Monday, April 3, 2017

"The Noise of Time" by Julian Barnes

In 1962, the Soviet Russian publication Novy Mir published something rather remarkable – One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by a  then little-known writer named Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008). Stalin had died in 1953; Nikita Khrushchev had given his famous Politburo speech denouncing the “cult of personality” in 1956. But still, no one in Soviet Russia openly acknowledged the existence of Soviet labor and prison camps that dwarfed those of Nazi Germany. Until One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a novel written and based on Solzhenitsyn’s own first-hand experience in the camps. It was a rare moment in Soviet literature, and it didn’t last long.

I was in high school in the late 1960s when I read a paperback edition of Denisovich. I was mesmerized. Then I read Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward and The First Circle. And I followed news of the author, and he was much in the news. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, and was not allowed to accept it (his wife did). August 1914 was published in 1971.

And then came détente, engineered by President Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and Leonid Brezhnev, and celebrating Solzhenitsyn was one way for the media to stick a thumb in Nixon’s eye. (In 1976, Solzhenitsyn fell out of favor with the Western press, and fell hard, after a speech at Harvard where he took the media to the woodshed and told the truth.)

Solzhenitsyn news reached fever pitch in late 1973 and early 1974. The manuscript for the first volume of The Gulag Archipelago had been smuggled out and published in the West. It was not a novel, but what Solzhenitsyn considered his great work – a historical account of the Soviet prison camps, an account that showed they didn’t start with Stalin but with Lenin. The Russians arrested Solzhenitsyn and deported him. His family was allowed to follow not long after, and he lived in Vermont until he returned to Russia after the Soviet regime collapsed.

Solzhenitsyn was one of tens of millions caught up in the murderous Soviet prison camp system. The entire Russian population, however, was caught in a system in which, if one were to survive, reality had to be denied on a daily basis. Poets, writers, artists, and musicians either had to bow the knee to the state or disappear into the Gulag. Or just disappear

In the novel The Noise of Time, British writer Julian Barnes tells the story of one musician and composer who often found himself on the razor’s edge of existence in the Soviet Union. Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) was the outstanding composer of the Soviet era in Russia; he also collaborated, however reluctantly, with the regime.

Barnes uses three events in Shostakovich’s life, in 1936, 1948, and 1960.

In 1936, while still a young man, Shostakovich finds himself increasingly the target of the regime, ostensibly because of an allegedly anti-Soviet opera based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The campaign against him has gone so far that he has been described in print as “an enemy of the people.” For a considerable period of time, he spends the night by the elevator of his apartment house, a suitcase by his side, waiting for the secret police to arrest him.

In 1948, Shostakovich is allowed to travel to New York to participate in a Soviet-arranged propaganda event and give a pre-approved (and pre-written) speech. In 1960, the composer is being driven by a state chauffeur, summoned to meet with “The Corncob,” a nickname for Kruschchev.

Julian Barnes
Barnes uses each event to tell the story of Shostakovich’s life under the Soviet regime, his marriages, his work, but most of all his grappling with survival as an artist during a time and with a regime that will not tolerate any deviance from the official line. Even as that line is constantly changing. It is easy to criticize, Shostakovich muses, but then those who do weren’t there. If they had been, they wouldn’t be here now.

In the hands of Barnes, that is what Shostakovich’s life becomes – a struggle between the art, the music, he is creating and survival in the face of a murderous regime that will grind down artistic integrity, originality, creativity, and innovation. It is a difficult time in which to survive physically, but the composer will come to realize that the most dangerous time is not when your life and freedom are constantly threatened but when they are not.

Barnes, born in 1946, is a novelist, essayist, short story writer, and translator. (I reviewed his novel Arthur and George here last year.)  His novel The Sense of an Ending won the Man Booker Prize in 2011.

The Noise of Time is a remarkable novel, relatively short, but packed with realities that stop the reader and constantly make him reflect and consider. It may be easy to shrug off Shostakovich as a Soviet collaborator, despite his artistic achievements, but then, we weren’t there.


Photograph: Dmitri Shostakovich in the 1930s.

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