Gulag of the mind

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes. Jonathan Cape, £14.99

Art and power: Julian Barnes has written  a meditation on art in the Soviet era.
Art and power: Julian Barnes has written a meditation on art in the Soviet era.

A man spends the night standing by the lift outside the door of his apartment. There is a little case by his feet; it contains his cigarettes and a change of clothes. He is waiting for agents of the NKVD to take him to The Big House for interrogation.

He is the composer Dmitri Shostakovich (though we don’t immediately realise this). His opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk Region has been denounced in a Pravda editorial, probably written by Stalin himself. His career is in ruins. His patron, Marshal Tukhachevsky, the ‘Red Napoleon’, has been arrested and shot. But Shostakovich will survive. Between one visit to the Big House and the second, his interrogator will himself disappear. Dmitri survives, despising himself.

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Julian Barnes’s short novel gives us Shostakovich’s life story in brief, as it may have been imagined by the composer himself. It is also a meditation – a profound meditation – on power and the relationship of art and power. What do you have to do to survive? Keep your head down and knuckle under. What is your defence? Open submission, secret irony. Shostakovich is not a hero; he berates himself for cowardice. He wants to live and work, and he will even – sometimes – consent to write the sort of music the power requires. He submits to humiliation, and yet, at his core, there is a steely honesty – even when he despises himself. He despises others more, especially the western fellow-travellers, notably Bernard Shaw, Picasso and Sartre who praise the Soviet Union, refusing to open their eyes.

There are three sections to the novel. The first begins by that lift-shaft – and the lift itself is an image of life in the USSR; you rise to the top or plunge to the bottom, irrespective of merit, according to caprice. It covers the first half of the composer’s life. The second comes when his patriotic wartime music – the Leningrad Symphony – has seen him rehabilitated. Obedient to Stalin’s command, delivered in a personal telephone call, he goes to New York as one of a Soviet Cultural Delegation. He delivers the speech written for him; he denounces his hero, Stravinsky, as a capitalist lackey. The émigré composer Nicolas Nabokov (cousin of Vladimir and on the CIA payroll) gets to his feet and cruelly asks Shostakovich if he really means his criticism of Stravinsky. Mumbling he answers that he does. His humiliation is complete. But his tormentor, being a free man, is also an ignorant one. He has no experience of the reality of the power, has not been subjected to its corrupting force.

In the final section, which covers with beautiful economy the last decades of the composer, there is a new humiliation. Stalin is dead. power’s grip is softer, but still pressing. Shostakovich is bullied into respectability, made head of the Union of Soviet Composers. He remains what he has always been: a dedicated worker, a timid and cautious man.

“He had,” he thinks, “been as courageous as his nature allowed; but his conscience was always there to insist that more courage could have been shown.” He thinks of a verse by Yevtushenko, the young poet and semi-licensed dissident. “In Galileo’s day, a fellow scientist/ Was no more stupid than Galileo./ He was well aware that the Earth revolved,/ But he also had a large family to feed.”

Julian Barnes has always been an elegant writer, and this short novel has the perfect elegance of economy. It presents a life, and refrains from judgment. It is a masterpiece of sympathetic understanding. The horrors of the Stalinist years, the corruption of the spirit which the Soviet system imposed on its people, are fairly and cogently presented. In the end we realise that survival may itself be heroic.

Shostakovich loved Shakespeare, and he is quoted several times. Yet the quotation which is not offered, but implied throughout, comes from the last act of Lear, when Kent says of the dying king, “he hates him much,/ That would upon the rack of this cruel world,/ Stretch him out longer.”

Barnes gives us both the image of that rack, and lets us feel its horror. I don’t think he has written a finer, more truthful or more profound book.