The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes (Knopf, 224 pages, May 10)
I've been a Shostakovich fan for a long time, but not entirely because of his oeuvre (I love some of his music, but not all). It was also the Shostakovich mystique that intrigued me- that aura surrounding the composer's life and the questions that dogged him even after death.
And then I heard about Julian Barnes's biographical novel based on Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich's life under Soviet terror and I knew I needed to grab a copy immediately.
This might surprise some of you, but The Noise of Time is my first Barnes novel. I know, I know- I've been on the verge of reading him before several times, but he always got bumped back by something on my TBR pile. But boy am I glad I read this- it has made me want to read everything else that Barnes has written.
Why? Let me start with the first third of the book, which takes place in Shostakovich's head as he stands by the elevator, suitcase at his feet, waiting to be taken away by the police and executed? tortured? exiled to Siberia? Night after night he stands there, wanting to be prepared for when the time comes. It never does, but that's just his lucky break, since many of his colleagues and friends weren't so lucky.
That image- of the composer broken in spirit by the terror engulfing the Soviet Union under Stalin, waiting alone by the elevator to spare his family the horror of his arrest- is full of pathos and despair. Barnes brilliantly captures Shostakovich's darkening, ironic mood as the composer realizes that, despite official Party hatred of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtensk, he won't actually be arrested. And yet, the terror remains.
Barnes tells Shostakovich's story through the composer's memories: of his first love, his tumultuous career, his hatred of the Communist Party's contradictory ideas and persistent humiliation of those whom it deems its "enemies." Sent on tours, given speeches to read, forced to join the Communist Party, Shostakovich often contemplates suicide, despising himself for not standing up to Power but knowing that that would mean a certain- and possibly very painful- death, for him and his family and friends.
And yet, Shostakovich tries to walk the fine line between following the Party rules and staying true to his art. He agonizes again and again over how to compose music that reflects how he really feels when listeners may never get the message. He must just trust that it will rise above the "noise of time" and take its place in history.
The Noise of Time really forces us to consider what we would do under the same circumstances. Go into exile? Risk denunciation, arrest, and death? Become a willing Party agent? I don't think we can ever truly answer this question without living under these conditions, but I can honestly say that I see myself in Shostakovich. I too would probably try to walk that fine line between fearful obedience and quiet defiance, and I'd hate myself for not speaking my mind. So did I mention that this novel left me pretty depressed? Yeah. But it's still so good.