Thursday, February 04, 2016

Julian Barnes and The Noise of Time, or The Wrong Trousers

The first decade of the Soviet Union was an extraordinarily creative period, during which the iconoclasm of the avant garde seemed in perfect harmony with the spirit of the Revolution (never mind the fact that Fred at the 37th Tractor Combine just wanted a nice painting of a dacha with roses around the door. Not some geometric nonsense). 

In music, a 19-year-old called Dmitri Shostakovich made a big impression with a new symphony. It was a graduation piece and while Shostakovich's teacher, Glazunov, approved of the nods to Rimsky Korsakov and Tchaikovsky, he was appalled by the modernism that had crept into his studious young pupil's music.What a racket!

But this was only the beginning. In his next symphony, Shostakovich completely threw off the shackles of the past and filled his score with dense, polytonal passages, factory sirens and a rousing choral finale praising the October Revolution. This was Soviet art; part of a milieu that included Eisenstein, Malevich and Mayakovsky.

But then Stalin happened and everything changed. Now the avant garde were accused of being bourgeois and anti-Soviet. What's the point of a painting if the proletariat can't understand what it means? What use is an opera if it can't be whistled by a factory worker? This decadent, degenerate nonsense had to stop.

Julian Barnes's new novel, The Noise of Time, was published on the 80th anniversary of a notorious newspaper article in Pravda called 'Muddle Instead of Music', written after Stalin had attended a performance of Shostakovich's opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. The production was a huge success with the public, but that didn't cut any ice with the Great Leader, who was appalled by what he saw. 

To Stalin and his cronies, both the music and narrative were a disgrace to Soviet art. Where were the folk-inspired melodies extolling the virtues of the latest five-year plan? Why were the authorities portrayed as figures of fun?

'Muddle Instead of Music' named and shamed Shostakovich, accusing him of writing music that was "coarse, primitive and vulgar". The composer was, it claimed, guilty of writing an anti-Soviet opera that tickled "the tastes of the bourgeois." The article reached the following conclusion:

"The power of good music to infect the masses has been sacrificed to a petty-bourgeois, 'formalist' attempt to create originality through cheap clowning. It is a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly."

In a climate in which people were being routinely arrested and executed for the most spurious reasons, the final sentence sounded like a death warrant. Shostakovich, already a nervous man, was utterly terrified.

Shostakovich, looking slightly worried

The Noise of Time takes this incident as its starting point and goes on to examine Shostakovich's troubled relationship with the Soviet authorities and his attempts to appease his masters without completely compromising his integrity as an artist.

As a fan of Shostakovich, I didn't like the idea of Julian Barnes appropriating the facts of the composer's life for a work of fiction. It can seem like a vain conceit to speak on behalf of the dead. It is also an unnecessary one, when they have left behind a body of work that speaks for itself. Still, better Barnesy than Amis.

And to a large extent, Barnes has pulled it off, giving us a narrative that is not only rigorously faithful to the facts, but also to the man himself. If you want to have a sense of what it is like to be an artist in a totalitarian regime, you could do a lot worse than read The Noise of Time.

After the 'Muddle' episode, Shostakovich was now an enemy of of the people and had a packed suitcase ready for the moment the secret police arrived, but the arrest never happened and gradually, the composer realised that he had an opportunity to appease his persecutors. Operas were out - anything involving the written word was a bad idea - so he worked on a new symphony. The result, branded by one journalist "A Soviet artist's reply to just criticism", was a success with both the public and the authorities.

Julian Barnes makes a lot of the 5th Symphony's deliberately banal, crowd-pleasing ending, but fails to mention the tragic slow movement, which had much of the audience in floods of tears because they felt that the music articulated something that nobody dared to utter. This is important, because it shows that Shostakovich's response was more enigmatic and nuanced than the text implies.

In addition to the musical omissions, I also felt that The Noise of Time read more like an essay than a novel and its brevity sometimes made it feel like a Cliff Notes guide to Stalinism. But quibbles aside, I liked the book far more than I thought I would. It succeeds brilliantly at conveying the absurdity and obscenity of Stalinism, but also shows how the thaw under Khrushchev offered a different kind of existential threat.

The narrative was also punctuated with many memorable anecdotes, the most telling of which was the fact that Stalin's guards always kept a spare pair of trousers handy, as so many terrified film directors and artists soiled themselves in the presence of the Man of Steel. Shostakovich witnessed one of these incidents at a film premier, when Stalin's gruff response to a message he'd been handed was misconstrued by the director. Convinced that he was destined for the gulag or the firing squad, the poor man disgraced himself before passing out.

I finished the book full of admiration for Julian Barnes, but I still believe that the best account of the Stalinist period is probably the first movement of Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No.1. Written in 1948 and kept in a drawer until two years after Stalin's death, this dark, brooding music is one of the bleakest things I have ever heard, but it is utterly brilliant:

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Gnomes and Dwarves

It has been an uneventful week. My mother was completely nonplussed by David Bowie's death, complaining that her Daily Mail had too many articles about him:

"There were 13 pages. 13! I can't think of anything he's done."

I mentioned The Laughing Gnome, which my mother remembered from Junior Choice, but the rest of Bowie's oeuvre has passed her by. In fairness, she was in her early 40s when David Bowie began to make a name for himself. What little interest in popular music my mother had, ended with Nina and Frederik.

(After retiring at the peak of his career, Frederik went on to briefly own Burke's peerage, before moving to the Philippines, where his yacht was used to transport cannabis. He died from gunshot wounds in 1994).

I may laugh at my mother's ignorance of popular culture, but the truth is that my parents were far more au fait with the charts than I am, as the day would always begin with Radio Two (I have a distinct memory of my father shaving over the kitchen sink, listening to Tony Orlando and Dawn singing Knock Three Times).

