Friday, 29 January 2016

The Noise of Time, by Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending is the only other Barnes book I've ever read, so I started this knowing very little about its setting or about Barnes' usual style, though I remember liking TSoaE. This new work is quite an obscure little book in all honesty; The Noise of Time is a  re-imagining of the life of Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich and his unlikely but continuing survival in Stalin's Soviet Russia.

Beginning at the time of the Stalin Purges, we find composer Dmitri Shostakovich living like a hunted animal. Night after night he packs a suitcase and some cigarettes and waits by the elevator of his apartment block, so inevitable is his arrest. A practical man, he is prepared to go quietly and in timely fashion, placing himself at a safe distance from his home with the intention of keeping his wife and baby daughter safe from the Secret Police. Once composers, artists, writers produce something deemed unsoviet, formalist or generally difficult to comprehend, they have a nasty habit of being arrested and then either disappearing, or framed for orchestrating some ludicrous plot and executed. Following the flop of his latest Opera, Dmitri is paranoid and  on edge,  and his fear is reflected in the short, choppy style of the prose. His first person narrative is unfocused, jumping around nervously from one thought to another, to an event, to a recollection, a speculation... He's an unusual character; torn between his loyalty to his family, his loyalty to his art, and the necessity of surviving through providing low-art mass-appeal music at the Direction of the State.

Themes of paranoia, power, authenticity, art, integrity pervade the novel. What's better? To be a martyr to one's art, then to be written out of history, or to lose one's integrity, do as you're told and hope to ride it out? I really liked the suggestion that those in Power hold history's pen- there's a memorable part where Shostakovich tries to wriggle out of some scheme or another that the Party have planned for him by reminding them that they renounced him and banned his music. The Party immediately deny ever doing such a thing, then promptly un-ban his back catalogue. Shostakovich is plagued by his conscience and the idea of his artistic legacy being either forgotten, or being considered worthless. He has no control over his life or his work, even the speeches that he reads have been written for him and all of his work must meet strict Soviet criteria.

Throughout Shostakovich's life he is a half-arsed opponent of authority, resisting The Party in his head and in his heart, even if his actions seem complicit in their actions and in line with their ideology. He kids himself that he remains true to his art, but his desire to stay alive outweighs his integrity- despite his own private wishes that this wasn't the case. He is an almost constant disappointment to himself, remembering sadly the only time in his life that he was truly happy, a brief holiday with another free-love believer in his youth that went on to marry someone else. He desperately clings on to the fact that he never joined The Party...until he joins The Party. The way circumstances are, it's unlikely he could survive refusal and the rest of his life is mapped out for him.

I enjoyed this novel, it is beautifully written and I constantly found myself sucked into this real life dystopia, the nightmare world of this historical period that I know practically nothing about. Barnes' gift with language is apparent from even the prologue- it's a masterful novel (novella?) that I'm afraid was a little bit lost on me. Though I found a lot to love in the prose, the narrative and the setting I felt were a little bit of a misty blur to me on account of my historical illiteracy. I loved the helplessness of Shostakovich's rebellion, and I did like him as a character and empathised with his internal struggle- I do love fiction about artists. It's quite thought provoking really, the relationship between art and power- it appears that suppressing art and controlling creativity is pretty high up on the fascist agenda. By a small coincidence today is the last day on the consultation for the EBacc, which will see the arts very much take a back seat (potentially all but disappear) in British schools. Just a thought.

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