Julian Barnes is a celebrated author of novels, short stories and literary criticism. He also wrote four thrillers (1980-87) as ‘Dan Kavanagh’ (named for his late wife, Pat Kavanagh), featuring bisexual private eye Duffy. Though recently reprinted by Orion, you wouldn’t know that from the bibliography in Barnes’ most recent volumes as Duffy has been expunged from these.
He had been a mistake, swiftly corrected: a face in a photograph that went missing the next time the photograph was printed.
The Noise of Time, while containing references to murder, espionage and blackmail, is not crime fiction.
I submit this short review for Friday’s Forgotten Books meme, hosted today by Todd Mason over at his fab Sweet Freedom blog.
The Noise of Time offers a powerful meditation on the themes of power, oppression and betrayal from the life of the great composer Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich (1906-1975). Set in the 1930s, 40s and 60s, it looks at three periods when his relationship with the Soviet authorities put both his career, and his life, in potential jeopardy. We begin with a memorable, startling image: the composer stands in the hall to his building next to the lift shaft, waiting to be taken away for interrogation.
Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time.
It is of course a much remarked-upon irony that during Stalin’s era, the power of the arts was validated perhaps as never before, precisely because it was denied free expression. This is not the same as Republicans endlessly attempting to squeeze the NEA, which is philistinism pure and simple. What happened in the Soviet era was a policy enacted because the sheer power of Art was utterly acknowledged, and as a result subordinated to the State to keep the masses in line. So what is an artist to do – preserve their life and bow to the establishment? Or refuse to sacrifice their muse, even at the cost of their lives – or the lives of their friends and loved ones?
One fear drives out another, as one nail drives out another.
This brief novel paints a vivid picture of the insecurities that plagued the great composer and what he did to negotiate the dreadful situation in which he and his fellow artists were placed. We see this develop during a state visit to the US in the 1940s in which he is forced to renounce the work of composers he admires and then again in the 1960s, when things had to some extent improved though the fear never truly left Shostakovich. While this book has been met less sympathetically by those already well-versed in the composer’s life, it none the less makes its argument well and drives towards a moving resolution of the Art/Life conundrum.