I must confess that it took me some time to work out that the subject of this small novella is Dimitri Shostavkovich. In the first part of the book, Shostakovich is an unnamed ‘he’, waiting by the lift outside his apartment, a small suitcase at his knee, expecting to be arrested. “All he knew was that this was the worst time.” (p. 7) His composition, Lady Macbth of Mtsensk had been denounced by Pravda, and critics who had previously praised it quickly distanced themselves from it.
They always came for you in the middle of the night. And so, rather than be dragged from the apartment in his pyjamas, or forced to dress in front of some contemptuously impassive NKVD man, he would go to bed fully clothed, lying on top of the blankets, a small case already packed on the floor beside him. He barely slept, and lay there imagining the worst things a man could imagine. His restlessness in turn prevented Nita from sleeping. Each would lie there, pretending; also, pretending not to hear and small the other’s terror. (p. 15)
We meet him again on a plane, returning home from a trip from America twelve years later. In front of the world’s media, he has been humiliated as a Soviet stooge. “All he knew was that this was the worst time. One fear drives out another, as one nail drives out another.” (p. 61).
And then we meet him again, another twelve years on, in 1960, when he is being pressured to join the Communist party, repeatedly, strongly and with the threat of violence. The violence is always suspended – for now.
All he knew was that this was the worst time of all. The worst time was not the same as the most dangerous time. Because the most dangerous time was not the time when you were in most danger. This was something he hadn’t understood before. (p. 115)
We often read books of courage and resistance, but less often of extorted compliance. As the Shostakovich character reflects, anti-communist sympathizers wanted martyrs, thus themselves becoming like Power (always written with a capital letter and never specified) in that whatever he gave, more was always demanded.
Under the pressure of Power, the self cracks and splits. The public coward lives with the private hero. Or vice versa. Or, more usually, the public coward lives with the private coward. But that was too simple: the idea of a man split into two by a dividing axe. Better: a man crushed into a hundred pieces of rubble, vainly trying to remember how they- he- had once fitted together. (p. 155)
I often tend to think that cowardice is an easier option than bravery: when I hear of acts of heroism, I often wonder if I would have it in myself to act in the same way. But if this is a book about ‘cowardice’, it’s a cowardice that has no upside. Instead it deadens and leaches the joy from life:
… But it was not easy being a coward. Being a hero was much easier than being a coward. To be a hero, you only had to be brave for a moment- when you took out the gun, threw the bomb, pressed the detonator, did away with the tyrant, and with yourself as well. But to be a coward was to embark on a career that lasted a lifetime. You couldn’t ever relax. You had to anticipate the next occasion when you would have to make excuses for yourself, dither, cringe, reacquaint yourself with the taste of rubber boots and the state of your own fallen, abject character. Being a coward required pertinacity, persistence, a refusal to change- which made it, in a way, a kind of courage. He smiled to himself and lit another cigarette. The pleasures of irony had not yet deserted him. (p 158)
This book is written in this quiet manner, in the third person, in a somewhat stilted language that only barely masks rage and frustration. The sentences are brief, as are the paragraphs, and the three sections of the book are broken up into asterisked sections. For a book about a composer, there was little music: instead there were words, muttered and issued through clenched teeth.
After I belatedly realized that “he” was an actual figure, Shostakovich, I wondered if, in this information-rich world I should go off and google him before I proceeded. I didn’t, but I do wonder if I might have got more from the book if I had done so. Sheila Fitzpatrick, the Australian historian of Russia, wrote an excellent and highly informed review of the book in the LRB where she demonstrates that she, at least, understood the allusions and references to other Russian composers and historical characters that flew right past me.
Instead, because of my ignorance of the real-life historical figure and his biography, I almost had to read the book as an allegory and the use of ‘he’ and capital-P ‘Power’ and the interiority of the narrative lent itself to such a reading. Its three parts had a strong chronological structure within which flashbacks shuttled back and forth, and the recurrence of a new demand or challenge every twelve years racheted up the tension. As such, then, its brevity was a real strength. I don’t really now if I would have wanted it to go on for much longer.
Source: Yarra Plenty Regional Library
My rating: 8.5/10