‘Come here to me’ is Dublin slang used to mean “Listen to this” or “I’ve something to tell you”. These phrases tend to imply a secretiveness or revelatory importance to the upcoming piece of information.
Julian Barnes’ latest novel is a fictionalized account of how composer Dmitri Shostakovich survived Stalin. The Noise of Time is perfectly titled. Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is described as “muddle instead of music.” Just noise. The problem with this bad review is that it’s Stalin condemning not only the opera but also the man. From then on Shostakovich lives in fear of execution but his punishment is worse. He instead lives through the noise of time. The noise created by inferior composers who are willing to tow the party line. The noise he must make himself to protect his family, all the while losing his sense of integrity. Shostakovich is brought to America to praise the Soviet system, to denounce composers he wholeheartedly admires, to compose music that gets approved. It’s a crushing experience beautifully articulated by Barnes.
The Guardian review (Jan 22) offers a fantastic description of the “conversations with Power” that Shostakovich is subjected to throughout his life. As a reader unfamiliar with Shostakovich, Barnes provides a well-researched, and very intimate, perspective on the systematic pressures put on artists in the Soviet Union and the propaganda machine that influenced art.
In May 1937 a man in his early thirties waits by the lift of a Leningrad apartment block. He waits all through the night, expecting to be taken away to the Big House. Any celebrity he has known in the previous decade is no use to him now. And few who are taken to the Big House ever return.
A slim and powerful novel. A story about the collision of Art and Power, about human compromise, human cowardice and human courage, it is the work of a true master.