The Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich nearly lost his life over a bad review. Appearing in Pravda (Russian for “truth”) Magazine and titled “Muddle Instead of Music,” the editorial spells out the specific terms of Shostakovich’s persona non grata status, ending with the cryptic line, “It is a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly.” The review refers to Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, the composer’s first stab at a “classic Soviet opera,” and the reviewer’s comments are motivated more by political expediency than aesthetic standards: The opera has provoked the ire of none other than comrade Joseph Stalin. Few artists survived the dictator’s distaste.   

Shostakovich remains elusive, even as he proves irresistible to intrepid authors who want to distinguish the actual man from the autocratic puppet. In seeking to give Shostakovich a voice, Barnes has certainly proven that he’s a writer who’s willing to take risks.

No doubt these historical details will prove tempting for many writers, but one novelist in particular has nurtured a steady preoccupation with this enigmatic composer. In his memoir Nothing to Be Frightened Of, Julian Barnes draws attention to a pertinent quote from Shostakovich: “I think that if people began thinking about death sooner, they’d make fewer foolish mistakes.” Building on the aforementioned historical facts, Barnes’s new novel, The Noise of Time, opens with Shostakovich trying to avoid one such foolish mistake. Well aware that the Pravda review is a veritable death sentence, he sets his affairs in order, packs a bag, and waits outside the lift of his apartment complex for the inevitable escort to his state sanctioned fate. He might not be able to control this fate, but he can at least anticipate it and spare his family the ordeal of seeing their father forcibly extracted from their home.

With this entry in that unruly genre hybrid known as fictional biography, Barnes aims to channel Shostakovich’s personality from the established circumstances of his life. Given that the actual sources purporting to capture Shostakovich’s thoughts (journals, letters, etc.) are highly contested, this is a hugely ambitious effort. A world in which a bad review functions as a death certificate is certainly not a place where private thoughts are safe. We can still listen to Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, and some might say that the work speaks for itself. But Shostakovich remains elusive, even as he proves irresistible to intrepid authors who want to distinguish the actual man from the autocratic puppet. In seeking to give Shostakovich a voice, Barnes has certainly proven that he’s a writer who’s willing to take risks.    

If the thought of a Soviet artist makes you squeamish, consider this quote from George Orwell: “Few people have the guts to say outright that art and propaganda are the same thing.” He’s overstating the case, of course, but his point is clear: Artists are far from immune to the peculiarities of their time, and their work is partly a product of it. How could it be otherwise? These men and women drink the same coffee, smoke the same cigarettes, and read the same headlines as everyone else. It would be all but impossible for a poet living in Manhattan in 2001, for instance, not to carry a trace of the smoldering devastation of 9/11 into her work. Consequently, all art—whatever else it is—is a monument to a specific time and place.

Publicly, Dmitri Shostakovich was touted as the Soviet Union’s greatest composer. Here was a man shrewd enough to scrap his own artistic sensibilities in order to incorporate the F sharp of a factory whistle into his music: “He had written scores applauding collectivization and denouncing sabotage in industry. His music for the film Counterplan—about a group of factory workers who spontaneously devise a scheme to boost production—had been a tremendous success. ‘The Song of the Counterplan’ had been whistled and hummed all over the country, and still was. Currently—perhaps always, and certainly for as long as was necessary—he was at work on a symphony dedicated to the memory of Lenin.” The irony of that last sentence is an indication of the actual man behind the image, the man we encounter chain-smoking outside that rickety Soviet lift—“Between art and love, between oppressors and oppressed, there were always cigarettes.”

But the secret police never show up. The lift continues to deposit nothing but fellow tenants who shuffle past the harried composer, perhaps chalking his odd behavior up to artistic eccentricities. For his part, Shostakovich eventually settles for keeping his suitcase packed, but otherwise returns to life as usual, forsaking the lift for his bed, and smoking in his own apartment. The astonishing conceit of Barnes’s story is that this apparent reversal of fate represents the Soviet State’s ultimate conquest of the man’s heart.

