Irony: Truth’s Disguise

By Brian FinneyJune 20, 2016

Irony: Truth’s Disguise

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

JULIAN BARNES SAYS that he has been a fan of Dmitri Shostakovich for 50 years. You can find anecdotes about the Russian composer scattered throughout Barnes’s published work, starting with the epigraph to Talking It Over (1991) — “He lies like an eye-witness,” a quote that typifies the irony that Shostakovich employed as a defensive tool throughout his life. More Shostakovich references can be found in Letters from London (1995), The Sense of an Ending (2011), and Nothing to Be Frightened Of (2008).

The Noise of Time is written as an interior monologue (of sorts) in which Shostakovich is captured at three different moments of his life reflecting on the compromises that the Soviet Union compelled him to make to continue working. Stalin is general secretary during the first two episodes and Khrushchev during the last.

The first section (1936) finds the composer waiting for the authorities to arrive and arrest him. Stalin has attended, and apparently disliked, his new opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, an event followed by a Pravda denouncement (under the headline “Muddle Instead of Music”). Once arrested, he only escapes because his interrogator, with whom he had what Barnes calls his “First Conversation with Power,” is himself swallowed up in a Stalinist purge.

The composer’s “Second Conversation with Power” is recollected from the plane taking him back to Russia after a trip to the States in 1948. He recalls how Stalin had phoned him and insisted that he should represent the USSR at the Cultural and Scientific Congress for World Peace in New York. There he is obliged to read a paper denouncing both his own work and that of Stravinsky, the contemporary composer he most admires.

Shostakovich recalls his “Third and Final Conversation with Power,” which occurred in 1960, while being driven in his chauffeured car in 1972, three years before his death. Under Khrushchev he is no longer in fear of his life. Yet, because the regime wants to make him chairman of the Russian Federation Union of Composers, he is finally forced to join the Communist Party. This act and the perks that follow, such as a chauffeured car, only further stoke his shame and self-contempt. He spends this period writing bad music for bad films while expressing his private anguish in his last great chamber works.


The novel (Barnes insists it is not a biography) concentrates on the 1930s to the early 1970s, pitting its hero’s enforced public persona against his private, largely artistic aspirations. It takes the form of an extended meditation on the moral sacrifices of an artist living under a totalitarian state.

This is Barnes’s first novel since winning the Man Booker Prize for The Sense of an Ending five years ago. He has overcome the challenge of living up to his previous novel by doing what he has always done — producing something totally different. A longtime admirer of Gustave Flaubert, Barnes described him to an interviewer in 1987 as “a genius who never wrote the same book twice.” “In order to write,” Barnes has said, “you have to convince yourself that it’s a new departure not only for you but for the entire history of the novel.” The books he has published live up to this belief. They range from highly readable postmodern novels such as his best-known book, Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), to A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters (1989), which starts with a woodworm’s account of the Flood and ends in a boring heaven offering shopping, golf, and sex. More recently there’s been England, England (1998) — a satire of Great Britain’s reduced stature as a tourist destination — and Arthur & George (2005) — a fictionalized account of a real-life case entailing racial prejudice taken up by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Barnes has recently called himself “a trans-genre writer.” This, his 12th novel, is a work of bio-fiction. The nearest he has come previously to this genre is in Arthur and George and The Porcupine (1992), which dramatizes the end of communism by focusing on the trial of a fictional version of Bulgaria’s last dictator, Todor Zhivkov. Arthur & George is also based on historical events and subordinates historical fact to fictive and imaginative needs. In both books there is little attempt to provide historical detail, a feature they share with The Noise of Time.

The current novel covers three separate years in Shostakovich’s life — 1936, 1948, and 1960 — with flashbacks to earlier and intermediary moments in his life. Orlando Figes, writing in The New York Review of Books, says that when Barnes asks us to believe that he is taking us inside Shostakovich’s head, “As a novel-reader I am willing to believe him; as a historian I am not.” This confusion between supposed historical fact and fictional invention has long intrigued Barnes, who once said that the purpose of fiction is “to tell beautiful, exact, and well-constructed lies which enclose hard and shimmering truths.”


