Thursday, June 13, 2024

Revelation by C. J. Sansom

Source of book: Borrowed from the library


I discovered Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series nine years ago, after a legal colleague introduced me to them. Since then, I have occasionally added one to my reading list - I am a sucker for a good mystery, and these are, shall we say, far above average. 


Sadly, Sansom recently passed due to cancer, and there will be no more of these books forthcoming. 


I have previously blogged about Dissolution, Dark Fire, and Sovereign


One comment that I have seen about the series (although I can’t remember who said it) was that while most historical mysteries feel like modern stories in dress costumes, Sansom’s actually feel of the time in which they are set. The sights, the sounds, and especially the smells come to life. And, even more importantly, the characters act like people from their era, not like modern people transported back in time. This book is an excellent example of that.


Just one humorous example is that Shardlake notes that he is past age 40, and can no longer pass for a young man. 


Another is the mention of The Castle of Perseverance as a commonly performed play. 


 Set after the fall of Thomas Cromwell, and the execution of Catherine Howard, the story opens with London abuzz about the potential marriage of Catherine Parr to the king - she was a widow who intended to keep her head on her neck - and she managed to do so, outliving Henry VIII. 


At this time, there was also incredible ongoing religious unrest. Initially after Henry’s break with the Catholic Church, there was a push to reform religious institutions. The first book in the series, Dissolution, is all about the confiscation of the monasteries. Things swung back around, as they tend to, and by the time of this book, a new royal adviser was suppressing dissenting congregations - which meant anything that wasn’t like the new Church of England in belief and forms. 


As this swirls around London, Shardlake, formerly an earnest reformer, finds himself doubting his faith altogether. It isn’t difficult to see why, with the endless violence and repression. As he notes, with the reform project increasingly looking like a new veneer to political power and oppression, it was hard for those who, twenty years prior, had been “hoping for a new Christian fellowship in the world.” That’s very much me these days, disillusioned, and disappointed that such a fellowship seems limited to a few friends. 


Along with this, there has arisen a number of radical sects, with the obsession with “holiness” that would characterize the Puritans later, and the belief that the end of the world was imminent. 


Thus the title: the obsession with the book of Revelation and the end times drives all of the plots in this book. 


A little background here. When what we now call the New Testament, or Christian Scriptures, was being compiled and assembled a couple hundred years after Christ, there was a huge debate about what to include and what to reject. 


Contrary to what I was taught in Evangelicalism, the decision was not made based on whether the writer personally knew Jesus or had a divine experience like St. Paul. Rather, the decision came down to whether the committee that selected the library felt that the book was “useful” for Christian practice. 


That’s not subjective at all, of course, right? 


So, not only were the books that were written earliest - the genuine Pauline epistles (Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, 1 Thessalonians, Philippians, Philemon) included, many later books, including the known and obvious forgeries (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus), anonymous books (Hebrews), and books written by Greek or Roman authors who never knew Christ (Luke, Acts) were included. 


The most controversial inclusion, however, was Revelation, aka the Apocalypse. (Both mean “revealing.”) Purportedly written by St. John, although that attribution is dubious for several reasons, it was nearly not included, and barely made the cut. 


As to authorship, it clearly is not written by the same author as the Gospel of John, or the epistles of John. (And it is also doubtful that St. John would have been literate at all - few fishermen could read and write back then.) During the arguments about inclusion, there was a fierce debate about who actually wrote it, with several known heretics offered as possible authors. 


The best modern guess is that it was written by a mystic and spiritual leader, who used “John” either for “in the style of” or because he shared the name with the apostle. He wrote quite poorly in Greek - one of the challenges of translation is his poor command of the language. 


The genre is that of “apocalyptic” literature - you can find it in the second half of the book of Daniel, and in numerous other writings that are not part of scripture. It is a response to persecution, and is a commentary on current and past events and a hope for future justice. It is not in any sense, a literal prediction of the future, and would not have been understood as that in its time.


These days, however, thanks to religious charlatans like John Nelson Darby, who invented Dispensationalist eschatology in the 19th Century, most purported Christians believe Revelation is exactly that: a prediction of the End Times™ which are surely upon us. 


Back in the days of Henry VIII, there was another period of obsession with Revelation, which is the background to this book. Then as now, there was a period of great cultural and religious change, driven by forces greater than any one man - or any one nation - could control. The Plague left Europe short of workers, leading to changes in the economic systems, faltering faith in the Roman Church, and the rise of national identities. 


Many of those who felt powerless in the face of these forces driving volatility and upheaval turned to Revelation and obsessive religion for a sense of control and security that they lacked in their own lives. 


Much like we see today. 


