“Art Made Tongue-Tied by Authority”: Art, Power, and Ideology in Julian Barnes's The Noise of Time

“Art Made Tongue-Tied by Authority”: Art, Power, and Ideology in Julian Barnes's The Noise of Time

Maria Antonietta Struzziero (Independent Researcher, Italy)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-9444-4.ch002

Abstract

This chapter intends to analyze Julian Barnes's The Noise of Time (2016), the fictional biography of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich and his three traumatic “conversations with power.” Barnes's narrative explores themes that are not only central to the composer's biography but of more general concern, the function of ideology and politics in culture and social life: the role of censorship in a ruthless regime and its traumatic effects on the psyche of an artist whose conscience must confront the insupportable demands of totalitarianism. The analysis of the novel aims first to investigate how the dominant political apparatuses of Stalinist power and their repressive ideological discourses affected the composer's personal and artistic life; second, to discuss the complex portrait of Shostakovich that comes to life in Barnes's representation. References will also be made to Barnes's two main sources: Elizabeth Wilson's Shostakovich: A Life Remembered (1994) and Solomon Volkov's Testimony: The Memoirs of Shostakovich (1979).
Chapter Preview
Top

Introduction

I am alone; all round me drowns in falsehood:

Life is not a walk across a field.

Boris Pasternak, Hamlet

Julian Barnes’s The Noise of Time (2016) is the fictional biography of the celebrated Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, his confrontation with the apparatus of Stalinism, and the humiliating compromises he had to endure under the paranoid carnivalesque of Stalin’s Russia. Barnes’s narrative deftly explores some themes that are not only central to the composer’s biography but of more general concern, because they strike a chord in almost any age, and are still very topical: the function of ideology and politics in culture and social life; the operation of power upon art; the role of censorship in a ruthless regime and its traumatic effects on the individual psyche of an artist whose conscience must confront the insupportable demands and pressures of totalitarianism.

The in-depth analysis of the novel aims first, to investigate how the dominant political apparatuses of Power1 and its repressive ideological discourses, implemented by Stalin’s regime of terror, affected the composer’s personal and artistic life. Second, to discuss the complex portrait of Shostakovich that comes to life in Barnes’s representation, in the light of the artist’s often contentious choices, assessed against the distressing experiences and circumstances he had to bear, the prolonged perception of being entrapped and threatened, fearing death at any moment. His portrait will be studied in constant ‘dialogue’ with the texts that, in the Author’s note, Barnes acknowledges as his “two main sources” (p.184):2 Elizabeth Wilson’s Shostakovich: A Life Remembered (1994) and Solomon Volkov’s Testimony: The Memoirs of Shostakovich (1979). This latter, however, Barnes adds in the same Author’s note, has been highly questioned by many scholars and musicologists as to its authenticity, originating the so-called ‘Shostakovich Wars’. So, in the references made to it in this chapter, Volkov’s observations will be tested against the documents included in Wilson’s book.

The discussion and analysis of the novel will draw from two main theoretical areas. On the one hand, trauma studies that will contribute to examine the psychological conditions of the composer who lived “a painfully bifurcated life … under monolithic tyranny” (Mellers, 1994), subjected to the conflicting demands of a tyrannical, voracious Power and those of his moral self; who experienced repeated stressful, traumatic events, as well as physical threat and deprivation, all the time trying to protect his family and continue to compose his beloved music.

On the other hand, and more extensively, because of the ubiquitous troubling presence of Power in Shostakovich’s life, the study of the novel will rely on Michel Foucault’s hugely influential views on discourse and power, and their imbrication, with the former being an instrument of the latter. Discourse, Foucault affirms, is a set of sanctioned statements which have some institutionalised force, and this means that they have a profound influence on the way that individuals act and think. Entry into discourse is seen as inextricably linked to questions of authority and legitimacy. So, in these conditions, certain forms of signification are excluded, and certain signifiers are ‘fixed’ in a commanding position, from which ideologies can exert their full force.

In order to investigate the novel’s central themes and the mechanisms implemented by Stalin’s political apparatuses, because of its relevance to the discussion of this aspect in the novel, specific reference is made to the hypothesis formulated by Foucault in ‘The Order of Discourse’ (1970), that “in every society the production of discourse is at once controlled, selected, organized and redistributed by a certain number of procedures whose role is to ward off its powers and dangers, and gain mastery over chance events” (p. 52).

Complete Chapter List

Search this Book:
Reset