In an author’s note Barnes writes, “Shostakovich was a multiple narrator of his own life.” In the novel Barnes recounts three different versions of a story Shostakovich told about greeting Lenin in 1917 at the Finland Station, the third of which is that he had been nowhere near the station that day. Barnes concludes, “All this is highly frustrating to any biographer, but most welcome to any novelist.”

One of the two principal historical sources Barnes used is itself highly unreliable: Solomon Volkov’s Testimony (1979), the supposed memoirs of Shostakovich. Volkov claimed to have taken down Shostakovich’s dictated memories over the years 1971–1974, but Volkov’s notes, which he said were signed on each occasion by Shostakovich, he then declared were lost. Barnes states that he deliberately chose to treat Testimony as he would a “private diary […] with the same prejudices and forgettings.” In other words he welcomes factual uncertainties because they liberate him as a novelist to reconstruct the central concern in this book, which is the moral price Shostakovich pays to continue composing music.

To add to the indeterminacy of his narrative Barnes employs Flaubert’s style of free indirect discourse, that is, third-person narration that slips in and out of various characters’ consciousnesses. Having begun a draft of the novel using the first person, Barnes restarted in the third person, finding that its flexibility allowed him to go where he needed to. “You can move the third person right into somebody’s mind and then pull back,” he has said.

Barnes deploys this mode with great skill. Describing the moment when Shostakovich’s plane makes an unplanned stop in Stockholm, he writes, “Swedish musicians were delighted by the unscheduled descent of their distinguished colleague. Though when he was invited to name his favourite Swedish composers, he felt like a boy in short trousers.” The “he felt” invites the reader to ask whether the previous seemingly third-person sentence was not after all Shostakovich’s perception as well. According to Figes, the real problem of the novel is one of voice — trying to decide who is speaking — Shostakovich or Barnes. The answer is both. Barnes doesn’t want the reader to decide, because this is a work of fiction in which all the characters are given life and voice by the narrator who is himself a fiction.


Barnes tells us little about the content and effect of Shostakovich’s music. Instead he uses musical form and motifs to both shape the work and stand in for the music. Dividing the book between three time periods 12 years apart, all leap years, these three sections act like movements in a work of music, each with its own mood. As with Levels of Life (2013), all three are connected by a reiterated opening sentence, in this case: “All he knew was that this was the worst time.” But just as composers vary an initial theme, Barnes italicizes “this” for the second section and substitutes “worst time of all” at the start of the third section. This subtle shifting is reminiscent of changing musical motifs and emphasizes the way in which Shostakovich’s perception of his position proves a misperception of what state power can do to his integrity.

A Russian proverb acts as the book’s epigraph — “One to hear / One to remember / And one to drink,” a saying that is fleshed out in the prelude, in which two train passengers alight on the platform and offer a beggar a glass of vodka. Later, in the book’s coda, one of the passengers is identified as Shostakovich (the one who hears), and the other comes to resemble the narrator (the one who remembers). The chink made by all three glasses coming together becomes “a triad […] that rang clear of the noise of time, and would outlive everyone and everything.” A perfect note of music is what finally survives the history of the USSR and the life of Shostakovich.

Like many of Barnes’s novels this is a short book, more like a chamber piece than a work for full orchestra. In his third paragraph Barnes lists a set of images that he will repeat, with variation, throughout, much as a composer would with musical motifs:

Faces, names, memories. Cut peat weighing down his hand. Swedish water birds flickering above his head. Fields of sunflowers. The smell of carnation oil. The warm, sweet smell of Nita coming off the tennis court. Sweat oozing from a widow’s peak. Faces, names.