Against this background, Sansom chose to tell a tale of a serial killer. What’s that you say? Isn’t that a modern idea? 


Yes it is…but also no. Sansom explains in his Historical Note at the end that some of the serial killers of the middle ages and early modern age were real - he looked up their cases. The one he uses as an example in England is fictional, but based on other European people. 


The genius of how Sansom handles the issue is in the way his characters try to understand what a serial killer is. 


Is he possessed by the Devil? Is he insane? Oh, and that is the other plot - a young man goes insane and ends up at Bedlam, where Shardlake is appointed to represent him. What is insanity? 


At this point in history, there is ample evidence of these questions being asked, and the dawning realization that “possessed” was not a helpful way of understanding severe mental illness. 


The particular twist that Sansom puts on the serial killer is fascinating. The killer has clearly become obsessed with the passages in Revelation where the wrath of man and God is poured out on humanity. The seals/vials become patterns for his killings - each killing must in some way match the curse in the book. 


Not only that, but the targets of the murders, while initially seeming unconnected, eventually are revealed as being former reformers who have “backslidden” in some way - either they have lost their fervor for reform (like Shardlake’s colleague and friend Roger) or fallen into sexual sin (a pastor who had a prostitute on the side.) And, after the seven murders, who is next? Will the killer go after “the great whore”? And who might that be? 


So, the murder plot, the young man gone insane for unknown reasons, religious obsession and fanaticism, a crackdown by the government…what else? Oh, can’t forget that old Bealknap, Matthew’s nemesis, is still around, still grasping for money and trying to steal his cases. And Matthew’s assistant, Barak, is having marital problems after a still-birth; his friend, the Moorish ex-priest and physician Guy seems to be being blackmailed by his assistant, and Matthew himself is having all kinds of faith crises. 


It’s good stuff. As usual, Sansom writes a well-plotted story, includes so much period detail and historical accuracy, and brings to life the philosophical questions that we still ask today. 


I found also that Shardlake’s journey paralleled mine quite a bit. We both see in the corruption, violence, and hate that springs from religion a significant reason for doubt. We also see uncertainty - and room for differences - as necessary for a functional religion, and indeed a functional approach to reality. We value freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, and freedom of thought. 


As I will note below, this includes a deep skepticism of all who claim to speak for God, and even more suspicion of those who use God to justify their own cruelty and self-righteousness. 


I haven’t tended to quote from these books, preferring to enjoy them as a whole; however, this one had so many fascinating lines, mostly related to the faith journey, that were so applicable that I had to mention them.


In keeping with the usage of the times, the radical religious folk refer to themselves as “the godly” - a term that entered the vernacular. Kind of like “fundamentalist” today refers not merely to reactionary movement against modern science, but to retrogressive cultural values. Shardlake experiences these sorts of people largely how I do.


In the dealings I had had with the godly men I had found them difficult to deal with, crude hard men who drove at you with biblical verses like a carpenter hammering in nails.


Sound familiar? How about this one?


That was the paradox - the vicious struggle between papists and sacramentaries was driving many away from faith altogether. Christ said, by their fruits shall you know them, and the fruits of the faithful of both sides looked more rotten each year.


This is why I find the increasingly shrill insistence that nefarious conspiracies are driving the young away from religion to be laughable. No, really, it’s the FRUIT. Christianity in America right now smells like a fucking outhouse that has been shaken vigorously and left in the sun for a few weeks. 


Unsurprisingly, the worst of the sects in this book are the Calvinists. Just like now, Calvinism is arguably the strongest force for evil in our churches today. Something about being part of the “elect” that makes people cruel and hateful. And so sure of themselves in their own self-righteousness.


Historically, Sansom notes, there actually was a whole new form of mental illness that arose after Calvinism appeared – the terror of being damned described in this book. Sansom didn’t make that one up at all.


Guy, the former (and maybe current) Catholic, ostracized for both his race and his religion, has a good perspective on this. 


“I too have seen the wildness that follows when fanatics without self-doubt gain power. But mark this. Whatever wrongs it has done, the Catholic Church has always believed in free will, that men by their actions as well as their faith may choose to come to God. This new Protestant radicalism will not allow for that, everyone is either saved or damned through God’s will, not free will.” 


Beware the fanatics without self-doubt, which is the most apt description of the religious right I have seen. And, sadly, of my parents since they embraced authoritarian fundamentalism. Zero self-doubt. 


Also very apt for today’s time is this observation, about the pastor who had the prostitute in his back room, as described by one of his servants. 


“Funny thing, since he brought Abigail here you’d think he’d be happier, but he only ranted against sin more and more. Bad conscience, I suppose. Religious folk are mighty strange, I say.” 


