Julian Barnes brings to life the troubled inner world of Dmitri Shostakovichby Catriona Kelly / January 21, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
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 others have illuminated the circumstances in which the Soviet Union’s foremost composer lived and worked. Yet the surroundings only make the man at the centre seem less substantial. Laurel Fay’s scholarly biography, recording what is known for certain, is at once scrupulous and dry.
Myth-making annoys historians, but perhaps annoyed Shostakovich less. His Soviet biographer, Sofya Khentova, claimed that Shostakovich had recalled raptly listening to Lenin’s speech at the Finland Station on 3rd April 1917; Volkov recollects Shostakovich saying he’d ended up in the crowd by mistake and hadn’t known what the fuss was about; Fay, following Lossky, states that Shostakovich was never there at all—by the time Lenin arrived, a nicely brought up 10-year-old would have been safely tucked up in bed. The third version is much the most convincing. But that doesn’t disprove that Shostakovich told the other stories, or even, to some extent, believed them. Like many who witnessed the Revolution (particularly the February Revolution) as a child, he had a genuine enthusiasm for popular upheaval and mass action all his life, if not necessarily for what resulted from that great political turmoil. Sticking to the facts can mean, at some level, missing the point.
Where historians subside into embarrassed silence, novelists speak. In The Noise of Time, the different variants of the Lenin story are among many pointers to the fluidity of Shostakovich’s relations with his past: “These days, he no longer knew what version to trust. He lies like an eyewitness, as the story goes.” In an anecdote that frames the novel and is also repeated within it, three men drink a vodka toast on a wartime station platform: “one to hear, one to remember, and one to drink.” The Shostakovich of Barnes’s imagining includes all three: the barely surviving crippled alcoholic, limbless on his trolley, practising “a technique for survival”; the bespectacled listener who offers him vodka with egregious courtesy; and the anonymous witness, who disappears even from recollection after the desultory encounter.
Not that Barnes’s purpose is anything to do with allegory. But The Noise of Time, largely based on memoirs (those collected by Elizabeth Wilson as well as Solomon Volkov’s) is a book about Shostakovich’s memories, rather than a straightforward fictional account of his life. Complaining that the Leningrad symphony doesn’t figure, or that Barnes omits Shostakovich’s work as a teacher of composition, or as a deputy of the Supreme Soviet (and a conscientious one) would be obtuse. It would be equally otiose to point out that as well as agonising over his new version of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Shostakovich negotiated hard over the 1966 film version and insisted only the Kiev production was used. The Noise of Time is a distillation of experience into insomniac self-questioning, or the vertiginous doubt, otkhodnyak, that succeeds the temporary confidence of a vodka high. The mode is interior monologue, but in the third person sometimes used about themselves by particularly sensitive individuals alienated, lifelong, from their own lives.
“It had got to the point when he despised being the person he was, on an almost daily basis,” a Shostakovich in his fifties reflects. This self-distancing permeates The Noise of Time, since the narrative’s starting point is already the existential edge—the 1937 agony of possible non-survival that followed the denunciation of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in Pravda as “Muddle instead of Music.” Anna Akhmatova, the poet with whom, as the novel reminds us, Shostakovich once sat in mutually appreciative silence for 20 minutes, wrote in Northern Elegies: “I shall not lie in my own grave.” Shostakovich had the same sense of self-distance.
The composer’s early years are summed up by his painfully delirious love affair with Tanya, the “hard, demeaning work” of playing cinema piano, or the open-air performance of his First Symphony disrupted by a competitive concert from the neighbourhood dogs. Motifs repeat: a string of garlic threaded round a wrist to ward off infections; a small case packed against possible arrest; the cocktail sauce with bobbing shrimps in the plane Shostakovich gets to the United States, and where later the composer imagines himself afloat.
At one level, this phenomenology of daily life echoes the shadow-double of Barnes’s novel, Osip Mandelstam’s memoir The Noise of Time. But where the hideous sideboard owned by a relation of Mandelstam’s, or the landscape of a Baltic beach, testify to the age they came from, the objects here are pared to their significance for Shostakovich. Two clocks, for instance, daily chime together in perfect unison. “This was not chance. He would turn on the wireless a minute or two before the hour. Galya would be in the dining room, with the clock’s door open, holding back the pendulum with one finger.” In turn, the book is structured less round onward time than time repeated: particularly, the three leap-year moments, 1936, 1948, and 1960, when Shostakovich came closest to destruction and despair.
In Russia, despair is sometimes difficult to separate from black humour: as the joke goes, “If you’re over 40 and you wake up, and nothing hurts, that means you’ve died.” Unlike some English chroniclers of Russian life, Barnes has an ear for this mood: “Music is not like Chinese eggs; it does not improve by being kept underground.” When Shostakovich reflects on what he sees as the passivity of Americans, he notes that “even the cows standing motionless in the fields looked like advertisements for condensed milk.” One of Shostakovich’s wry comments even has a parallel life as an in-joke for people who know Barnes’s previous work on Gustave Flaubert: “Life was the cat that dragged the parrot downstairs by the tail; his head banged against every step.”
But it is above all the “hard, irreducible purity” of music that drives the narration, expressed not just in key sounds (“four factory sirens in F sharp”) or Shostakovich’s visceral reaction to conducting that he hates—“Toscanini chopped up music like hash and smeared disgusting sauce over it”—but in the crafting of language itself. Shostakovich’s ageing shows not just in disillusion, or the shift of motion from “skitter” to “limp,” but in a transformation of tempi. First comes a nervous scherzo of love entanglements: “And so he and Nina met, and they became lovers, but he was still trying to win Tanya back from her husband, and then Tanya fell pregnant, and then he and Nina fixed a date for their wedding, but at the last minute he couldn’t face it so failed to turn up and ran away and hid…” Later, there is the slowing that Shostakovich himself liked to mark morendo, with the violist Fyodor Druzhinin told to play the slow movement of the Fifteenth Quartet “so that flies drop dead in mid-air, and the audience start leaving the hall from sheer boredom.”
At once self-deprecating and precise, the joke captures not just Shostakovich’s capacity for evasion, but the nature of his own composition, its saturated emptiness. Fictional portrayals of music soften and sweeten the nature of the art (take Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music or Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes), reducing it to ethereal cliché; the result is not too far from novelettes such as Florence L Barclay’s The Rosary or Naomi Royde-Smith’s Mildensee. But The Noise of Time shares with Leo Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata—another text which has at its centre the tyranny of music and its physiologically devastating potential—the capacity for evocation of music-making that is worthy of the real thing. And, just as Shostakovich himself survived his encounters with power to transform dog barks and factory sirens into some of the 20th century’s most explosive exercises in created sound, so this novel is, fortunately, much larger than the depiction of the composer in the familiar role of a “technician of survival,” a midnight meditator on life’s futility and his own.