😀 😀 😀
A man stands by the lift in his apartment block in the middle of the night, waiting for the men from the ‘Big House’ to come for him. It is 1936 in the Stalinist USSR, and the man is Shostakovich. The state newspaper Pravda has deemed his latest opera to be “Muddle instead of Music” – a piece designed for the bourgeoisie and therefore not acceptable for a Soviet audience. Now Shostakovich is expecting to be hauled away and grilled about his political beliefs, a dangerous thing for an artist under this brutal regime.
This short novel is a barely fictionalised biography of the composer, focussing on three major episodes in his life each 12 years apart. Shostakovich was eventually brought back into favour and even sent off to represent the regime in the US, but he lived always under the fear that one day he would again be ostracised, or worse. It is clearly well-researched, and is well-written, with Barnes using Shostakovich’s life as a vehicle to muse on the position of artists under totalitarian regimes.
From now on there would be only two types of composer: those who were alive and frightened; and those who were dead.
Barnes looks at questions of bravery and cowardice, compromise and its debilitating effect on artistic freedom, and the blindness of the regime to the subtleties of irony. He shows clearly how an individual knew that any decision he reached might impact severely on his families and friends, and how this made the question of defying the regime more complex than the simple matter of personal bravery it might at first sight seem. One of the more interesting sections discusses the response of people living safely in the West, expecting Soviet artists to be willing martyrs without an understanding of the realities of living in perpetual fear, not just for themselves but for those around them.
…if the plan to take the worker from the coal face and turn him into a composer of symphonies did not exactly come to pass, something of the reverse happened. A composer was expected to increase his output just as a coal miner was, and his music was expected to warm hearts just as a miner’s coal warmed bodies. Bureaucrats assessed musical output as they did other categories of output; there were established norms, and deviations from those norms.
(Am I the only one thinking that coal miners probably didn’t have it too good under Stalin, either? I do get a little tired of artistic narcissism…)
I often find Barnes’ writing cold, and this short book falls into that category. In fact, I found myself questioning whether it could really be defined as a novel at all. It reads more like a series of connected essays based on carefully selected vignettes from the lives of Shostakovich and other composers of the time. It’s interesting enough and certainly readable, but I found it provoked surprisingly little emotional response in me considering the subject matter, nor did it add anything significant to a subject that has been dealt with many times before both fictionally and factually.
Art belongs to everybody and nobody. Art belongs to all time and no time. Art belongs to those who create it and those who savour it. Art no more belongs to the People and the Party than it once belonged to the aristocracy and the patron. Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time. Art does not exist for art’s sake: it exists for people’s sake. But which people, and who defines them?
I found myself comparing it to the novella Peredelkino in Ken Kalfus’ collection PU-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, which tells essentially the same story about a writer caught under the restrictions of the Soviet regime. Kalfus’ story addresses the issues just as insightfully, but is much more clearly a fiction, with all the contrasts of light and shade that I felt Barnes’ book lacks.
So, in conclusion, this is an interesting read, but for me it fell between two camps and didn’t quite fit well in either: too cold and unemotional, and a little too polemical, to work fully as a piece of fiction; and without enough depth or detail to be fully satisfying as a factual account of Shostakovich’s life.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.