Ted Haggard comes to mind here… Whenever you hear someone raging against sin, particularly sexual sin, look a little closer. There is a reason for that. 


In contrast to those who are immune to self-doubt, the truly decent people are full of it. That is the paradox. There is a passage in the book where Shardlake, having helped Bealknap, ponders his own motives. 


Why had I done this, I asked myself. I realized that if Guy was able to help Bealknap, which was at least possible, it would be me who in a way would have scored a point against my old enemy. And given myself a sense of virtue, too. I wondered if that was partly why I had offered to help him. But if we never acted except when we were certain our motives were pure, we would never act at all. 


Isn’t that the truth? But also, isn’t it better to do good with mixed motives, than to do evil, convinced you are on the side of good? Another conversation between Shardlake and Guy regarding both the killer and the mentally ill young man illuminates this.


“How can he believe that what he is doing is inspired by God?”

“Have we not seen enough these last years to know that men may do cruel, wicked things, yet believe they have communion with God?”
“Yes. Belief in God and human sympathy can be very different things.” 


I’ll end with one final insight from Guy.


“We are in the middle of a bitter conflict between two religions. It has driven men to extremes, to the impious arrogance of believing they alone can comprehend the vast mysteries of Scripture, let alone the mind of God. Such people are incapable of understanding even their own minds, for they confuse their own needs, for certainty or power, with God’s voice speaking to them. I am only surprised that more are not driven to stark madness. I try in my poor way to follow the much harder path of humility. Facing squarely the terrible mysteries of suffering and cruelty in God’s world, doubting whether through prayer you have understood God’s will or his voice or even his presence. Yes, I believe humility is the greatest human virtue.”


We are indeed in the middle of a bitter conflict between two religions. But not the religions that the fundamentalists think. Rather, the religion of White Supremacy (and the patriarchy and anti-LGBTQ bigotry that are part and parcel of that religion) is facing its greatest challenge. Forces beyond its control are threatening it - and will eventually overwhelm it. Oceans rise, empires fall… 


On the other side is the aspirational Kingdom - the upside down one Christ preached, without hierarchy, without oppression, without unmet needs. 


This isn’t to discount the various geopolitical struggles at all, but to point out that the cause of the rise of fanatical religion today is inseparable from white supremacy and indeed the systems of hierarchy themselves. 


So many are so very damn sure they know the mind of God - and that he happens to agree with their cultural preferences completely. Go figure. 


For that reason, I may have enjoyed this book the most of all the Sansom ones I have read so far. It feels so timely. And of course, legal stuff too. I would definitely start at the beginning of the series, as the later books assume knowledge of what came before. 

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

La Cage aux Folles (Ovation Theatre 2024)

I grew up watching classic Looney Tunes, and my dad was a big fan of MASH. So, let’s just say that drag was nothing out of the ordinary, and I do not remember it being a huge screaming deal. 


These days, alas, anything that might possibly touch the third rail of gender fluidity or gay sex causes Right Wingers to absolutely lose their shit. The Culture Wars(™) are in full scorched-earth mode, and drag queens seem an easy target to those who need a vulnerable community to destroy to satiate (for now) their hate. 


Fortunately, even in Bakersfield (home of the Truck Nutz and Confederate Battle Flags), there are plenty of us who refuse to give in to the bigots - including our vibrant local theater scene. 


For Ovation Theater, they took on Cabaret last year, and decided to time La Cage aux Folles during Pride Month. Perhaps because Zachary Gonzalez was so damn good in drag that they had to get him on stage again. (Just saying.)


La Cage aux Folles is more or less a gay and drag riff on the timeless story of two completely incompatible families who have their kids fall in love. Jean Michel is a young man who was raised by his father - and his father’s drag queen partner - after his deadbeat mother abandoned him. He falls in love with Anne, who through no fault of her own, is the daughter of prominent right wing “family values” politician Edouard Dindon and his wife-with-the-perfect-blonde-hair. 


When Jean Michel invites his future in-laws to visit his parents, he decides that he needs to remake things a bit. His father, Georges, can just tone down the gay a little - not hard for him - and pretend he doesn’t own the most fabulous drag club on the Riviera. 


And Albin, aka drag queen extraordinaire Zaza, and the true mother to Jean Michel, has to disappear. Just for one night, so as not to spoil the match. Sigh. Also, somehow, Jean Michel’s mother has to be convinced to do the right thing for the first time in her life and show up to pretend to be married to Georges. 


Yeah, poor Albin, who doesn’t deserve such treatment. 


