Julian Barnes brings to life the troubled inner world of Dmitri Shostakovichby Catriona Kelly / January 21, 2016 / Leave a comment
The Noise of Time, by Julian Barnes, Vintage, £14.99
The life of Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich is at once well-documented and elusive. Famous from an early age, the Russian composer was surrounded for his whole life by family, musicians, pupils, enemies and admirers; he attracted the attention of the formidable Soviet surveillance machine at every level. Material traces, including an apartment museum in Moscow, abound. Yet he also skids away from definition. The latest to re-interpret his life is Julian Barnes, whose new novel The Noise of Time is structured round three crucial episodes in Shostakovich’s struggle with state power.
In private photographs and in the recollections of those closest to him in his later years, Shostakovich has the reserved intensity of his late chamber music. But in some moods, according to the disputed but likely in some respects accurate memoirs of the musicologist Solomon Volkov, he could be both hilarious and pungent. Winding his way through a dangerous patronage culture, he has often been understood as a martyr to the totalitarian state. But he is also psychologically comparable with figures such as Alexander Pushkin and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Interpreting such artists exclusively in terms of encoded self-revelation and concealed irony—as Shostakovich often is—would certainly not do justice to their intentions or intelligence.
Current academic study tends to avoid the hunt for “the real Shostakovich” (a kind of perpetuation of state surveillance) in favour of a historical understanding. The archives have not preserved the young boy’s school reports, but they confirm his near-contemporary Boris Lossky’s account. Shostakovich attended what was known officially as a commercial school, but the title was a flag of convenience: the syllabus was shaped by the strong contemporary interest among educated Russians in “free education,” and it even had its own Montessori kindergarten. The emphasis on self-directed study, personal development and community spirit had its echoes later in his life.
Shostakovich was certainly not purely a victim—he managed, after all, to outlive no fewer than three Soviet leaders, while many of his artistic contemporaries preceded even Vladimir Lenin into the grave. As well as being moulded by his era, he helped to construct it. Marina Frolova-Walker, Jonathan Walker, Kiril Tomoff and…