In the middle of Julian Barnes’s deeply engaging new novel about the life and tribulations of Dmitri Shostakovich, the Russian composer fumes over the belligerent conducting style of his arch-nemesis, NBC Symphony’s Arturo Toscanini: “Such conductors screamed and cursed at orchestras, made scenes, threatened to sack the principal clarinet for coming in late. And the orchestra . . . came to believe . . . that they were only playing well because they were being whipped . . . The maestro, harsh though he might of necessity be from time to time, was a great leader who must be followed.” He concludes with a wry aside: “Now who would still deny that an orchestra was a microcosm of society?”
Of course Shostakovich had more than the expressive conductor on his mind. If Toscanini reminded him of Stalin, that’s because the great dictator made sure no one dared forget him, ever. Stalin’s presence in the background of Barnes’s cannily episodic story, raises a raft of questions: Do we hold artists to a higher standard than we do others? Does an artist owe more to truth than does an accountant? What is the right relationship between art and power? How much should your work matter to you? What — and whom — would you sacrifice for it? Time, money, friends, family? Is it worth a life, or 10?
To citizens of the Soviet Union, such questions were hardly academic. For years Shostakovich slept near the door of his family’s apartment, suitcase packed, anticipating the night the secret police would finally show up to cart him away to Lubyanka, headquarters of the secret police, where many of his friends, mentors, and colleagues had disappeared in the decades following the Bolshevik Revolution. That night never came.
Barnes builds his novel around three key periods in the composer’s life, beginning with his fall from favor following the premiere of an opera Stalin deemed insufficiently uplifting (“fidgety, neurotic”). We then accompany him on a propaganda tour of the United States, the “highlight” of which is Shostakovich’s public humiliation by composer Nicholas Nabokov, first cousin to the celebrated novelist. We see Shostakovich suffering over his part in the game; we also recognize that Nabokov’s performance cost him nothing. It might even have profited him, as he was, at the time, working for the CIA. The final third brings us a series of self-lacerating close-ups of the composer in old age.
The tension between revolutionary discipline and artistic freedom might sound like a familiar theme, yet I can’t recall any other recent book which offers such a prismatic perspective on the matter. On the one hand, the ideals of the revolution inspired artists around the world. Soon, though, only those living at a safe distance from its realities kept faith with it. Shostakovich’s most scathing observations are reserved for the Western writers, from Bernard Shaw to Andre Malraux, whose enthusiasm for the Soviet experiment signaled a selective blindness before its true character.
Contemporary composers take a sympathetic view of the pressures under which Shostakovich labored. They acknowledge his efforts to speak truth between the lines, by weaving folk melodies into his symphonic themes. Some, however, wonder why in the ’60s, Shostakovich, then at the height of his fame, joined the Communist Party and began delivering its official pronouncements on culture. Barnes handles the matter with graceful discernment. He presents us with a tortured Shostakovich: “At times he saw himself as both Galileo and that fellow scientist, the one with mouths to feed. He had been as courageous as his nature allowed; but conscience was always there to insist that more courage could have been shown.”
While Shostakovich’s primary motivations — concern for family, self-preservation, and pleasure in the percs that accompany collaboration (a dacha, a chauffeur, recognition) — are clear, Barnes regularly uncovers other starkly pragmatic reasons underlying some of his more inexplicable political utterances. Why did the world-famous Shostakovich even bother joining the official Union of Composers? Because only members were allowed to buy manuscript paper. Was he to scratch his compositions on the wall?
Another shadow haunting Barnes’s timely and arresting narrative is that of Osip Mandelstam, from whom Barnes takes his book’s title. In “The Noise of Time,’’ published in 1925, the great Russian poet conveyed the fin-de-siecle feel of the decade before Lenin’s revolution. A world of gaslights and coaches gave way to the era of industrialized warfare, mass arrests, and murder on a heretofore unimaginable scale. Unlike the fearful but physically unscathed Shostakovich, Mandlestam was exiled to Siberia, where he died of an unspecified illness, for the crime of comparing Stalin’s moustache to a cockroach.
If Barnes’s moving, Booker Prize-winning novel, “The Sense of an Ending,’’ which similarly charted the course of a life in less than 200 pages, was a book of the heart, this one is very much of the head. But it is a brilliant head, which leads us to places only a handful of novelists have the skill and the courage to go.
THE NOISE OF TIME
By Julian Barnes
Knopf, 224 pp. $25.95
Askold Melnyczuk’s new novel, “Smedley’s Secret Guide to World Literature,’’ has just been published.