My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Julian Barnes takes the well-known facts of Dimitri Shostakovich's life and gives it all back to us in a fictionalized version of the conversations in the composer's own head. In doing this, he manages to give us the debates about the enduring importance of the composer's music and his relationship with the Soviet regime.
Was the music worthy of being mentioned in the same breath with Stravinsky and Prokofiev, or was he merely a second-rater?
Was he a coward who caved to Stalin and compromised his artistic principles in order to maintain a comfortable life, or was he a brave dissident, who, even though he lived in constant fear for himself and his family, still managed to communicate his defiance to the world through his music?
The Shostakovich that Barnes gives us is, in fact, a complicated human being who comprises both sides of those arguments. He may be one of the great Russian composers of the 20th century who sometimes wrote second-rate stuff. Perhaps he was a coward, but he managed to survive and keep his family safe during the persecutions of the Stalin era when so many of his friends and fellow artists were disappearing without a trace.
Barnes structures his tale around three major events in Shostakovich's life: his denunciation in Pravda after Stalin attended and disapproved of his much-acclaimed opera "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk" and his subsequent implication in an assassination plot; his humiliating trip to America where he was seen by many as a Soviet stooge; and, finally, after he had survived Stalin, in the Khrushchev era, being forced to join the Communist Party. During all this time, from 1936 until the 1970s, although he and his family were never physically harmed, he was under constant threat of violence. The psychological torture must have been almost unbearable. He was constantly forced to walk the tightrope between maintaining the integrity of his music and keeping those in power appeased.
The mind of Shostakovich is, unsurprisingly I think, a claustrophobic place. We are privy to his internal dialogues as he reflects on his predicament and his personal history and the lives of all those - especially the women - who are or have been close to him and whose fate may hang in the balance on his choices, his actions.
Julian Barnes is such an elegant writer. Every word is meaningful in his narrative and, in the end, he has given us not only an illuminating portrait of a complicated man, but also a stunning insight into the tumultuous and dangerous society that was the mid to late 20th century Soviet Union.
Moreover, he also offers us a meditation on the meaning of art. He writes:
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.
"Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time." And that is, in the end, the value of art to society.
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