I looked forward to the release of the latest from Julian Barnes after reading The Millions’ recommendations for books coming out in June 2016, of which this was one. This is Barnes’ stream-of-c0nsciousness imagining of Dmitri Shostakovich’s reflection on his life during a particularly dark time in 1936 when Stalin had taken an interest in his work. In Shostakovich’s case, that was not a good thing. What struck me the most about poor Shostakovich, was how Fascism ruled his art. How fear ruled his life. What might he have written had he not been ordered to represent Soviet values to the exclusion of his own musical sensibility? This book, and Barnes’s writing, more than any other of the same period, left me feeling uneasy, claustrophobic and unable to breathe as I sympathised with Shostakovich and his artistic dilemma. Without spoiling the book, I offer just one example of how he was under Stalin’s thumb, and how it pained him to have to put forward the party line. Shostakovich loved Stravinsky and considered his “Symphony of Psalms” to be one of the most brilliant works in musical history. Hoping to meet him in New York at the Cultural and Scientific Congress for World Peace in New York City in 1949, he was disappointed when Stravinsky sent his regrets, stating in a telegram that “[he would] not be able to join welcomers of Soviet artists coming [to] this country. But all my ethic and esthetic convictions oppose such [a] gesture.” Then, at a press conference where Shostakovich was required to read a prepared speech, Nicolas Nabokov, (a Russian born, U.S. citizen, composer, writer and cousin of Vladimir) aware that Shostakovich was not able to speak his own mind, publicly asked whether the composer supported the denunciation of Stravinsky’s music in the Soviet Union. Shostakovich had to answer in the affirmative. (He never forgave Nabokov for this episode of humiliation.) All of this begs the question, why didn’t he leave the Soviet Union? Apparently lacking in self-confidence, was he also a coward, or lazy? Why was he content to loathe himself privately, instead of finding a way to write the music of his heart, the music that he wanted to write? There is a lot of wisdom in this book, and being by Julian Barnes, of course it’s well-written.
One final personal connection. At one point, Shostakovich wonders whether irony might enable him to preserve what he valued. Could irony protect his music? This struck me because I had just read that Shostakovich loved Shakespeare. “How was it possible not to love Shakespeare? Shakespeare loved music.” Ironically, I was reading, concurrently with The Noise of Time, Shakespeare’s As You Like It, and NOT loving it. Ultimately, I ended up enjoying the play, once I sort through all the characters and plot lines, but at the point where I read about Shostakovich’s (and Russians’ in general) love of Shakespeare, I was feeling personally very un-Russian, yet somewhat ironic.
Of course the beauty had to be Shostakovich’s music. Not being familiar with it, I took to the Internet to find music that is accessible to me. (Yes, my blog, my musical sensibility!) While there is plenty of beauty in the dissonant, mournful, and melancholy, I searched for something more upbeat, so here it is: Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor, Opus 67, Second Movement, Allegro Non Troppo.
There was little specific mention of food that I recall. When Shostakovich made his trip to New York for the Soviet dog-and-pony show in 1949, he is surprised by American journalists who wanted to know trivial details, in his opinion, about the Soviet delegation. They went so far as to interview the stewardess who had served them on the plane, and then duly reported in the New York Times that the Soviets chatted and drank dry martinis and Scotch and soda.
According to Shostakovich, “There is only good vodka and very good vodka-there is no such thing as bad vodka. This was the wisdom from Moscow to Leningrad…But there was also American Vodka, which, he had now learnt, was ritually improved with fruit flavors, with lemon and ice and tonic water, its taste covered up in cocktails. So perhaps there might be such a thing as bad vodka.”
So, here is my challenge to that thinking. When I make raspberry jam every summer, I use the leftover pulp and seeds I extract from the crushed berries to make – (wait for it) – flavored vodka! Before you judge, make it, taste it, and then tell me it’s not delicious!
raspberry seeds and pulp
1.75 liters vodka
I used 5 pints of fresh raspberries, but you could probably use frozen. (If you use frozen, you’ll need less overall, because you’ll use all the juicy pulp rather than straining it for seedless jam.) I put the whole, washed berries through the KitchenAid stand mixer attachment for fruits, using the juice and pulp for jam and reserving the seeds and leftover pulp for flavored vodka. After making the jam, I divided the leftover seed and pulp mixture among three quart mason jars, and then filled them with vodka. I shake them and store them in a cool, dark place (basement) for about 6 weeks, or longer. Strain the mixture through a fine mesh sieve, pressing out as much liquid as you can. I like my hooch very clear, so I then strain it through a coffee filter-lined strainer. Be patient. This could take some time, but it’s worth it in the end. Once you have your strained raspberry vodka, add simple syrup to taste. You can use commercial or make your own by warming equal parts water and sugar in a saucepan over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved.
Serve in cordial glasses. Na zdorovye!