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An evocative glimpse of a lost Soviet past #sheilafitzpatrick #sovietrussia

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A Spy in the Archive by Sheila Fitzpatrick

I’m not entirely sure what’s driving my reading at the moment; obviously the amount of comfort reading of classic crime is because of world circumstances; but I’ve also felt drawn towards non-fiction, maybe as a way of travel (which is not an option right now). Certainly, my love of Russia and its history hasn’t diminished at all, and so Sheila Fitzpatrick’s wonderful memoir of her time in Soviet Moscow in the 1960s turned out to be ideal for my mood.

I’ve been aware of Fitzpatrick’s work as a pioneering Sovietologist for some time; and she regularly appears as a contributor in the pages of the London Review of Books. Born in Australia, she came to study at Oxford in the 1960s as an exchange student; the college she was attached to, St Antony’s, was reputed to be a breeding grounds for anti-Soviet spies and she mixed with an array of well-known names. Her strong desire was to get to Russia and study its archives, a visit which was facilitated by the British Council; and the book relates her experiences in Moscow as well as the close friendships she made and the complexities of functioning under Soviet bureaucracy. It all makes for a scintillating read!

Fitzpatrick herself is a fascinating woman, coming from a left-wing family; her father Brian was a noted author, historian and journalist, as well as one of founders of the Australian Council for Civil Liberties. From what Sheila says in her book, they had a stormy relationship, one which she eventually covered in her book “My Father’s Daughter: Memories of an Australian Childhood”. “Spy…” draws on Fitzpatrick’s memories of the time, the diaries she kept and the letters she wrote to her mother (her father had passed away in 1965).

Red Square in the 1960s – SAS Scandinavian Airlines / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

At the time, the study of Soviet history was not taken seriously and Sheila set out to change this. The Cold War was still in full swing, and even getting into the Soviet Union was complex enough. Add into that the constant fear of spies, threats of expulsion from East and West, plus the fact that any visitor to Moscow was going to be observed closely and possibly the subject of some kind of entrapment, and you end up with a situation guaranteed to make anyone feel anxious, especially a shy girl from Australia (which is how she describes herself). At one point, she was even ‘outed; in a Russian press article as a spy (which she wasn’t), but because of the confusion with names (she was using a married name as well as her maiden name) the effects were fortunately minimal.

Fitzpatrick’s focus at the time was on studying Anatoly Vasilyevich Lunacharsky, an early Bolshevik who was (according to Wikipedia) “a Russian Marxist revolutionary and the first Bolshevik Soviet People’s Commissar (Narkompros) responsible for Ministry and Education as well as active playwright, critic, essayist and journalist throughout his career.” We have, of course, recently celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution; but when Fitzpatrick visited Moscow in the 1960s the Revolution was still within living memory, and she was able to gain access to members of Lunacharsky’s family. His home life had been a complex one, with a second marriage and in effect two families. However, Fitzpatrick made contact with his brother-in-law Igor Sats, and his daughter Irina, and they became fast friends; in fact, it seems, just as close as actual family members.

“Spy” is an engaging mix, therefore, of memoir, thoughts on her discipline, pen portaits of the people she encounters, musing on the politics of the era and a wonderful glimpse into what it was like in that place at that time; and I must admit I would love to have a TARDIS to go back and experience what Sheila did, despite the difficulties. In some ways, she recognises, she was very naive, and narrowly escaped entrapment a couple of times. But the relationships she built up with Igor and Irina were powerful ones, particularly with the former. At times, it almost verges on an unconsummated love affair, but Fitzpatrick acknowledges her need for a father figure in her life, especially after the complex relationship with her real father. She’s not afraid to look back at her younger self with a wry yet affectionate eye, recognising how hard it must have been for her mother to receive the letters Sheila sent home, and their relatationship was obviously also not easy…

I absolutely loved reading this book, as you might have guessed; I became thoroughly absorbed in it, transported back to the Oxford and Moscow of the time and it was a real window into the past. The sexual politics of era were quite an eye-opener too, both at home and abroad; and despite the burgeoning women’s movement there were still assumptions about how women should behave, particularly in a partnership. I admired how Fitzpatrick made her own way, and I’m keen to read the book she wrote about her later husband, Mischka Danos.

