In the years after the Second World War, during Dmitri Shostakovich’s second period of disfavour with the Soviet authorities, he wasn’t just humiliatingly wheeled out at the Cultural and Scientific Congress for World Peace in New York, a fellow travellers’ jamboree that just about snuck in under the McCarthyist wire. He was also packed off to Leipzig to judge a piano competition inaugurated to commemorate J S Bach on the bicentenary of his death. Hearing gold medallist Tatyana Nikolayeva rattle through The Well-Tempered Clavier, he went home and wrote his 24 Preludes and Fugues for her.
Opinions remain divided on how good Shostakovich was, or might have been but for the fear that hunched ogreishly over him from the morning in 1936 when Pravda published a damning editorial, ‘Sumbur vmesto muzyki’ (‘muddle instead of music’), about the up-to-then pretty successful and well-reviewed opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, to the last and, in a strange way, greatest humiliation: his enforced joining of the Party in 1960. But the 24 Preludes and Fugues, to put it one way, aren’t half bad for a composer with one ear perpetually cocked in the direction of the doorbell.
The New York episode constitutes the second of three sections – we might call them ‘movements’ – in Julian Barnes’s new novel. It’s a third-person account of Shostakovich’s tribulations at the hands of Stalin and his chief cultural muppet, Andrei Zhdanov, and the different challenges posed by his rehabilitation in the eyes of a regime that had stopped murdering people in industrial numbers but remained somewhat controlling in matters of artistic practice. The first section deals with the aftermath of the Pravda editorial; the third with Khrushchev’s ‘invitation’ to him to sign up in 1960. Each begins with a short motif: ‘All he knew was that this was the worst time.’ A beautifully worked little introduction brings to life an anonymous sighting of Shostakovich, drinking with a friend and a beggar next to a stalled train somewhere deep in Russia during the war, swathed in garlic to ward off disease (and, one can’t help but suppose, the creatures of the night).
With characteristic good grace, Barnes steers readers towards his sources in an afterword: chiefly, Elizabeth Wilson’s 1994 biography – ‘if you haven’t liked [my book], then read hers’ – and the controversial but immensely engaging Testimony, a purported memoir by Shostakovich himself, dictated to Solomon Volkov and published in America after the composer’s death. The Noise of Time has a neatness of structure and thematic consistency that the ramshackle, repetitive memoir lacks (I can’t speak for the biography). But the character that bounds off the page in Testimony, neurotic, cantankerous and at times deeply melancholic (‘I was remembering my friends and all I saw was corpses, mountains of corpses’), but also clever, sardonic and often outright hilarious (as when his and Aram Khachaturian’s joint commission to write a new national anthem dissolves into a series of ‘mystical’ vodka binges), is replaced by a sort of bog-standard neurasthenic homme sérieux.
As a consequence, the particular anxieties arising from being caught in the Great Leader’s gimlet stare slightly elide, in Barnes’s telling, into general grumbles about air travel, the banality of America and the ups and downs of emotional life. These latter are mostly confined to fond memories of a heady if mosquito-plagued tryst on the Black Sea with his first love, Tanya. There’s not very much about his long but complicated first marriage to Nina Varzar, and of course his happy third marriage to Irina Supinskaya – ‘Her only defect is that she’s 27’ – is still in the future. But there’s a constant preoccupation with the absolute truth of artistic value judgements and the courage required to cling on to such judgements privately, let alone publicly, under a despotic regime. A pivotal moment in the book (and, arguably, in Shostakovich’s life) occurs during a press conference in New York when Nicholas Nabokov, a CIA shill, a cousin of the writer and a composer of the utmost mediocrity, asks Shostakovich if he will endorse the anathema lately pronounced by the Soviet authorities on Igor Stravinsky (whom Shostakovich privately – if not without qualification – admired). And of course, he does. Later on, he will also sign a fairly shameful letter against Andrei Sakharov, though he will also speak out, not uncourageously, in favour of Joseph Brodsky. But to see his life essentially as a function of his cowardice – ‘the one true thread’ – as Barnes does isn’t just ungallant (which of us can be sure we’d act differently?), it’s also an oversimplification of the case.
Still, the book is hugely well done at the level of craft: a distinctive and, as always with Barnes, highly readable marriage of suave execution and chilly, grown-up subject matter. However, I’m not sure the world was crying out to receive it. Many other writers of Barnes’s generation have given us their thoughts on Stalin, so maybe he felt left out. I found his Shostakovich to be more of a writer than a composer (ironically, maybe, given that Testimony is such a potent piece of writing, whoever wrote it), just as the artists in his recent essay collection Keeping an Eye Open often seem more like writers than artists. That Shostakovich was in some ways a tragic figure is perhaps beyond doubt; that the arts bore a heavy burden in the Soviet imperium is so categorically true that to restate it is to flirt with banality. The book’s title comes from Mandelstam, a kind of secular martyr to artistic freedom under tyranny, whose observation that only in the USSR did poetry matter so much that it got people killed is brought to mind more than once by Shostakovich’s plight. Barnes skirts delicately round some of the ‘revisionist’ arguments put forward by Shostakovich (or Volkov – the original transcripts were destroyed, so the issue of the memoir’s authenticity is unlikely to be settled): namely, that Shostakovich ‘encoded’ into his music not only messages, such as the famous and rather groovy ‘DSCH’ motif in the Eighth Quartet (which is officially dedicated to victims of fascism but which he told friends was a sort of artistic requiem for himself), but also sketches of Stalin and so on. True or not, we know Shostakovich bitterly resented the need for sail-trimming and second-guessing – so we can’t claim that his art wasn’t changed by his political circumstances.
And yet, and yet. What if compromise and concealment suited him – not personally, but artistically? What if his eclecticism, his need to sublimate and encrypt any nods towards the Western avant-garde music that Zhdanov decried as formalist and, absurdly, leftist, actually made his music better? Curiously, Stravinsky was with Stalin on Lady Macbeth, calling it ‘hammering and monotonous’ – and you could indeed say that Shostakovich’s emotional palette was as restricted as his formal range was wide (he was the Radiohead of late classicism). Regardless, I’m not sure that the best of the later chamber music (which anyway tended to pass under the radar of the authorities) doesn’t match up to pre-Pravda work such as Lady Macbeth, The Nose or the football ballet The Golden Age. Incidentally, Shostakovich was a lifelong football fan and a qualified referee, as Barnes briefly lets us know: another wellspring of anxiety and joy, and another potential entry point for literary exploration in some parallel universe, you can’t help thinking.