In 1936, Stalin attends a performance of Lady MacBeth of Mtensk, Dmitri Shostakovich’s famous opera. Popular up until that point, when Stalin took against the volume of the brass and percussion Shostakovich found himself officially out of favour (I saw this opera a couple of years ago at ENO and loved it. The brass is incredibly loud and trio of suited men in front of me obviously felt much the same as Stalin, since they left at the interval). This is the beginning of Barnes’s novel, a fictionalised version of the real life of Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich.
With a young wife, baby on the way, Shostakovich waits for the worst to happen. I found this such a tense book to read because it this is a man who was forced to tread lightly through life. Convinced, following this first denunciation, that he will be called to the Big House and likely never leave it alive, he packs a suitcase, kisses his wife goodbye, and goes to sit in the hallway outside their apartment by the lift. He does not want to be taken from his home, so each night he sits here and waits for them to come. The below extract shows how commonplace this was:
While he had been awaiting orders from the Big House in St Leninsburg, Oistrakh had been expecting arrest in Moscow. The violinist had described to him how, night after night, they came for someone in his apartment block. Never a mass arrest; just one victim, and then the next night another – a system which ramped up the fear for those who remained, who had temporarily survived. Eventually, all the tenants had been taken except for those in his apartment and the one opposite. The next night the police van arrived again, they heard the downstairs door slam, footsteps coming along the corridor… and going to the other apartment. From this exact point, Oistrakh said, he was always afraid; and would be, he knew, for the rest of his life.
This is a tense book. Snippets of life show a man who knew he would never be allowed to live up to his potential. Who never dares write another opera after the debacle of Lady Macbeth, even though he knows opera to be his forte. Who is forced, by a defector with his own agenda, to publicly denounce Stravinksy on a state sponsored visit to the US. Who, towards the end of his life, feels that he has lived too long. The House of Terror in Budapest is now a museum, a memorial to its victims, and I imagine that the Big House that Shostakovich fears so much was similar. Barnes brings to life a man for whom talent became almost a curse.