Of course, as anyone could predict, mother not-so-dearest fails to show, and Albin refuses to leave, and things go really badly south. 


But this is a comedy, so things will end happily…for most of the characters. Dindon gets a bit of his comeuppance, and his wife loosens up, so there’s that. 


It is surprising that this play has been on stage since 1983 - and doesn’t seem to have created the huge scandal I would have expected. It was a watershed event in gay representation - it literally showcased a loving gay relationship in an era when the AIDS panic was just beginning. 


The thing is, the play is about universals, when you look at it. The themes of living authentically, being grateful and loyal to those who showed us love, and accepting others as they are apply to every facet of life - at least if you want to live as a decent human being. 


But this musical isn’t preachy - it just lets the real emotions of believable characters tell the story. 


Done right, this musical is laugh out loud hilarious - and Ovation did it right. 


I’ll give a call-out to the ensemble, particularly the tap dancing cabaret dancers, the Cagelles - Jordan Espirtu, Cody Garcia, Nick Ono, Paddie Patterson, Spencer Prow, and Shawn Rader. Particularly Rader, who is unfairly good at so many things - he hit those soprano notes effortlessly and with perfect pitch and lovely tone. 

 Albin aka Zaza, and the Cagelles

Another shout-out to costumer Roger Upton in his final show along with his army of assistants - I know several people who put in absurd hours throwing together the numerous fabulous costumes needed for the show. Seriously, the costumes were professional-grade - as good as anything I have seen in high budget shows. That curtain was incredible as well. 


It is possible that one reason this show did not have the usual live band is that the budget was needed for costumes - but also, the score is symphonic, and the limit for this tiny theater is about 6 musicians - and I don’t know how on earth they fit that many backstage. 


I already mentioned Zachary Gonzalez, who followed up his role as the Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret with a stage-stealing turn as Jacob, the butler, I mean maid, I mean aspiring drag queen. From the sexy maid costume to the absurd period butler look, he was straight up hilarious. 

 Jacob (Zachary Gonzalez) and Georges (Hal Friedman)

The main characters had to carry the show, of course, and the key role is that of Albin. In this case, local theater fixture - he co-owns Ovation, and has been in so many shows over the decades - Jason McClain, who simpered and pouted and emoted his way through the show - he dominated every scene he was in. Just outstanding. I loved every minute of his performance. 


(Perhaps all those years playing Mother Ginger in our local Nutcracker performances weren’t wasted…) 


Opposite him, as the straight man….well, I mean the gay man, but the very straight gay man…and Albin’s partner, is fellow Ovation owner Hal Friedman, another veteran who isn’t on stage as much as he should be. The chemistry between Friedman and McClain was excellent - they were totally believable as long-time partners who fight like any old couple does, even as it is clear they love each other deep down. 

 Albin/Zaza (Jason McClain) and Georges (Hal Friedman)

Jesse Magdaleno took another turn as a young man struggling to do the right thing. (Last seen by me in Tis Pity She’s A Whore.) Caught between his fear of losing the love of his life, and his love for his father and step-queen, he spends most of the play doing what he knows is wrong. His decision to finally show loyalty to those who raised him doesn’t come easily, and circumstances leave him no choice, but he finally mans up and does it. (Unsurprisingly, Anne comes around far more easily - she already knows her father is a bigoted prick.) 


It is never easy to play the villain in a play like this. Dindon has no redeeming qualities, and he is not complex. Unfortunately, this is all too true to life. Having lived for many years in Kevin McCarthy’s district, I have seen all to vividly what a person with zero conscience or moral backbone looks like. 


That said, I kind of pictured Mark Prow’s hilarious portrayal of Dindon as Ted Cruz on stage. Particularly when he jumps around in circles whining “homosexuals, homosexuals, homosexuals.” (Like me, Prow is a short guy, and he hammed up the Napoleon complex a bit too.) Kat Kohler showed an interesting contrast between the brittle-as-ice Mme. Dindon we see first, and the eventual thawing she undergoes as well. 


Jordan Payne as Anne didn’t have many lines - it’s a small part, but she was fine - as were the various other bit characters that filled out the play. 

 The Dindons: Edouard (Mark Prow), Marie (Kat Kohler), and Anne (Jordan Payne)

I thought the overall vision for the play was well done. It felt coherent, and even the hurried finale made sense despite being a bit of a deux ex drag so to speak. 


The key was to find a balance between the delicious camp of the drag (which is so good if you don’t have your knickers in a knot), the inspiration of a lasting love, the tension between loyalty and fear of loss, a coming of age, and a bit of humor at the expense of bigots. Ovation brought all of this together into a coherent whole. Go see it! 


