Book Review: “The Sound of Time: A Novel” by Julian Barnes (2016Jun03)

Friday, June 03, 2016                                               11:37 PM

Friday’s here—and just as I often don’t get fully awake before noon, I feel like I’m just getting warmed up whenever the end of the week rolls around. Old and in poor health is no way to suck the marrow from life. But I find I have company, or rather, competition.

That is to say that I’ve just finished reading Julian Barnes’ excellent historical novel, “The Noise of Time: A Novel”, touching on the life of Dmitri Shostakovich—a Russian composer of the Soviet era, and a favorite of mine since my early teens. I clearly remember mentioning the name to my mother one day, mispronouncing it, and being surprised that she corrected my pronunciation of his name—firstly because I realized he was famous enough for my mother to know his name, and secondly because I had been enamored of his music for months, while saying his name wrong (I had been thinking of him as Shos-TOCK-ovich!)

The Russians take pride in their deep sadness—as an American, I’ll never get that, but I get it, kind of. Masochism, irony, and melancholy are tools I have used myself in defense against a dysfunctional reality. But my life, and my troubles, are of an American smallness, in comparison to Barnes’ description of the living hell Shostakovich found himself in. He was a sensitive composer trapped in Stalin’s Russia, forced to publicly denounce his own works, and the works of his hero, Stravinsky—and other close friends and respected musicians; in danger for years from ideologues and politicians trying to ferret out disloyalty, even in thoughts and feelings, especially among artists—and even more especially in composers who had achieved global fame.

The book reminded me of the stories I heard about Soviet Russians living in terror of anonymous squads who came and took them in the night, often never to be seen again—and about the ideological tyranny that deposed aesthetics as the yardstick against which their art was ‘measured’—and sometimes condemned, along with the artist’s life.

Stalin’s rule, up to 1953, was so bloody that upon his death and the ascension of Khrushchev, it was said that ‘the Soviet had become vegetarian’. Although it may be more proper to say that the Soviet ceased to be cannibalistic, since Stalin’s machine had been devouring his own people. And Shostakovich was apparently a pretty nervous fellow—at the height of the pseudo-ideological criticisms of his music, he spent every night, for weeks, waiting at the elevator to be taken away by the KGB so that they wouldn’t have to burst into his apartment and drag him away in front of his wife and child. Barnes writes that Dmitri was just one of many people who observed this nighttime ritual during the terror known as Stalin’s Cult of Personality. Shostakovich’s life was one horror show after another—and it didn’t help that he was fairly well-off, compared to the average Soviet Russian—that just gave him more to lose.

As a boy, my favorite of his works was the last movement of his fifth symphony—but as I matured, I learned to prefer the rest of the symphony. According to Barnes’ story, Shostakovich was forced to add the final ‘triumphal’ movement to the symphony because the foregoing movements were so unremittingly ‘pessimistic’—and so he composed the final movement ironically. To my callow ears, and to the politburo, it sounded glorious (which saved Shostakovich’s life, and career)—but as my tastes matured I came to find the last movement somehow brash and ugly, and prefer the music that comes before—and now I know why, I suppose. Much is made in the book of the fact that when confronted with brainless tyranny, the only safe rebellion is in irony—but that irony over time gets lost in itself.

This book is no happy story, but it is something perhaps better—a fascinating story about strange and awful truths, and the horrendous lies that hide them, for a time at least. I have long since given up hope of finding in great artists’ lives any kind of reflection or explanation of the exaltation of their creations—but this book actually matches up the bleakness heard in most of his music with the day-to-day life of its composer. I read it in one sitting—something I’m only pushed into nowadays by irresistibly good writing and an enthralling story.

Barnes quotes Shakespeare at one point, mentioning that his Sonnet LXVI resonated with the artists of Soviet Russia, particularly the line, “And art made tongue-tied by authority”. I had to go look at the whole poem and I am struck, not for the first time, by how apropos Shakespeare always is, no matter how modern we think we have become:

  Tired with all these, for restful death I cry,

  As to behold desert a beggar born,

  And needy nothing trimm’d in jollity,

  And purest faith unhappily forsworn,

  And gilded honour shamefully misplac’d,

  And maiden virtue rudely strumpeted,

  And right perfection wrongfully disgrac’d,

  And strength by limping sway disabled

  And art made tongue-tied by authority,

  And folly—doctor-like—controlling skill,

  And simple truth miscall’d simplicity,

  And captive good attending captain ill:

     Tir’d with all these, from these would I be gone,

     Save that, to die, I leave my love alone.

(Shakespeare, William (2011-03-24). Shakespeare’s Sonnets (p. 132).  . Kindle Edition.)

I love that line about “And folly—doctor-like—controlling skill,”—geniuses so often appear to fools as people who need to be ‘cured’, or at the very least, ‘corrected’. The poem as a whole is fitting for a Shostakovich biographical novel—he too was often tempted by thoughts of suicide, harried by the ubiquitous surplus of malevolent injustice crowding every aspect of his life.

That’s my take on the book—-lacking a segue, here’s two improvs from earlier today–hope you like them:

 

 

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So Sad

It’s sad, really. My PC does my spellchecking, but it is limited in its vocabulary, which requires me to check the spellchecker, not to mention the almost worthless grammar-checker. I didn’t study copyediting so that I could argue with a ‘user-friendly’ (read ‘dumbed-down’) grammar-checker. I have enough writing problems without heckling from my word-processor. Just ‘add’ the words to my PC’s ‘dictionary’, you say? Screw that—there’s no good mechanism for ensuring continuity of one’s own dictionary—and if they think they can glean new data from user input, I have no agreement in hand from MS giving me fair value for both my inconvenience and my input. Either way, MS Word is a fixer-upper, off-the-shelf app—just like it was twenty years ago. Like McDonalds, it satisfies the un-involved writer—for a serious writer, it’s about fifty-fifty, half convenience, half pain in the ass.