Sheila Fitzpatrick in 2016 – from Wikipedia Commons – Department of Communications and the Arts Australia / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)

As well as being a fascinating and extremely engaging read, there was much in the book which resonated in me on a personal level. I’m of a different generation to Fitzpatrick, so came to the idea and history of the Soviet Union a decade later and much younger. However, a good part of the book is concerned with matters which came into my line of sight at the time (and since). Fitzpatrick’s supervisor at Oxford was Max Hayward, who I know as a translator, in particular being co-responsible for the first English version of “Dr. Zhivago” (and there’s a whole other story there about the CIA’s involvement in getting that book out of Soviet Russia to the west). He was a prolific translator, dying quite young, and it was intriguing to see him from Sheila’s point of view. She’s very honest looking back, finding her behaviour towards him perhaps not as she would now wish it to be and commenting:

I’m depressed in retrospect by the callousness of my report. All I can say in extenuation is that when you’re young, you don’t always believe that your seniors are human.

Of particular interest, however, was the fact that Igor Sats was heavily involved with the Russian literary journal Novy Mir (New World). First published in 1925, it was originally a publication which very much toed the Communist Party line. However, by the 1960s, under its editor Alexander Tvardovsky, it was leaning towards dissident territory and was responsible for a number of firsts, including its groundbreaking publication of Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” (probably the first Russian book I read). Solzhenitsyn is an author dear to my heart – I followed his progress avidly during the 1970s, including his expulsion from the Soviet Union and his appearances on the BBC – and he makes regular appearances in “Spy” (as does another favourite Russian author, Andrey Platonov). Reading about the struggles the journal had, and the complexities of negotiating Soviet censorship to be able to publish what you want was absorbing, and transported me right back to my teens. Looking at the list of contributors in the battered old collection of Novy Mir pieces reminded me what an esteemed journal it really was, and was quite moving.

There were other resonances. Fitzpatrick relates encounters with Ivy Litvinov, an Englishwoman married to the Soviet diplomat Maxim Litvinov , whose books I’ve read and who I wrote about here. And she discusses the tendency I’ve noticed in Soviet writing, particularly in my exploration of Science Fiction works from that era, of hiding the real meaning of the story in a subtext – what she calls Aesopian writing.

So “A Spy in the Archives” turned out to be just the thing I needed to read right now. Sheila Fitzpatrick roams far and wide over all manner of complex issues, but the book is never dull and her memories are entertaining and fascinating. She provides a wonderful insight into the difficulties of research, particularly when access to material is tightly controlled, and her viewpoint that the past can be studied as social history, rather than just political state history, is one with which I really agree. I expected to like this book, but I hadn’t anticipated it would be such a wonderful read which ended up touching me personally. Highly recommended if you’re interested in history, the Soviet Union or simply an account of a memorable period in one woman’s life!

A city on the cusp of change @glagoslav #iconoclasm #moscow #russia

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We Are Building Capitalism! Moscow in Transition 1992-1997 by Robert Stephenson

When you’re an avid reader and a bookworm, there are times when you stumble across a book you just *know* is going to be perfect for you. I’ve had a few of those in my lifetime, and I came across one recently which couldn’t have been a better fit. My love for Russia and its literature and history is well-known; and I’ve done all manner of wittering away about iconoclasm and the like recently on the Ramblings. So when the lovely Glagoslav offered me a review copy of a new book which looked at the changes which took place in the landscape of Moscow after the end of Communism, it was a no-brainer that I’d want to read it, wasn’t it? 😀

The title of “We Are Building Capitalism!” riffs on the kind of slogans bandied about in the early days of the Soviet Union, and there’s plenty of irony at work here. Robert Stephenson was at the time a UK civil servant who was shipped to Moscow in 1992 after the collapse of Communism, sent as a consultant and then leading a number of projects. He spent five years living and working in Russia’s capital city and during that time he indulged his passion for photography. In doing so, he created a wonderful record of the changes taking place in the city, and this book is a stunning account of those times.

Moscow in the early 1990s was not an easy place in which to live; there were shortages of everything, the economy was changing, and the transition from communism to capitalist was painful. Salaries had been cut, people had lost their jobs and were struggling to survive; and there was the constant presence of pop-up outdoor markets where people tried to sell goods (or their possessions) to make ends meet. The economic uncertainty was matched with political uncertainty, as the new regime struggled to maintain some kind of stability and the oligarchs started to creep in.