La Cage aux Folles plays through June 23. This month has so many intriguing plays going on locally, and I encourage anyone who is looking for a weekend activity to go see this one and others. Grab dinner at one of our local small restaurants, and maybe drinks afterward - Bakersfield has a lot more going on than people think. You just have to get out and do it. 


 Because of course we need another picture of Zaza and the Cagelles...


Friday, June 7, 2024

Testimony by Dmitri Shostakovich and Solomon Volkov

Source of book: I own this


First, let’s get the controversy out of the way. According to Solomon Volkov, he met with Shostakovich multiple times during the end of his life, and obtained the material that became this book. He then had Shostakovich sign the pages of his manuscript. 

However, it later appeared that some of the book was copied verbatim from prior articles written (or allegedly written) by Shostakovich, and that many of the pages of manuscript had been lost. 


Further complicating the issue is that the book was never published in its original language, Russian, because of fear of the KGB. 


After it appeared in various European languages, it was criticized by some of Shostakovich’s colleagues as unrepresentative of his own views. His widow rejected it altogether. His children have accepted it as more or less accurate, but “a book about him, not by him.”


I won’t even get into the various scholarly attempts to figure out its authenticity, but to this day, it is unclear where Shostakovich ends and where Volkov begins. 


Because of this, I am going to attribute the book to both of them, and let the reader take the book for what it is worth. 


The crucial question, of course, is what Shostakovich thought of the Soviets - and Stalin in particular. He couldn’t say anything during his lifetime, as he risked execution or the Gulags. There is no doubt that he was on the outs with the authorities for a time, with his music eviscerated in the state-controlled press. He was also, however, very private and introverted, so all we really have is this book. 


I do think that it paints an accurate picture of the Stalin era, and of Stalin himself - that much has been confirmed by multiple dissidents and refugees. Less reliable may be Shostakovich’s opinions of his fellow composers and other artists - how much of that was Volkov? We will never know. 


In any event, the book paints a picture of a man who has survived in an impossible situation, who has remained true to his art, and who still aches with loneliness and the isolation that totalitarianism forces on its citizens. 


Volkov recounts his interviews with Shostakovich in the preface, and there are some great lines there. 


After all, in the Soviet Union the rarest and most valuable thing is memory. It had been trampled down for decades; people knew better than to keep diaries or hold on to letters. When the “great terror” began in the 1930s, frightened citizens destroyed their personal archives, and with them their memory. 

By the late 1920s the honeymoon with the Soviet government was over for genuine artists. Power had come to behave as it always must: it demanded submission. In order to be in favor, to receive commissions and live peacefully, one had to get into state harness and plug away. 


Volkov uses the analogy of the yurodivy - analogous but not identical to the “fool” or “jester.” It is a character who is able to tell the truth to power but indirectly and in a “foolish” manner. To Volkov, Shostakovich was a yurodivy. And perhaps, that is why Shostakovich managed to survive the purges. 


In the history of Soviet literature and art there is not a single even slightly significant figure who has not been at one time or another branded a “formalist.” It was an entirely arbitrary accusation. Many of those accused of it perished. 


Later, in a footnote, Volkov explains more about the use of the term “formalism” - it has nothing really to do with the actual definition. 


“Formalism” has been a “cant” word in Soviet art and literature since the 1920s. As history has shown, this word has almost no real aesthetic content. It has been an epithet for the most varied creative figures and tendencies, depending on the political line and personal tastes of the leaders of the Soviet Union at a particular time. 


Along with this go the other epithets: “bourgeois” and “hostile to the Soviet people.” 


I actually know from experience exactly how this works. Fundamentalism has its own lexicon, and the equivalent of “formalism” is “worldly.” It has no actual content, and is applied to whatever those with authority dislike at the current time. Primarily, it is applied to anything new - anything the kids like. And also to stuff like the Civil Rights Movement, which challenges the injustices of the glorious past. It’s….very Soviet. 


Once we get into the parts allegedly dictated by Shostakovich, the writing becomes fairly rambling - a lot like a random conversation that flits from stories about the past to discussions of composers and music and back again. It takes some concentration, and the book does not read like a typical memoir. There is also a certain amount of repetition of ideas and opinions. 


Overall, it is interesting, but ironically it feels like Volkov could have written a more focused book. 


I’ll hit some highlights. 


Although generally, Shostakovich has a negative opinion of both Stravinsky and Prokofiev personally, he both praises and denigrates their music at times. (Honestly, Shostakovich by the end of his life seemed disillusioned with everything, and this comes across in his opinions of music.) 


