The Second Monday book group at Forbes rotates volunteer discussion leaders, and I signed up for this one because I like Barnes (although I haven’t read that much by him). It’s a meditation on courage and power’s corrupting effect on art, told as the inner thoughts of Dmitri Shostakovich at three low points in his life when he was humiliated by the Soviet Union. In my own reading I had mixed feelings about the historical fiction aspect, but the discussion brought me around to unqualified admiration. It’s so well structured and patterned, and even though Barnes’ “Shostakovich” is a construct, the choice makes sense. And it’s a jewel of compression–under 200 pages but very rich and full, which led to a great discussion. I typically flag a bunch of passages and then weed them down; some keepers:
On his parents’ relationship: “The strong cannot help confronting; the less strong cannot help evading.”
There was nothing in his life for those weeks except love, music, and mosquito bites. The love in his heart, the music in his head, the bites on his skin. Not even paradise was free of insects. But he could hardly resent them. Their bites were ingeniously made in places inaccessible to him; the lotion was based on an extract of carnation flowers. If a mosquito was the cause of her fingers touching his skin and making him smell of carnations, how could he possibly hold anything against the insect?
In an ideal world, a young man should not be an ironical person. At that age, irony prevents growth, stunts the imagination. It is best to start life in a cheerful and open state of mind, believing in others, being optimistic, being frank with everyone about everything. And then, as one comes to understand things and people better, to develop a sense of irony. The natural progression of human life is from optimism to pessimism; and a sense of irony helps temper pessimism, helps produce balance, harmony.
But this was not an ideal world, and so irony grew in sudden and strange ways. Overnight, like a mushroom; disastrously, like a cancer.
Art belongs to everybody and nobody. Art belongs to all time and no time. Art belongs to those who create it and those who savour it. Art no more belongs to the People and the Party than it once belonged to the aristocracy and the patron. Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time. Art does not exist for art’s sake: it exists for people’s sake. … He wrote music for the ears that could hear. And he knew, therefore, that all true definitions of art are circular, and all untrue definitions of art ascribe to it a specific function.
He admired those who stood up and spoke truth to Power. He admired their bravery and their moral integrity. And sometimes he envied them; but it was complicated, because part of what he envied them was their death, their being put out of the agony of living. … He too had felt the vanity of transitory courage.
But these heroes, these martyrs, whose death often gave a double satisfaction–to the tyrant who ordered it, and to watching nations who wished to sympathise and yet feel superior–they did not die alone. Many around them would be destroyed as a result of their heroism. And therefore it was not simple, even when it was clear.
What could be put up against the noise of time? Only that music which is inside ourselves—the music of our being—which is transformed by some into real music. Which, over the decades, if it is strong and true and pure enough to drown out the noise of time, is transformed into the whisper of history.
In New York, he had gone to a pharmacy for some aspirin. Ten minutes after he left, an assistant was seen fixing a sign in the window. It read: DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH SHOPS HERE.
Now that he had seen more of life, and been deafened by the noise of time, he thought it likely that Shakespeare had been right, had been truthful: but only for his own times. In the world’s younger days, when magic and religion held sway, it was plausible that monsters might have consciences. Not anymore. The world had moved on, become more scientific, more practical, less under the sway of the old superstitions. And tyrants had moved on as well. Perhaps conscience no longer had an evolutionary function, and so had been bred out. Penetrate beneath the modern tyrant’s skin, go down layer after layer, and you will find that the texture does not change, that granite encloses yet more granite; and there is no cave of conscience to be found.
… how much bad music is a good composer allowed? … He had written a lot of bad music for a lot of very bad films. Though you could say that his music’s badness made those films even worse, and thus rendered a service to truth and art.
What he hoped was that death would liberate his music: liberate it from his life. Time would pass, and though musicologists would continue their debates, his work would begin to stand for itself. History, as well as biography, would fade: perhaps one day Fascism and Communism would be merely words in textbooks. And then, if it still had value—if there were still ears to hear—his music would be … just music. That was all a composer could hope for. Whom does music belong to, he had asked that trembling student, and thought the reply was written in capital letters on a banner behind her interrogator’s head, the girl could not answer. Not being able to answer was the correct answer. Because music, in the end, belonged to music. That was all you could say, or wish for.
And one strange editing oversight, I assume: a great line about “He swam in honours like a shrimp in shrimp-cocktail sauce,” but it appears twice! (in the Knopf hardcover, pages 126 and 146) Even Homer nods…