Stephenson’s book brilliantly captures those times, and the book is divided into chapters which focus on a particular element – the destruction of old monuments, for example. or the changing face of the shops and markets, the gradual arrival of Western influence (Coke or Macdonalds, anyone?) and the altered skyline of the city. “We Are Building…” is a large softcover book, roughly A4 landscape, and this means that the photographs have the space to be given the prominence they deserve. And they *are* truly atmospheric – from the people in the streets, the old shop front signage, a deserted Patriarch’s Ponds in the winter, to my beloved Mayakovsky silhouetted on the cover against a symbol of modernity, these photographs bring Moscow at that time vividly to life.

Each section of the book has commentary by Stephenson on what will follow, and as I read through and gazed at his photos, I felt a mixture of fascination but also sadness. So much of old Moscow (and it’s a city which *has* been rebuilt a number of times) has been wiped out to be replaced with modern, Western architecture that I couldn’t help but feel sorry that I never got to see it back then. Unfortunately, much of Soviet architecture is not taken seriously (despite the best efforts of commentators like Owen Hatherley to convince people otherwise); and I remember reading that when Vladimir Bortko was filming his 2005 version of “The Master and Margarita”, he actually had to go to St. Peterburg to find the right buildings to shoot with, as there was so little left in Moscow that looked right for the period of the book. I know things have to change and I guess the people that had to live in them might feel differently, but I think we need to be careful about sweeping changes and wiping out the physical past so drastically, as there’s a danger of losing a connection with our heritage.

“We Are Building…” turned out to be just as good (if not better!) than I had expected. Stephenson is a knowledgeable and entertaining commentator and his photographs are wonderful windows into the past. The book touches lightly on the subject of iconoclasm, as there are any number of statues of Lenin, Stalin et al that were pulled down or damaged or destroyed (luckily Mayakovsky seems to have survived); interestingly, many have been restored and resettled in the Muzeon Park of Arts. Which potentially sets off another chain of argument in that although these statues represent people who had become hated, they *were* the result of somebody’s artistic endeavours, so should we regard them as a work of art or just a piece of propaganda to be destroyed? *

But I digress (as usual….!). Stephenson’s book is a wonderful thing, a stunning collection of images recording a time of change which is now long gone; and if you have any interest in Moscow, its history and its landscape this is most definitely the book for you. Stephenson resists all the way through doing comparison shots until the very end, when he shares two shots along the Garden Ring taken twenty years apart. The change is stunning (and not in a good way, in my view); so we’re very lucky to have this collection of images to record the past.

(Review copy kindly provided by Glagoslav, for which many thanks!)

*****

* As an aside, the whole question of how to treat art in public spaces and whether it should actually be treated as art or propaganda is a knotty one which has vexed all manner of commentators. In fact, it was the subject of a film “Doubled Youth” by the Lithuanian artist Deimantas Narkevičius, which looked at the removal of Soviet era sculptures from the Green Bridge in Vilnius. For anyone interested, there is a fascinating discussion about the film from a session at Newcastle’s Baltic Gallery (including, amongst others, Professor Richard Clay) which you can watch here. It’s a complex issue…

Following Owen Hatherley’s adventures over at Shiny New Books! @shinynewbooks @owenhatherley @RepeaterBooks

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Owen Hatherley is an author who’s popped up on the Ramblings before; I reviewed his stimulating book “The Chaplin Machine” back in 2016, and I read a number of his works pre-blog, so I was delighted to be able to review his most recent book for Shiny New Books. “The Adventures of Owen Hatherley in the Post Soviet Space”, with its cheeky cover homage to Herge’s “The Adventures of Tintin in the Land of the Soviets”, is a fascinating, entertaining and surprisingly deep read. If you have any interest in Soviet architecture, the state of the disassembled nations of the USSR, aesthetics and politics and how they intersect, or indeed the history of the various ex-Soviet states, this is definitely the book for you.

