The Noise of Time is a disquisition on the role of art in society examined through the fictionalized account of the life of Dmitri Shostakovich, one of the great composers of the 20th century and a citizen of the Soviet Union. Structured like a triptych, the story unfolds around three conversations Shostakovich had with powerful representatives of the state during his life. Each section takes place twelve years after its predecessor during the leap years of 1936, 1948 and 1960. Two are set during Stalin’s authoritarian reign, the third during Krushchev’s, and they all begin with an escalation of the following statement: “All he knew was this was the worst time.”

It’s a good line, reminiscent of Dickens’ opening of A Tale of Two Cities, but the balance of “the best of times” never comes. Nor should it. The Shostakovich we are introduced to is a young man in his early thirties who is riven with anxiety. Prone to a stereotypical artistic moodiness that includes threats of suicide when spurned by lovers or professionally flummoxed, Shostakovich has fallen out of favor with Stalin and the machinations of the Soviet state. His acclaimed and internationally admired opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District has been dubbed “Muddle Instead of Music” in an anonymous editorial in Pravda after Stalin and his lieutenants have seen a performance. The opera practically vanishes from existence overnight and Shostakovich figures he will as well. He begins sleeping in his clothes with a satchel full of toiletries and cigarettes to take to his eventual interrogation. Then he takes to standing by the elevator, listening to the lift creak up and down to spare his wife and young child the sight of his removal from their apartment by the secret police. His career is dead, by all reason his body will follow suit.

His crime is one of formalism. After the revolution, Lenin decreed that art was for the people, meaning that it should be unfettered from the ambitions of its creators. To please should be the only function of art. To challenge an audience otherwise or to question the authority of the state was forbidden. Shostakovich had no idea he was in violation of these edicts, believing Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was in keeping with Soviet ideals, but Stalin kept redefining those ideals as a means of repression. Artists and intellectuals were a threat to his regime, so many were taken to prison and interrogated until they admitted to being part of some grand conspiracy to end Stalin’s rule. As portrayed by author Julian Barnes, the only conspiracy that embroils Shostakovich is having talent, taste and the desire to make better music than that sanctioned by the state. But eventually, the elevator doors open on his floor and an official steps out to escort the composer to the “big house.” After a round of interviews, Shostakovich is told to return in two days. Following tearful goodbyes on that fateful day, the composer returns to the prison and asks for his interrogator. The guards tell him to go home. The man Shostakovich was there to see has been convicted of a conspiracy himself.

Barnes is an author concerned with the vagaries and abstractions of memory and the circuitous routes our minds map through reminiscences when searching for the answer to some query. He structures his chapters with shards and fragments of thought, recollection and longer entries that are centered in some indisputable historical moment. It was an effective strategy in creating Tony Webster, the forgetful narrator from The Sense of an Ending, and it offers the necessary license in defining Dmitri Shostakovich, a controversial figure outside the Soviet Union though little is known about his life.

Shostakovich is considered one of the great composers of the 20th century, but the fact that he never tried to escape oppression marks him as a true believer of the Soviet Union. He had opportunity. Enamored again by Stalin, Shostakovich was sent abroad to share his music with the world, experiencing fame and collecting accolades. There are no records of any attempts to defect, nor had the composer ever denounced his authoritarian benefactors. He expressed his thoughts and feelings through his music, and the fact that his compositions are intricate, beautiful and provocative should stand as a record of his defiance to Lenin’s pronouncement that art is for the people. Somehow Shostakovich gamed the Soviet system and was rewarded for it. It is in the scores he left that his fans find a folk hero of such prodigious talent that even a monster like Stalin could not silence him.

His detractors point to a different reality. Shostakovich’s second devastating conversation with the power of the state comes in 1949 during a trip to New York for the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace. He was forced to give a prepared speech at a press conference denouncing Western music and culture, the Soviet propaganda machine replacing his voice with its own. Shostakovich delivered the words shakily and couldn’t finish reading the speech. While his hesitation has been duly noted by history, it also marked him as a tool of his government, making Shostakovich another nebulous genius who reflects what his admirers and detractors wish to see. But it is a fair question to ask where the great composer’s true voice lies.

Barnes is not ambiguous on this point. As anxious, cowardly and self-loathing as his Shostakovich can be, he is equally the flawed hero. This is history with latitude. Barnes is more interested with examining the role of an artist in a society than creating an exhaustive tome worthy of Walter Isaacson. Shostakovich fascinates because he produced such exemplary work while enduring the brutality of Stalin. The composer is a vehicle for the author to tell a story of survival and compromise in order to create. Barnes theorizes that Shostakovich made sacrifices to his dignity in order to create the music he loved, but he may have gotten the last word in his conversations with power. The Soviet Union is gone. Shostakovich endures. His music is played with reverence and perhaps that is the point. Art doesn’t belong to the people or the artist. Art belongs to time, and occasionally it is powerful enough transcend the moment of its making and the imperfections of the people who create it.

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