A long and comfortable life now awaits the composer. There will be caviar, glittering awards ceremonies, and limos to ferry him to adoring audiences. But his life as a reluctant Soviet spokesman is one where the only currency is compromise: “He told friends that if ever he repudiated Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, they were to conclude that he had run out of honesty.” In his totalitarian environment, few things are liquidated with such chilling efficiency as artistic integrity; he quickly runs out of honesty. He concedes that the Pravda review was accurate. Meanwhile, his list of scripted denunciations grows. Officially trash his musical hero, Igor Stravinsky? Check. Vilify Sakharov? Affirmative. Blast Solzhenitsyn? Done. Sure, he was a sellout, but he was still in good company. Didn’t Brahms himself play “the piano at a sailors’ brothel in Hamburg?”

But all the irony in the world cannot protect Shostakovich’s integrity, nor can it insulate him from the bitter recognition of his disgrace: “Irony, he had come to realize, was as vulnerable to the accidents of life and time as any other sense. You woke up one morning and no longer knew if your tongue was in your cheek; and even if it was, whether that mattered anymore, whether anyone noticed.” Not everyone is a Solzhenitsyn or an Osip Mandelstam, willing to die for a higher cause. Barnes excludes himself from such brave company. The Noise of Time thus offers a sympathetic portrait of a great artist who desperately sought the middle ground between artistic integrity and self-preservation, only to find himself unable and unwilling to forgive himself for his success in this endeavor.  

The novel lacks the effortless poise of Barnes’s previous Man Booker Prize-winning effort, The Sense of an Ending. Though it opts for a third-person approach, The Noise of Time keeps us in Shostakovich’s head, rarely allowing other characters to speak over its subject’s consciousness. It’s conceivable that Barnes adopted this strategy because this book, unlike The Sense of an Ending, is a fictional biography—a first-person foray into this unique territory would perhaps have been more presumptuous than ambitious, especially with a figure like Shostakovich, whose own life is shrouded in so much controversy.

At times, this approach works well. Barnes’s seamless navigation between the Soviet argot imposed on Shostakovich, and the composer’s own wry estimation of this bureaucratic lingo is truly a marvel. Rarely do we encounter a character with such a principled sense of irony: “But he did not believe in Utopia, in the perfectibility of mankind, in the engineering of the human soul. After five years of Lenin’s New Economic Policy, he had written to a friend that ‘Heaven on Earth will come in 200,000,000,000 years.’ But that, he now thought, might have been over-optimistic.”

However, Barnes’s approach does occasionally misfire. Whereas The Sense of an Ending somehow manages to combine the ideas of a philosophy textbook, the humor of a comedy of manners, and the page-turning force of a mystery novel, The Noise of Time struggles to keep all of its parts in motion. In the former book, the ideas ring with an urgency that’s as vital as it is personal. In The Noise of Time, they often feel merely speculative, or worse, academic. This is one of the unfortunate consequences of having a hero who doesn’t let anyone else speak; empathy is diminished, and the novel’s ideas are flattened. Still, this is an undeniably powerful book, and Barnes displays enviable finesse in his portrayal of such a complex man.

So, where does all this leave Shostakovich? Is he a great artist who slyly undermined the very powers that commissioned his work? Or, is he just a coward who happened to be a musical prodigy? Is he a hero or a villain? Since the novel is about a man who tried so hard to hold onto some of his most cherished ideals by seeking out middle ground, it’s only fitting that it resists such pure dichotomies. Interestingly, the best assessment of Barnes’s hero is tucked away in his previous book. Now in middle age, Tony Webster, the hero of The Sense of an Ending, looks back on an exchange with his old history teacher with a more holistic understanding of how most of us measure up under the pressures of our respective times: “History isn’t the lies of the victors, as I once glibly assured Old Joe Hunt; I know that now. It’s more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated.” One fact about Shostakovich remains undisputed: He survived.

Image via Julian Barnes


  1. While I haven’t read any previous books by Barnes I am a fan of Shostakovich’s work and fascinated with his life. I think it is very telling of how the political era we are entering will be. Our news seems like Soviet era propaganda. “Power” understand the power of art and sadly most people do not. It’s funny how poets and musicians can be enemies of the state. Thank you for posting this review. I saw it when it came out and bought the book.

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