To go off at a slight tangent, I was (perhaps rather foolishly) surprised by the amount of discussion of iconoclasm in the book. As is fairly obvious to anyone following the Ramblings, it’s a subject that has become of increasing interest to me over the last year or two. I guess in the past, due to my reading of all things Russian, I’d thought of it as a fairly simplistic equation: Angry Mob + Statues of Hated Leaders = (Concrete) Heads Will Roll – what you might just think of as a visceral response to detested rulers. However, when I began watching the programmes of, and reading the books, by Professor Richard Clay on the subject, in particular with regard to the French revolution (though he *has* moved his study of the subject onto a wider platform more recently), I started to realise that iconoclasm was anything but straightforward.

In France, in particular, the state sponsored iconoclasm was a structured and planned approach to the removal of particular symbols thereby changing the meaning of objects in public space. This actually made me think anew about what is actually *meant* by iconoclasm; it’s not just a religious term any more, but one applied to the alteration of any symbol of control which is out of keeping with the public space in which it sits. Context is all – the objects concerned stay the same, but a statue of Lenin in a Soviet controlled country has a very different meaning and effect than one in a post-Soviet location. As I mentioned, this kind of thinking addled my brain a little when I was taking my mum round Edinburgh on our trip in 2017 – so many statues of dead white men in the city! What where they meant to be saying? What relevance did they have to today?

The topic of state-sponsored iconoclasm comes up in the Hatherley book, of course, where it’s given the heady title of decommunisation; though as Hatherley points out wryly at one point, a number of places could only be decommunised by razing them to the ground, so ingrained is the Soviet iconography. The Lenins, Stalins and Marxes have often been removed, as have the hammer and sickle emblems; but in many places they haven’t, and you wonder whether the imagery has been there so long that people just don’t see it any more, or whether they actually have a hankering for simpler times. Bearing in mind the extreme poverty which now exists in many of the cities, and the massive divide between rich and poor, I’m afraid you can see the appeal of Soviet times where the state provided everything…

Anyway – as you can tell, the Owen Hatherley book is one which provokes any number of thoughts, and I found it fascinating. You can read my thoughts about it here.

Sharing some lovelies from my own personal library!

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The trouble with reading anything like the wonderful Ozerov volume I reviewed a couple of days ago is the massive list it creates of authors you want to explore further. However, I *was* quite familiar with a lot of the names, and in fact the book acted as a reminder of some of the volumes I already own but which are languishing unread. And I have a lovely collection by one particular author – Konstantin Paustovsky.

Unknown Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Paustovsky was a Russian author who lived through turbulent times (as did so many!) Born in 1892, he survived world war, revolution, civil war, Stalin’s purges, another world war and the thaw, passing away in 1968. Nominated for the Nobel Prize and influenced by Kataev, Babel and Olesha, his sequence of six books loosely categorised as autobiography are probably his most famous. These books, known as “Story of a Life”, are not necessarily an accurate historical document, but apparently regarded as a record of the times and his reactions to them.

Well – I remembered that I have these books; something prompted me a while back to collect a beautiful set of hard back editions, as well as a lovely Progress Press edition of some of his short works. And here they are:

They’re all pretty hardback editions with dustwrappers in some shape or form. Some are ex-library, all have been loved in the past, but I’m so happy to have them just as objects – well, just look at the jacket covers!

I just absolutely love, love, love those covers! Just stunning artwork, and when I’d picked up the first couple of volumes I knew I had to own the set. And yes – I need to read these books, because there’s absolutely no point in them just sitting on the shelves. Maybe that could be a project for 2019…

So thank you Lev Ozerov (and his marvellous translators!) for reminding me I owned all these lovely Paustovsky books. I definitely prefer vintage-style book design!

 

Giving back the lost voices of Russian women @Dedalusbooks

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Slav Sisters (The Dedalus Book of Russian Women’s Literature)
Edited by Natasha Perova

Surprisingly for someone who reads a reasonable amount (ahem!) of Russian literature, it’s only struck me relatively recently that much of what I read has been written by men. Particularly in the era before the revolution, the big names are male – Gogol, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov et al – and the women’s voices seem to be either non-existent, or possibly just not translated. I think the tide is starting to turn a little nowadays; the translations of the Columbia University Press’s Russian Library (Sofia Khvoshchinskaya already issued, and Karolina Pavlova forthcoming) are doing much to redress the balance when it comes to authors from the 19th century. The 20th is perhaps a little better represented, though mainly with poets; so I was pleased to be alerted by a post on translator Boris Dralyuk’s excellent blog to the existence of “Slav Sisters”, which had somehow slipped underneath my radar.

