, his mind ranges over childhood, the disappearance of his friends and colleagues, his courtship of his wife, birth of his children, and his early success as composer and conductor. And again we follow that pattern of his mind (in Part Two) on a flight years later from New York to Russia and, finally, (in part Three) as he rides in his chauffeured car, now an aged celebrity. The mind is always active, self-accusatory and self-loathing, hesitant to judge his worth, willing to blame himself for personal, political, and musical failure.

And here is the wonder. We have no doubt of Shostakovich’s brilliance as an artist, but we are never with the chief character in moments of creation. For Barnes, the music happens off stage. The noise of time predominates so that we hear, in passing, that the composer has finished his late string quartets as an escape from the demands of state and age. The final humiliation is being forced to join the Party, which he vowed never to do “because it kills.” We see him running in self-rejection and tears to the home of a friend, overcome because of his public disavowal of the music of Stravinsky, the man he reveres above all his other twentieth-century peers.

The noise of time is really all the novel allows us to hear, and against that are the ethical, artistic, and moral struggles of a man who compromises in order to write his music, fully aware of what the restrictions laid upon him have ruined. And yet he writes: “Only that music which is inside ourselves—the music of our being—which is transformed by some into real music. Which, over the decades, if it is strong and true and pure enough to drown out the noise of time, is transformed into the whisper of history. This was what he held to.”

The novel is bookended with a scene, set off in italics, that seems to resolve the tensions. We arrive at a desolate railway station in the midst of the Second War. It is winter, the train stops and the composer and a friend on some unspecified journey step down to the platform to encounter a drunken invalid, a wounded soldier wheeling himself along on a dolly, singing an obscene song. Shostakovich produces a bottle of vodka, three glasses, and offers a toast. The three men drink. The same scene recurs at the end of the novel, with one addition. We discover what the composer says as the three unevenly filled glasses glance off one another: “A triad.”

What is noise and what is music, and what generosity produces their abrupt meeting?

Edward T. Wheeler, a frequent contributor, is the former dean of the faculty at the Williams School in New London, Connecticut.

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