I can't remember the last time I knew what Number One was.

A few days later, Alan Rickman died. My mother had never heard of him, while another person thought he was the pop musician who appeared on Grumpy Old Men.

I despair.

After a rather odd Christmas, life has returned to normal. My days are shaped around taking and collecting my sons to their respective schools and while the driving can be a little tedious, at least it takes me through some beautiful countryside. I enjoy seeing how much the same landscape can change according to the weather and time of day.

To make the journey pass more quickly, my younger son and I have started listening to audio plays. We tried a very enjoyable 1950s NBC radio series called X Minus One (thank you to Val for the link) and are now working our way through the BBC adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. I'd forgotten how annoying Gimli the Dwarf was, always droning on about his dull ancestors.

In between driving, posting book orders and being a housewife, I occasionally stop to take a snap of anything that catches my eye. Here are some things from the last few weeks:

I will soon have more photos of Lewes than Google Earth.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Chaos Theory

This evening, my wife returned from her new publishing job and gave me a brief overview of the highlights of her working day. I half listened, until she mentioned that 200 envelopes had been returned to her workplace by the Post Office:

"They contained catalogues that we'd posted to bookshops. They were sent back because none of those shops exist any more."

I'd become used to the slow process of attrition that has seen the number of British bookshops halve in seven years, but the image of the 200 returned catalogues really hit home. I wondered what the booksellers who'd worked in those shops were doing now.

For their sake, I hope that none of them ended up in the bookshop I visited today: a sorry affair that has crossed the line from eccentricity to neglect, with piles of unsorted stock, shelves that appear on the verge of collapse and an all-pervading smell of body odour and stale tobacco.

In one section, an elderly man with a respiratory problem rummaged through a pile of Pan paperbacks, pausing only to glare at me and mark his territory with extended elbows. In another, a sparrow-faced woman in her 60s looked nervously at me, as if I was about to perform an indecent act. I tried moving to a different floor, but heard a man chanting "Mmm...umm...hmph...mee..." and made a swift exit.

This was bookishness in the worst sense of the word: dysfunctional, misanthropic and obsessive. I wondered what the staff thought of their clientele, before I realised that some of the customers were the booksellers. But experience has taught me that when I find myself repulsed by something, it is often a smokescreen for something I see in myself. Perhaps I still might become the wheezy old man who smells of stale cake and uses his elbows to deter others.

It seems perverse that this bookshop has survived while far better ones have gone to the wall, but I suspect that its overheads are fairly low and that the building is owned rather than leased. The stock itself is reasonably good and it seems a pity that so much of it is inaccessible. I saw a lot of dead stock obscuring the more sellable titles.

I can feel a quest coming on. If anyone can recommend a decent secondhand bookshop in the south of England (or beyond, as I want to travel around the UK this year), with a good selection of paperback novels, I'd really appreciate it.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Mother Dear

My mother will be joining us for Christmas Day, so I'm steeling myself for an afternoon of anecdotes about the illnesses of people I barely know:
  • Maureen won't be able to go to Janet and Ken's for Christmas. She's having a tube fitted.
  • Doris didn't send a card this year. I wonder if the ulcer's come back. Her cat died last year.
  • Irene wants to come for tea, but she can't swallow any more. I'll make a milk jelly.
  • He was about your age and he just dropped dead. Nobody expected it. He was coloured.
  • Vera was going to go back to Florida to die, but they don't have a Tesco there.
  • I've told Jean that I'm diabetic. She says that I can have Rich Tea biscuits.  
  • That woman in the hairdresser who has a funny friendship with Lynn - she's been very ill. 
  • Norman has a pacemaker, but it's not working. He collapsed during Strictly.
If it's a good day, I'll be able to steer my mother away from her morbid preoccupation with illness and tell me about what life was like in the 1930s and 40s. They are far more entertaining than the latest progress report about Vera's leg.

I thought I'd heard all of my mother's anecdotes about the War, but the other day she told me a new one.

It was 1940 and my mother was reaching the end of a piano lesson. Her teacher had just rapped her on the knuckles for making a mistake when suddenly, an air raid siren sounded.

"You need to leave now. I have another girl waiting in the hall."

"But my mum says I have to stay where I am when a raid's on."

"No! You must go home now. Come along."

As the front door of the piano teacher's house slammed shut, the bombs started to fall and my mother ran through the streets, weeping. Behind her, a terraced house took a direct hit, creating a sudden gap in the neat, Victorian row. My mother ran on, wondering if she would ever reach home. She never had another piano lesson after that incident.

I often ask my mother to repeat the same stories about her childhood, so that I can remember them well enough to pass them on. They are nearly always interesting, even when the subject matter is mundane, simply because they are eye witness accounts of a period that is long gone. I also enjoy the obsolete slang and the way that most of my mother's sentences begin with "Any rate..."

One of the most magical things I saw recently was a clip posted by a Facebook friend, featuring two Devonshire women of my mother's age:

This generation, made up of people whose formative years were in a world without television, won't be around for much longer. Their memories of horse-drawn carts, Sunday best and mangles will disappear into the ether unless we talk to them now. Even if I am losing the will to live tomorrow, assailed by gloomy tales of gammy legs and failing pacemakers, I will remember to be grateful that my mother is still here. I'll miss her when she's gone.

P.S. - Christmas Day was a success. The issue of Vera's leg was never raised and the only revelation from my mother concerned the entertainer, Anita Harris (link provided for those who have never heard of her):

"My brother was obsessed with Anita Harris. If she ever appeared on the telly, he'd be in a bad mood for the rest of the day."