I just finished the book and seem to be in some sort of daze, mesmerized by it. Not long time ago I declared that I do not like Barnes. This was after reading his The Sense of an Ending. I did not like the book and I still have this unpleasant clammy feeling that I associate with the story. There was something repulsive in the story for me. The feeling is still present when I happen to think of the book and that perhaps means that it is really a good book even if I find it unpleasant for some reason. I even do not know what the reason could be. I saw the film based on the book as well and it was again a good film which I found unpleasant. I think that I have a problem with the story itself. It is a heavy story. The lives described there are messy and there is a climate of unavoidable unpleasantness, mistakes and disappointment.
There are similarities in the climate of the two books, maybe even the messages are similar. For the moment I link it with Amor Fati. Only in a negative way. Reading Barnes one cannot have the feeling of loving one’s fate. This is like Amor Fati in reverse. No wander that a stoic in me does not like the climate of Barnes’ books.
And yet, again reluctantly, I need to accept the genus of the author. Since I started to read the book I was very often in a state of WOW. It was a pianissimo WOW with a question mark following.
The book is about a big part of life of Dmitri Shostakovitch starting in the thirties of the last century till his death in 1975. It is about the meaning of art, in this case – music, and its place in our lives. This is not a biography as such but fiction based on facts. I have not checked how true the whole story is, but my impression and knowledge of the times made me take it as the book truthfully represents the history. Being fiction gave the author freedom of passing judgement and making the story live and fascinating. It was not long time ago that I thought that the style of writing is not that important to me, this time I am under big impression of the structure of the book. Small paragraphs tell us only fragments the story, pass views on seemingly unrelated subjects and put readers in meditative state.
The book made a strong impression on me also for the reason that living in Poland during the times of Stalin I was able to understand feelings that made Shostakovich a broken man even if he was famous in the world and Russia living a privileged, comfortable life. Forced by the system of The Soviet Union Power he composed in a way that was dictated to him to make impression that he lives in the country of positive feelings and happiness. The sounds of his compositions were supposed to be uplifting and related to the events that brought communism into power. Pessimism in the Soviet Union was forbidden. At least among people who were visible, like composers. Creating art according to communistic rules made Shostakovich lose self-respect. He was obeying out of fear. Sometimes he produced bad music to please. The story with self-respect is the same as with virginity. Once you lost it is gone forever. So many people experienced that and were profoundly unhappy in life. One contradicting examples of a famous Pole comes to mind, though. He was a “practical” man, Wojciech Fangor. He painted to please and earn big money through whole his life and his life was not even threatened like Shostakovich’s was. Different type of sensitivity and different nation. Russians were always more tragically sensitive and suffering.
|Fangor's picture showing (from the left) a useless decadent and (on the right) meaningful life of the working class|
It is a bit surprising to me how well a Britt can understand the Russian soul. And Barnes seems to understand and describe it so well. He writes about people in danger becoming less than fully themselves, about terrorized people becoming reduced versions of themselves. And he writes about it in such a way that he moved me and he scared me. I am thinking of countries like Poland at the moment where a new society is being engineered. Just like it was so successfully done in Russia. In my country of origin school programs have changed to be in line with the current government’s ideology. History is being changed to make villains out of heroes. Walesa being the major villain those days but thanks God only in Poland. There are black lists of people of culture who are criticized for presenting views of the opposition to the current government. The intention is to silence those who think in a way different to the government. One is afraid to be afraid (sorry, this is not the best translation of a Polish saying).
P.S. While reading the book I was listening to Shostakovich music of pieces that I read about. I may become a fan of the composer. The one which is not characteristic of his work and coming from a bad propaganda film The Counterplan is rather quite catching and melodious. I remember it from my childhood days, must have been played on Polish radio. Or sang at school events?
To listen to the Fifth Symphony would be a bit too much so I will not include it in my post. However The Waltz nr 2 I would recommend to listen to.