The Courage of the Composer

Dmitri Shostakovich; drawing by William Kentridge for his production of Shostakovich’s opera The Nose, 2009
William Kentridge/Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Tom Powel Imaging
Dmitri Shostakovich; drawing by William Kentridge for his production of Shostakovich’s opera The Nose, 2009

In Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), his best-known novel, Julian Barnes recounts the scene in L’Éducation sentimentale where Frédéric, its hero, “wanders through an area of Paris wrecked by the 1848 uprising” and notices “amid the chaos” things that have survived by chance:

He sees a clock, some prints—and a parrot’s perch. It isn’t so different, the way we wander through the past. Lost, disordered, fearful, we follow what signs there remain; we read the street names, but cannot be confident where we are. All around is wreckage.

The scene is reminiscent of The Noise of Time, Osip Mandelstam’s prose work of 1925, from which the title of Barnes’s latest novel is, it seems, derived. The problem of remembering across the void of revolution is the Russian poet’s theme:

Where for happy generations the epic speaks in hexameters and chronicles I have merely the sign of the hiatus, and between me and the age there lies a pit, a moat, filled with clamorous time, the place where a family and reminiscences of a family ought to have been.

The Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich is the man remembering in Barnes’s The Noise of Time, a novel that, like Flaubert’s Parrot, mixes fiction and biography, memory and myth. Much of Barnes’s most successful work is biographical, combining documented facts with literary invention in novels such as the Booker-shortlisted Arthur and George (2005), and he has returned to something like this form in The Noise of Time, his first novel since winning the Booker Prize with The Sense of an Ending in 2011. Memory is at the heart of it. Shostakovich, as Barnes imagines him, takes stock of his life, which has been wrecked by Stalin’s revolution, and finds redemption in the music that emerges from the noise of time. But unlike Flaubert’s Parrot, which revels in the impossibility of ever reconstructing a biography, The Noise of Time makes just that claim. In it Barnes assumes a knowingness about the private thoughts and emotions of Shostakovich, a knowledge largely based on memoirs about him, and asks us to believe that he is taking us inside his head. As a novel-reader I am willing to believe him; as a historian I am not.

Like Flaubert, Shostakovich was resistant to reflecting on his own biography. Introverted, even secretive, shy and anxious by nature, he was hostile to the idea of writing reminiscences. He revealed himself entirely in his music and saw no need to write memoirs. He was also famous for inventing tales about himself—just for the sake of a good story or a laugh. As Barnes recounts, there are at least three versions of a story he told…

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