Another book I found on my shelf that I couldn’t remember buying or why I bought it. It just goes to show that you should reorganise your bookshelves every once in a while. Especially when you have as many books in as many rooms as we have!
I’m so glad I found this book and decided to read it. From the cover I expected to chew my way through it and then send it off to the charity shop. I couldn’t have been more pleasantly surprised and it’s definitely not going to the charity shop.
The book is a fictionalised biography of the Russian composer Shostakovich, starting in 1936 just as his Lady Macbeth of Mtensk has been announced by Stalin to be “a muddle not music”. It finishes in towards the end of his life when he has been backed into a corner, joined the Communist Party and given the role of “national treasure”.
I love Shostakovich’s music and have done since I was in my early 20s: I heard some music on the radio whilst driving and somehow managed to remember the composer’s name. I went into a music shop in York that I’ve always used as a reference point for classical and jazz music. The young man behind the counter was certain there was no such thing as Jazz Suites by Shostakovich but, at my insistence, agreed to look it up. He found the CD, I ordered a copy and spent a happy 6 weeks waiting for it to arrive. When it arrived, I put it on in the car and immediately fell in love with the music. Later in the day I was raving about it to a friend, who promptly nicked my CD, fell in love with the music as well and I’ve never seen my original CD since!
Anyway, back to the book.
The book concentrates on Shostakovich’s inner life so although we meet his family and friends, we never really get to know them other than how he feels about them. At the end of the book I was a little disappointed to not know what happened to them, but I have, of course, already got a proper biography on order so I will no doubt find out.
Barnes comes down firmly on the side of Shostakovich being a closet dissident. Because of this the book is about survival and the tactics used to separate inner thoughts from day-to-day life in a repressive regime. It also shows the fluctuations of fortune in a system that largely relies on the whims of a supreme leader. It will be interesting to read which side the biography comes down on: supporter of the system or dissident?
One of the challenges of reading this book was that I wanted to keep reading it, wanted to know how it would unfold but I think I may have missed nuances and details through reading it too quickly and when too tired to really take it in. Maybe I just need to read it again.
Overall, I loved this book and loved that it was such an unanticipated pleasure.