Rich people are manipulating the US Government to bail out their collapsed pyramid scheme called ‘investment and banking’. It is clearer than ever that these two industries should be kept separated, but the rich people are clamoring for a return to pro forma ‘regulation’, wherein these investors’ only rule is ‘don’t be left holding the bag’. The rich people also want to be given a pass on paying taxes—why should the government tax the wealthy when this country is full of helpless, hardworking, regular folk who can’t push back when they don’t like the deal?

The rich make me sad. They are so unconnected to reality that they fear poverty more than they appreciate their wealth. They’re not having as much fun as they hoped to while sailing their yachts and flying their private jets—but there’s one thing they’re dead sure of—they never want to find themselves on the street, among the 99%.

There are copyright-caretaker businesses that slap a ‘copyright-infringed’ on any recording of my piano-playing YouTube-uploads that aren’t my own, original works. Not just on my Beatles-song covers, or my Beach Boys covers, which I would expect, I suppose—no, they slap a ‘copyright-infringed’ on my classical piano performances, as well. Now, if their charge were that I was mauling these composers’ works with my horrendous recitals, they’d have an argument. In fact, I mostly post those types of things to demonstrate to anyone out there, who thinks they haven’t the right to post their perhaps-sub-par classical performances, that it is indeed not nearly as bad as that-guy-that’s-on-YouTube-already—my own personal ‘musical-empowerment’ project to any young, timid music-lovers across the globe.


Can you imagine the chutzpah of these cretins who charge me with copyright-infringement for posting Bach’s, Chopin’s, or Tchaikovsky’s piano works? Unbelievable! Just because their legal-watchdog agreements have one, single recording artist’s recording of the same Bach piece; they slap an ‘Invalid’ on my upload. Not only does YouTube condone this process, but they warn users like myself that, if I challenge any copyright accusation and fail, that they will cancel my account and remove my ‘YouTube channel’ from the internet. In more personal terms, this would be the total erasure of 900+ musical video uploads that I have placed on YouTube in good faith that they will not erase all my four years of work without a good reason.

Indeed, I have challenged all of my classical-music related accusations—and the good news is—YouTube will see reason when I point out that even Tchaikovsky’s compositions are well over a century old, not to mention Bach’s works being three times as old as that. Still, I feel insulted that the anti-infringement policies of YouTube favor the grasping law-clerks and place the onus of proof upon the accused. It makes me sad.

There are lots of things in this world that make me incredibly sad. The ones that sting me the worst are the situations in which stupidity has won the day, and money becomes the only real law. I used to feel that way about Big Tobacco, until someone finally nailed their asses to the wall. But nowadays it’s just as bad in the ‘war on drugs’—there are over one million prison convicts guilty of no violence other than growing, using, or having intent to sell some controlled substance. If that prison population could make me say that it’s much harder to buy drugs these days, maybe then it would make sense.

But, as it is, the law simply infringes on our rights to do things others may disapprove of (even though they will not be affected in any harmful way) and it doesn’t change the fact that drugs are grown, distributed, bought, sold, and used without interruption, every day, since Nancy Reagan announced the ‘just say no’ program—and did so for centuries before the issue became a ‘crisis’. Saddest of all, she’s right—people who are afraid of drugs, or see them as a danger, should say ‘no’—but those of us who are a bit lax about drug use because it is no more dangerous than alcohol or driving with a cell phone, should be given the personal freedom to look after our own health and choices, to say ‘yes’ where no victim is present and no violence is done.

In a larger sense, the poorly-named Patriot Act is a parallel notion on a wider scale—just because some powerful people have decided we all need protection from terrorists more than we need to keep our civil liberties and our privacy—we shouldn’t be asked to endure pat-downs every time we use mass transportation (or walk down the sidewalk—a brand-new totalitarianism just introduced in NYC). We are asked to suspend the rule of law whenever law enforcement gets nervous, suspend habeas corpus for suspects of terrorism—not for proof of terrorism, just suspicion. If our civil rights and our liberty are so non-essential in the age of terrorism, why did we bother enshrining them in our constitution, anyhow? It’s sad, how the cowardly have a monopoly on policy.

It makes me sad because I grew up during the Cold War—people forget what that was like. Let me tell you what it was like. It was just like the Republican and Democratic Parties of today, but with an ocean between them, and their leaders in possession of nuclear weapons. We were constantly arguing that our USA was superior to their USSR in every way. We allowed religions of all kinds—this was proof of our liberty-loving ways compared to the enforced atheism of the Soviets. We put big-shots in jail—even Nixon was driven from the Presidency by a caste-less, classless, populist nation. In the USSR, anyone who bad-mouthed Stalin got sent to the prison camps—and millions who didn’t do anything along with them. Our educational system was the Mecca for all foreigners with prowess in the sciences—no other nation innovated and invented like the good ol’USA. The Soviets taught their children political theory instead of science—and got nervous about giving anyone a chance to spend time in the free world, for fear they might not come back.

But now the big-shots control the media here—they don’t get exposed like they used to, when the fourth estate was a truly separate part of the media. And now, we do what the dastardly Commies used to do—arrest people without charges, without legal representation, and torture them during interrogation. That was one of the most awful things we dissed the Soviets about—their lack of respect for the individual. They are gone, but their methods live on. It makes me sad to see all those once-external evils now cropping up in our own neighborhoods. The Cold War is over, but I don’t know for sure whether the American people won that fight, or if the super-wealthy defeated both sides without anyone noticing.