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The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes, Alfred A Knopf, 2016, 197 pp
Any novel about music is a novel I want to read. This one is a fictional biography of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. I had planned to read it since I heard about it last year. Meanwhile, earlier this year I read Madeleine Thien's astonishing Do Not Say We Have Nothing. In that novel, the young radical Chinese musicians disdain Shostakovich because he declined to leave the Soviet Union but continued to live and compose there, compromising his integrity as an artist in order to survive. I was even more intrigued.
The Noise of Time is a novel but Julian Barnes read just about everything he could find about the composer, including the man's own memoirs. One could say that Barnes interpreted all the conflicting facts and added his own artistry, much like a performer interpreting a composer's music. Perhaps it is a justification when he says in the Author's Note: "truth was a hard thing to find in Stalin's Russia." I thought he succeeded in extracting and teasing out as much truth as possible.
Shostakovich comes across as a brilliant composer but a weak and insecure human being. The more I got to know him the more I understood the choices he made. He could not have been all that weak because he lived and worked under constant fear of imprisonment or death for decades. As long as he remained free though, he cravenly gave in to pressures from Stalin and other Soviet officials. Reading about it is heartrending.
His first opera, acclaimed and successful, was rejected by Stalin after attending one performance. Therefore all reviewers and musicologists reversed their opinions and the composer himself was forced to issue an apology for composing "degenerate" music. What must that do to a man's soul?
The novel shows what it does in compact chapters, with humor and compassion and without missing a step as concerns the effect of power on the creative arts. Chilling! I was as absorbed as I expected to be. Despite all, the composer continued to compose and many of his works survived Communism to become acknowledged as masterpieces today.
(The Noise of Time is available in various editions by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)