It is an unusual Jerusalem winter, although there is no nativity scene. It is 1945. It is about Felix, an orphan crossing over from childhood to adulthood. It is about a time of unsettling calm at the end of one war and the brewing of another conflict. It is about a place between two upheavals, and read by this reader just as the year is ending and another is about to begin.
…and maybe the story still matters to us because it is all about the state of in-betweenness, a state that we constantly find ourselves in; and because life itself is an entire in-betweenness. After all, “I suppose it means that life is a sort of school for love,” ponders Mrs. Ellis, and maybe the true test of our lives is in how we navigate through the uncertainty of this in-betweenness and treat others in their own in-betweenness.
How do reading friends try to lift your spirits? One brought me to Solidaridad, the legendary bookshop founded by the late National Artist for Literature, F. Sionil Jose, and forbade me to exit the shop empty-handed.
“It’s on me,” they’ll say, and treat books like a drink in which you’ll drown your pains.
Thousands to choose from, and yet I clung to this one as soon as I saw it. I was unaware that 2011 Man Booker Prize-winning author, Julian Barnes, wrote a novel about Shostakovich! For an idea of how fond I am of Shostakovich’s music: I performed his Piano Concerto No. 2 on my first solo recital and named a pet fish “Shosta” after him — never mind that this pet fish leapt outside of the fishbowl to his doom and died a very dramatic Russian death.
But I digress… needless to say, I took The Noise of Time home with me and finished reading it on the day the 2022 Man Booker Prize winner is expected to be announced.
It is surprisingly an apt read for a time when many Russian musicians and artists are being cancelled worldwide for not publicly denouncing Putin and the war against Ukraine.
This book suggests that it is not always as easy as it seems to make a public stand.
Shostakovich, who enjoyed international success after his first symphony, dealt with a blow when his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (a title familiar to NYRB editions enthusiasts) was condemned by the Soviet government in 1948, endangering his life, family, and career. Although the aforementioned work was a success after its premiere in 1934, Barnes highlights the capriciousness of the Soviet state: “What the party had said yesterday was often in direct contradiction of what the party was saying today.” As if under similar laws of energy, Soviet power evolved and mutated from one form to another.
How Shostakovich had never joined the Party initially, but had allowed himself to be seen as supportive of the Party, and how his subsequent decisions played out, appear to be a question between cowardice or courage. But wasn’t this too much to ask from a man who simply wanted to compose music?
What becomes of art when it is suppressed or governed under tyranny — “art made tongue-tied by authority”?
This book has some beautiful answers:
“Art belongs to everybody and nobody. Art belongs to all time and no time. Art belongs to those who create it and those who savor it. Art no more belongs to the People and the Party than it once belonged to the aristocracy and the patron. Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time.”
“Because music, in the end, belonged to music. That was all you could say or wish for.”
But if those lines still cannot convince one of the purity and the incorruptibility of great art, the second movement of Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 just might.