As so often, Julian Barnes has created an intriguing, beautifully written novel full of trenchantly expressed universal truths. His subject is music and conscience. To write great music, providing you have the necessary talent, should be a process involving the composer, his or her inspiration, psychology and external influences. For the Russian composer Shostakovich, it also had to involve avoiding the displeasure of the authorities, an impossible feat given that they were headed by Lenin, Stalin and Khrushchev. One moment he was feted, the next he had become an enemy of the people. If he wrote what he wanted to write, he was accused of formalism, revisionism, the cult of the individual. If he wrote what the NKPD or the KGB wanted him to write, his friends, colleagues, the Soviet public and the foreign press questioned his integrity. But he had little choice in the matter as the potential price of not complying with the authorities was death and banishment for his family. Time and again he had to compromise, to sign speeches he had not written, produce music he despised and swallow being used by the Soviet machine as an ambassador for Soviet values and practices.
Barnes, in the composer’s voice, calls the authorities Power. His only weapon against Power is irony, and yet if people do not recognise what he produces as ironic, he will just appear Power’s stooge. This book is full of striking images – the composer one of many Soviet citizens who, expecting at any moment to be arrested in the night, wait fully clothed with a bag packed by the lift instead, rather than put their families through the horror of seeing them seized from their beds. He sits at meetings carefully applauding at the right time, but not listening, and accidentally one day claps loud criticism of himself. When this is pointed out by a friend, he just shrugs. His self disgust has become so great that he agrees with the criticism, he says.
I was reminded of “The Sense of an Ending” by the number of times I came across statements, half composer’s voice, half that of Barnes, that encapsulate a universal truth with elegant, simple precision. It was chilling, too, to find so many of these could be applied not just as Barnes does to life under Stalin and Khrushchev, but to the diktats of our own democratic governments too (we’re obviously not under the same level of threat, but nonetheless the description is familiar):
“Bureaucrats assessed musical output as they did other categories of output; there were established norms, and deviations from those norms.” (p.26). “…yes, things did get easier and some filthy secrets emerged; but there was no sudden idealistic attachment to the truth, merely an awareness that it could now be used to political advantage.” (p130).
This novel is written in short, stand alone paragraphs, each representing a point in Shostakovich’s thinking, for example, thinking about his first love, his vulnerability, his musical legacy, his relationship to authority and so on. It’s a short book, but takes a while tor read as the ideas and implacable nature of the composer’s predicament are so intense. It would be an insensitive reader who could race through without putting the book down frequently to take in and digest all the implications and wisdom (or resigned bafflement) of what has been said. This format suited me, though I seem to remember some critics not appreciating it when the book came out.
Finally, it’s a portrait of the interface between genius and an ordinary life lived as best it can be under prevailing conditions. Very much recommended – for more details visit The Noise of Time.
© Jessica Norrie 2016