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Dmitri Shostakovich: Only really happy at his desk or the piano (Deutsche Fototek CC-BY-SA-3.0)


“He had never joined the Party — and never would,” says Julian Barnes on behalf of Dmitri Shostakovich, whose thoughts, some verified, some imagined, he has orchestrated into The Noise of Time. Billed as a novel but more accurately described as fictionalised biographical notes, the book covers three periods in the composer’s life, each described as “the worst time”. It starts in 1936 with Shostakovich thinking himself a dead man, expecting to be arrested after the devastating Pravda editorial “Muddle instead of Music”. Then the narrative jumps to 1948 and a campaign against formalism, which targeted, among others, Shostakovich. The next year he visited America as part of a Soviet delegation; a humiliating experience that required him to deliver a speech he hadn’t written, denouncing Stravinsky, the greatest 20th-century composer in his view. The last part begins in 1960, when Shostakovich gave in to the pressure to join the Communist Party. That was one of the two occasions when the composer’s son saw him cry; the other was when his wife died.

Shostakovich’s life is depicted as a chain of contradictions: some factual, others created by unreliable narrators, including the hero himself. Barnes mentions as his main sources Elisabeth Wilson’s Shostakovich: A Life Remembered and Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich as related to Solomon Volkov, a book whose veracity has been much debated since its publication in 1979. Using the material as a novelist should, Barnes improvises freely, portraying the protagonist as a man of such emotional intensity that the events of his life are overshadowed by his perception of them.

The fictional Shostakovich’s “Conversations with Power”, each more troubling than the previous one, are among the finest examples of Barnes’s prose. Here the use of the third person, with its estrangement, is more convincing than the first-person narrative of The Sense of an Ending, Barnes’s 2011 Booker winner, and almost as fine-tuned as the first person in Nothing To Be Frightened Of (2008), Barnes’s reflections on death, in which Shostakovich appeared too, “a mocker of false hopes, state propaganda and artistic dross”.

While in Levels of Life (2013) Barnes talked of opera as a source of personal consolation, here it is this genre that brings about both campaigns against Shostakovich: the Pravda article followed Stalin’s walkout during a performance of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk; another opera provoked the accusations of formalism. After Stalin’s death, Power turned “vegetarian”, to use Anna Akhmatova’s word. Yet the compromises Shostakovich had to make during Khrushchev’s thaw were “more dangerous to the soul” than in the Stalinist days when there were “only two types of composer: those who were alive and frightened; and those who were dead”.

“What kind of a man buys a scrapbook and then fills it with insulting articles about himself? An ironist? A madman? A Russian?” Although Shostakovich was a quarter Polish, irony was his main, perhaps only, self-defence. His favourite classic writers included Nikolai Gogol, whose satirical works he drew on, starting with The Nose, on which he based his first opera.

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