There is an interesting incident involving Stravinsky, who was an ex-pat, but was invited back for a visit. He made it, but also kept at a literal arm’s length from those fawning over him. 


Stravinsky hadn’t forgotten anything - that he had been called a lackey of American imperialism and a flunky of the Catholic Church - and the very same people who had called him that were now greeting him with outspread arms.


Alban Berg also comes in for a bit of a comment. He was afraid of a bomb during his visit, but eventually loosened up, asking to conduct his own work. As any musician can attest, this isn’t usually a good thing. 


A composer conducting his own work usually looks ridiculous. There are a few exceptions, but Berg didn’t add to the list. 


Shostakovich’s caustic tongue also calls out the mythmakers with their pretty ideas of composers like him. 


Probably the authors of such sentimental stories would like everything in life to be pretty and edifying and touching - you know, this century and century past. 


This line really struck me, because it is equally applicable to the Evangelical cult. Everything has to be pretty and edifying - no negative emotions allowed. 


Here is a more accurate assessment of composing and composers:


Therefore you can’t find a fresh approach, it has to find you. A fresh approach to a work of music, as I have seen time and time again, usually comes to those who have a fresh approach to other aspects of life in general.


This freshness is apparent in Shostakovich’s works, but so also is his deep cynicism. 


It makes you think: the best way to hold on to something is to pay no attention to it. The things you love too much perish. You have to treat everything with irony, especially the things you hold dear. There’s more of a chance then that they’ll survive. 


I also want to mention a bit from the discussion of King Lear. It’s a perceptive discussion, and Shostakovich gets it right that the central drama of the play is Lear’s slowly crumbling illusions. 


Illusions die gradually - even when it seems that it happened suddenly, instantaneously, that you wake up one fine day and you have no more illusions. It isn’t like that at all. The withering away of illusions is a long and dreary process, like a toothache. But you can pull out a tooth. Illusions, dead, continue to rot within us. And stink. And you can’t escape them. I carry all of mine around with me.


Hello, deconstruction, anyone? The 20 year process of this for me - or is it more like 30? - has been a lot like this, and I still feel the pain every day from the process. I wouldn’t choose to remain deluded, but still. 


For Shostakovich, the most traumatic point in his life was when Pravda published Stalin’s takedown, entitled “Muddle Instead of Music.” It labeled Shostakovich as an “enemy of the people” - and he was sure he was a dead man. He never got over that fear, and always expected that some day he would just be “disappeared.” 


One wonders if Stalin knew the origin of that phrase in Ibsen’s play - and if so, if he realized the irony of how it functioned in Soviet life. 


A number of writers are mentioned in the book. One that gets a decent bit of play was Mikhail Zoshchenko, who sounds like an interesting guy. In one place, there is a darkly amusing passage telling of Zoshchenko’s visit to a psychiatrist regarding his terrifying dreams. The expert opinion was that he had a sexual trauma in his childhood. (Thanks, Freud!) 


Zoshchenko was certain that the doctor was mistaken. His fear of life stemmed from other causes, he felt, because not all our impulses can be reduced to sexual attraction. Fear can take root in a man’s heart for social reasons too. 


Very much true. Just like a lot of older people are clutching their pearls about the mental health crisis in my kids’ generation….but they have zero interest in looking at the circumstances the kids are facing: rising fascism, endless contempt from their elders, climate change, shrinking incomes, rising housing and education costs, and so many more. Sometimes mental health isn’t about internal stuff, but about externals. 


Here is another perceptive comment. 


Why are people so eager for tyrants to be “patrons” and “lovers” of art? I think there are several reasons. First of all, tyrants are base, clever, and cunning men who know that it is much better for their dirty work if they appear to be cultured and educated men rather than ignoramuses and boors. Let the ones who do the work be boors, the pawns. The pawns are proud to be boors, but the generalissimo must always be wise in all things. 


Shostakovich understood how tyrants work - and also the fact that Stalin was essentially fascist in his politics. Communism is an economic system, not a political one, and totalitarianism tends ultimately to become fascist - with its belief in a glorious lost past, demonizing of outsiders, and repression of dissent. 


Naturally, fascism is repugnant to me, but not only German fascism, any form of it is repugnant. Nowadays people like to recall the prewar period as an idyllic time, saying that everything was fine until Hitler bothered us. Hitler is a criminal, that’s clear, but so is Stalin.

I feel eternal pain for those who were killed by Hitler, but I feel no less pain for those killed on Stalin’s orders. I suffer for everyone who was tortured, shot, or starved to death. There were millions of them in our country before the war with Hitler began. 


