The tortured genius of Shostakovich

Julian Barnes’s latest novel, The Noise of Time, is a brilliant portrait of an artist trying not to sign away his soul

23 January 2016

9:00 AM

23 January 2016

9:00 AM

The Noise of Time Julian Barnes

Cape, pp.183, £14.99, ISBN: 9781910702604

When I look at the black-and-white photograph of Julian Barnes on the flap of his latest book, the voice of Kenneth Clark floats up from memories of the black-and-white television of my childhood: ‘He is smiling — the smile of reason.’ Supremely ‘civilised’, thin-lipped, faintly superior, temperamentally given to aphorism, it is no surprise to discover that Julian Barnes is a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

Yet Barnes in his fiction is unlike the simplified Voltaire of Clark’s Civilisation. His novels never proclaim the triumph of reason: instead, they explore the dark and disruptive, uncivilised emotions on the edge of words — love, certainly, but also jealousy, paranoia, inconsolable grief and the fear of dying. His cool, detached prose, controlled and controlling, may seem inappropriate for such subjects; but it adds to the shock when something uncivilisable surfaces through ratiocination — ‘the crocodile’s snout in the lily pond’, as Barnes once put it. That apparently know-it-all smile is misleading: what Barnes makes us feel is the limitations of reason, and that no one can know it all (or is it a very superior form of superiority that is indistinguishable from humility?)

Barnes is particularly un-French in his instinctive distrust of the theorising so beloved of the Left Bank. His latest novel — if that is the right description for a work that many will see only as a prolonged biographical essay upon Shostakovich — is an exposition of the condition of being trapped inside the abstractions of extreme dogma. The self-lacerating composer, conforming under Stalin, lashes out against Frenchified theorisers: ‘How easy it was to be a Communist when you weren’t living under Communism,’ he says of Picasso, who ‘sat like a rich man in Paris and the south of France’; and he catches Sartre in the copyright bureau ‘counting out his fat wad of roubles with great care’.

The Noise of Time is in many ways a quintessentially Barnesian work. It is a slim volume, pared to the point of claustrophobia; and it clings so closely to the known facts of Shostakovich’s life that some may find it airless. Readers who turn to novels for the imaginative sweep they offer, for the exuberant expansiveness found in escaping to new worlds, will rarely choose Barnes for their fictional fix.

Such readers will doubtless complain that he adds nothing to our knowledge of Shostakovich. This is true; but beside the point. Barnes is not trying to ‘answer’ the usual questions about Shostakovich: how far his submission to the demands of the brutal regime, including publicly parroting the party line, compromised his integrity as an artist. ‘Answers’, in Barnes’s universe, would be patronising, presumptuous —know-it-all, indeed. Instead, what he does is to internalise such uncertainties: it is precisely these unanswerable questions that feed the self-loathing with which Shostakovich constantly torments himself for constitutional or institutionalised cowardice.

The much-disputed ‘revisionist’ version of Shostakovich, set out by Solomon Volkov in his Testimony, is here shown to raise more questions than it answers. Can a completely secret dissident be a dissident at all? Is it possible to preserve a private self, armoured in irony, distancing one’s soul from the actions forced upon one? Does refusing to read the party statements one is forced to sign, denouncing the composers one loves, somehow preserve an inner purity, or is it an extra level of despicable evasiveness? And at what point does the inactive self putrefy within its encrusted shell: when does the irony enter the soul?

The claustrophobia and airlessness of Barnes’s submission to his sources actually feeds rather brilliantly into this evocation of an artist in the Stalinist regime. Barnes, and Shostakovich, are constrained by history: Barnes is imagining the limitations of imagination. If that all sounds a bit too damned clever-clever and possibly even French for your liking, you might be put off this book. That would be a shame.

Barnes offers few of the usual recreative joys of historical fiction: there is little that is sensuous or dramatic in this work, nothing obviously imagined. But read it without preconceptions, and it becomes an extraordinary portrait of a state of despair in which clarity of thought is a trap, and the armour of self-justification only encloses and exacerbates a quivering, neurotic jelly of inner pain. It is a brilliant portrait of an artist trying — perhaps unsuccessfully — not to sign away his soul. Barnes catches the phenomenon described, with mingled scorn and sympathy, by Solzhenitsyn: ‘That shackled genius Shostakovich would thrash about like a wounded thing, clasp himself with tightly folded arms so that his fingers could not hold a pen… that tragic genius, that pitiful wreck Shostakovich.’

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