Friday 24 November 2017

Books: Probing, robust chronicle of a courageous composer

The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes, Cape, €19.99

Under threat: Dmitri Shostakovich lived under constant fear of Stalin’s KGB death squads.
Under threat: Dmitri Shostakovich lived under constant fear of Stalin’s KGB death squads.
The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes.

Ronan Farren

He stood in the corridor facing the door of the lift in his apartment block, a packed suitcase by his side. He knew they came for you in the middle of the night and he wanted to be ready. Mainly, though, he didn't want his wife and daughter to see them dragging him away.

The fear of State-inflicted death was constant in the life of Dmitri Shostakovich, since the official rejection of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, when the Red Czar sat with a group of cronies in the Moscow theatre, deriding the young composer's work. The trouble was Stalin thought he knew something about music: the penalty for displeasing him, for contravening some obscure Party precept of how music should sound, was to be silenced or - as in the case of Igor Stravinsky - driven into exile. Or shot at night in the back of the head.

It was 1936 and Shostakovich was just 30. Over the next 17 years, until Stalin's death, a sinister cat-and-mouse game played out between the composer and the Kremlin, the rules dictated by its increasingly paranoid overlord. This battle, and the terrible toll it took on Shostakovich, is the subject of The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes's first novel since the 2011 Booker Prize winner, The Sense of an Ending. Through the years of humiliation the composer learned to compromise, producing symphonies, string quartets and other works that were within the elusive parameters of Party acceptability.

For this he was widely reviled in the West as a Stalinist lackey; but those who condemned him were not going through life with a gun held to their heads. So he was attacked abroad for one offence, and at home for another: he was not, the Association of Proletarian Musicians, complained, producing music that was instantly comprehensible and pleasing to the masses.

At one stage Shostakovich was brought in and interrogated concerning an alleged plot to kill Stalin, about which, naturally, he knew nothing. His friendship with Marshall Tukhachevsky, with whom he talked about music rather than politics, was the reason. Then his interrogator disappeared, that particular ordeal was over. Tukhachevsky, one of Stalin's top military leaders, was executed.

Barnes's method is impressionistic rather than ploddingly chronological. He has the composer reflect, as he stands beside the lift:" ... was it brave to be standing there waiting for them, or was it cowardly? Or was it neither - merely sensible? He did not expect to discover the answer."

With his Fifth Symphony, Shostakovich was back in the fold, the music acclaimed by the Party hacks as triumphant and optimistic, but, the composer knew, they had "missed the screeching irony of the final movement, that mockery of triumph," and heard only "some loyal endorsement of Soviet music." The ironies in his life were boundless. Lady Macbeth had been produced with acclaim in the US and elsewhere before Stalin's command performance at which Shostakovich was ordered to attend.

The Soviet critics were among those who had praised the work of the young Dmitri; after Stalin's denunciation, they cravenly reversed their views. And the opera became unstageable.

Barnes has some striking setpieces in this probing, intellectually robust novel.

He writes of the composer's setting to music of English verse, including Shakespeare's Sonnet number 66 and of the audience reaction when the writer Boris Pasternak read it publicly: "Tired with all these, for restful death I cry ..." and they would wait eagerly for the ninth line: "And art made tongue-tied by authority", "at which point they would join in - some under their breath, some whisperingly, the boldest of them fortissimo, but all giving the lie to the line, all refusing to be tongue-tied."

Barnes shows the composer's revulsion for Western observers who came to Russia on supervised tours and told the inhabitants they were living in paradise.

The French writer Andre Malraux "praised the White Sea Canal without ever mentioning that its constructors were worked to death."

Shostakovich never considered himself a brave man; his self-view was detached and sometimes caustic.

Julian Barnes ennobles him on the platform of posterity and the reader ends up saluting the quiet courage of Dmitri.

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