Dedalus Books are a publisher of literary fiction with an impressive backlist, which includes much translated literature. Laudably, Dedalus has declared it will celebrate women’s literature from 2018-2028 by publishing six titles a year for the decade to celebrate the anniversary of women getting the vote in the UK in 1918. Apparently most of these will be translated from other European languages, and “Slav Sisters” is a fine entry into that list of books.

This anthology focuses on Russian women’s writing in the 20th century, and the range of writers featured is impressive – in fact, let’s have a list of the contents and translators and celebrate them all:

1. Kishmish and Solovki by Nadezhda Teffi, translated by Robert & Elizabeth Chandler.
2. My Jobs by Marina Tsvetaeva, translated by Jamey Gambrell.
3. Autobiographical Sketches by Anna Akhmatova,translated by Andrew Bromfield.
4. Delusion of the Will by Lydia Ginzburg, translated by Boris Dralyuk.
5. The Lady with the Dog and The Death of an Official by Galina Scherbakova, translated by Ilona Chavasse.
6. What a Girl by Ludmila Petrushevskaya, translated by Joanne Turnbull
7. The Stone Guest by Olga Slavnikova, translated by Marian Schwartz.
8. The Gift Not Made by Human Hand by Ludmila Ulitskaya, translated by Arch Tait.
9. Philemon and Baucis by Irina Muravyova, translated by John Dewey.
10. Landscape of Loneliness : Three Voices by Svetlana Alexievich, translated by, Joanne Turnbull.
11. The Jewess’s Farewell by Margarita Khemlin, translated by Arch Tait.

That’s a staggering amount of talent, both in terms of the authors *and* the translators, to have featured in one volume! And indeed the contents make gripping, absorbing, moving and memorable reading.

People of my generation are in no danger of being saddened by returning to the scenes of our past – we have nowhere to return to…. (Akhmatova)

The content ranges from the factual (Alexievich’s heartbreaking interviews with Soviet women about their lives and loves; Tsvetaeva’s humorous yet dark memories of her attempts to work and survive in the wake of the Russian Revolution and Civil War) to the fictional (Scherbakova’s cynical and realistic take on Chekhov; Ludmila Ulitskaya’s sardonic tale of idealism meeting with reality). Slavnikova’s story brings us into the world of Russian gangsters before veering off into allegory; Muravyova cleverly opens her tale with an old couple’s mutual hatred and co-dependence, which is eventually revealed to result from a dark and truly horrific past. Teffi, of course, is as dry as ever, yet once again there is sadness and human suffering at the heart of her stories. Ginzburg’s genre-defying piece on the psychological landscape of guilt lingers in the mind. And Tsvetaeva and Akhmatova should need no introduction to readers of the Ramblings…

Teffi by Pierre Choumoff [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Well, I could go on and on about the jewels in this collection, but in fact each story is a gem. Editor Natasha Perova (who has an impressive pedigree, including starting the small press Glas) has chosen what I think is a perfect selection of works to not only show the variety of women’s writing from the last century, but also to tell women’s stories. That latter element was what stood out for me most strongly after reading “Slav Sisters”.These are voices that would have been silenced under Soviet rule, and it’s only with the collapse of the Communist regime that they’ve been able to find an outlet.

The human memory is constructed like a searchlight, so that it illuminates separate moments while leaving all around in impenetrable darkness. Even a person with a magnificent memory may and should forget some things. (Akhmatova)

Interestingly, I was reminded when I set out to write this post about the women authors who *were* published during the 20th century; I refer of course to those writing in the science fiction field. I’ve read a number of these authors in recent years and maybe that was one genre women could tell a story in, although many of these works were in coded form, with the actual meaning hidden under the narrative to avoid the censor’s eye.

