Notes heard above The Noise of Time

The Noise of TimeI don’t read that much but every now and then I come across something that takes my breath away. Julian Barnes, through his book The Noise of Time, has me intrigued with the noise of time. This is a poetic book that is well crafted and beautifully composed. It tells us the time and the time is telling. It is a short book in which a lot of time is told in a short time. It is a time of terror.

I read this book for the first time at the end of Holy Week, through the three days known as the TriDuum, Maundy Thursday through till Holy Saturday – the short time it took to tell so much of time. I was attentive to the noises of that other time told through three days: the crushing noise of religious and political authority almost overpowering a more faithful and resilient strain.

There are three main characters in The Noise of Time. There’s the “author” who is the one who remembers. There’s Shostakovich, who is the one who hears. And there is the one less than human, Power deformed. Arguably there is a cast of three in the Triduum. There’s the one who remembers (the witnesses), the one who hears (on the cross) and the ones Power deformed (who know not what they do).

Running through my mind while I read this book were lines from a poem by Anna Lightart called The Second Music:

Now I understand that there are two melodies playing,
one below the other, one easier to hear, the other

lower, steady, perhaps more faithful for being less heard
yet always present.

The Noise of Time is a book full of threes – if you like, there are three hands: an hour hand, minute hand and second hand. The three chapters measure three movements: On the LandingOn the Plane and In the Car. 

There are three brands of cigarettes (Kazbeks, Belamors, Herzegovinas). There are three vodka glasses for three vodka drinkers (the perfect number for vodka drinking). There are three wives (Nina, Margarita and Irina). There are three ways to destroy your soul: “by what others did to you, by what others made you do to yourself, and by what you voluntarily chose to do to yourself”. (p.181)

There are three Conversations with Power and there are three leap years twelve years apart from each other (1936, 1948 and 1960). This is the time frame of a crushing history. It is a history which crushes the human spirit and twists arts and artists to the ends of empire, turning them into cowards – which threatened to be a life’s work (being a coward, just to survive).

“It was not easy being a coward. Being a hero was much easier than being a coward. To be a hero, you only had to be brave for a moment – when you took out the gun, threw the bomb, pressed the detonator, did away with the tyrant, and with yourself as well. To be a coward was to embark on a career that lasted a lifetime. You couldn’t ever relax. You had to anticipate the next occasion when you would have to make excuses for yourself, dither, cringe, reacquaint yourself with the taste of rubber boots and the state of your fallen, abject character. 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.” (p.171)

Dimitiri Shostakovich was one of the major composers of the twentieth century. I’m no musician but I do know that there are usually four movements to a symphony. That is music’s shape. In his threes, is Barnes describing the way in which totalitarianism deforms truth and beauty? There is the hint of a fourth movement in the opening and closing of the book in epigraph and coda. In these there are the three characters on stage (it’s a station platform). There’s one who remembers, there’s one who hears and there’s one who is a vulgar “half man” (reduced by the noise of time to being less than himself, a mere “technique of survival”. The one who remembered, remembers the vodka and remembers how the one who heard pricked up his ears as he heard the notes of the clinking vodka glasses.

This is what was remembered:

“They were in the middle of Russia, in the middle of a war, in the middle of all kinds of suffering within that war. There was a long station platform, on which the sun had just come up. There was a man, half a man really, wheeling himself along on a trolley, attached to it by a rope threaded through the top of his trousers. The two passengers had a bottle of vodka. They descended from the train. The beggar stopped singing his filthy song. Dimitri Dmitrievich held the bottle, he the glasses. Dimitri Dmitrievich poured vodka into each glass …

He was no barman, and the level of vodka in each glass was slightly different …

But Dimitri Dmitrievich was listening , and hearing as he always did. So when the three glasses with their different levels came together in a single chink, he had smiled, and put his head on one side so that the sunlight flashed briefly off his spectacles, and murmured, “A triad”.

And that was what the one who remembered had remembered. War, fear, poverty, typhus and filth, yet in the middle of it, above it and beneath it and through it all, Dimitri Dmitrievich had heard a perfect triad… a triad put together by three not very clean vodka glasses and their contents was a sound that rang clear of the noise of time, and would outlive everyone and everything. And perhaps, finally, this was all that mattered.” (p.196)

So the tragedy is told in The Noise of Time. There is a lot of time told in a short time. In one moment there is a note of beauty, a sound of music ringing above the noise of time, testimony to the human spirit, crushed, humiliated for so much of the time. There is the sounding of hope.

“Art belongs to everybody and nobody. Art belongs to all time and no time. Art belongs to those who create it and those who savour 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.” (p.97)

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