Magazine June 27, 2016, Issue

A Composer in the Shadow of the Commissars

The Noise of Time: A Novel, by Julian Barnes (Knopf, 224 pp., $25.95)

Maybe there’s no point anymore in lamenting the West’s failure to understand “the Russian soul.” That’s the suspicion with which I emerge from Julian Barnes’s novel — or set of vignettes — about Dmitri Shostakovich. Are our minds, however impressed by Russian artistry, unable to penetrate Russian reasoning and suffering — and so unable really to penetrate the artistry either?

Shostakovich was a middle-class musical prodigy much hampered by the Russian Revolution, and later a conspicuously rising composer who may have once escaped the Great Terror by accident, when his interrogator was himself purged and disappeared over a weekend. Even in comfortable-looking international prominence after Khrushchev’s retreat from Stalin’s “cult of personality,” Shostakovich was gnawed and drubbed by the regime as persistently yet carelessly as a teddy bear by a young pit bull with no other toys.

But like the poet Anna Akhmatova — who was plundered of loved ones, denounced, banned, half starved (but packed off, along with Shostakovich and others, to safety in southern republics during World War II, like national patrimony stashed in a cave) — and like even Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in the end, Shostakovich couldn’t reconcile himself to living anywhere else; he couldn’t not be completely Russian.

Explanations of such a mindset aren’t forthcoming from Western writers, even from Barnes (whose Man Booker for his 2011 novel The Sense of an Ending was the latest in a relentless march of prizes). Barnes’s reconstructed scenes are certainly memorable: the composer sharing a drink on a railroad platform with a paraplegic war veteran roped onto a handmade cart; a sunny, itchy, carnation-scented retreat with his first love; the husband and new father waiting, with a small satchel, in front of an elevator through a succession of nights, so that those he thought were coming to arrest him would simply escort him from there and not invade his home and terrorize his family as well; a flight back from New York, with physical and moral and political fear blending, and such exotic luxuries as a Benzedrine inhaler on offer.

Interspersed are inner monologues, but these are less striking; naturally so, first because this was a musician, whose medium was not words. Even a musical genius in a free society, in front of a sympathetic interviewer, is apt to sound as shallow as a film actor gushing about how wonderful it was to work with everybody.

Moreover, Shostakovich was a nervous man, surrounded by political thugs and sometimes assigned edgy handlers. Some of the most persuasive memories about him come at second or third hand, from informants with dim mazes of motivation, decades after the fact, with cited names varying in spelling, and historical corroboration lost or hidden. Worst, the rationales of his choices can appear wackily refracted through a society in which Stalin — even though Hitler’s score in civilian deaths is probably lower — remains widely popular to this day.

But to hope for a diverting or edifying fictionalization of such a life borders on cruel. (Barnes echoes disgust for demands from abroad that a Russian artist act out Western ideals, whatever the cost.) When not deep in work, Shostakovich probably moved in a haze of panicked dissociation. On the best evidence, it appears that he clung to little or no purpose but continuing in music and protecting those closest to him.

He could hardly, on commonsense reckoning, have kept an eye on what he was made to sponsor and kept his will to go on. (Barnes depicts him as characteristically and habitually threatening suicide anyway.) One composition was supposed to be for triumphal marches in conquered Finland, and another was a score for lyrics celebrating Stalin as the magical gardener for whom patriotic plants would hurry their growth.

Shostakovich also put his blind signature under, or even read out in public, when he was handed them, loathsome screeds — including a denunciation of his idol Igor Stravinsky (then settled in the U.S.), and one of Andrei Sakharov (in spite of Shostakovich’s sustained interest in Jewish culture). Authorities knew they had only to push against Shostakovich’s screens of shyness, ill health, quiet protest, and established achievement and position. He finally joined the Communist Party, figuratively moving to the politicos’ actual address.

The work he sought to go on with and share by these means was crumpled back on itself and wadded up with politics. It was not simply that Shostakovich longed to join cosmopolitan experiments with atonality but was forced to write melodic provincial propaganda, songs for tired miners to hum after their shifts, film music, tunes meant to generate the prescribed mood during every new demand for sacrifice. The leaders wanted folk music reprocessed to burn their will into reluctant minds; they imagined a Bolshevik Beethoven. So they formulated, invented: They were to be the artists, in the medium of artists, on the way to being the artists of everything, the sole creators.

That was bad enough; but in addition, the demands were unstable. A talented composer such as Shostakovich might fill the order, write “The Song of the Counterplan” for a film about the foiling of counterrevolutionary factory sabotage; he might inspire much humming — but then the song, and all the credit for writing it, might somehow (a murmured confab in a plush office?), for some reason (maybe the film went embarrassingly far in its zealotry), disappear — or, better put, be disappeared.

An opera such as Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, rumbling ahead on official approval and seemingly genuine popularity, might be too loud on the wrong night, when Stalin was in attendance, and his henchmen might hear a chance to suggest that this was the problem with industrial production. Then jargon, slander, and fantasy would appear under a new slogan (“Muddle, Not Music,” in this case); and heavy personal consequences must attest to the seriousness of all this. The composer could not possibly see disaster coming or know when it would stop or start again.

Barnes’s account is moving, but is more like a stunt than his better novels. His foreign culture of basic reference is hardly even foreign; in Something to Declare, he recounts his extensive childhood experience of France. The concentrated, discerning pleasure, the privileged expressiveness, the exuberant cosmopolitanism of France — these are hardly the early transfusions to help anybody writing about a Russian artist of the Soviet era.

Barnes sometimes sounds as if he’s reciting the obvious, unable to move further inward, and his tone is correspondingly flat. “Theories were clean and convincing and comprehensible. Life was messy and full of nonsense.” Sumptuous shrimp are “fat and sleek like politicians.” “The Pospelovs of this world — like the Khrennikovs — would sense each shift before it came, would have their ear to the ground and their eye to the main chance and their wetted finger in the air to apprehend any change of wind.”

Barnes’s competition with Russian writers in this regard is, of course, hopeless — but I can’t help mentioning that Russian authors can treat even the surface with brilliant suggestion, and that the effects are strong enough to survive translation. At the end of Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward, a zoo placard says a monkey is gone because of the “senseless cruelty” of an “evil” man who blinded it; a discarded, futureless man is amazed at a message not political at all.

Are Shostakovich’s musically coded ironies — which are much debated — worth the effort of counterpoint in English-language literature? It is, at any rate, a humane effort on Barnes’s part.

– Sarah Ruden is a visiting scholar at Brown University.

Sarah Ruden’s most recent work is a translation of Augustine’s Confessions.

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