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Shostakovich, Totalitarianism, and Anglo-American Fiction: Powers, Barnes, and Vollmann

From the book The Public Mind and the Politics of Postmillennial U.S.-American Writing

  • Ulfried Reichardt


It is no accident that several important novels about Dmitri Shostakovich’s life and music have appeared during the last years. While he is one of the most important and popular composers of classical music of the twentieth-century, he was attacked as elitist formalist by the regime’s cultural commissioners in the Stalinist and post-Stalinist Soviet Union. In contrast, in the West, and in particular in the United States, he has been seen by many critics as deeply entangled in Soviet ideology. In three recent novels, U.S.-American authors William T. Vollmann and Richard Powers as well as British writer Julian Barnes explore his life and sound the depths of its complexity in order to understand the political and personal pressure under which his music was written. Yet these novels may also be read as implicit critical interventions into the contemporary debate about the social and political construction of meaning, particularly in the arts. While neither the United States nor Britain have ever experienced totalitarian rule, these texts represent Shostakovich’s life as example of the vicissitudes of irony and double-coded expression under political surveillance and as potential warning even for democratic societies. All three novels focus on the inextricable contradictions and paradoxes of art under a regime that assumes the authority to define the meaning of every form of artistic expression. Moreover, they investigate how music signifies, and in which way the affects music causes may be politically used and controlled.

© 2022 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston
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