Has anyone ever seen the place that love goes when it’s run its course? Maybe it isn’t a place at all, maybe love dissipates into molecules and atoms inside one’s own body, and the most searing of the passions turns into a horny toenail? Or maybe it all scatters like ashes, so there’s no use looking for any trace of those hungering, searching hands, or the ardent lips that kissed yours until pleasure mingled with pain. Scattered, like the white bloom of apple trees. (Scherbakova)

I could go on and on about how good these pieces are; how heartbreaking in many places; and how it’s a crime that all of these women have not been better known before. I was aware of many of the names already, of course – Teffi, Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova from the early years, plus Ulitskaya and Petrushevskaya from more recent times. However, several were new to me which makes the anthology especially valuable; I was particularly taken with Galina Scherbakova and Olga Slavnikova. The works are presented in what I assume is roughly chronological order; I *would* have liked to see a little more information included about original publication date and location for the pieces just to provide context. However, if nothing else the anthology proves that women all over the world have the same needs, desires, problems and everyday issues to deal with. We certainly are all sisters under the skin and this exceptional collection really is essential reading.

Review copy kindly provided by Dedalus Books, for which many thanks!

Ahem. #books

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What was that phrase about the best laid plans? Oh yes – I think that came from a book, too….!

So there was I, feeling all smug about not buying much in the way of books lately, and with piles of them in the hall waiting to be donated. But today, I happened to wander into a couple of charity shops, not really looking for anything in particular and not wanted anything in particular. But Bookish Things Happened….

The first charity shop had a little clutch of Companion Book Club editions – always recognisable because of their distinctive jacket design, if they still have one. These two particular titles did, and although they’re a little battered, they were 50p each, so…. “Sailing to Freedom” is a real life story of an Estonian family sailing from Sweden to America during WW2 to escape repatriation and the consequences by the Soviet Union – sounds absolutely fascinating. As for the Maigret, it’s a title I don’t have (I think!) but was essential because of this:

I’m rather intrigued by the inclusion of an interview with Simenon, and I’m hoping to get onto this one soon – the Maigret stories are *so* readable!

I popped into the Samaritans Book Cave also, as I’m donating to them this week, and I happened upon this in their poetry section (which I always check out to see if there are any volumes of the Penguin Modern Poets I need):

Intrigued? You bet I was! I know (or can remember) very little about Dickinson’s life, and Gordon is a respected biographer, so I’m hoping for a torrid tale of family fallings-out and vicious vendettas!

And finally, a library book:

I thought I would borrow “The Stone Angel” and see if I felt like reading it and joining in with the Virago author of the month for June. Much better than buying it, especially as Mount TBR is still tremblingly high.

Well, it could have been worse – last week the library had a book sale where the volumes were 5 for £1 and I exercised great restraint and only came home with a BIG catalogue book from a Royal Academy Russian show from ten years ago. I think I did pretty well, considering… 🙂

“Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time.”

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The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

You might be sensing something of a theme here on the Ramblings….

… because I do seem to be reading rather a lot of books set in or about Soviet Russia! I guess that’s kind of inevitable in the anniversary year of the 1917 Revolution, and I’m not complaining as it’s fairly obvious to even the most casual reader that I do have an interest in that country and its literature. However, I’ve been circling “The Noise of Time” for a little while now, slightly apprehensive and unsure if I should read it, mostly because of my well-known discomfort with fictionalised real lives, and also because it’s about Shostakovich, whose work I absolutely love (despite knowing very little about music in a technical way).

Dmitri Shostakovich is probably one of the most well-known Russian composers of the 20th century and he does tend to attract a little controversy, being either regarded as a puppet of the regime or a man who survived by saying one thing and meaning another. Barnes obviously subscribes to the latter view, and his portrait of the composer is nuanced and compelling.

But one of life’s many disappointments was that it was never a novel, not by Maupassant or anyone else. Well, perhaps a short satirical tale by Gogol.

“Noise” focuses on three pivotal points in Shostakovich’s life where he reaches a critical point – times when survival could well be in doubt. Each of these years – 1936, 1948, 1960 – is twelve years apart and a leap year, and the superstitious composer is very aware of this. In the first section of the book we find him waiting outside the lift in his building, a small suitcase in his hand; for Shostakovich is convinced he is about to be arrested, taken in the night as so many of his friends and colleagues have been, and he wishes to be prepared and orderly rather than grabbed in his pyjamas. As he waits, he reminiscences and ponders on his past; his relationship with his family, previous loves, and the fact that the failure of his opera, “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” has led to him being denounced and vilified.