The choice isn’t between fascism and communism, as some would have you believe. There is no reason for authoritarianism to be the only option. Rather, democracy, it its truest form - where everyone has a say in how resources are divided in society, not just the rich and powerful - is possible without totalitarianism and authoritarianism. We have proof in the last century of first-world experience. 


I have to relate another funny anecdote, this one involving Chekhov. Allegedly, he did not like philosophical discussions. So, when a friend came to him complaining that existential contemplation was ruining his sleep, Chekhov advised him to “drink less vodka.” Thereafter, Shostakovich used that line on any friends who seemed to be too morbidly contemplative. 


That said, it is clear that Shostakovich did plenty of thinking himself, but expressed himself primarily in his music.


I have, unfortunately, not had the pleasure of performing many works by Shostakovich. It feels like his era of music has largely fallen out of favor, and, as it is challenging to play, it hasn’t been programmed that often in the regional orchestra I play in. 


The one that I have played multiple times is the 5th Symphony. If I recall, the first time, we did an entire season of 5th Symphonies - Beethoven of course, and my beloved Schubert. Probably Prokofiev as well. But Shostakovic’s 5th is a wonderful work. That slow movement is one of the most beautiful things ever written. 


And then, there is the finale. Which is arguably the greatest example in history of hiding a meaning in plain sight, obvious to everyone except the apparatchiks who lack imagination. In this case, Shostakovich hides a protest against the Soviet system and its brutality in a way that musicians and those who love music can easily see, but which is not apparent on the surface. 


At first listen, it seems to be a triumphal ending. But…those endless repeated A notes in the strings…they go on too long, and are too insistent even as dissonance tries to change the chord. And the hammering tympani doesn’t seem particularly joyful. There is something forced about it all. 


Here is what Volkov says Shostakovich said about it - and it certainly fits musically, despite what the Soviet critics thought. 


The rejoicing is forced, created under threat, as in Boris Godunov. It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, “Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing,” and you rise, shaky, and go marching off, muttering, “Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing.” 


Give it a listen and decide for yourself. I love Michael Tilson Thomas’ interpretation here.


And also, check out the 3rd movement. If you can’t see into Shostakovich’s soul, and his deep trauma, you have a heart of stone.


Another interesting passage is about Stalin. Shostakovich was no fan - that much is well known, although he obviously couldn’t say it out loud until after Stalin’s death. (A particularly poignant passage is Shostakovich’s harrowing trip to the United States - he didn’t want to go, but was forced. During the trip, the aggressive US reporters kept trying to get him to say something negative about the Soviet Union - not fully understanding that he risked being killed if he said anything. His overall impression of the US was very negative for that reason.) 


Stalin was, like most autocrats, superstitious. Shostakovich, who was an atheist, but not aggressively so, commented on the phenomenon. 


I’m telling this story with a specific aim, which I’m not hiding. I’m not a militant atheist, and I feel people can believe as they wish. But just because a person has a particular set of superstitions doesn’t prove anything good about him. Just because a person is religious, say, he doesn’t automatically become a better person. 


If the Trump Era has done nothing else, it has given graphic proof that religion most certainly does not make you a better person. If anything, the kind of white religion that dominates our country demonstrably makes people worse


There is also nearly an entire chapter devoted to the existence of ghost-artists. In the Soviet Union, there was a demand for “authentic” art, poetry, and music from the various “Stans” on the outskirts of the empire. These were seen as more authentically “proletarian” than art from the educated classes in the big cities. 


The problem was, there wasn’t such art, poetry, or music in existence. How to solve the problem? Ghost writers! All you need is someone to translate, to transcribe, to bring into existence what was needed. Many Soviet artists - composers included - who couldn’t sell their own works under their own name, gravitated toward these hack jobs. 


Fiction triumphed because a man has no significance in a totalitarian state. The only thing that matters is the inexorable movement of the state mechanism. A mechanism needs only cogs. Stalin used to call all of us cogs. One cog does not differ from another, and cogs can easily replace one another. You can pick one out and say, “From this day you will be a genius cog,” and everyone else will consider it a genius. It doesn’t matter at all whether it is or not. Anyone can become a genius on the orders of the leader. 


And yet, these manufactured “genius cogs” have now been forgotten, and only the true geniuses - the ones who tended to fall afoul of Stalin - have survived. 


Shostakovich also struggled with something that has haunted me since I left organized religion. In addition to my classical gigs, I used to lead worship. I can play CCM pretty well on multiple instruments. And I really, truly thought that I was making a difference, causing people to think, leading them toward a greater love of God and neighbor. And yet, in the end, I apparently did not - their morality was determined by Fox News more than anything that went on in church. 


