Thursday, February 04, 2016

Julian Barnes and The Noise of Time, or The Wrong Trousers

The first decade of the Soviet Union was an extraordinarily creative period, during which the iconoclasm of the avant garde seemed in perfect harmony with the spirit of the Revolution (never mind the fact that Fred at the 37th Tractor Combine just wanted a nice painting of a dacha with roses around the door. Not some geometric nonsense). 

In music, a 19-year-old called Dmitri Shostakovich made a big impression with a new symphony. It was a graduation piece and while Shostakovich's teacher, Glazunov, approved of the nods to Rimsky Korsakov and Tchaikovsky, he was appalled by the modernism that had crept into his studious young pupil's music.What a racket!

But this was only the beginning. In his next symphony, Shostakovich completely threw off the shackles of the past and filled his score with dense, polytonal passages, factory sirens and a rousing choral finale praising the October Revolution. This was Soviet art; part of a milieu that included Eisenstein, Malevich and Mayakovsky.

But then Stalin happened and everything changed. Now the avant garde were accused of being bourgeois and anti-Soviet. What's the point of a painting if the proletariat can't understand what it means? What use is an opera if it can't be whistled by a factory worker? This decadent, degenerate nonsense had to stop.

Julian Barnes's new novel, The Noise of Time, was published on the 80th anniversary of a notorious newspaper article in Pravda called 'Muddle Instead of Music', written after Stalin had attended a performance of Shostakovich's opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. The production was a huge success with the public, but that didn't cut any ice with the Great Leader, who was appalled by what he saw. 

To Stalin and his cronies, both the music and narrative were a disgrace to Soviet art. Where were the folk-inspired melodies extolling the virtues of the latest five-year plan? Why were the authorities portrayed as figures of fun?

'Muddle Instead of Music' named and shamed Shostakovich, accusing him of writing music that was "coarse, primitive and vulgar". The composer was, it claimed, guilty of writing an anti-Soviet opera that tickled "the tastes of the bourgeois." The article reached the following conclusion:

"The power of good music to infect the masses has been sacrificed to a petty-bourgeois, 'formalist' attempt to create originality through cheap clowning. It is a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly."

In a climate in which people were being routinely arrested and executed for the most spurious reasons, the final sentence sounded like a death warrant. Shostakovich, already a nervous man, was utterly terrified.

Shostakovich, looking slightly worried

The Noise of Time takes this incident as its starting point and goes on to examine Shostakovich's troubled relationship with the Soviet authorities and his attempts to appease his masters without completely compromising his integrity as an artist.

As a fan of Shostakovich, I didn't like the idea of Julian Barnes appropriating the facts of the composer's life for a work of fiction. It can seem like a vain conceit to speak on behalf of the dead. It is also an unnecessary one, when they have left behind a body of work that speaks for itself. Still, better Barnesy than Amis.

And to a large extent, Barnes has pulled it off, giving us a narrative that is not only rigorously faithful to the facts, but also to the man himself. If you want to have a sense of what it is like to be an artist in a totalitarian regime, you could do a lot worse than read The Noise of Time.

After the 'Muddle' episode, Shostakovich was now an enemy of of the people and had a packed suitcase ready for the moment the secret police arrived, but the arrest never happened and gradually, the composer realised that he had an opportunity to appease his persecutors. Operas were out - anything involving the written word was a bad idea - so he worked on a new symphony. The result, branded by one journalist "A Soviet artist's reply to just criticism", was a success with both the public and the authorities.

Julian Barnes makes a lot of the 5th Symphony's deliberately banal, crowd-pleasing ending, but fails to mention the tragic slow movement, which had much of the audience in floods of tears because they felt that the music articulated something that nobody dared to utter. This is important, because it shows that Shostakovich's response was more enigmatic and nuanced than the text implies.

In addition to the musical omissions, I also felt that The Noise of Time read more like an essay than a novel and its brevity sometimes made it feel like a Cliff Notes guide to Stalinism. But quibbles aside, I liked the book far more than I thought I would. It succeeds brilliantly at conveying the absurdity and obscenity of Stalinism, but also shows how the thaw under Khrushchev offered a different kind of existential threat.

