Wednesday, 27 December 2017

The Rustling of History

Not only rage, but art as well is what emerges from authoritarian times – rage, as a reaction to supression and uncertainty, is easily understood and more easily witnessed while art, although equally obvious, it is not as easily accomplished or perceived. The latter, combined with the political power, is the issue Julian Barnes takes on in his recent novel "The Noise of Time" – a fictional biography of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovitch, one of the most distinguised and prolific artists of a very tumultuous period – Stalin's rule in Russia.

Each of the three chapters of the novel captures a critical moment of Dmitri Shostakovich's life. The first is situated "On the landing" of a Leningrand appartment. It's 1937, Stalin is in power and implementing his Big Clearup – a massive operation of his regime,  in cooperation with the armed forces and the Russian Secret Service, to suppress "the enemies of the working class", using fast-track options. The composer is already in target – his opera "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk" has been called a confusing noise, and himself "a formalist, a leftish petty-bourgeois". Every night, Shostakovich stands
by the lift, "at his feet a small case containing cigarettes, underwear and tooth powder; standing there and waiting to be taken away." Afraid but still self-conscious, he wants to protect his family (wife and daughter) of the violence his arrest entails. While waiting, his mind wanders in the past – memories of his puberty, his first love, his marriage and his music, i.e. his life up until the moment comrade Stalin decided to go to the opera, and not like it.

Twelve years later, Dmitri Shostakovich is "On the plane" returning from New York where he took part in a Cultural and Scientific Convention for Peace representing the Russian regime. Once again, filled with fear and shame for his being so timorous, he recalls what has just happened: in the Convention, he read the speech he was given
in a “muttered monotone”, he replied to the poignant questions of the American journalists in an equally awful manner, and he was publicly humiliated by the anti-communists demonstrating outside his hotel. What's more, he met his  much admired role model, composer Igor Stravinsky, only to receive his contempt.

In the third chapter of the novel, we move to 1960. The regime has become less person-centred since Nikita Khrushchev has come in power and he is now implementing his own strategic plan – the De-Stalinization of the country and the rehabilitation of the victims of the previous regime. Shostakovich is an elderly,
sitting in the back of a chauffeur-driven car, trying once again to achieve a balance between the moral objections to his bitter compromise and the authoritarian reality. Despite the reasons and justifications he draws from his childhood, the guilt he feels is not softened.

All three periods have two things in common: a “Conversation with Power” – i.e. interrogation by the NKVD –, and a dickensian opening line: "This was the worst of times". It was, in fact, the time when, according to Anne Applebaum in her latest book, the Stalinist system was perfect for creating large groups of people who did not like the regime and knew that the propaganda was all lies but, still, felt obliged to collaborate.  Dmitri Shostakovich was one of those "reluctant collaborators" and he, despite all –doubts, guilt, disagreements– complied with whatever the regime suggested:  he represented it in public events, he denounced fellow-artists (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Vladimir Zakharov, his dear Anton Chekhov) and, in the days of Khrushchev, he became a member of the party thus breaking what could oppose the permanent sense of personal defeat: the feeling that he lived and worked, for so many years, without being one.  
The title of the book is borrowed from the memoirs of Osip Mandelstam – a Russian poet, one of the most outspoken critics of Stalin's regime and therefore, arrested and displaced to a labour camp in Siberia. In contrast, Shostakovich –throughout his life– did not rebel against the regime and enjoyed the specially conditioned freedom it provided him with. Having accepted his weak nature, Shostakovich transcribes all of his gloomy thoughts and feelings into irony, often becoming self-sarcasm, and music – Shostakovich composed numerous concerts, operas and soundtracks for films and ballets, and gave concerts not only in Russia but also abroad. This continuous creativity makes me think that Sostakovich did react afterall – subconsiously, as his music was not always according to the comrades' taste. He even wrote a number of jazz opuses – as a genre, jazz was considered odious at the time.

In the last pages of the book, Julian Barnes writes that the novel was based on an extensive literature on the composer. However, "The Noise of Time" is not an entirely historical biography hence, taking some license, he changed some particular details of his life.  For example, in the novel, Shostakovich appears to have more friendly relationships with women when, in fact, male friends were very important to him. What's more, the author casts some light to intimate aspects of the composer's life that are not so obvious to a historian: Dmitri Shostakovich did have a social life, even though limited, a family life, an extramarital one and many happy moments with his children. He had a sports life, too – as a certified football referee that he was,
he took part in quite a few matches and sporting events. He had, also, attempted to commit suicide but he was too naive to succeed. 

Shostakovich, as we read, lived under a continuous internal conflict. The author uses interior monologues interchanged with a third person narration to emphasize the ruthless way the composer critised his integrity and self-consiousness. It works fine – the intimacy created between the narrator/Shostakovich and the reader is imposing. Julian Barnes, who has skillfully authored biographies before (> "Arhtur & George", "Flaubert's Parrot" and, the preceding of both, "Porcupine") takes a deep look in Shostakovich's cowardice giving a rare, sober, picture of the Russian composer. He combines historical facts and fiction masterfully, pointing out on one hand, the personal cost of compromise; and on the other, the relation between power, artists and their work.  

Bottom line: this is a powerfull novel of remarkable detail on the burden of not-resisting and compromise, and the way it does not thrash the artistic survival of a creator. 


Note: In the first photograph, an extraordinary piece of cloth woven by Nadia-Anne Ricketts – it depicts the sounds of Piano Concerto No.2 by Sergei Rachmaninoff. The photograph of Dmitri Shostakovich in the early '70s is drawn from here and the one of  the author from here.

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