Meaning in music - that must sound very strange for most people. Particularly in the West. It’s here in Russia that the question is usually posed: What was the composer trying to say, after all, with this musical work? What was he trying to make clear? The questions are naive, of course, but despite their naivete and crudity, they definitely merit being asked. And I would add to them, for instance: Can music attack evil? Can it make man stop and think? Can it cry out and thereby draw man’s attention to the various vile acts to which he has grown accustomed? to the things he passes without any interest?


Shostakovich and I both believe that it can, but it isn’t simple. Anthems have caught the imagination, from Yankee Doodle to Nabucco to Finlandia. I truly hope my music touched at least someone in a positive way. The music of Shostakovich certainly has. 


As a result of reading this book, I have added a few authors to my list - I like to read books in translation, and Russian is again tied for second place (with Japanese and Spanish) for languages I have read in translation since starting this blog. (French is in first place by a lot.) 


One of those I have now added is the poet, Vladimir Mayakovsky. As with so many figures of the time, Shostakovich’s opinion of him is mixed - he loved the early poetry, but disliked his toadying up to the Soviet government. 


Ironically, for all that, Mayakovsky died under controversial circumstances. It was officially a suicide, but there are so many discrepancies that it seems plausible he was murdered by Stalin’s thugs. Here is what Shostakovich says about him, after praising his poetry:


I can readily say that Mayakovsky epitomized all the traits of character I detest: phoniness, love of self-advertisement, lust for the good life, and most important, contempt for the weak and servility before the strong. Power was the great moral law for Mayakovsky. 


That’s a harsh burn. I think the record is more complicated than that. True, many of his later works are propaganda, but as Shostakovich makes clear elsewhere, you did what you had to in order to stay alive, and just hoped that those in power didn’t turn on you. 


Unfortunately, Mayakovsky failed to walk that line - and it may have been impossible. After his death, the mood changed, and he was hailed as a great Soviet poet. The changing winds of totalitarian power. 


Shostakovich learned some techniques for survival, including this one:


When I was younger, I did make such imprudent remarks, and people still ask me when I am going to complete my opera The Quiet Don. I’ll never finish it because I never started it. It was just that, to my great regret, I had to say so to get out of a difficult situation. This is a special form of self-defense in the Soviet Union. You say that you’re planning such-and-such a composition, something with a powerful, killing title. That’s so that they don’t stone you. And meanwhile you write a quartet or something for your own quiet satisfaction. But you tell the administration that you’re working on the opera Karl Marx or The Young Guards, and they’ll forgive you your quartet when it appears. Under the powerful shield of such “creative plans” you can live a year or two in peace.


There is another passage in the book that reminded me of our own would-be dictator. Stalin wasn’t particularly tall, he was a bit rotund, and he had a small hand. But he was really vain, and his portraits had to play down his less attractive traits. But there too, was a line. It had to be realistic without being truly real. Shostakovich noted that in person, Stalin didn’t look much like his pictures. The same might be said about the Orange Felon. 


As a final quote, I want to mention the fact that every totalitarian system eventually becomes puritanical. (Many start out that way.) Once you start looking at people as cogs, then forced reproduction becomes inevitable. Best known is the debacle in Romania, where the forced births led to hundreds of thousands of children raised in orphanages and traumatized so badly that they struggle to even bond with other humans. Or the various (and changing) policies in China, from the One Child policy and its forced abortions, to a new (and unsuccessful) push to increase family size. 


Stalin was no exception. Originally, the Communist movement contained an element of progressive feminism: no gender roles, stop the sexual abuse of women by the powerful, comrades before family, and so on. But by Stalin, we were back to “tradition.” 


Having destroyed the family unit, Stalin began resurrecting it, that was his standard pattern. It’s called dialectics. He destroyed barbarically, and he resurrected barbarically too. Everyone knows the shameful laws on family and marriage promulgated by Stalind. And it got worse. A ban on marrying foreigners, even Poles and Czechs, who were our own people, after all. Then the law on sexual segregation in schools. Boys and girls separated, in order to maintain morality, and so that they wouldn’t ask teachers stupid questions about “things” and “holes.”


Funny how authoritarians eventually come for sex, isn’t it? The lust for power tends to focus on the less powerful, and that usually means women and LGBTQ people - note Putin’s crackdown in recent decades. 


Whatever the provenance, this book is a fascinating inside look at the Soviet arts scene, the nature of totalitarianism, and the quest to remain true to art in the face of arbitrary power. It’s worth reading for anyone who loves music, particularly of the first half of the 20th Century. 


But beyond that, I encourage everyone to listen to Shostakovich, one of the most brilliant and thoughtful composers of his era, and a true musical genius.