His narrative, as elegantly structured as a concerto in three movements bookended by a resonant overture and coda, captures the strain of an innately Russian pessimist forced to toe the Soviet optimistic line in both his music and in public pronouncements he was compelled to sign as his own... Barnes' stirring novel about what is lost when tyrants try to control artistic expression leaves us wondering what, besides more operas, this tormented, compromised musical prodigy might have composed had he been free.
It’s lovely, but even at this moment you might wonder: Is this how a man thinks, in the throes of mortal fear for himself and for his family? Or does it sound a tad like a novelist contemplating a man contemplating these things? Shostakovich’s musical voice is far more jittery and austere: uncanny, often maniacal, hollow. Either you accept Barnes’s premise, and the resulting style, or you may find yourself dissatisfied, wishing for the narrator of Notes From the Underground to come and make everything feel more neurotic and Russian...I felt that [Shostakovich] emerged as a (strangled) hero, but wished that Barnes would explain a little less, and show a bit more.
The book is beautifully written. There is a wonderful rhythm to the prose—long passages are broken up by staccato bursts of single sentences—and Mr. Barnes writes with a crystalline clarity. Yet watching Shostakovich writhe in inner torment can be tedious, especially since his music, so much the cause of his concern, is almost entirely absent from the book. It’s tempting to imagine what a writer of Mr. Barnes’s skill might have done when attempting to capture the sound of Shostakovich in words. Mr. Barnes, who once described literature as 'a process of producing grand, beautiful, well-ordered lies that tell more truth than any assemblage of facts,' seems to have missed an opportunity to provide more insight into the man.