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The Noise of Time

Format: Trade Paperback, 224 pages
Publisher: Vintage
On Sale: 06/13/2017
Price: $16.00
ISBN: 978-1-101-97118-5
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open close ABOUT THE BOOK
1936: Dmitri Shostakovich, just thirty years old, reckons with the first of three conversations with power that will irrevocably shape his life. Stalin, hitherto a distant figure, has suddenly denounced the young composer’s latest opera. Certain he will be exiled to Siberia (or, more likely, shot dead on the spot), Shostakovich reflects on his predicament, his personal history, his parents, his daughter—all of those hanging in the balance of his fate. And though a stroke of luck prevents him from becoming yet another casualty of the Great Terror, he will twice more be swept up by the forces of despotism: coerced into praising the Soviet state at a cultural conference in New York in 1948, and finally bullied into joining the Party in 1960. All the while, he is compelled to constantly weigh the specter of power against the integrity of his music. An extraordinary portrait of a relentlessly fascinating man, The Noise of Time is a stunning meditation on the meaning of art and its place in society.

“Brilliant. . . . As elegantly constructed as a concerto.” —NPR 

“A condensed masterpiece that traces the lifelong battle of one man’s conscience, one man’s art, with the insupportable exigencies of totalitarianism.” —The Guardian (London)

“Brilliant. . . . Leads us to places only a handful of novelists have the skill and the courage to go.” —The Boston Globe
“Barnes’s storytelling is phenomenal; Shostakovich, as tragic and anxious as he is, is utterly fascinating. “ —The Christian Science Monitor

“A powerful portrait . . . Barnes does wonderful work on the key scenes. . . . The whole Kafka madhouse brought to life.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Exquisite.” —O, The Oprah Magazine

“Beautifully written. There is a wonderful rhythm to the prose—long passages are broken up by staccato bursts of single sentences—and Mr. Barnes writes with a crystalline clarity.” —The Wall Street Journal 

“A tense and elegant study of terror, shame and cowardice, of a celebrated artist capitulating to power, yet on his own terms. . . . Barnes interweaves the painful and the sublime to achieve an epic orchestral effect.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Affecting. . . . In his impressionistic portrait of Shostakovich, the man and the artist, Barnes balances sympathy with a tough-minded clarity. . . . In its examination of the totalitarian state through the life of a single victim, The Noise of Time stands in an honored literary tradition.” —The Miami Herald

“Undoubtedly one of Barnes’s best novels.” —The Sunday Times (London)

“Powerfully imagined and chillingly lucid. . . . Moving . . . Barnes takes us inside the composer’s mind, observing how he reacts to the ceaseless demands of power.” —The Millions 

“Excellent. . . . The author’s achievement here: to not only capture the mood of fear
under which Shostakovich worked but also create a tribute to the struggle of all artists.” —The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“Moving. . . . Renders Shostakovich’s wrenching personal and political conflicts in a way that makes them impossible to forget or ignore. . . . Barnes’s writing is elegant,

his curiosity boundless, and his intellect formidable.” —Los Angeles Review of Books

“Magnificent. . . . Novels about artistic achievement rarely do justice to their subjects.  The Noise of Time is that rarity. It is a novel of tremendous grace and power, giving voice to the complex and troubled man whose music outlasted the state that sought to silence him.” —Anthony Marra, Publishers Weekly
Julian Barnes is the author of twenty previous books. He has received the Man Booker Prize, the Somerset Maugham Award, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, the David Cohen Prize for Literature and the E. M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; in France, the Prix Médicis and the Prix Femina; and in Austria, the State Prize for European Literature. In 2004 he was named Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture. His work has been translated into more than forty languages. He lives in London.
open close READ AN EXCERPT
And so, it had all begun, very precisely, on the morning of the 28th of January 1936, in Arkhangelsk. He had been invited to perform his first piano concerto with the local orchestra under Viktor Kubatsky; the two of them had also played his new cello sonata. It had gone well. The next morning he went to the railway station to buy a copy of Pravda. He had looked at the front page briefly, then turned to the next two. It was, as he would later put it, the most memorable day of his life. And a date he chose to mark each year until his death.

Except that—as his mind obstinately argued back—nothing ever begins as precisely as that. It began in different places, and in different minds. The true starting point might have been his own fame. Or his opera. Or it might have been Stalin, who, being infallible, was therefore responsible for everything. Or it could have been caused by something as simple as the layout of an orchestra. Indeed, that might finally be the best way of looking at it: a composer first denounced and humiliated, later arrested and shot, all because of the layout of an orchestra.