The swathes of peat, for instance, originate in the peat that lay beneath the summer house he remembers from childhood. Near the end of the novel, when Shostakovich is filled with “vain interrogations” that “wail in the head, factory sirens in F sharp,” he reverts to this image to give shape to his questions:

So: your talent lies beneath you like a swathe of peat. How much have you cut? How much remains uncut? Few artists cut only the best sections; or even, sometimes, recognise them as such.

Even the factory siren is a repetition from the opening section and derives from the composer’s Second Symphony, which calls for four blasts from a factory siren in F sharp. Other repeated images include Shostakovich’s favorite brand of cigarettes (Belomory), the leap years, and a series of Russian proverbs. Barnes not only writes melodically, he allows himself a fair number of direct musical analogies, such as this one from near the book’s end: “During his last years, he increasingly used the marking morendo in his string quartets: ‘dying away,’ ‘as if dying.’ It was how he marked his own life too.”


Barnes pits music, “the whisper of history,” against “the noise of time” — the book’s title refers back to Osip Mandelstam’s 1925 collection of prose work (also titled The Noise of Time). Born in 1891, Mandelstam was an essayist and poet who fell foul of Stalin after writing “Stalin Epigram,” a poem satirizing Stalin’s abuse of power. He was sent into internal exile, reprieved, and then rearrested five years later, at which point he died in a transit camp on his way to Siberia. “Only in Russia is poetry respected,” he declared; “it gets people killed.” Though Barnes honors Mandelstam’s bravery in his book’s title, he is clearly more interested in excavating the more compromised morality of an artist like Shostakovich. “As the noise of time recedes,” he explains, “it becomes easier to hear Shostakovich’s music more clearly.”

Born in 1946, Barnes has called himself a child of the Cold War. He has said that after the fall of communism he disliked the triumphalism of the West, which tended to sell short the complexities of life under a totalitarian system. In this novel he empathizes with an artist who chooses to put his family’s lives above his moral conscience or artistic integrity. In the second section of the book Shostakovich reflects on the hypocrisy of those living in the West who want him to stand up to Power (Barnes capitalizes Power throughout the novel):

Then there were those who understood a little better, who supported you, and yet at the same time were disappointed in you. Who did not grasp the one simple fact about the Soviet Union: that it was impossible to tell the truth here and live. Who imagined they knew how Power operated and wanted you to fight it as they believed they would do in your position. In other words, they wanted your blood.

Here, Barnes builds a bridge of clauses starting with “who” until he plummets downward in the chilling last sentence. As he comments just after, such moralizing Westerners are just like those exercising Power — “however much you gave, they wanted more.”

Barnes is as clear on his stance toward his protagonist. He believes that “[b]eing a hero was in some ways a stupid thing to do and also morally wrong because you thereby killed your family.” He also knows that “cowardice is generally more interesting to the writer than courage,” as he writes in an essay on Arthur Hugh Clough (collected in Through the Window). Near the end of his life, Barnes’s Shostakovich concludes that his choice has been not simply between integrity and corruption but included a third option — that of “integrity and corruption.” When he finally succumbs and joins the Communist Party, he realizes that “[b]efore, they had tested the extent of his courage; now, they tested the extent of his cowardice.”

Writing recently in The Guardian about his book, Barnes notes that “[m]y hero was a coward. Or rather, often considered himself a coward. Or rather, was placed in a position in which it was impossible not to be a coward.” The short piece ends, “There are more forms of heroism than the obvious ones.” The bigger the compromises that Shostakovich is compelled to make, the more Barnes seems to warm to him. And he reinforces his sympathy by recounting Shostakovich’s contempt for representative figures of the liberal West — like G. B. Shaw, who “hobnobbed with Stalin and saw nothing.” Shostakovich indicts a whole generation of notable figures in the free world who did likewise — André Malraux, Lion Feuchtwanger, Paul Robeson, Jean-Paul Sartre, Pablo Picasso, even Igor Stravinsky, of whom he asks, “Did he utter a single public word of protest while breathing the air of freedom?” Barnes still reveres Stravinsky the composer, he says, but he despises Stravinsky the thinker.


