The figure on the jacket – round glasses, hair flopping over forehead, wary stance, music case in hand – is unmistakably Shostakovich.
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May 19, 2017 – Online MCAT CARS Practice
Question: What is your summary of the author’s main ideas. Post your own answer in the comments before reading those made by others.
The figure on the jacket – round glasses, hair flopping over forehead, wary stance, music case in hand – is unmistakably Shostakovich. Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich is also the name of the protagonist, a famous and famously persecuted Soviet composer, whose interior monologue is presented in this new novel by Julian Barnes. So there’s no mistaking the real-life basis of the book, even if you don’t read the acknowledgments, where Elizabeth Wilson’s Shostakovich: A Life Remembered and Solomon Volkov’s Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich are cited as sources. Barnes has done something of the kind before with The Porcupine, based on the trial of the Bulgarian communist leader Todor Zhivkov. John Banville did it in a roman à clef about Anthony Blunt in The Untouchable; and the Russian writer Olga Trifonova presented her persuasive and well-researched portrayal of Stalin’s wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva, in the form of a novel. All these bio-fictions are rather good, and The Porcupine comes with an endorsement from Zhivkov’s actual prosecutor. Are the novelists trying to put historians out of business?
From a historian’s point of view, the licence allowed novelists is something to envy. How I would have liked to invent a few interior monologues in my recent book on Stalin’s team! It would have made it so much easier to bring the characters to life. But as a historian you’re not allowed to invent interior monologues, only to quote texts that can be footnoted. Moreover, our conventions generally prevent us from using literary works as sources. When I was working on my book, I forbade myself to reread Trifonova’s novel so as not to internalise her fiction too deeply. It was really annoying to have to do this, since she appeared to have access to some archival documents not available to me. In the end I stuck to the purist position that if it’s not footnoted, I can’t quote it, but not without struggle.
There are other things novelists can do that historians can’t, or at least generally don’t. For example, historians usually tell their story chronologically, since history is about how one thing follows another; and when historians describe an event or introduce a character they tend to give all the relevant information immediately, so that the reader can get a full picture. But novelists can play around with chronological sequence, and they like to withhold information and release it later, forcing readers to adjust their perspective midstream. Then there’s the question of precision. For a historian, it is infuriating not to be able to establish an exact name, date or place. For a novelist, according to Barnes in his acknowledgments, it only adds to the fun if, for instance, he isn’t sure whether the name of Shostakovich’s interrogator is Zanchevsky, Zakrevsky or Zakovsky. ‘Truth was a hard thing to find, let alone maintain, in Stalin’s Russia,’ so let names mutate accordingly.
Being a fact-grubbing historian, I know the real name of Shostakovich’s interrogator (or rather his real assumed name, since he went by his revolutionary nom de guerre). If I were reviewing a historical work, it would be a nice one-upping move to tell you and the author what the name is. But in my new guise as a novel reviewer I won’t disclose the interrogator’s real name.
The two great preoccupations of Barnes’s Shostakovich are his own character weaknesses and his relationship to the Soviet regime (‘Power’). The women in his life get some attention, his male friends less. (That’s probably a difference between this Dmitri Dmitrievich and the historical one, to whom male friendships were very important – but ignore that, it was the historian talking.) The interior monologue is written in the third person, and occasionally reads as if it might be a translation from the Russian (Prokofiev’s ‘night blouse’, for example; the ‘tail suit’ that Shostakovich tells Stalin he needs in a famous telephone conversation), which is all to the good, since one doesn’t want one’s foreign protagonists sounding too English. The prevailing tone is ironic, a form of self-protection Shostakovich hopes ‘might enable you to preserve what you valued, even as the noise of time became loud enough to knock out window-panes’.
The ironic tone doesn’t prevent the novel being a three-part story of woe, each misery worse than the last, for which primarily Power but secondarily Shostakovich’s weaknesses of character are responsible. The disasters fall on every fourth leap year: 1936, 1948 and 1960. Shostakovich expects 1972 to follow the pattern and be the year of his death, only to realise, when it’s over, that the catastrophe was that he survived.
Adapted from London Review of Books
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