If it all began elsewhere, and in the minds of others, then perhaps he could blame Shakespeare, for having written Macbeth. Or Leskov for Russifying it into Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. No, none of that. It was, self-evidently, his own fault for having written the piece that offended. It was his opera’s fault for being such a success—at home and abroad—it had aroused the curiosity of the Kremlin. It was Stalin’s fault because he would have inspired and approved the Pravda editorial—perhaps even written it himself: there were enough grammatical errors to suggest the pen of one whose mistakes could never be corrected. It was also Stalin’s fault for imagining himself a patron and connoisseur of the arts in the first place. He was known never to miss a performance of Boris Godunov at the Bolshoi. He was almost as keen on Prince Igor and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sadko. Why should Stalin not want to hear this acclaimed new opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk?

And so, the composer was instructed to attend a performance of his own work on the 26th of January 1936. Comrade Stalin would be there; also Comrades Molotov, Mikoyan and Zhdanov. They took their places in the government box. Which had the misfortune to be situated immediately above the percussion and the brass. Sections which in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk were not scored to behave in a modest and self-effacing fashion.

He remembered looking across from the director’s box, where he was seated, to the government box. Stalin was hidden behind a small curtain, an absent presence to whom the other distinguished comrades would sycophantically turn, knowing that they were themselves observed. Given the occasion, both conductor and orchestra were understandably nervous. In the entr’acte before Katerina’s wedding, the woodwind and brass suddenly took it upon themselves to play more loudly than he had scored. And then it was like a virus spreading through each section. If the conductor noticed, he was powerless. Louder and louder the orchestra became; and every time the percussion and brass roared fortissimo beneath them—loud enough to knock out windowpanes—Comrades Mikoyan and Zhdanov would shudder theatrically, turn to the figure behind the curtain and make some mocking remark. When the audience looked up to the government box at the start of the fourth act, they saw that it had been vacated.

After the performance, he had collected his briefcase and gone straight to the Northern Station to catch the train for Arkhangelsk. He remembered thinking that the government box had been specially reinforced with steel plates, to protect its occupants against assassination. But that there was no such cladding to the director’s box. He was not yet thirty, and his wife was five months pregnant at the time.
1936: he had always been superstitious about leap years. Like many people, he believed that they brought bad luck.


Those who did not know him, and who followed music only from a distance, probably imagined that this had been his first setback. That the brilliant nineteen-year-old whose First Symphony was quickly taken up by Bruno Walter, then by Toscanini and Klemperer, had known nothing but a clear, clean decade of success since that premiere in 1926. And such people, perhaps aware that fame often leads to vanity and self-importance, might open their Pravda and agree that composers could easily stray from writing the kind of music people wanted to hear. And further, since all composers were employed by the state, that it was the state’s duty, if they offended, to intervene and draw them back into greater harmony with their audience. This sounded entirely reasonable, didn’t it?

Except that they had practised sharpening their claws on his soul from the beginning: while he was still at the Conservatoire a group of Leftist fellow students had tried to have him dismissed and his stipend removed. Except that the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians and similar cultural organisations had campaigned from their inception against what he stood for; or rather, what they thought he stood for. They were determined to break the bourgeois stranglehold on the arts. So workers must be trained to become composers, and all music must be instantly comprehensible and pleasing to the masses. Tchaikovsky was decadent, and the slightest experimentation condemned as “formalism.”

Except that as early as 1929 he had been officially denounced, told that his music was “straying from the main road of Soviet art,” and sacked from his post at the Choreographic Technical College. Except that in the same year Misha Kvadri, the dedicatee of his First Symphony, became the first of his friends and associates to be arrested and shot.

Except that in 1932, when the Party dissolved the independent organisations and took charge of all cultural matters, this had resulted not in a taming of arrogance, bigotry and ignorance, rather in a systematic concentration of them. And if the plan to take a worker from the coal face and turn him into a composer of symphonies did not exactly come to pass, something of the reverse happened. A composer was expected to increase his output just as a coal miner was, and his music was expected to warm hearts just as a miner’s coal warmed bodies. Bureaucrats assessed musical output as they did other categories of output; there were established norms, and deviations from those norms.
At Arkhangelsk railway station, opening Pravda with chilled fingers, he had found on page three a headline identifying and condemning deviance: muddle instead of music. He determined at once to return home via Moscow, where he would seek advice. On the train, as the frozen landscape passed, he reread the article for the fifth and sixth times. Initially, he had been shocked as much for his opera as for himself: after such a denunciation, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk could not possibly continue at the Bolshoi. For the last two years, it had been applauded everywhere—from New York to Cleveland, from Sweden to Argentina. In Moscow and Leningrad, it had pleased not just the public and the critics, but also the political commissars. At the time of the 17th Party Congress its performances had been listed as part of the Moscow district’s official output, which aimed to compete with the production quotas of the Donbass coal miners.

All this meant nothing now: his opera was to be put down like a yapping dog which had suddenly displeased its master. He tried to analyse the different elements of the attack as clearheadedly as possible. First, his opera’s very success, especially abroad, was turned against it. Only a few months before, Pravda had patriotically reported the work’s American premiere at the Metropolitan Opera. Now the same paper knew that Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk had only succeeded outside the Soviet Union because it was “non-political and confusing,” and because it “tickled the perverted taste of the bourgeois with its fidgety, neurotic music.”

