Julian Barnes’s 1989 novel A History of the World in 10½ Chapters includes an essayistic meditation on love in which he brilliantly considers the meanings and ramifications of history and our tendency to turn life into a narrative:
The history of the world? Just voices echoing in the dark; images that burn for a few centuries and then fade; stories, old stories that sometimes seem to overlap; strange links, impertinent connections. We lie here in our hospital bed of the present (what nice clean sheets we get nowadays) with a bubble of daily news drip-fed into our arm. We think we know who we are, though we don’t quite know why we’re here, or how long we shall be forced to stay. And while we fret and writhe in bandaged uncertainty—are we a voluntary patient?—we fabulate. We make up a story to cover the facts we don’t know or can’t accept; we keep a few true facts and spin a new story around them. Our panic and our pain are only eased by soothing fabulation; we call it history.
Two decades later, in The Sense of an Ending (2011), Barnes makes basically the same point, though this time it’s attached to a character (and also much more succinctly phrased): “I told her the story of my life. The version I tell myself, the account that stands up.”
These two quotes espouse the same view of human life, dividing into the macro and the micro. For humanity as a whole, Barnes contends, history is nothing more than a consequence of our intellectual limitations, a collective acceptance of whatever story is most satisfying or seems truer, so it follows that individuals would do the same for their own lives by creating an “account that stands up” for themselves and for others as well. But these passages point to something else, too, something that has nothing at all to do with history but rather with Barnes’s development as a novelist. In his early, breakthrough work, Flaubert’s Parrot and A History of the World, ideas were the protagonists—as well as the themes, the plots, and, in a certain sense, the settings. But this was merely Barnes putting his money where his mouth was: how, after all, could a writer who deeply distrusted the all-too-easy psychological satisfaction of stories tell one himself without engaging in the very tactics he finds objectionable? How does one, in other words, tell a story about how stories are bullshit? The complex result is often a clash between Barnes the brilliant thinker and Barnes the gifted storyteller. As Ian Hamilton put it in his review of Staring at the Sun (1986), “it is as if he gets restless with the simple mechanics of tale-telling, and with characters who are less intelligent than he is”; and Salman Rushdie once wished “that Barnes the essayist had stepped aside for Barnes the full-blooded novelist.”
Rushdie wouldn’t get his wish until 2005’s Arthur & George, in which Barnes’s myriad gifts were on full display. Many readers would credit that novel’s success (it was a bestseller and ended up being adapted for television by Masterpiece Theatre) to its sheer readability and its riveting plot, but for me Barnes’s tale of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s real-life involvement with a wrongfully imprisoned man worked so well because finally Barnes had found a way to write from within history, instead of around it. Here he developed a skill he’ d originally employed in Flaubert’s Parrot: that of what Hamilton calls “the inner debate, done in a fractionally elevated version of real speech.” But where that novel focused on the life of Flaubert via proxy—the biographer Geoffrey Braithwaite—Arthur & George is told from the inside, allowing the characters and their situations to determine (or seem to determine) the novel’s themes, instead of the other way around.
Since then, Barnes has extended and explored this personalized grandness, this inversion of his old aesthetic approach, in The Sense of an Ending and Levels of Life, and to a certain extent in his nonfiction work Nothing to Be Frightened Of. But The Noise of Time employs the technique of inner debate better than anything else he’s written. Ian Hamilton noted that Flaubert’s Parrot “provided an almost-perfect vehicle” for Barnes’s talents; I believe The Noise of Time can now claim that distinction.
The novel’s subject is Dmitri Shostakovich, the twentieth-century Soviet composer whose creative work was denounced and then extolled by Stalin’s Communist government, and finally (and officially) venerated by Khrushchev’s. Born in St. Petersburg in 1906, Shostakovich was a preternaturally gifted musician, something his mother quickly recognized while teaching her nine-year-old son piano. So talented was he that by fifteen, when his unambitious father died and Shostakovich was expected to become “the man in the family” for his mother and two sisters, their practical plan involved not young Shostakovich obtaining manual employment but rather the boy’s great musical potential—quite a large bet to place on a timid teenager.
The result? A mere four years later, Shostakovich’s First Symphony had its premiere at Petrograd Conservatory (later Leningrad Conservatory and now Saint Petersburg Conservatory), where Shostakovich had attended school and for which the symphony was the equivalent of his thesis. By his twenties he’d achieved widespread renown—even though his first opera “The Nose,” based on Gogol’s absurd, satirical short story and first performed as a concert instead of an opera, met with apoplexy and even scorn from the musician’s union—and he was given a basically honorary teaching post at a youth theater, where there was little work but plenty of time to compose and, crucially, some protection from official power.
All that would drastically change on 28 January 1936. Two days earlier, Shostakovich had attended a production of his Shakespearean opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which had originally premiered in 1934 and received praise the world over. This performance, though, was to be attended by Andrei Zhdanov, Vyacheslav Molotov, Anastas Mikoyan, and Joseph Stalin—all Shostakovich could do was watch as the dictator and his lackeys traded mocking remarks and “shudder theatrically” whenever “the percussion and brass roared fortissimo beneath” their box. On the 28th, at a train station in Arkhangelsk, Shostakovich picked up a copy of Pravda, the official Communist Party newspaper, and discovered what would become an infamous headline: “Muddle Instead of Music.” More than just a bad review, the Pravda article spelled his death sentence.