He did not want to make himself into a dramatic character. But sometimes, as his mind skittered in the small hours, he thought: so this is what history has come to. All that striving and idealism and hope and progress and science and art and conscience, and it all ends like this, with a man standing by a lift, at his feet a small case containing cigarettes, underwear and tooth powder; standing there and waiting to be taken away.

Through a quirk of fate Shostakovich survives 1936 and when we next encounter him he’s returning from a politically motivated propaganda visit to America. This has been stressful, as he’s been made to spout speeches and soundbites written for him by the authorities, as well as encountering hostile émigré Russians. By now, the composer knows that to speak out would mean trouble for both him and his family, and instead irony is the best defence against tyranny – particularly useful when dealing with a functionary sent to give him a little political education.

The final section focuses on an older Shostakovich, dealing with declining health and a final indignity. Living through the thaw that followed Stalin’s death, everyday life has become slightly easier; however, this brings its own problems and the composer is faced with having to make a choice which will completely compromise him morally and is one of the hardest things he ever has to do.

The Composer

Barnes draws on two major works for his portrait of the composer: “Shostakovich: A Life Remembered” by Elizabeth Wilson, and “Testimony”, Shostakovich’s memoirs as related to Solomon Volkov. Both of these books are on Mount TBR and I’m well aware that the latter has also been controversial, with differing claims about its authenticity. Nevertheless, the voice that Barnes gives to Shostakovich here is one I found entirely convincing and the book is a compelling, fascinating and very moving read. Barnes captures brilliantly in his narrative the effects of living a life in constant fear; the daily horrors, the wish to escape and just be left alone to create your work. Despite his dismissal of himself as a “worm”, Shostakovich’s narrative is wryly witty in places, a dark humour that was probably a necessary response to years of living under the iron heel of tyranny.

In the old days, a child might pay for the sins of its father, or indeed mother. Nowadays, in the most advanced society on earth, the parents might pay for the sins of the child, along with uncles, aunts, cousins, in-laws, colleagues, friends, and even the man who unthinkingly smiled at you as he came out of the lift at three in the morning. The system of retribution had been greatly improved, and was so much more inclusive than it used to be.

The title of this book is also that of a collection of memoirs by the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, and it’s also a thread that runs through the narrative. On the surface you couldn’t find two more different Soviet artists than the poet and the composer. Mandelstam spoke his mind about Stalin during the height of the purges, was betrayed and paid the ultimate price of madness and death; Shostakovich, by contrast, considered himself a coward and often failed to speak out, instead trying to negotiate a path through the stormy waters of the Soviet regime. It was a life endured with constant ups and downs, one day in favour, the next day out, and I would argue it took a certain moral resilience to live that way. How he actually managed to cope with constant fear and uncertainty while producing stunning works is a bit of a miracle; and actually living with the daily stress of not knowing if you’ll be denounced or arrested or tortured or killed takes its own kind of courage. And despite the portrait given here, Shostakovich *did* speak out in support of other artists and also produced work attacking anti-Semitism; so he was not without courage.

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. This was what he held to.

Four Russian Geniuses

There’s a wonderful photograph, which I’m reproducing here, which basically shows four Russian geniuses in 1929. Clockwise from the top left you have Mayakovsky, Rodchenko, Meyerhold, and Shostakovich. Mayakovsky would commit suicide a year later; artist Rodchenko managed to survive until 1956; the great man of the theatre Meyerhold was tortured and executed in 1940; but somehow Shostakovich made it through until my lifetime, dying in 1975 – a link to that Soviet past that lasted into the modern world.

A Very Brilliant Author

So “The Noise of Time” turned out to be one of the best reads of the year so far, and a book that I’m so glad I picked up. It deserves all the plaudits it received: not only does Julian Barnes paint a sympathetic and suggestive portrait of a great composer who survived a terrible regime against all the odds, he also provides a frighteningly vivid depiction of what happens to art under totalitarian rule. That’s becoming a running theme on the Ramblings, one which is particularly relevant to our world today; and I can’t recommend this book highly enough, especially if you need to be reminded of what we have to avoid.

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