“All he knew was that this was the worst time.”
IT is 1936, Stalin is reaching the height of his paranoia. The child prodigy and revolutionary treasure Shostakovich is denounced in Pravda.
Short paragraphs rather than chapters paint tableaux of their own which then fit into the larger narrative, I am tempted to use the cliché, like Russian dolls. This Shostakovich is fragile, the women in his life apparently stronger than him (although there is not much evidence, except from his mother) but this wisp of a man in iconic spectacles overwhelmed by state and family has an unwavering grasp of his own genius. Even in disgrace he does not think of getting another job, he just carries on composing. For 40 years and more it was an unhappy, unwanted marriage to regime and rivals represented here in shorthand just as The Powers.
There is a diamond irony as he tells the story of how Russian cinema audiences clapped to show their disapproval of a live pianist in the background ruining their enjoyment of a film. The image is later repeated in America where he gets a standing ovation for different reasons. But he does not like America, he does not like being called Shosti, he is hurt by his rejection by another Russian in exile in Stravinsky, he wants to curl up in a box with some vodka and sausages.
There are little tricks, repeated phrases, “he swam like a shrimp in shrimp cocktail sauce”, as in a music score, “as one fishermen picks another from afar”. Meticulous, chain smoking, examining his conscience daily, Barnes has a grand canvas of man and state: ‘To be Russian was to be pessimistic; to be Soviet was to be optimistic. That is why the words Soviet Russia were a contradiction”.
Russia, mother Russia, passive-aggressive, secretive, scary. This is/was a world where a friend paid the housemaid to save the composer’s rubbish which now resides in the national Glinka museum.
Strictly this not a biography in the usual sense, but Barnes the novelist has given himself a backstage pass into the genius’s brain, thanks to the meticulous more conventional research of others including biographer Elizabeth Wilson whom he credits as a prime source. Personally I find the revisionist thesis that in some way Shostakovich was writing dissident jokes into his music almost as questionable as the Soviet musicologists attack on him that his music was all just muddle.
There are no shortage of examples from capitalist America of the originators of music being summarily disenfranchised and their work passed down the line for others to profit and take credit from. Think Elvis Presley for a start. The Soviets wanted more. They were vain enough to demand that the maestro composer endorse them. Shostakovich might have feared being disappeared by some anonymous KGB agent in the middle of the night. No. Stalin wanted to own him, to own the music, to own the glory in the genius for himself and the Communist cause.
The struggle was for the art and all that represents.
Footnote: It is a shame – especially in the context of talking about the value of art – that whoever designed the cover did not get a credit here because it is equally outstanding example in another medium.