Consider the circumstantial parallels: 1934, the year Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk premiered, was also the year Communist Party leader Sergei Kirov was assassinated, setting the stage for the “Great Purge” in 1936, when Shostakovich’s opera received official renunciation. Numerous historians later postulated that Stalin himself had orchestrated the assassination of Kirov as an excuse to arrest and execute “anti-Soviet” forces within the party, as many of those jailed and shot “confessed” to some involvement with the plot. Russian writer Victor Serge—who had been arrested and deported in 1933 and was thus absent from the ensuing hysteria—wrote a novel about this event, The Case of Comrade Tulayev, which curiously credits a lone gunman for the crime but still captures, to quote Christopher Hitchens, the “machinery of inquisition, supported by a Borgesian labyrinth of bureaucratic incrimination, that assumes a horrific autonomy.” In the end, more than 1.5 million Soviet citizens were detained and at least half were “purged” (though estimates go as high as twice that number)—in all, an unimaginably appalling one thousand executions per day.
One can understand Shostakovich’s terror upon reading the article denouncing him in Pravda. Most of the purged were innocent, of course, but many of them weren’t public figures in any capacity and so didn’t draw official notice—but here was Shostakovich’s name and his opera eliciting condemnatory accusations of “formalism” in a newspaper where Molotov began his career. Art, according to the Stalinist line, belongs to the people, so any artist whose work was considered experimental, esoteric, or otherwise non-populist was deemed “anti-Soviet.”
Thus we find, in The Noise of Time’s opening pages, Shostakovich holding vigil on the landing of the lift to his apartment, so that when officials inevitably come to arrest him he can spare his wife and daughter. Night after night he waits for power to take him away, and as he waits Barnes traces the events that led to this terrifying predicament. There is minimal present action here, mostly Shostakovich’s troubled thoughts and some exposition of his life, and the same goes for the rest of the novel. The second part finds him on a plane back from New York, where in 1949 he vacantly read a prepared speech aligning himself with the Zhdanov Doctrine, an official decree in 1946 basically threatening any artists unwilling to conform to the government’s definition of art—and followed by a further decree in 1948 that specifically targeted music. (The latter came after Stalin and his entourage attended and subsequently denounced a production of Vano Muradeli’s The Great Friendship, the blame for which Muradeli suddenly placed on being “deceived into taking the wrong path, specifically by Dmitri Dmirtiyevich Shostakovich, and even more specifically that composer’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.”) In part three Shostakovich is being chauffeured around in the early 1970s, after he’d been coerced into officially joining the Communist Party in 1960 (something he’ d vowed never to do) and after pretty much accepting government support in the post-Stalin, Khrushchev-led Soviet Union.
Barnes, then, is in the same thinking-on-the-page mode he’d employed in Flaubert’s Parrot and A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, but here there is something even more illuminating. As an historical novel, The Noise of Time meets one of the genre’s primary objectives, which is to adequately evoke a past era. But Barnes does one better here: more than simply being believably set in the various years it covers, The Noise of Time reads as if in the voice of a contemporaneous person in those years considering them. In other words, Barnes hasn’t just plunked us down into the former Soviet Union; he puts us in the mind of someone already living there, so the narrative sounds like period it depicts.
Moreover, the mind at work here does some wonderful and profound meditating on the themes of art, history, and power, but here the insights stem from the intellect and emotional experiences of a well-rendered character, making the conclusions feel truer and more earned. For instance, here is Shostakovich contemplating the Stalinist edict about who art belongs to:
Art belongs to everybody and nobody. Art belongs to all time and no time. Art belongs to those who create it and those who savour 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. . . . He wrote music for the ears that could hear. And he knew, therefore, that all true definitions of art are circular, and all untrue definitions of art ascribe to it a specific function.
Such direct philosophizing is nothing new for Barnes, of course, but this passage comes halfway through the novel, after we’ve already experienced via Shostakovich the capricious horrors of unrepentant totalitarianism—experienced as in “felt an approximation of through the lens of one person”—and so the wisdom imparted here carries appropriate historical weight, and it emerges out of the narrative naturally (and quite ominously), like odor or smoke, or, more fittingly, like the sound of an instrument from the musician’s movements. It is easier to formulate grand statements, even ones containing unprecedented truths, than to communicate small feelings—and ironically it is feeling, genuine and palpable emotion, that pushes people to absorb and retain claims made about existence. If they can’t feel it, in other words, it really isn’t there.
With Shostakovich in The Noise of Time, Barnes has found the perfect vehicle for his seemingly incompatible skills: he infuses the particular emotions and the well-drawn characterization of The Sense of an Ending with the prodigious ambitions and brilliant intellection of A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, weaving the personal into the historical to create richly resonant lessons.
In A History, Barnes’s 1989 novel, here is his conclusion regarding love:
The history of the world becomes brutally self-important without love. Our random mutation is essential because it is unnecessary. Love won’t change the history of the world (that nonsense about Cleopatra’s nose is strictly for sentimentalists), but it will do something much more important: teach us to stand up to history, to ignore its chin-out strut. I don’t accept your terms, love says; sorry, you don’t impress, and by the way what a silly uniform you’re wearing. Of course, we don’t fall in love to help out with the world’s ego problem; yet this is one of love’s surer effects.
This idea, it seems to me, could be instructive for novelists, too—that without a character to love, or at least sympathize with, a novel can become “brutally self-important,” or at least unengaging, and only through love can any lessons or insights be effectively communicated. Barnes, giving us intimacy with Shostakovich and his pure love of music, provides that love and sets it against the very history love can’t change. This may sound like a fool’s errand, but in Barnes’s hands it becomes a masterwork. Art won’t change the history of the world either, but it is one of the few means we have of transcending the noise of time, the cloudy, corrupted fog of history, and if we try to listen as closely as Barnes has learned to do—with intelligence, with sympathy, with love—we can hear its whispers and learn its lessons.
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016. 201 pp. $25.95.