Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Julian Barnes tells us, once very reluctantly accepted an invitation, writing, “If we’re going, then let’s go, as the parrot said to the cat, which was dragging it downstairs by the tail.” Soviet Russia, it has been said, was an oxymoron. Soviet propaganda promoted optimism, the pleasures of labor, the joy of shared sacrifice. But Russians are naturally more at home with the comfortable familiarity of pessimism, of rubbing shoulders with unsettling premonitions.

Each of the three parts of Barnes’ new historical novel, “The Noise of Time,” opens with the sentence, “All he knew was that this was the worst time.” Barnes’ subject here is the Soviet Union’s most honored composer, Dmitri Shostakovich, and the efforts of the party to control and co-opt him. In Barnes’ adept hands, the work is a tense and elegant study of terror, shame and cowardice, of a celebrated artist capitulating to power, yet on his own terms. To survive as a musician, the composer denounced other (exiled) musicians, read speeches prepared for him, wrote scores for propaganda films, and even joined the party in the 1960s (“worst time” No. 3).

In spite of the acclaim the composer found, he was an unlikely figurehead for proletarian values. Born to a liberal St. Petersburg family, he was devoted to his family and his music and little else. The party wanted music that workers could sing along to — “melodic, patriotic and social-realist.” Shostakovich’s works were experimental, pessimistic and ironic — at odds with the message the smiling posters displayed. Much of the novel’s tension draws from the party’s efforts to school him, not just in political orthodoxy but in principles of musical composition as well.

“On the Landing (worst time No. 1, set in 1936)” finds Shostakovich “standing by the lift for three hours. He was on his fifth cigarette, and his mind was skittering.” It is the middle of the night. A nervous pastiche of images come to him: childhood, his wife and daughter, his cigarettes, his music, his dead friends. And, obsessively, the disgrace of having Stalin and his entourage walk out on the opening of his only opera. We only gradually become aware that the composer stands awaiting his arrest at the hands of the NKVD. When the security agents emerge from the elevator, they will find him standing and ready, and will spare (he hopes) his sleeping family.

In the novel, Shostakovich ironically reflects that “the line of cowardice in his life was the one thing that ran straight and true.” His own survival tactics were those of a meek but stubborn man: indifference, avoidance and the quiet but staunch belief in the universal appeal of his music. In “The Noise of Time,” Barnes interweaves the painful and the sublime to achieve an epic orchestral effect — Shostakovich shedding his sense of purity and honor over the course of four decades to preserve his art.

 Tom Zelman teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.

The Noise of Time
By: Julian Barnes
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 201 pages, $25.95