Our Meeting took place in February, a long time ago. As far as I remember, we were all present and we all liked the book.
But I am unable now to write down who said what. So I have to resort to the general impressions, as they were more or less shared.
The book is an inquiry into the nature of personal integrity. Shostakovich made his accommodations with “Power”, and survived. For some people that damns him unequivocally. For Barnes, the matter is more complicated: a question of artistic survival, which he weighs carefully.
He is unsparing in his presentation of the case against Shostakovich, noting his most shameful acts, but at the same time his sympathy with his protagonist is never in doubt. If anything, the more mired in shame Shostakovich becomes, the more Barnes makes us likes him. He achieves this mainly by the clever way he tells the story as if from Shostakovich´s head, without using the “ich form”.
Quite admirably, for a person never having lived under a dictatorship, Barnes evokes the atmosphere of fear and general mistrust prevalent in such regimes and influencing everyone´s behaviour.
Does great art, by redeeming us from “the noise of time”, (“art is the whisper above the noise of history.”) override everything and excuse cowardly behaviour, making compromises with one´s conscience and values, and in Shostakovich case - even with his music?
Shostakovich, in order to survive and to be able to continue to devote himself to his music, makes a deal with the devil (Stalin, in his case).
One question was asked by most everyone: “Why didn’t Shostakovitch leave the Soviet Union?”
Based on Barnes’ story, we reached the conclusion that Shostakovitch was caught in a web of his lack of courage (and knowledge of foreign languages), his love and inspirational need for the Russian culture and homeland, his difficult relationship with his mother, his intense need and desire to compose music and to hear his music played, and his wish to have a “quiet” life with access to his family, women, and friends.
A few of us recalled the tale of the triad of the 3 glasses of vodka told at the book’s start and end, preceded by the inscription: “One to hear, One to remember, And one to drink.”
We were not very sure about the meaning of this, but Shostakovitch had been the one to hear.
A quotation to conclude:
"Instead of killing him, they had allowed him to live, and by allowing him to live, they had killed him".
But not quite and not at all his music…