Not that this isn’t a good novel. It’s very elegantly structured, intelligent and it makes you think a lot about its pervasive themes – courage and conscience and compromise. And it shows not only the enforced humiliations and blanketing terror of Stalin’s Russia but the mind-boggling preposterousness of many of its premises, especially the artistic ones. At times, in its depiction of Stalin’s Russia, it was as uncomfortable as watching an intelligent misunderstood man being shouted and spat at by a baying mob. What can a man in such a position do? Shostakovich, in Barnes’ portrayal, kind of grins and bears it. He doesn’t have the courage to commit suicide so he compromises, falls back on irony as his defence council. When a man reads out a speech praising a vile regime penned by him for that regime in a deadpan voice we realise it’s a pretty lame form of protest no matter how much irony he might manage to inject into his voice. In fact, it’s the kind of act that would destroy the self-respect of most people. Probably it destroyed the self-respect of Shostakovich.
I enjoyed the first half of this novel a lot more than the second half. The narrative drive slackened for me as Barnes gradually shifted the focus from an intimate lens to a wide angle one. It ends with a meditation on the artist’s final stocktaking of his achievements when you feel you’re eavesdropping on Barnes’ doubts about his own body of work rather than getting any insight into what Shostakovich felt about his achievements and failings. To be honest I doubt if many artists feel smug about their achievements on their death bed as most creative inspiration is born in large part from the dissatisfaction felt for previous attempts. No dissatisfaction, no new work. It’s highly probable Shakespeare died feeling he could have done better. The more interesting question the novel poses is what ethical compromises an artist has to make in order to produce his work – it’s been said, rather harshly, that Ted Hughes and TS Eliot killed their wives to further their artistic careers; Shostakovich had to slowly kill himself. Sometimes, perhaps, it’s better to die young.