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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > February 2016 > Technician of survival

Technician of survival

Julian Barnes brings to life the troubled inner world of Dmitri Shostakovich, finds Catriona Kelly

The Noise of Time

The life of Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich is at once well-documented and elusive. Famous from an early age, the Russian composer was surrounded for his whole life by family, musicians, pupils, enemies and admirers; he attracted the attention of the formidable Soviet surveillance machine at every level. Material traces, including an apartment museum in Moscow, abound. Yet he also skids away from definition. The latest to re-interpret his life is Julian Barnes, whose new novel The Noise of Time is structured round three crucial episodes in Shostakovich’s struggle with state power.

In private photographs and in the recollections of those closest to him in his later years, Shostakovich has the reserved intensity of his late chamber music. But in some moods, according to the disputed but likely in some respects accurate memoirs of the musicologist Solomon Volkov, he could be both hilarious and pungent. Winding his way through a dangerous patronage culture, he has often been understood as a martyr to the totalitarian state. But he is also psychologically comparable with figures such as Alexander Pushkin and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Interpreting such artists exclusively in terms of encoded self-revelation and concealed irony—as Shostakovich often is—would certainly not do justice to their intentions or intelligence.

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In Prospect’s February issue: Lawrence Summers questions Robert J Gordon’s thesis on the impact of the digital revolution, John Sawers, the former Chief of MI6, highlights how technology is making the work of spies harder and Frank Furedi examines the student movements demanding protection from the offensive and uncomfortable. Also in this issue: Gershom Gorenberg on Israel, Ben Judah on the complexity of London and Elizabeth Pisani on the impact of fake drugs. Plus Sam Tanenhaus on Obama’s gun control plans.