A Study of Irony Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time

“Tell me, whom does art belong to?” (91) When Barnes’ Shostakovich dutifully assists in examining students at the conservatory on their knowledge of Marxist-Leninist ideology, he makes sure to ask only the easiest questions. In this case, the answer is on a large banner in the examination hall: Lenin’s insistence that “ART BELONGS TO THE PEOPLE”.

We meet the composer three times, each 12 years apart; and each time he is convinced that this is definitely the worst of times. First, we find him standing near the elevator in his building, his music having been dragged through the mud by Pravda after it had seemed to displease Stalin; the composer now waiting night after night for Power to strike and annihilate him. Second, we find him in a plane returning from a visit to the United States, where he has been sent by the same tyranny that had previously come an inch from taking his life. And finally, we find him in a car, with a chauffeur, fully rehabilitated by Stalin’s successor. Still, our protagonist is convinced that this, rather than everything that came before, is the worst time of all. Why is that?

The answer is not too surprising and may even border on cliché, but we have been well enough prepared for it not to sound gratuitous. The answer is that the resource that helped the composer maintain something of his integrity and autonomy against Power – that helped him through his examination duty, but also through his phone call with Stalin – namely that of irony, turns out to have been exhausted when under Krushchev, Power becomes “vegetarian”.

When Power speaks under Stalin, it does so in a terrifying voice. “On Monday at twelve o’clock you will without fail remember everything. You must recall every detail of all the discussions regarding the plot against Comrade Stalin, of which you were one of the chief witnesses.” (46) By a small miracle, Power does not devour Shostakovich, apparently backtracking on its decision to tie him to a fictional plot against Stalin’s life. The sword of Damocles is never removed, of course; and under such terror, there is always the risk of losing yourself – of becoming “diminished and reduced” (87), a mere “technique for survival” (1; 87).

There is no wiggle room, no attitude towards the regime that ensures your survival. Shostakovich understands very well what is asked of him; it is not just, as his fellow composer Prokofiev seems to believe, that you could respond to criticism by eagerly asking what was expected of you and then living up to those standards. Like the reader of Kafka’s Trial, the reader of The Noise of Time will sometimes find herself imagining trying to navigate the system; to guess what you could say if ever you found yourself at the mercy of Stalin’s bureaucracy. But of course, there is not that freedom; there is no wise series of choices you can make that will result in your not being crushed.

What you have left, under these circumstances, is not the choice between cowardly or self-preserving acts on the one hand and heroic or self-sacrificing acts on the other. What you have left is a private attitude: you cannot do anything, but you can be ironic. This is not an act of defiance or rebellion; it doesn’t shorten Stalin’s tyranny by a minute; but it is a way of guarding a part of your humanity against total corruption.

So, after Stalin phones Shostakovich to invite him to be one of the Soviet representatives at a Congress for World Peace in New York, Shostakovich does the only thing he can: giving Caesar what is Caesar’s and impressing upon him his “heartfelt gratitude for the conversation” and his pride in “the confidence that has been placed in me”. (85) But he can keep for himself what is his: if he cannot speak truth to Power, he can remain ironical. He knows what his words really mean; and by staying alive, he remains in some small way the master of his own life, and his own story.

But this last bastion of personal integrity undergoes a severe test during this trip to the States. Shostakovich dutifully reads out a speech, pre-written by someone else of course, in as perfunctory a way as he can – “this has absolutely nothing to do with me, his manner insisted” (98). It turns out that the speech contains a harsh denunciation of Stravinsky, who is in fact his hero. To make matters worse, the exiled writer Nabokov seems to want to make a point during the Q&A of pressing Shostakovich to find out whether he “personally subscribes” to everything he has read out, including “the views expressed in your speech today about the music of Stravinsky”. (102)

Again, there is no way out. Shostakovich is forced not only to denounce his hero but to emphasize that he means it. It is the key scene in the novel to prove a point spelled out later, that irony is “as vulnerable to the accidents of life and time as any other sense”. (174)

Irony works when you are alone with Power: it functions beautifully when Shostakovich is assigned an ideological tutor, Troshin, a devout Stalin-worshipper eager to prevent new musical-political errors on the composer’s part. “They played their roles as instructor and pupil with straight faces; no doubt, Troshin did not have another face to offer” (122). But paradoxically, it is precisely when Power asks you to demonstrate your commitment and loyalty to it in public, that irony as a private defensive strategy runs out. This happens on the trip to New York; and it happens again, but much more sustainedly, under Krushchev, when Shostakovich is pressured to accept the chairmanship of the composers’ union. This turns out to involve something he has managed to keep himself clean of his entire life, throughout Stalin’s tyranny: he has to become a member of the Party.

A line has been crossed, and soon enough our protagonist will find himself signing public denunciations of Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov. And these are acts whose meaning you cannot silently redefine in private; “you cannot sign letters while holding your nose or crossing your fingers behind your back”. (166) You cannot, in the end, “join the Party ironically” (175).

And so:

“‘He could not live with himself.’ It was just a phrase, but an exact one. Under the pressure of Power, the self cracks and splits. The public coward lives with the private hero. Or vice versa. Or, more usually, the public coward lives with the private coward. But that was too simple: the idea of a man split into two by a dividing axe. Better: a man crushed into a hundred pieces of rubble, vainly trying to remember how they – he – had once fitted together.” (155)

This is a tragic morale drawn from a tragic life; an affirmation of the total helplessness of the individual in the face of dystopian circumstances. There is a note of optimism that resonates throughout the book, however: it is the triadic chord that happens to be struck by the clinking of three vodka glasses on a station platform, that Shostakovich recognizes and that he later half-remembers without remembering why (70).

Here, for once, he is allowed to hear music outside of the reach of Power – art, not for the People, nor for its own sake, but just a “whisper […] above the noise of time” (91). Music, in the end, belongs to music, and although Barnes’ Shostakovich has no time for the idea that his music is ‘immortal’, he does long for it to loosen itself from the noise of the crushing times, the very worst of times, in which its composer was forced to live.

The book-title returns several times in the book, always in contrast to the music itself that is, in the end, the only thing Shostakovich has ever wanted to give (108). Music maintains an integrity that the composer as a person does not. For “what could be put up against the noise of time? Only that music which is inside ourselves – the music of our being – which is transformed by some into real music. Which, over the decades, if it is strong and true and pure enough to drown out the noise of time, is transformed into the whisper of history.” (125)



“All that striving and idealism and hope and progress and science and art and conscience, and it all ends like this, with a man standing by a lift, at his feet a small case containing cigarettes, underwear and tooth powder; standing there and waiting to be taken away.” (41)

“We expect too much of the future – hoping that it will quarrel with the present.” (48)

“But in real life, under real terror, what guilty conscience? What bad dreams?” (89)

“The Great Gardener had gone to tend the grass in the Elysian Fields, and strengthen the morale of the apple trees there.” (118)

“What use, after all, is a conscience unless, like a tongue probing teeth for cavities, it seeks out areas of weakness, duplicity, cowardice, self-deception?” (151)

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