After someone dies, we often tend to canonize the person, conveniently forgetting the foibles and character flaws. In Richard Taruskin’s essay for the New York Times – Martyr or Survivor? That Depends – he questions Julian Barnes’ portrayal of the life of famous Russian composer in his novel The Noise of Time.
In Barnes story, Shostakovich reluctantly agreed to compose for the Russian despots, and managed rebellious chords to preserve his own sound and work his way to worldwide fame. Taruskin notes the “dubious sources” used by Barnes to create a more positive persona for the composer – a “passive pawn” of politics, and argues Shostakovich should be given credit for a better sense of politics and more intelligence in handling his Russian overseers.
When reading The Noise of Time, I was forced to find more about the life of the famous composer, to compare notes with Barnes’ story. For the first time, I listened to his famous operas – “The Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.” Barnes had opened a new window for me. As for the fictionalization of Shastokovich’s life, Barnes produced a testament from his own perception, possibly more positive than real. But this is fiction, after all.
Sometimes it’s hard to remember how author’s have the ability to change and reframe history in their fiction. Once, at a book club meeting, a member insisted on Frank Lloyd Wright’s accurate conversation with his mistress in Loving Frank, and it took some a debate to decide the author Nancy Horan had really not been under the bed, but had created a fictionalized version of her own. The power of the novel to convince the reader is a testament to the author; its factual content can be disregarded or researched – the story still holds.
But the danger is, of course, believing everything you read. There was a time, when the printing press was first invented, when the written word was gospel. We have come a long way with critical debates of content, and today the political word is more often questioned than believed. If The Noise of Time offers a simplistic view of Shostakovich – a Western rationization and a hopeful wish of his leaning away from the terrors of his time, it only confirms what readers want to believe – a view maybe Barnes was shrewd in capitalizing on.
Have you read it?
Review of the book: The Noise of Time