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When asked by Intelligent Life magazine last year to name the sense he loved best, English writer Julian Barnes replied with a tribute to the sense of self. This, he wrote, is a conglomerate sense, brought about by the fusion of inner senses, the “senses of memory, feeling and reasoning, the moral sense, the sense of guilt, and so on”. It is something often taken for granted: we assume the existence of a “sturdy, continuing sense of self, built up over the years”. It is a sense we therefore tend to appreciate negatively, Barnes claims, attending to it only once we feel it eroding.
The concern with selfhood and its vulnerability is palpable in much of Barnes’ recent writing. Most especially his wry take on the fear of dying in the family memoir Nothing to Be Frightened Of (2008), his Man Booker prize–winning novel The Sense of an Ending (2011) and the moving account of his own grief following his wife’s death in Levels of Life (2013).
In The Noise of Time, Barnes’ first novel since winning the Man Booker, a crisis of selfhood again claims our attention. But it is a sly, supple and oblique crisis that we encounter as if from the wings, long after the rot of self-doubt has taken hold. The story is based on the life of Russian composer and pianist Dmitri Shostakovich as he grapples with the challenge of making art under the rule of Stalin. Abiding by his artistic instincts, Shostakovich resists the imperative to make conservative, popular music to please the Party, and instead commits himself to the advancement of Formalism. But there is only so long that he can hold out before crumbling under the pressure to conform.
The narrative of Shostakovich’s undoing advances by omission as we encounter him in relation to three periods of bad luck, occurring in 1936, 1948 and 1960. Each of these condensed episodes unfolds against a direct clash between art and “Power”. The most significant of these occurs in 1936 when Stalin attends a performance of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District at the Bolshoi Theatre. His vehement disproval of the opera forever altered the course of Shostakovich’s career.
If at first Shostakovich spends his nights holding vigil by a lift with his suitcase, waiting to be taken away and killed, later the threat is more insidious: a phone call, the nag of shame, the insistent demand for capitulation. The result is a disturbing and masterful portrait of a fastidious man brave in his art and timid in life – a man whose sense of self is so unravelled by political demands and denunciations, so riddled by guilt at the betrayals of self and friends, that eventually he can but furtively glance at the story of his own life. He remembers his past despite the desire not to, and as death encroaches he has no choice but to summon the courage to accept his own history of cowardice.
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