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Teffi first came to my attention a year ago, through Pushkin Press’s beautiful translations of her short stories. Teffi: it’s a warm-sounding pseudonym, which, from her thirties, she preferred to her birth name, Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya. She interests me for several reasons. Born in St Petersburg in 1872 and dying in Paris eighty years later, her life straddled a fascinating period in Russia’s history, and through her body of work she paints an unsettling portrait of her time. She was an unforgiving witness, describing her surroundings with biting detail – even the slippery Rasputin couldn’t evade her satire (“Rasputin was really only semi-literate,” we learn in Anne Marie Jackson’s translation of ‘Rasputin’. “Writing even a few words was hard for him.”)
I mention Teffi here, in a piece ostensibly discussing Julian Barnes’s latest novel, The Noise of Time, for their overlaps in subject matter. Teffi, considering the aftermath of the Russian Revolution from Paris as an émigré, and Barnes, fictionalising several episodes of the life of Dmitri Shostakovich, share many themes: the most striking being their mutual interest in the disparity between what is said and what is meant. This distinction is essential to our understanding of the ideological rifts which occurred in Soviet Russia.
“Letters began to appear from the Soviet Union,” begins Robert Chandler’s translation of Teffi’s short story ‘Subtly Worded’. “More and more often. Strange letters.” These letters are filled with cryptic messages. The Vankov family, one letter tells us, have “died from appetite”, while Misha Petrov is said to have suffered in a “careless incident with a firearm he happened to be standing in front of. Everyone feels awfully delighted.” Teffi asks Ivan Andreyevich what he thinks the letters can mean. “I’m scared to think,” he responds. “I don’t want to know.” We soon discover that the creators of the letters, hoping to fool the censors, have inverted their epistles, sending to the émigrés the opposite of the news they hope to convey. So, appetite becomes a verbal substitute for starvation. Delight takes the place of sorrow.
This story of encodedness is a neat introduction to the life and work of Shostakovich – or Barnes’s conception of him, at least. In Barnes’s narrative, which builds on a bedrock of true events from the composer’s life, Shostakovich’s speech and political actions lack sincerity. He does what he is told, whether that is denouncing Stravinsky – who he long admired – at the 1949 Cultural and Scientific Congress for World Peace in New York, or joining the Communist Party in 1960.
In a particularly telling passage in The Noise of Time we learn that all Shostakovich’s life “he had relied on irony”. Irony, for the composer, becomes “a defence of the self and the soul”. “You write in a letter that someone is ‘a marvellous person’ and the recipient knows to conclude the opposite. Irony allows you to parrot the jargon of Power, to read out meaningless speeches written in your name…” This all has the tang of Teffi to it, but there is a difference between them: for Shostakovich dealt in music, and irony, as Barnes observes, “had its limits”. Non-verbal irony is much more difficult to convey; we learn that Shostakovich “had inserted into his first cello concerto a reference to ‘Sukliko’, Stalin’s favourite song, but Rostropovich had played straight over it without noticing it”.
Of course, the idea of irony is invaluable to the biographer. “When truth-speaking became impossible,” Barnes writes elsewhere, “it had to be disguised… And so, truth’s disguise was irony. Because the tyrant’s ear is rarely tuned to hear it”. Barnes goes on to describe a letter Shostakovich wrote to Stalin the day after he agreed to attend the Congress for World Peace in New York. The note sits uncomfortably with our understanding of Shostakovich as a private power-hater. He asks that Stalin accept his “heartfelt gratitude for the conversation that took place yesterday… I cannot but be proud of the confidence that has been placed in me”. The implication, Barnes leads us to conclude, is that the words are not intended sincerely. There is a sheen of irony here, imperceptible to the eye of “the Great Leader and Helmsman”. The doubleness in this letter fits with Barnes’s portrait of the composer – but he doesn’t pretend that this is the only way to read this rather disquieting document. The letter, he writes, “would disappear into some file in some archive. It might stay there for decades, perhaps generations, perhaps 200,000,000,000 years; and then someone might read it, and wonder what exactly – if anything – he had meant by it”.
The “someone” in this instance is Julian Barnes. This is the most explicit reference to his creative role in this fictionalised biography, but his presence manifests itself in other ways. Admirers of the spare Barnesian sentence will find much to enjoy in The Noise of Time. The usual rhythms are here – arresting at first, but a little wearing after a while. Motifs abound. From the number 200,000,000,000 (of strange significance to Shostakovich; he once wrote to a friend explaining that “Heaven on Earth will come – in 200,000,000,000 years”), to “the noise of time”, a synesthetic idea, borrowed from the essayist Osip Mandelstam – another victim of Stalin’s regime. While Barnes’s Dmitri is vivid, and the arc of his demise well-documented, the secondary characters – his family, his friends, even Stalin himself – are frustratingly flat, nothing more than “a trait here and a trait there”, to employ Barnes’s own description of his minor characters in his Paris Review interview in 2000.
For this reason, the narrative occasionally feels as though it is in thrall to Barnes’s prose. We inherit the composer’s curious numbness to his fate, and, as a result, the novel’s emotional impact comes not from the events of Shostakovich’s life – despite being events of great sadness and sacrifice – but from the strength of Barnes’s sentences. This is where Barnes parts ways with the likes of Teffi, who revelled in the power of the carefully-formed plot. And this is, perhaps, where many readers part ways with Barnes. But those in pursuit of a thoroughly researched, if impressionistic, portrait of one of the twentieth century’s greatest composers will not be disappointed.
The Noise of Time out now in hardback and published by Jonathan Cape (£14.99).