Friday, June 03, 2016 11:37 PM
Friday’s here—and just as I often don’t get fully awake before noon, I feel like I’m just getting warmed up whenever the end of the week rolls around. Old and in poor health is no way to suck the marrow from life. But I find I have company, or rather, competition.
That is to say that I’ve just finished reading Julian Barnes’ excellent historical novel, “The Noise of Time: A Novel”, touching on the life of Dmitri Shostakovich—a Russian composer of the Soviet era, and a favorite of mine since my early teens. I clearly remember mentioning the name to my mother one day, mispronouncing it, and being surprised that she corrected my pronunciation of his name—firstly because I realized he was famous enough for my mother to know his name, and secondly because I had been enamored of his music for months, while saying his name wrong (I had been thinking of him as Shos-TOCK-ovich!)
The Russians take pride in their deep sadness—as an American, I’ll never get that, but I get it, kind of. Masochism, irony, and melancholy are tools I have used myself in defense against a dysfunctional reality. But my life, and my troubles, are of an American smallness, in comparison to Barnes’ description of the living hell Shostakovich found himself in. He was a sensitive composer trapped in Stalin’s Russia, forced to publicly denounce his own works, and the works of his hero, Stravinsky—and other close friends and respected musicians; in danger for years from ideologues and politicians trying to ferret out disloyalty, even in thoughts and feelings, especially among artists—and even more especially in composers who had achieved global fame.
The book reminded me of the stories I heard about Soviet Russians living in terror of anonymous squads who came and took them in the night, often never to be seen again—and about the ideological tyranny that deposed aesthetics as the yardstick against which their art was ‘measured’—and sometimes condemned, along with the artist’s life.
Stalin’s rule, up to 1953, was so bloody that upon his death and the ascension of Khrushchev, it was said that ‘the Soviet had become vegetarian’. Although it may be more proper to say that the Soviet ceased to be cannibalistic, since Stalin’s machine had been devouring his own people. And Shostakovich was apparently a pretty nervous fellow—at the height of the pseudo-ideological criticisms of his music, he spent every night, for weeks, waiting at the elevator to be taken away by the KGB so that they wouldn’t have to burst into his apartment and drag him away in front of his wife and child. Barnes writes that Dmitri was just one of many people who observed this nighttime ritual during the terror known as Stalin’s Cult of Personality. Shostakovich’s life was one horror show after another—and it didn’t help that he was fairly well-off, compared to the average Soviet Russian—that just gave him more to lose.
As a boy, my favorite of his works was the last movement of his fifth symphony—but as I matured, I learned to prefer the rest of the symphony. According to Barnes’ story, Shostakovich was forced to add the final ‘triumphal’ movement to the symphony because the foregoing movements were so unremittingly ‘pessimistic’—and so he composed the final movement ironically. To my callow ears, and to the politburo, it sounded glorious (which saved Shostakovich’s life, and career)—but as my tastes matured I came to find the last movement somehow brash and ugly, and prefer the music that comes before—and now I know why, I suppose. Much is made in the book of the fact that when confronted with brainless tyranny, the only safe rebellion is in irony—but that irony over time gets lost in itself.
This book is no happy story, but it is something perhaps better—a fascinating story about strange and awful truths, and the horrendous lies that hide them, for a time at least. I have long since given up hope of finding in great artists’ lives any kind of reflection or explanation of the exaltation of their creations—but this book actually matches up the bleakness heard in most of his music with the day-to-day life of its composer. I read it in one sitting—something I’m only pushed into nowadays by irresistibly good writing and an enthralling story.
Barnes quotes Shakespeare at one point, mentioning that his Sonnet LXVI resonated with the artists of Soviet Russia, particularly the line, “And art made tongue-tied by authority”. I had to go look at the whole poem and I am struck, not for the first time, by how apropos Shakespeare always is, no matter how modern we think we have become:
Tired with all these, for restful death I cry,
As to behold desert a beggar born,
And needy nothing trimm’d in jollity,
And purest faith unhappily forsworn,
And gilded honour shamefully misplac’d,
And maiden virtue rudely strumpeted,
And right perfection wrongfully disgrac’d,
And strength by limping sway disabled
And art made tongue-tied by authority,
And folly—doctor-like—controlling skill,
And simple truth miscall’d simplicity,
And captive good attending captain ill:
Tir’d with all these, from these would I be gone,
Save that, to die, I leave my love alone.
(Shakespeare, William (2011-03-24). Shakespeare’s Sonnets (p. 132). . Kindle Edition.)
I love that line about “And folly—doctor-like—controlling skill,”—geniuses so often appear to fools as people who need to be ‘cured’, or at the very least, ‘corrected’. The poem as a whole is fitting for a Shostakovich biographical novel—he too was often tempted by thoughts of suicide, harried by the ubiquitous surplus of malevolent injustice crowding every aspect of his life.
That’s my take on the book—-lacking a segue, here’s two improvs from earlier today–hope you like them: