Revising a Famous Life – The Noise of Time

thinking-clipart-4c9LRXncEAfter someone dies, we often tend to canonize the person, conveniently forgetting the foibles and character flaws.  In Richard Taruskin’s essay for the New York Times – Martyr or Survivor? That Depends  – he questions Julian Barnes’ portrayal of the life of famous Russian composer in his novel The Noise of Time.

In Barnes story, Shostakovich reluctantly agreed to compose for the Russian despots, and managed rebellious chords to preserve his own sound and work his way to worldwide fame.  Taruskin notes the “dubious sources” used by Barnes to create a more positive persona for the composer – a “passive pawn” of politics, and argues Shostakovich should be given credit for a better sense of politics and more intelligence in handling his Russian overseers.

When reading The Noise of Time, I was forced to find more about the life of the famous composer, to compare notes with Barnes’ story.  For the first time, I listened to his famous operas – “The Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.”  Barnes had opened a new window for me.   As for the fictionalization of Shastokovich’s life, Barnes produced a testament from his own perception, possibly more positive than real.  But this is fiction, after all.

Sometimes it’s hard to remember how author’s have the ability to change and reframe history in their fiction.  Once, at a book club meeting, a member insisted on Frank Lloyd Wright’s accurate conversation with his mistress in Loving Frank, and it took some a debate to decide the author Nancy Horan had really not been under the bed, but had created a fictionalized version of her own.   The power of the novel to convince the reader is a testament to the author; its factual content can be disregarded or researched – the story still holds.

But the danger is, of course, believing everything you read.  There was a time, when the printing press was first invented, when the written word was gospel.  We have come a long way with critical debates of content, and today the political word is more often questioned than believed.  If The Noise of Time offers a simplistic view of Shostakovich – a Western rationization and a hopeful wish of his leaning away from the terrors of his time, it only confirms what readers want to believe – a view maybe Barnes was shrewd in capitalizing on.

Have you read it?

Review of the book: The Noise of Time

 

 

 

The Noise of Time

9781101947241_p0_v1_s192x300    To grasp Julian Barnes’ stream of consciousness rambling in The Noise of Time, background information on the narrator, famous Russian composer Shostakovich, is necessary, as is listening to his music.

With fleeting references to Dmitry Shostakovich’s youth as a musical prodigy, Barnes focuses the first part of his book on Shostakovich’s early success with his orchestrated Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Listening to the discordant and sharp tones can be both other worldly and agonizing. Despite world-wide acclaim, the opera irritated Stalin and the dictator left in the last act before the opera ends. As a result, Shostakovich was attacked in the Soviet press – usually a harbinger to miserable consequences in Stalin Russia. Fearing imprisonment – Barnes has him waiting every night by his elevator, expecting to be arrested.

Barnes successfully gets inside the composer’s head as he recounts the beginning of the Great Terror, in which many of the composer’s friends and relatives were imprisoned or killed, including his patron Marshal Tukhachevsky. Fearing for himself and his family, Shostakovich withdrew his next symphony and managed to write a conservative and non experimental Fifth Symphony in 1937 – conveniently title by the press as “A Soviet Artist’s Reply to Just Criticism.” Suddenly, he was back in favor. The seesaw continued through World War II in 1948 when a government decree accused him of perversion for his modernist music.

Part Two focuses on Shostakovich’s famous trip to the United States, as an emissary for Soviet Russia. The composer struggles with his inner convictions about music, and Barnes offers the theme of this tortuous tale, reflected in his title:

“Art belongs to those who create it and those who savor it. Art no more belongs to the People and the Party than it once belonged to the aristocracy and the patron. Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time.”
As Shostakovich unconvincingly parroted the the voice of Power in Russia – “what he was supposed to think” – his renunciation of Stravinsky, the composer he revered, seem to affirm the American view that he was only trying to be safe. For years Shostakovich’s wrote works glorifying Soviet life or history, quietly endured a tutor to indoctrinate him in Marxist beliefs, even joining the Communist Party in 1960, under duress. Barnes offers Shostakovich’s inner turmoil as absolution for his betrayal of fellow artists in the name of the government.

Throughout, Barnes identifies the constant struggle of the artist – “When a composer is bitter, or in despair, or pessimistic…{his} music…strong and true and pure {is} enough to drown out the noise of time…” His life continued to be a balancing act between being true to his music and satisfying his government.

Not an easy read, The Noise of Time opens the history of Russian politics and the music of Shostakovich in his fearful and oppressive world.

I found Shostakovich’s banned opera – Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk – on the internet, and the library had a CD of his Seventh Symphony, which I played in my car whenever I was out and about.  Together, listening to his music and reading Barnes’ treatise, gave Shostakovich’s life  substance – but I doubt I will ever really understand either.

Related Review:  The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes