In response to:
The Courage of the Composer from the May 26, 2016 issue
To the Editors:
I am grateful to Orlando Figes for his generous review of my novel The Noise of Time [NYR, May 26]. But I should like to complicate his rather severe distinction between historical and artistic truth. A key and recurring episode in the book takes place on a station platform in wartime, where Shostakovich and an unnamed companion drink vodka with a legless beggar, and their three glasses, filled to different levels, chink into a perfect triad. Professor Figes declares this scene “imaginary,” and concludes his review:
It is a beautiful motif, which sums up the composer’s hope that his music might redeem the moral wreckage of his life. But it is only a literary motif. It did not happen in reality.
But it did. All the main elements—the station platform, the two travelers, the beggar on his wooden-wheeled trolley, and, most importantly, the heard triad—are to be found in Flora Litvinova’s memoir of Shostakovich’s wartime exile. Artistic truth can build on historical truth, and sometimes the beautiful is also true.
Orlando Figes replies:
Julian Barnes is correct. The scene appears in Flora Litvinova’s memoir. But there it is recounted as a “story” Shostakovich told (he told many stories, as I pointed out in my review) without the “perfect triad” or redemptive meaning given to it in The Noise of Time. Biographers and historians are unlikely to accept the story as historical truth but there is artistic beauty in its imaginative retelling by Mr. Barnes.