Archive for May, 2011

In Which I am Baited by a Shostakovich Book Review

May 7, 2011

I’ve allowed this space to get cobwebby over the past couple of months, obviously, but it’s worth saying some words about Edward Rothstein’s review of Wendy Lesser’s Music for Silenced Voices in yesterday’s New York Times, which turns out to be more of an ambiguous endorsement of Solomon Volkov’s fraudulent Shostakovich memoir, Testimony.

I owe this blog some thoughts on Lesser’s book itself, which I read earlier this year, but it’s a fine, personal interpretation of the composer’s fifteen string quartets, much informed by the details of the composer’s life.  Her survey is admittedly idiosyncratic and as such it makes a far more mature companion to Ian MacDonald’s The New Shostakovich of 1990, which traces an equally idiosyncratic, excessively political interpretation of the composer’s fifteen symphonies but ridiculously mistakes the author’s reader response for coded information inherent in the music.  Rothstein seems to fall between the two, and his criticism that Lesser’s extramusical connections are “too personal, too apolitical and too ahistorical for my taste” is fair enough, although I disagree.  If nothing else, all individual political experience ultimately reduces to personal experience, not the other way around, and I’d prefer to err on that side.

His complaint that Lesser paints the music as “almost tediously mannered in its self-involvement” misses a couple of points, too, not just that Shostakovich can fairly be seen as an unsympathetic character from some angles but that the seeming self-involvement in Shostakovich’s music — the mixed self-pity and self-loathing of the eighth quartet, the desperate hammering home of his signature theme at the end of the tenth symphony, the inward-looking setting of Yevtushenko’s “A Career” that closes the thirteenth symphony — is one of its most compelling aspects.  Paradoxically, self-involvement is a universal human experience, and in listening (most especially, listening when I was between the ages of 15 and 18) the unabashed first-person-ness of Shostakovich’s music melds into my own.

Where Rothstein becomes irritating is in offering a squishy apology for Volkov’s misrepresentation of Testimony as Shostakovich’s own, writing:  “In fact, if not an authentic memoir, ‘Testimony’ is still a work of considerable literary power, a suggestive account of the music and a convincing portrait of the man who composed it.”  The “convincing portrait” bit is maddeningly circular, in that the main mechanism by which the book convinced anyone in the first place was by falsely representing itself within what was then a void of non-Party line information about the composer.  I agree with Rothstein that Lesser fails to dismiss Testimony as thoroughly as she wants to, but I think what she wants to say by deeming its legacy “pointless” is that its halfway accuracy is no longer needed now that there are far more authentic versions of the composer’s words and private thoughts available.  And after reading Elizabeth Wilson’s excellent Shostakovich: A Life Remembered and Isaak Glikman’s lovable collection of Shostakovich’s letters to him, Story of a Friendship, Volkov’s text fails to convince; the anecdotes and the general outline of disliking the Soviet state apparatus may be correct, but the bitterness of its voice is alien.

More generally, I’ve become less and less of a relativist about the notion of truth since my heyday in a sophomore-level literary theory class in college, and by now I’m convinced that any sentence beginning “In fact, if not an authentic memoir” has little business leading anywhere but “then it should not in fact be treated as authentic” without a really good justification.  I get that words can be partially true; I get what Maxim Shostakovich told Rothstein in the early 1980s that Volkov’s book, while a fake, was truer to his father than the other published words attributed to him at that time.  But it’s easy to overestimate that fractional truth value, and Rothstein too glibly brushes off the risk that accepting a simplified and ideologically motivated account will lead him toward a shallower understanding.  The attitude smacks of the idea that “you sometimes have to lie to tell the truth” embraced one way or another by any number of students in my creative writing classes when I was in school, myself included, but this too often turns into an excuse for cutting off tricky corners of experience instead of pushing toward an understanding that fits the difficult event or feeling — it’s no coincidence that the Shostakovich that emerges from Volkov’s work is considerably less nuanced and self-contradictory than the personality sussed out by Wilson or Lesser or even, through his correspondence, Shostakovich himself.  That personality’s motivations are harder to understand — more to the point, that vision of the composer is harder to lionize — but once you do that more difficult empathetic work you gain a richer, subtler, more real perspective on the emotional currents in the man’s music, or the peculiar terrors and frustrations of life in a totalitarian state, or the basic nature of fear and compromise.  More often, it turns out, you have to tell the truth to tell the truth.