The figure on the jacket – Shostakovich

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

Review

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This was an article on Literature.

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Jack Westin
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31 Comments


  1. Fiction depicts history in a tantalizing way, though it often is not factual. The story of Shostakovich is exciting and gripping, but is certainty not true to historical events

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  2. MI: To Contrast what novelist can do vs Historians in portraying history ( Ex: Barnes’s Shostakovich)

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  3. Novels based on history compete with historians’ accounts of facts; novels make history engaging and enjoyable to read through partial fabrication, whereas historians are limited to exact facts

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  4. Historians are limited in what and how they write a biography, as compared to novelists who have more freedom and can make their stories more engaging as seen with the example of Barnes’ Shostakovich.

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  5. Depicting differences between novel vs historical writings.
    Examples relating to both

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  6. The author highlights the differences between writing with historical accuracy and for entertainment as it pertains to real events. In some ways novelists play the careless historian who doesn’t adhere to facts and maximizes the effects the historian wishes to achieve in their literature. Consequently, however, the historian finds comfort in giving the reliable version of intriguing stories such as that of Shostakovitch.

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  7. Thoughts of a novel reviewer. Liberties that novelists can take that historians can’t and particular take on book

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  8. The Author: Historian vs Novelist perspective on Shostakovich: Novelist’s is more exciting while history is more factual.

    Tone: Bit whimsical and fun

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  9. The author talks about the difference between historian and novel writers. The author seems to be a historian in my opinion. He doesn’t seem to like that in novel writings, there is not facts. He also mentions that novel writers don’t write in chronological order.

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  10. novelists have more freedom than historians with writing.

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  11. Comparison of novelists and historians, and the ease to which the former has in writing.

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  12. historians cannot invent, novelists can play around

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  13. MI: author (hist and novel rev) env (good natured) of freedom nov have in portraying hist figs as compared to fact based/structured hist
    tone: neut

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  14. Historian=facts/ novelist= creativity

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  15. Novelists get more freedom to do things when writing about real historical figures than historians

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  16. MIP: novelists=/=historians approach to stories (not chronological, less precise, given artistic freedom)

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  17. MIP: historians = limited; tone = neutral

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  18. MI: Novelists have more freedom in their writing than Historians + enviable

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  19. Novels vs historical writings = different, novelists = more freedom.

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  20. MI: Novelists vs. Historians. Novelists more flexible not always true tho

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  21. Historians/novelists = do things others can’t (precision, chronology, facts)

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  22. Barnes’s new novel on Shostakovich used internal monologues =/= historian book; the language & tone ironic, not accurate
    Historians focus on precision, chronological order, not allowed to invent monologues

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  23. Theme: Biopics written as a novels are explored by the author as he compares novelists and historians.
    As a historian by profession, author feels that novelists are a liberty to do things that historians aren’t able to do (would have like to invent a few interior monologues….easier to bring characters to life…not allowed to invent….only to quote; our conventions generally prevent us from…as sources). As a novel reviewer, author is envious that novelists are able to work with so much liberties. He makes known to the reader that novelists spin stories that aren’t historically true.

    Tone: Envy. Author is jealous that novelists can create interesting material that may not necessarily be true and maintains that it has been difficult to stay true to his profession (but not without a struggle). Conceited, smug that he knows more as a historian since he has done the research (one-upping move)

    Author also laments that historians tell their story in chronological manner whereas novelists can play around with chronology thus manipulating the reader’s perspective. Novelists do not need to provide accurate details in the biopics, giving them freedom and joy in their work (only adds to the fun)

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  24. historians = envy novelists; historians = facts + chronological vs novelists = creative /=/ chronological /=/ accurate hor = historian = book reviewer = negative

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  25. Historians always try to give every single bit of information to their readers in a very accurate manner but Novelists try to put only the hint words in their novels so the readers can use their critical thinking skills to connect those key words and on the basis of those key words they can understand the big idea in their mind and that’s the reason why some complex novels get abstruse sometimes because you just facing hard time connectin the major key terms in the novels.

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  26. MP: Novelists have the freedom to play around with words and history, but historians must stick to rule set on how to talk about history

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  27. MIP: Historians task more difficult than novelists task

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  28. MIP: differences bw historians writing + novelist. Novelists more freedom in writing (monologue), historian = rigid fact -seeking

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  29. The author seems to seek the way to organize Shostakovich’s biography. He/She thinks that to do this from a novelist’s perspective is more interesting than from a historian’s perspective.

    Reply

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