This is a book of three movements.
Much of it questions where authority overrides art. Not overrides it but demeans it by way of constraint. The authority here was Joseph Stalin, a man incapable of constructing a single sentence free of grammatical errors yet had the temerity to behave as though he was the be and end all of art and music critique.
Having won the favour of the powers following his highly acclaimed First Symphony, Dimitri Dimtryevich Shostakovich went on to publish his second and third symphonies, influenced by the likes of Stravinsky and Prokoviev only to have his work derided as 'formalist.' Anything not simple or straight forward enough, anything not clear, tuneful and blindingly obvious to the 'powers' perception of what was of the masses was instantly dismissed. Stalin wrote of Shostovitch that his work was 'muddle not music.' Stalin detested music which dared to experiment. He couldn't abide what he thought of as tuneless and which a peasant in the field couldn't sing.
Shostakovich died on 9th August 1975. The year punk made its supposed rebellion against polite society, it's rallying call to do away with the complexities of prog by returning rock music to its working class roots.
|Pravda's article as written by Joseph Stalin criticising Shostakovich's work|
Julian Barnes writes this novel as a fiction, one which uses the facts of the times it existed in for its own ends. The skill of the narrative is to play history against imagination in such a way the reader cannot detect the difference. To attain this delicate balancing act Barnes had to research deep the life of the composer. To this end, he read Elizabeth Wilson's 'Shostakovich: A Life Remembered,' Solomon Volotov's 'Testimony: The Memoirs of Shostakovich,' Michael Ardov's interviews with the composer's children, 'Memories of Shostakovich' and also Issac Glickman's 'Story of Friendship.'
Writing in the style of the great composer, with jagged, stunted short paragraphs that represent for me the sharp blast of a horn section or the brash clash of tympani, Julian Barnes captures the essence of the composer as he tells his fictionalised story.
Following a brief 'overture,' nameless and written in italics where a brief description of events are relayed, we then enter the first movement...
1. On the Landing.
It is 1937. Stalin has declared that Shostakovich's 'Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk' to be 'muddle instead of music. This is the time of the purges. This is when those whose work, let alone faces, simply do not fit the Soviet ideal. Stalin not only fears this opera he intensely dislikes it. He dislikes it so much he has Dimitri Dimtryevich Shostakovich taken away to the Big House. It is a place few once sent to ever return from. However, fortune favours the brave - not that Shostakovich can ever be accused of being that - when the man who interrogates him is in turn taken away and interrogated. A sigh of relief is breathed.
2. On The Plane
Having managed to worm his way back into Stalin's affections, not that he gave any great time in doing so, by writing his Seventh Symphony, a work dedicated to the Nazi siege of Leningrad, the state took this work as that of the grand patriot and 'requested' the composer visit the United States. Ever in search of the 'Red Beethoven' Stalin, who vilified the capitalist Stravinsky, wanted Shostakovich to represent all that was virtuous about the Soviet Union. In a humorous twist of irony when the composer questions why his earlier opera had been so savaged before being banned, Stalin refutes that fact stating the piece was always favoured. Suddenly Dmitri is thrust into the glare of worldwide celebrity status.
Now a part of the Soviet establishment we read as the unconfrontational composer conforms to the authoritarian states whims. He claims, in his own mind, that he is merely being ironic, that surely everyone can see that. The trouble is that they can't.
3. In the Car
Time moves its inexorable wheels grinding dictators and legends beneath its unforgiving tyres. Age takes its toll. Shostakovich's health worsens. Stalin dies. Suddenly there is a new Head of State, a softer fist of iron in a glove of velvet - Krushchev. Up until now the composer has managed not to officially join the party. Now though Krushchev really thinks he ought to. In fact, although presented as a request it is anything but. A new face behind the steering wheel same old engine driving the car. Once again, even if his heart is pure, Shostakovich, concedes the point. His heart may be pure but his conscience is forever blighted.
This is not a book about nostalgia. Nor does it attempt to revile or reveal Stalin as the inhuman psychopath he was. It is not the authors intention to use his novel as a vehicle to expose those of whom we already know so much. What it is, however, is a narrative about the conceits, the complexities and the awful compromises the artist has to make, indeed the average man, in order to survive such a dictatorial state.
In this novel, Dimitri Dimtryevich Shostakovich is presented as a man less brave than he'd like to believe; a man who fools himself if not the rest of the Soviet Union, into thinking his stance is ironic and that all who listen to his music will know this to be true. Sadly, they don't.
As with Julian Barnes phenomenally good Man Booker prize winner, 'The Sense of an Ending' the language is exquisite. As is the manner in which he uses his paragraphs to suggest a musical composition being played. He manages to take this very Russian novel and invest a universality to it that allows the reader, no matter where in the world he or she might be, that recognises the situations seen here.
Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.