Inside the head of Dmitri Shostakovich

It is bold, perhaps even foolhardy, to write a novel from inside the head of a historical figure, especially one who died comparatively recently. Marguerite Yourcenar did it for the Emperor Hadrian and succeeded magnificently, and now in The Noise of Time Julian Barnes has done it for Dmitri Shostakovich. Has he succeeded? He’s written a compelling novel, which is perhaps enough. But has he been fair to Shostakovich? I like to think he has, but I don’t know for sure.

Available facts suggest that Shostakovich was a stooge of the totalitarian Soviet regimen, but those of us who love his music like to think differently. His book Testimony, which I haven’t read, argued that he was a noble man who went along with the Soviet regimen for the benefit of his family, but was that a “cover up.” People argue about it, and they also argue about his music: is his music “of visionary power and originality, as some maintain, or, as others think, derivative, trashy, empty and second-hand”? William Walton thought him the great composer of the 20th century, while Pierre Boulez thought him a second or even third repressing of Mahler.


I love his music, particularly the string quartets, the piano concertos, the Leningrad symphony, and the jazz cabaret music. He is the 20th century composer I listen to most, and I like the idea that his string quartets were his private diary that speaks beautifully of his desolation and of death.

Barnes must think the same and so has written a novel that explains why Shostakovich behaved as he did.

The novel is constructed around three famous episodes in Shostakovich’s life, and each was a further step in the destruction of his soul. The first was when Pravda condemned his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk as “muddle instead of music.” Shostakovich assumed at this stage that he would–like so many others–be taken, tortured, and shot. Barnes describes him standing outside the lift all night with a suitcase packed–to try and avoid his family being taken too. One musically sad point that Barnes makes is that opera might have been Shostakovich’s metier, but he stayed away from opera after that.


The second episode was when Shostakovich went to America at the personal request of Stalin and publicly condemned Stravinsky, whom privately he thought the greatest composer of the 20th century.  The final degradation was when he was forced to join the Communist party.

We might regard as Shostakovich as a coward, always giving into Power, as Barnes calls it in the novel. His justification was that he did what he did for his family and for music, but Barnes makes a compelling point about how it is harder to be a coward than a hero:

“Being a hero was much easier than being a coward. To be a hero, you only had to be brave for a moment – when you took out the gun, threw the bomb, pressed the detonator, did away with the tyrant, and with yourself as well. But to be a coward was to embark on a career that lasted a lifetime. You couldn’t ever relax. You had to anticipate the next occasion when you would have to make excuses for yourself, dither, cringe, reacquaint yourself with the taste of rubber boots and the state of your own fallen, abject character. Being a coward required pertinacity, persistence, a refusal to change – which made it, in a way, a kind of courage.”

As there has to be, there is a lot of Barnes in this book, particularly his obsession with death that he shares with Shostakovich. Indeed, the way that the book is written in short passages of contemplation reminded me greatly of Nothing To Be Frightened Of, Barnes’s book on his fear of death and dying. I thought that his best book, and for me The Noise of Time sits alongside it.


Here are quotes I took from the book:


This was how you should love – without fear, without barriers, without thought for the morrow. And then, afterwards, without regret.

One of life’s many disappointments was that it was never a novel, not by Maupassant or anyone else. Well, perhaps a short satirical tale by Gogol.

Power had always been more interested in the word than the note: writers, not composers, had been proclaimed the engineers of human souls.

The freedom and imagination and complication and nuance without which the arts grew stultified.

Music escapes from words: that is its purpose, and its majesty.

‘The wolf cannot speak of the fear of the sheep,’

Indeed, he understood that to be Russian was to be pessimistic. He had also written that, however much you scrubbed a Russian, he would always remain a Russian.

To be Russian was to be pessimistic; to be Soviet was to be optimistic. That was why the words Soviet Russia were a contradiction in terms.

The natural progression of human life is from optimism to pessimism; and a sense of irony helps temper pessimism, helps produce balance, harmony.

A beautiful woman grows old: she sees only what has gone; others see only what remains.

it is always possible to bring the living to a lower point. You cannot say that of the dead.

He liked to think that he wasn’t afraid of death. It was life he was afraid of, not death. He believed that people should think about death more often, and accustom themselves to the notion of it. Just letting it creep up on you unnoticed was not the best way to live. You should make yourself familiar with it. You should write about it: either in words or, in his case, music. It was his belief that if we thought about death earlier in our lives, we would make fewer mistakes.

And sometimes he thought that death was indeed the thing that terrified him the most.

Football was pure, that was why he had first loved it. A world constructed from honest striving and moments of beauty, with matters of right and wrong decided in an instant by a referee’s whistle.

The last questions of a man’s life do not come with any answers; that is their nature.

And no one died at the right time. Mussorgsky, Pushkin, Lermontov – they had all died too soon. Tchaikovsky, Rossini, Gogol – they all should have died earlier; perhaps Beethoven as well. It was, of course, not just a problem for famous writers and composers, but for ordinary people too: the problem of living beyond your best span, beyond that point where life can no longer bring joy, instead only disappointment and dreadful happenings.

The self-doubt of the young is nothing compared to the self-doubt of the old.



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