I have been recovering from eye surgery for the past few weeks and this is the reason for my lack of posts. I am slowly getting better and am eager to share reviews of a few fantastic books I have read over the course of the summer. First up is my review of The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes which, I believe, was eligible for the Man Booker Prize this year. I am disappointed that it did not make the longlist because it is, in my humble opinion, a true work of literary genius. The edition I read was published in the U.S. by Knopf.
This skillfully written and poetic novel, which serves as a fictional biography of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, is divided into three parts. The author cleverly chose what, on the surface, appear to be trivial occurrences in the life of the world-renown composer, but on closer examination reveal the soul crushing hold that Despotism and absolute Power had on this creative genius. The first part of the book is centered around Shostakovich’s nightly ritual of getting dressed and standing by the lift outside his apartment. While his wife and daughter are safely tucked in bed, the composer stands in the hallway, smoking cigarettes and trying to stay awake for his unusual, nocturnal routine.
It is revealed throughout the course of the first part that Lenin attended a performance of Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and hated it. The next day a bad review which labeled the performance as “muddle instead of music” appeared in Pravda and the composer became terrified that this would not only be the end of his music career but also the end of his existence. He did not want to be dragged out of bed in the middle of the night and suffer the indignity of being taken to prison in his pajamas. So he waits for Stalin’s henchmen fully clothed because this was the one and only aspect of the situation he could control. The first part of the book is absolutely riveting because we never know if or when Shostakovich will be snatched away by Stalin’s thugs and the great composer has a couple of strokes of good luck which factor into the suspense.
The second part of the book is devoted to a conference that Shostakovich is required to attend in the United States. By this time in his life he is a world famous composer and his music is well-known beyond the borders of the Soviet Union. But Shostakovich is not only going to the United States to discuss his music but he is also being used as a tool by the Soviet government to promote Communism. The indignity of delivering speeches which he has not written that extol and praise the virtues of Communism and condemn his beloved Stravinsky make him embarrassed and depressed. Whenever Shostakovich talks about Power, always written with a capital “P,” and the hold it has over his art and his life my heart broke for the anxiety and mental anguish that this man suffered. It is nothing short of astonishing that this artist was able to compose beautiful music and keep his family safe while under such intense scrutiny from the highest officials in the Soviet regime.
In the final part of the book Shostakovich suffers towards the end of his life from what he feels is the greatest and deepest blow to his dignity and his self-worth. Up to this point in his life and career the composer has miraculously been able to avoid becoming a member of the Party. But those in a position of Power want to exploit Shostakovich’s success once more and make him the Chairman of the Russian Confederation of Composers. He does everything he can to avoid accepting the title and becoming a member of the party, but in the end Power is too strong for any man to resist, even one who is a famous artist. Shostakovich tells his son that he only cried twice in his adult life: once when his first wife died and once when he joined The Party. The last third of the book was the saddest and most difficult to read because Shostakovich is a broken man whose soul has been crushed by Power.
Barnes gives us a glimpse into the internal dialogue and turmoil of this artist and the result is a deeper understanding of the composer’s life under Stalin’s regime. Even though he had a nice apartment, a car and driver, and world-wide fame, he pays a dear price for all of these things. Many criticize Shostakovich for not standing up to Power but Barnes, by reconstructing the composer’s innermost thoughts, shows us that dealing with totalitarianism is a complicated matter. Whenever the composer contemplates refusing the “requests” of government officials, he thinks of his family, “If you saved yourself, you might also save those around you, those you loved. And since you would do anything in the world to save those you loved, you did anything in the world to save yourself. And because there was no choice, equally there was no possibility of avoiding moral corruption.”
About the Author:
Following an education at the City of London School and Merton College, Oxford, he worked as a lexicographer for the Oxford English Dictionary. Subsequently, he worked as a literary editor and film critic. He now writes full-time. His brother, Jonathan Barnes, is a philosopher specialized in Ancient Philosophy.
He lived in London with his wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh, until her death on 20 October 2008.