Throughout the novel, Shostakovich insists that anyone outside of Stalin’s regime couldn’t possibly understand what it feels like to live under it. HeThroughout the novel, Shostakovich insists that anyone outside of Stalin’s regime couldn’t possibly understand what it feels like to live under it. He mentally protests against his critics who want him to be more resistant to Stalin, thinking that they "did not grasp the one simple fact about the Soviet Union: that it was impossible to tell the truth here and live.” And yet because of this, no one would be able to understand his experiences in the Soviet Union, because his despair is always expressed through his coping mechanism of irony. Because the narration is filtered through his consciousness, the reader is prevented from experiencing the “truth” of life under Stalin as well.
You’d think that art then would serve the role of pure expression, unmitigated by psychological accommodations; he asserts, “Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time.” But even Shostakovich’s music is infused with irony, to the point where he’s not sure if anyone will get his hidden allusions that convey his resistance to Stalin (just as he always relies on the fact that no one will get an allusion he continually makes about being a lowly “worm,” which sounds submissive but is actually a slap at the state). He debates whether irony, the difference between what is said and what is meant, is really sustainable, or if the meaning ultimately amounts to simply what is said and not the intention: “You woke up one morning and no longer knew it your tongue was in your cheek; and even if it was, wether that mattered anymore, whether anyone noticed. You imagined you were issuing a beam of ultraviolet light, but what if it failed to register because it was off the spectrum known to everyone else?”
Even though the entire novel is written through Shostakovich’s point of view, we never actually access his non-ironic self, suggesting that it has either been destroyed or exists on a different, unknowable "spectrum." In some ways, this novel tries to convey an optimism about music or art’s ability to transcend the political circumstances of history. But at the same time, Barnes continually questions the viability of his own project to describe the inner mind of a famous composer living under a totalitarian state, casting doubt on whether we can ever understand the past, or a foreign state, or another mind. ...more
Some choice quotes... "One realizes here that man-drapery and man-underwear is quite as important as woman's, if not more.
I, of course, in a rage."
"I cSome choice quotes... "One realizes here that man-drapery and man-underwear is quite as important as woman's, if not more.
I, of course, in a rage."
"I confess my heart stood still. But is mere historical fact so strong, that what one learns in bits from books can move one so? Or does the very word call an echo out of the dark blood? It seems so to me. It seems to me from the darkest recesses of my blood comes a terrible echo at the name of Mount Eryx: something quite unaccountable."
"But the hateful, unmanly insolence of these lords of toil, now they have their various 'unions' behind them and their 'rights' as working men sends my blood black. They are ordinary men no more: the human, happy Italian is most marvellously vanished."
"I have a peculiar aversion to these ink-pots. Once in Liguria we had a boat of our own and paddled with the peasant paddlers. Alessandro caught ink-pots: and like this. He tied up a female by a string in a cave-the string going through a convenient hole in her end. There she lived, like an Amphitrite's wire-haired terrier tied up, till Alessandro went a-fishing. Then he towed her, like a poodle behind. And thus, like a poodly-bitch, she attracted hangers-on in the briny seas. And these poor polymp inamorati were the victims. They were lifted as prey on board, where I looked with horror on their grey, translucent tentacles and large, cold, stony eyes. The she-polyp was towed behind again. But after a few days she died.
And I think, even for creatures so awful-looking, this method is indescribably base, and shows how much lower than an octopus even, is lordly man."
"The Cathedral must have been a fine old pagan stone fortress once. Now it has come, as it were, through the mincing machine of the ages, and oozed out baroque and sausagey, a bit like the horrible baldachins in St. Peter's at Rome."
"One realizes, with horror, that the race of men is almost extinct in Europe. Only Christ-like heroes and woman-worshipping Don Juans, and rabid equality-mongrels. The old, hardy, indomitable male is gone. ...Nothing left but the herd-proletariat and the herd-equality mongrelism, and the wistful poisonous self-sacrificial cultured soul. How detestable."
"Italy is so tender—like cooked macaroni—yards and yards of soft tenderness ravelled round everything."
"Give me the old, salty way of love. How I am nauseated with sentiment and nobility, the macaroni slithery-slobbery mess of modern adorations." (Put that on a Valentine.)...more
Overrated, in my opinion. I'm not really a nonfiction reader, so I was out of my comfort zone to begin with. Schiff seemed to keep making the point thOverrated, in my opinion. I'm not really a nonfiction reader, so I was out of my comfort zone to begin with. Schiff seemed to keep making the point that the REAL Cleopatra has been lost to myth and mostly sexist heresy, yet provides very little in the way of facts, because, hey, very few facts seem to exist. Yet, instead of sticking closely to the facts that she does provide, she injected plenty of her own romanticizing, without even telling us from where she draws what is obviously her own personal impression. I realize that history is not objective, but it seems a bit hypocritical to be constantly lambasting the ancient historians that she cites for being too slanted when she does the exact same thing. Also, constantly complaining about how sexist everyone was before the 20th century is a little...dumb. Really? Roman historians were sexist? They feared powerful, intelligent women? They tried to put them down by hypersexualizing them? YOU DON'T SAY!
My brother thinks that I, like he, am too much of a snob for criticizing such things. Well, I am. But c'mon people, the NYT rated it as one of the top 10 books of the year in 2010, and Schiff has won a Pulitzer Prize. So kill me if I expect more. Read Shakespeare instead....more