Next, and linked to this, was what he thought of as government-box criticism, an articulation of those smirks and yawns and sycophantic turnings towards the hidden Stalin. So he read how his music “quacks and grunts and growls”; how its “nervous, convulsive and spasmodic” nature derived from jazz; how it replaced singing with “shrieking.” The opera had clearly been scribbled down in order to please the “effete,” who had lost all “wholesome taste” for music, preferring “a confused stream of sound.” As for the libretto, it deliberately concentrated on the most sordid parts of Leskov’s tale: the result was “coarse, primitive and vulgar.”

But his sins were political as well. So the anonymous analysis by someone who knew as much about music as a pig knows about oranges was decorated with those familiar, vinegar-soaked labels. Petit-bourgeois, formalist, Meyerholdist, Leftist. The composer had written not an opera but an anti-opera, with music deliberately turned inside out. He had drunk from the same poisoned source which produced “Leftist distortion in painting, poetry, teaching and science.” In case it needed spelling out—and it always did—Leftism was contrasted with “real art, real science and real literature.”

“Those that have ears will hear,” he always liked to say. But even the stone deaf couldn’t fail to hear what “Muddle Instead of Music” was saying, and guess its likely consequences. There were three phrases which aimed not just at his theoretical misguidedness but at his very person. “The composer apparently never considered the problem of what the Soviet audience looks for and expects in music.” That was enough to take away his membership in the Union of Composers. “The dan­ger of this trend to Soviet music is clear.” That was enough to take away his ability to compose and perform. And finally: “It is a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly.” That was enough to take away his life.
open close READER'S GUIDE

1. Discuss the passage that opens The Noise of Time. How does this story set the tone for the novel? What indicators does it give about class and social politics in the Soviet Union?

2. The first line of Part I reads: “All he knew was that this was the worst time.” Examine this statement. How does this sentiment echo throughout the novel? Consider Shostakovich’s level of anxiety and fear in this passage as compared to what he feels during his interactions later in life with Power. How does he cope with these feelings?

3. Discuss the circumstances around the debut performance of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. How did the presence of Stalin and his government officials create an environment of apprehension? How did the media work with the state to create a smear campaign against Shostakovich?

4. After the performance of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Shostakovich waits for what he thinks will be his inevitable arrest. How did you interpret his late-­night elevator stakeouts? Was his fear warranted? Discuss the brief interaction with his neighbor on page 18. How did the nod between them indicate a much deeper commentary on interpersonal reactions in Soviet Russia?

5.  Discuss the notion of selfhood and identity, and how those concepts are expressed differently in a capitalistic and a communistic society. How does the communist system as described in The Noise of Time discourage assertion of the self? How does Shostakovich’s relationship with Power create a sort of “fractured self,” in which his private and public identities are at odds with each other?

6. Describe the evolution of Shostakovich’s perspective on romantic love. Why does he subscribe to the idea of Free Love as a young man? What changes his perception of it?

7. In the first section of the book, it is revealed that Shostakovich’s parents intended to name him Yaroslav rather than Dmitri. How did you interpret this revelation? How does the question that follows on page 8—­“What did a name matter?”—­relate to Shostakovich’s own conception of selfhood as explored throughout The Noise of Time?

8. Throughout the novel, Shostakovich seemingly views himself as a puppet of Power. How does he differentiate himself from Power—­particularly when he submits to the Party’s will? What does he view as his greatest rebellion?

9. Discuss Shostakovich’s relationship with his first wife as compared to his subsequent ones. What does he value in a marriage? How is he affected by the loss of Nita?

10. Throughout The Noise of Time, Shostakovich is placed in social situations in which he must publicly denounce cultural institutions, capitalistic policies, and the careers of his fellow artists and musicians. Which public denunciation causes Shostakovich the greatest distress? How does public opinion toward Shostakovich shift over time?

11. How would you describe Shostakovich’s relationship with his children? What example does he try to set as a parent?

12. Discuss Shostakovich’s trip to the United States in Part II. What surprises him most about the United States? As a reader, did you ever get a sense that he was going to go “off script” and rebel against Power?

13. The Noise of Time is structured in three sections, each revealing Shostakovich in various states of his career. Compare Shostakovich the composer in Part I versus the composer in Part III. As his position becomes more greatly entangled with the goals of Power, how does his creative output change?

14. What would you say is Shostakovich’s lowest point in The Noise of Time? His greatest regret?

15. How is the relationship between art and power explored in The Noise of Time? Discuss Shostakovich’s own creative process and his creative goals. How is Power’s mandate that art must be “for the people” in direct opposition to the creative process?

16. Were you familiar with Shostakovich’s work prior to reading The Noise of Time? If so, how did this novel help to contextualize his music? If not, are you now interested in seeking out more information about his career?