The narrative was also punctuated with many memorable anecdotes, the most telling of which was the fact that Stalin's guards always kept a spare pair of trousers handy, as so many terrified film directors and artists soiled themselves in the presence of the Man of Steel. Shostakovich witnessed one of these incidents at a film premier, when Stalin's gruff response to a message he'd been handed was misconstrued by the director. Convinced that he was destined for the gulag or the firing squad, the poor man disgraced himself before passing out.

I finished the book full of admiration for Julian Barnes, but I still believe that the best account of the Stalinist period is probably the first movement of Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No.1. Written in 1948 and kept in a drawer until two years after Stalin's death, this dark, brooding music is one of the bleakest things I have ever heard, but it is utterly brilliant:


Brian Busby said...

Someone who has read the novel! The Noise of Time won't be released until May in Canada. I'm sure you understand my envy. One thing of which I've been curious - even more so after reading your introductory paragraph - is whether Leon Theremin is so much as mentioned. I expect not, but would appreciate knowing for certain.

Steerforth said...

Brian - The three month delay seems rather archaic in today's globalised world! There's no mention of Theremin, which is a pity, as he's an extraordinary figure. However, it's a short book and Shostakovich's contemporaries only get brief mentions, if they're mentioned at all. I suppose Julian Barnes was wise to avoid any digressions, but I wanted to add pages of footnotes about the impact of events like the execution of Tukhachevsky.

Anonymous said...

Thank for this review. As a fellow Shostakovichian I was vaguely concerned about this, as I'm wary of novels about real people. I want to read it but fear I may not like it. I feel a bit more reassured now....


Steerforth said...

Kaggsy - If you're interested in Shostakovich, there probably won't be much in the book that's new to you, but I felt that Barnes really understood his subject and wrote a moving narrative that wasn't ruined by artistic licence or authorial ego.

One anecdote that was new to me was the one of Shostakovich's persecutors - Tikhon Khrennikov - survived the collapse of the Soviet Union and went on to become decorated by Vladimir Putin.

Roger C said...

I'm always fascinated, Steerforth, by the ebb and flow of dyspepsia which aspects of modern life provoke in you. Sometimes I think you'll finish up at Combe Florey (plus or minus the ear trumpet) - but like Evelyn Waugh, everything you write in this wonderful blog demands to be read. Often I'm jolted by your insights. Mostly I nod in recognition and agreement. Sometimes I smile and occasionally laugh out loud.
This time.....not so much.
I tend, I suppose, to react quizzically to elitist "Keep Off The Grass" signs. They are spattered, however benignly, throughout this piece. The nub of it is in this passage:-
"As a fan of Shostakovich, I didn't like the idea of Julian Barnes appropriating the facts of the composer's life for a work of fiction. It can seem like a vain conceit to speak on behalf of the dead. It is also an unnecessary one, when they have left behind a body of work that speaks for itself."
From what I take to be your own resistance to a new angle on an old hero (and the possibility of half-informed people crowding the sunlit river bank of Shostakovich appreciation) follows - doesn't it - the arbitrary dismissal of the historical novel as a genre. So goodbye Tolstoy! Nice knowin' ya, Hilary Mantel! Get back to Iowa, Jane Smiley!
Of course I must declare that I wasn't going to let that snidey Amis reference go unremarked. Finest novelist (I say) of the '70s and '80s, now undoubtedly a washed-up, gnome-like husk, blah, blah, blah.
But young Mart actually did have a tiny bit to say about Shostakovitch in his odd factual book about the Western left's endless indulgence of Communism, Koba the Dread. In the Stalin (Koba) section there are mere glancing references on pages 139 and 211 and no attempt at analysis. Except that he obviously, even so briefly, regards S as a GOOD THING! So not all bad then, the little fella...
As for your comment on Violin Concerto No 1 - I do wonder at your claim for the first movement - that it provides the best account of the Stalinist period. Bleak it certainly is, but where is the rancid, all-pervading, trouser-soiling fear in the piece? I haven't read Julian Barnes' novel yet but I fancy from your own review that he gets rather closer to the mark.

Steerforth said...

Rog - Nothing would make me happier than to end up at Combe Flory, in my best tweed, glaring at hikers as they approached my land. I thought that I'd just become middle aged but when I suggested this to an old friend, she laughed and said "Phil, you were like this at 18."

