Red Thunder: The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

on Saturday, February 6, 2016
For a short while Martin Amis was obsessed with Soviet Russia. It was a weird dalliance for such an establishment kind of guy and one that he got quite the shellacking over. Now I'm as big a fan of Amis as the next guy that doesn't utterly despise him, but I have to concede that Koba The Dread was a very strange book and would have been remembered as one of his most misguided had it not been immediately followed by the awful stinker that was Yellow Dog. Such a dismal failure (though he still says it's the favourite of his novels - nice trolling, Marty) saw him flee in some kind of self-imposed exile where I'm sure he had plenty of time to ruminate on his Stalin fetish and come back with the massively underrated House of Meetings. I'm not convinced I'll ever understand that period Amis but I'm pretty glad he went through it. House of Meetings is one his best works.

Ten years after Amis's literary rehabilitation, another great establishment writer, Julian Barnes, has thrown his seeds into the fertile ground of Red Russia. Thankfully, the result is less Koba than House of Meetings, and perhaps better than both. Like the Booker-winning Sense of an Ending and Barnes's beautiful memoir of loss (and ballooning) Levels of Life, The Noise of Time is a slim book. Don't be fooled by its brevity, though. It is a book of big ideas and immense heart. Indeed, it might be Barnes's most philosophical work since Flaubert's Parrot or my favourite, England England. Like Amis before him, Barnes uses the context of Soviet Russia to consider the greater meaning of art, especially when played out against the kind of regime intent on defining its edges. And also like Amis, he does so through the prism of a love triangle. But whereas House of Meetings deals with two brothers and the woman they both love, the threesome in Barnes's novel is more esoteric: the individual, the Party and Art. His vehicle for exploring it is Dmitri Shostakovich, the celebrated composer who fell in and out of favour with Stalin and then, following the dictator's death, was rehabilitated only to find himself a pawn in Krushchev's equally disturbing 'new world'. The story is played out in three "conversations with Power": times Shostakovich is called before the party and destroyed in all but body. We first meet him amidst a squall of denunciations where those who once openly supported him are searching for new and original ways to slag him off. Next we follow his forced appearances in America where he sacrifices his integrity and dignity reading pre-written speeches denouncing Igor Stravinsky and other 'formalistic' composers. The third meeting shows that later life offers little reprieve - Shostakovich is railroaded by the cultural despot Pyotr Pospelov to accept Krushchev's "offer" to take up the position of General Secretary of the Composer's Union.

For Barnes's purpose, Shostakovich is the perfect subject. Few people were strapped to the Party rollercoaster quite like he was. Barnes does a wonderful job of conveying the sheer terror of life under Stalin; the image of Shostakovich spending his nights by the elevator waiting for the secret police to come and arrest him is truly heartbreaking as are the scenes of him on the propaganda tour of America where he is smugly challenged by Nicolas Nabokov. It is an exercise in forced self-loathing. Each question makes Barnes's tragic hero that little bit smaller. It is painful to witness, but oddly edifying when rendered in such perfect sentences.

The Noise of Time is a complex meditation on the collision of Art and Power by one of our greatest living (and deepest thinking) writers. As he quite correctly suggests, we can only truly understand art when it is threatened. I could pick out a whole bunch of passages to illustrate the beauty of his thinking. But it is the one from which the novel gets its title that I think sums it up best:

Art belongs to everybody and nobody. Art belongs to all time and no time. Art belongs to those who create it and those who savour it. Art no more belongs to the People and the Party than it once belonged to the aristocracy and the patron. Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time. Art does not exist for art's sake: it exists for people's sake. But which people, and who defines them?

Who, indeed.


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