Julian Barnes reimagines the life of a composer

The Noise of Time. Julian Barnes. Knopf. 224 pages. $25.95.
The Noise of Time. Julian Barnes. Knopf. 224 pages. $25.95.

Julian Barnes’ latest novel opens with a scene of crystalline virtuosity. A train stops at a rural station somewhere west of Moscow, and a local beggar approaches. “It was shortly after dawn, but the man — in reality, only half a man — was already propelling himself toward the soft carriages on a low trolley with wooden wheels. There was no way of steering it except to wrench at the contraption’s front edge; and to stop himself from overbalancing, a rope that passed underneath the trolley was looped through the top of his trousers. The man’s hands were bound with blackened strips of cloth, and his skin hardened from begging on streets and stations.”

Two youngish men, with a kind of ironic pity, descend to the platform to share a few shots of vodka with the poor fellow. For all its attention-grabbing power, this proves to be the novel’s first and last full scene. The beggar is never seen again. The story belongs to one of the two young men, the Soviet-era composer, Dmitri Shostakovich. Barnes abandons scene setting in favor of an interior summary of his life. In the reading, this stylistic shift feels like a feat of magic.

Now 70, Julian Barnes is one of the major British novelists of his generation, long admired for the steady production of novels the likes of Flaubert’s Parrot, A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, or his last, the Man Booker Prize-winning The Sense of an Ending. Instead of attempting a comprehensive imagining of the composer’s life, Barnes organizes his brief novel around three encounters with Soviet state power.

Perhaps the most affecting is the first, after the composer’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtensk is denounced by Pravda. For months he spends each night by the elevator hoping to spare his wife and children the anguish of his arrest. Each time the doors slide open, he anticipates the arrival of unkind men in bulky coats. But the security officers never arrive, and he resumes sleeping in his own bed.

The second crisis comes when Shostakovich, suddenly rehabilitated by Stalin, is sent to New York as a distinguished Soviet cultural representative and is forced to renounce his hero, Stravinsky. The third follows the death of Stalin and the rise of Khrushchev. Older, much honored by the state, Shostakovich rides in the back of a limousine, left dissolute by drink and moral compromise, facing the final indignity, compulsory membership in the Communist Party.

In his impressionistic portrait of Shostakovich, the man and the artist, Barnes balances sympathy with a tough-minded clarity, the more potent for being presented via the composer’s own point of view. All Shostakovich wants is a life devoted to music, but he lives in terror of the Soviet state, its honors no less repressive than its horrors. Though by no means a quisling, Shostakovich makes compromises in his music and in his artistic sensibility that leaves his spirit fatally bruised.

Barnes’ subject here is not only Shostakovich but tyranny itself. In its examination of the totalitarian state through the life of a single victim, The Noise of Time stands in an honored literary tradition that includes such predecessors as Barnard Malamud’s The Fixer, Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son or this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner, The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen.

But Barnes doubles the stakes (and the rewards) by placing The Noise of Time in another even more audacious tradition, one that includes J. M. Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg, Colm Tóibín’s The Master, and Kafka’s Leopards by Moacyr Scliar. This is likely a minor novel in the Barnes oeuvre, but what can be more ambitious than a writer who seeks to capture the inner life of another great artist?

And while the vision here is essentially tragic, Barnes veins his narrative with a grim humor, too. “Dimitri Dmitrievich. All those years ago, he was intended to be Yaroslav Dmitrievich. Until his father and mother had allowed themselves to be talked out of the name by a bullying priest. You could say that his parents were merely displaying good manners, and proper piety, under their own roof. Or you could say that he had been born — or at least christened — beneath the star of cowardice.”

Chauncey Mabe is a writer in Miami.