However, I didn't mean to be elitist about Shostakovich - I'd like to see as many people listen to his music as possible and now that I've read it, I welcome The Noise of Time. My initial resevations were about the possibility of seeing the Julian Barnes Shostakovich replace the real one, but my fears were quickly assuaged. However you're right, I do have a problem with narratives that aren't contemporaneous to the author and generally avoid historical fiction (don't tell the General!). It's my loss, I know and I'm trying to overcome it - The Siege of Krishnapur is on my to read pile.

As far as Amis goes, I feel that when he tackles a subject it's always "Martin Amis on..." and there's an air of smugness that contrasts with Julian Barnes's humility. Perhaps I'm doing Amis a disservice.

If you want something more allegro con pantalone sporco, the second movement of Shostakovich's 10th Symphony is allegedly a musical portrait of Stalin and blazes with energy.

zmkc said...

Re Roger's comment, I just read James Wood saying the historical novel is science fiction backwards. I have no opinion on the rightness of that claim but thought I'd hurl it in regardless. I do think Napoleon's brief appearance in War & Peace is a flaw, one of many reasons I prefer Anna Karenina.

Re Shostakovitch, I wondered if you'd seen an Amanda Vickery prog I heard them talk about (promote/publicise) on Start the Week:

Attempting "to create originality through cheap clowning" - I recognise that strategy. Not such a bad approach to life, with added allure, now I know it was disapproved of by that unspeakable excuse for a human being, (who seems to have spawned a fairly worthy successor in the current leader of Russia, another hateful tyrant).

Lucy R. Fisher said...

There's a good book on Leon Theremin by Albert Glinsky. T's life was so utterly extraordinary it soars above Glinksy's prose. It's the kind of book where factors are crystallised in a nutshell, you know the kind of thing. One day I'll have that theremin lesson.

Anna said...

Nope. I'm on the side of Stalin in this....

Steerforth said...

Zoe - Unfortunately I missed the Shostakovich documentary - I'll keep an eye out for repeats on BBC4. I love the James Wood quote and to some extent agree with it. One of the many reasons I enjoyed Ishiguro's latest novel was that although it was set in the past, there was no attempt at historiocity. On the other hand, who could possibly argue against Bolt's 'A Man For All Seasons'?

Lucy - I remember an excellent documentary about Theremin ('Therein - An Electronic Odyssey') on Channel Four in the 90s. I'd assumed that he'd died years ago and was delighted to see that he lived until 1993.

Anna - I can see that Shostakovich's music wouldn't be everyone's cup of tea, but Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is the best thing I've ever seen on stage, anywhere. I picked one of the trickier passages to show why Stalin took against it, but as a whole, it's very approachable and parts of it had the audience in stitches.

Canadian Chickadee said...

I am fascinated by the breadth of your knowledge, Steerforth, and always come away feeling I have learned something new from your posts. xoxox

Steerforth said...

Carol -That's very kind of you, but it's all an illusion and the breadth of my ignorance is quite staggering. I simply pick subjects that I'm comfortable with, or relate anecdotes that nobody can dispute.

Poetry24 said...

Nice post, Steerforth. I'm not a fan of Barnes, but maybe it's just me. 'Arthur and George' is one of only a handful of books I've failed to to finish. But, based on your enthusiastic recommendation, I'll look out for a copy of 'The Noise of Time'.

Val said...

I found this post interesting...I am not musical.. at all, but really enjoyed the second piece of music you linked too . Thank you.

IndySteve said...

I just finished Barnes' novel, which I found compelling, but am neither a musician nor knowledgeable on the details of Shostakovich's life. I assume the novel's title, which surfaces three times in the course of the novel, is taken from something Shostakovich himself wrote, but would appreciate either conformation (with a citation) if this is correct, or correction if my assumption is wrong.

Anonymous said...

Shostakovich is now a personality one writes novels about. This isn't the first in recent memory. I haven't read it, nor do I intend to. I hope that in his preface the author gives credit for the title he usurps to Osip Mandelstam, whose The Noise of Time is one of the great pieces of Russian prose of the 20th century. One can also hope the readers who line up to read a little fiction based on Shostakovich's life will spend time listening to the music of this great man who expressed beyond words what his country and its people experienced at that time.