As It Happens

Julian Barnes on Stalin, Shostakovich and the upside of cowardice

Carol speaks with Booker Prize-winning author, Julian Barnes, about his new novel, The Noise of Time. The book details the life of Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich and the impact of the Soviet political climate on his personal life and on his music.
Julian Barnes, author of The Noise of Time, with As it Happens host Carol Off. (CBC)

He was a man of great talent, of exceeding intelligence, and of little courage.

In his latest novel, the Booker Prize-winning writer delves into the life of late Soviet composer, Dmitri Shostakovich.

"There's no composer in the history of Western music who was under as much pressure as him," author Julian Barnes tells As it Happens host Carol Off.

The Noise of Time begins when Shostakovich is 30-years-old, living under the rule of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Shostakovich's first opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, has been performed internationally and has enjoyed some success. But after Stalin attends the opera, it is quickly condemned by Pravda, the official newspaper of the Communist regime.

Really, if you wanted to survive, you had to be a coward.- Julian Barnes

Shostakovich then lives in fear of being executed or being sent to a labour camp in Siberia. That reality, and the reality of the regime's power, has a permanent effect on his life and his music.

The novel explores the composer's life at three critical periods of time: 1936, 1948 and 1960.

Having survived the threat to his life in his thirties, Shostakovich learns to bow to the Stalin regime. He is eventually forced to join the Communist Party. And in 1948, he is named by Stalin as a Soviet peace ambassador.

The composer travels to the United States, meets other artists he admires, but in reading the speeches written for him by the Party, he condemns those authors, and even his own music. But there is no alternative but to comply.

"Really, if you wanted to survive, you had to be a coward," says Barnes. "And then as [Shostakovich] ruefully and ironically reflects at one point, he says 'being courageous is easy, but being a coward, that's a whole lifetime's work'. In the end, perhaps, the persistence of cowardice is a kind of courage."

The Noise of Time is published by Random House Canada. (Random House Canada)

Although his life was no longer threatened under the rule of the next Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, the pressures of the Party continued to persist. Shostakovich continued to be used by the regime, now as the Chairman of the Russian Federation Union of Composers. In his view, death was no longer the greatest danger.

"Shostakovich was just a composer, he wasn't a soldier. He wasn't someone who'd been schooled in how to stand up to pressure and power. So I think he was in a very weakened condition anyway, and he thought 'all that matters from now on is my music. It doesn't matter what comes out of my mouth, it doesn't matter what articles I sign as if I'd written them. Just listen to my music'."

The Noise of Time is published by Random House Canada.

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