Shostakovich: a midnight meditator on life’s futility

The life of Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich is at once well-documented and elusive. Famous from an early age, the Russian composer was surrounded for his whole life by family, musicians, pupils, enemies and admirers; he attracted the attention of the formidable Soviet surveillance machine at every level. Material traces, including an apartment museum in Moscow, abound. Yet he also skids away from definition. The latest to re-interpret his life is Julian Barnes, whose new novel The Noise of Time is structured round three crucial episodes in Shostakovich’s struggle with state power.

In private photographs and in the recollections of those closest to him in his later years, Shostakovich has the reserved intensity of his late chamber music. But in some moods, according to the disputed but likely in some respects accurate memoirs of the musicologist Solomon Volkov, he could be both hilarious and pungent. Winding his way through a dangerous patronage culture, he has often been understood as a martyr to the totalitarian state. But he is also psychologically comparable with figures such as Alexander Pushkin and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Interpreting such artists exclusively in terms of encoded self-revelation and concealed irony—as Shostakovich often is—would certainly not do justice to their intentions or intelligence.

Current academic study tends to avoid the hunt for “the real Shostakovich” (a kind of perpetuation of state surveillance) in favour of a historical understanding. The archives have not preserved the young boy’s school reports, but they confirm his near-contemporary Boris Lossky’s account. Shostakovich attended what was known officially as a commercial school, but the title was a flag of convenience: the syllabus was shaped by the strong contemporary interest among educated Russians in “free education,” and it even had its own Montessori kindergarten. The emphasis on self-directed study, personal development and community spirit had its echoes later in his life.

Shostakovich was certainly not purely a victim—he managed, after all, to outlive no fewer than three Soviet leaders, while many of his artistic contemporaries preceded even Vladimir Lenin into the grave. As well as being moulded by his era, he helped to construct it. Marina Frolova-Walker, Jonathan Walker, Kiril Tomoff and others have illuminated the circumstances in which the Soviet Union’s foremost composer lived and worked. Yet the surroundings only make the man at the centre seem less substantial. Laurel Fay’s scholarly biography, recording what is known for certain, is at once scrupulous and dry.

Myth-making annoys historians, but perhaps annoyed Shostakovich less. His Soviet biographer, Sofya Khentova, claimed that Shostakovich had recalled raptly listening to Lenin’s speech at the Finland Station on 3rd April 1917; Volkov recollects Shostakovich saying he’d ended up in the crowd by mistake and hadn’t known what the fuss was about; Fay, following Lossky, states that Shostakovich was never there at all—by the time Lenin arrived, a nicely brought up 10-year-old would have been safely tucked up in bed. The third version is much the most convincing. But that doesn’t disprove that Shostakovich told the other stories, or even, to some extent, believed them. Like many who witnessed the Revolution (particularly the February Revolution) as a child, he had a genuine enthusiasm for popular upheaval and mass action all his life, if not necessarily for what resulted from that great political turmoil. Sticking to the facts can mean, at some level, missing the point.

Where historians subside into embarrassed silence, novelists speak. In The Noise of Time, the different variants of the Lenin story are among many pointers to the fluidity of Shostakovich’s relations with his past: “These days, he no longer knew what version to trust. He lies like an eyewitness, as the story goes.” In an anecdote that frames the novel and is also repeated within it, three men drink a vodka toast on a wartime station platform: “one to hear, one to remember, and one to drink.” The Shostakovich of Barnes’s imagining includes all three: the barely surviving crippled alcoholic, limbless on his trolley, practising “a technique for survival”; the bespectacled listener who offers him vodka with egregious courtesy; and the anonymous witness, who disappears even from recollection after the desultory encounter.

Not that Barnes’s purpose is anything to do with allegory. But The Noise of Time, largely based on memoirs (those collected by Elizabeth Wilson as well as Solomon Volkov’s) is a book about Shostakovich’s memories, rather than a straightforward fictional account of his life. Complaining that the Leningrad symphony doesn’t figure, or that Barnes omits Shostakovich’s work as a teacher of composition, or as a deputy of the Supreme Soviet (and a conscientious one) would be obtuse. It would be equally otiose to point out that as well as agonising over his new version of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Shostakovich negotiated hard over the 1966 film version and insisted only the Kiev production was used. The Noise of Time is a distillation of experience into insomniac self-questioning, or the vertiginous doubt, otkhodnyak, that succeeds the temporary confidence of a vodka high. The mode is interior monologue, but in the third person sometimes used about themselves by particularly sensitive individuals alienated, lifelong, from their own lives.

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