Irony pervades this novel at every level. It constitutes Shostakovich’s principal defense weapon. It defines his life and position in the Soviet Union. And Barnes deploys it throughout the novel as a predominant narrative device. Take, for instance this description of the protagonist’s thinking on the binary opposites of courage and cowardice:

Being a hero was much easier than being a coward. To be a hero, you only had to be brave for a moment […] to be a coward was to embark on a career that lasted a lifetime. […] Being a coward required pertinacity, persistence, a refusal to change — which made it, in a way, a kind of courage. He smiled to himself and lit another cigarette. The pleasures of irony had not yet deserted him.

Barnes chooses to make use of the Russian musicologist Volkov’s disputed assertion in Testimony that Shostakovich was a lifelong secret dissident. He hid this fact with his habitual use of irony; “truth’s disguise was irony,” Shostakovich reflects. “Because the tyrant’s ear is rarely tuned to hear it” (notice the musical figure of speech).

And indeed, Shostakovich employs irony in his most famous compositions. When his Fifth Symphony was premiered in 1937, the state musicologists and apparatchiks “missed the screeching irony of the final movement, that mockery of triumph. They heard only triumph itself.” To help communists understand it, they called the work “an optimistic tragedy.” A few pages later Shostakovich observes that to be Russian was to be pessimistic, but to be Soviet was to be optimistic, making the term Soviet Russia a contradiction in terms. Similarly what the regime wanted was “‘an optimistic Shostakovich.’ Another contradiction in terms.”

In Soviet Russia, irony is everywhere, starting with the way Stalin managed to invert Marx’s dictum in The 18th Brumaire that famous personages appear twice in history — “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” Barnes shows how under Stalin the reverse was true: “[A] vast catalogue of little farces adding up to an immense tragedy,” a tragedy that inevitably overtook Shostakovich.

Barnes also emphasizes the limits and perils of both Shostakovich’s and his own use of irony. Irony states the opposite of what it intends to mean. But what if no one spots it and the ironic statement is taken literally? Doesn’t the ironical interpretation then become nothing more than a consolation for the ironist? Certainly Shostakovich was in a unique position to plumb this conundrum — Barnes recounts how, when Shostakovich stops reading his public address in New York denouncing Stravinsky in an attempt to disown the speech written for him by officials, not only is the rest of his address completed by an apparatchik but also during question time he is forced by a CIA stooge in the audience to reaffirm that this is his own opinion.

Near the end of the novel Shostakovich comes to realize that irony too was a two-edged weapon: “You imagined you were issuing a beam of ultraviolet light, but what if it failed to register because it was off the spectrum known to everyone else?” There are also situations in which irony was inappropriate: “[Y]ou couldn’t join the Party ironically. You could join the Party honestly, or you could join it cynically: those were the only two possibilities.” Either way outsiders would see his membership as contemptible. At what point does irony corrupt the inner self? Or, as Barnes puts it, when does irony curdle into sarcasm?

Barnes is fond of quoting Flaubert’s dictum, “The desire to reach conclusions is a sign of human stupidity.” Ultimately, Barnes both casts doubt on and defends his and Shostakovich’s use of irony. For Shostakovich the final irony of his life is that the Soviet authorities “by allowing him to live […] had killed him.” At the same time, in the final paragraph Shostakovich hopes that “death would liberate his music: liberate it from his life.” Whether it has continues to be argued.


Brian Finney is a professor emeritus in English at California State University, Long Beach.

LARB Contributor

Brian Finney is a professor emeritus in English at California State University, Long Beach. He has published seven books, including a critical biography of Christopher Isherwood that won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for nonfiction. Terrorized: How the War on Terror Affected American Culture and Society, was published in 2011. His latest book published 2019 is Money Matters: A Novel.


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