‘Chased work’: on Flannery O’Connor at Many Gendered Mothers

I’m delighted to be a part of the Many Gendered Mothers project. Here, I write about how Flannery O’Connor’s work has influenced mine.

This ain’t no sleigh ride

The movie Lieutenant Kizhe is set during the reign of Tsar Paul, a pedant, a tyrant, a martinet, even by tsarist standards, and no small bit of stand-in for Stalin when the movie was made in 1934  — so much so I am astonished the film was allowed distribution. Sergei Sergei’vich Prokofiev composed the music for the soundtrack.

At one point, two sergeants and a drum major are ordered to quick-march a prisoner, who’s just received a hundred lashes, from Petersburg to Sibera. No coats, no provisions, just a quick-march to Siberia. It gets better: the prisoner, Kizhe, does not exist. This unimportant detail is explained away. Kizhe, you see, is ‘a confidential prisoner: he has no shape.’

Off they go.

The two sergeants and the drum major, about to drop with exhaustion, arrive at Siberia — the gate to the prison camp looking quite modern, I might add — to deliver Prisoner Kizhe. The camp commandant, after suffering a moment of confusion, sees the light: ‘Ah, an affair of state!’

Tsar Paul changes his mind and orders Kizhe be returned from Siberia and promoted to Colonel of the Guards. Our Hero is dispatched on this sacred duty. He arrives at the prison camp in a cart draw by belled horses. Our Hero and the Camp Commandant, struggling with the potentially fatal absurdity of their lives in this moment, get stinking drunk. We first hear the ‘troika’ motif as they sing a crude and sexist drinking song (is there any other kind?) and then kiss each other goodbye. Our Hero, and, of course, that confidential prisoner with no shape, Kizhe, bundle into the cart to race back to the palace. So does the camp commandant. The song trails out: ‘Like a roadside inn is a woman’s heart where travellers stop and stay / Checking i-i-i-n or checking out all the night and all the day! Roadside inn, roadside inn. come and stay, come and stay!’ Then the commandant falls out of the cart.

Prokofiev’s Troika always struck me as frantic and ridiculous, and not, as it’s often presented, as pretty and joyful riding music. Now I see why.

Here’s a recording of the Troika that captures what I’m on about: Anantole Fistoulari conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra.

Music of the Great Purge

There’s been much bullshit and bafflegab written about Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich’s Symphony No 5 — he wrote some of it himself — and the baffelgab must, if coming from a Soviet citizen, be at least considered, if not understood, as a perhaps coded survival mechanism. As for Western music critics who asserted that Symphony No 5 in particular is all about the Party Line and Shostakovich being craven and full of praise for Stalinism: well, where does one start with such profound ignorance of the Soviet condition, of the limits of one’s own cultural myths about heroes, of how one shows courage in a tyranny of unprecedented and most intimate savagery?

In the admittedly disputed Testimony, memoirs as told to Solomon Moiseyevich Volkov between 1971 and 1974*, Shostkovich said of his work and its much-debated meanings that those who have ears can hear. Of the Fifth Symphony’s final movement, Shostakovich says to Volkov: ‘I think that it is clear to everyone what happens in the Fifth. The rejoicing is forced, created under threat, as in Boris Godunov. It’s as if someone were beating you wih 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.”‘

Symphony No 5, composed in 1937 and premiered in November of that year, is clear. Whatever the dangers of a Soviet citizen saying so at the time — and that includes the composer himself — the symphony recognizes, acknowledges, and presents the Great Purge, its violence, lies, and sorrow. Audiences at the Leningrad, and then Moscow, premieres, the stories go, stood to applaud for a long time, weeping. From Testimony: ‘I’ll never believe that a man who understood nothing could feel the Fifth Symphony. Of course they understood, they understood what was happening around them and they understood what the Fifth was about.’

This concert, which I found by accident, is my new favourite recording. It leaves me like Bruce Cockburn: ‘All you can do is praise the razor for the fineness of the slash.’

Paavo Jarvi conducts the Orcheste de Paris in 2015.

* Volkov’s original notes for Testimony, which were transcriptions of oral interviews then read and signed by Shostakovich at authentic and accurate, have disappeared. Maxim Dmitrievch Shostakovich at first said, in 1981 just after defecting, were ‘about’ his father’s context versus the words of his father, only to clarify in 1986 and at points beyond that yes, Volkov’s book is accurate. One must also consider MD Shostakovich’s fears for loved ones still in the USSR when examining his first statement on the issue. A defector might live in the West, but he was hardly free of the results of Soviet tyranny.



‘And Dream of Sheep’: Kate Bush and risk

Kate Bush is an artist I admire greatly, and she’s a big influence on my own paltry work. I look to Kate Bush when I need to take risks for the sake of the fiction, when I need to be brave.

This song, ‘And Dream of Sheep,’ was first released on Hounds of Love in 1985.

It’s quite sad. And beautiful.

That, in and of itself, is a huge accomplishment, just the song.

A live version is coming out on a concert album called Before the Dawn, due out next week. Bush made a video for it — nothing new there. The song is sung from the POV of someone who is lost at sea. In the cold water. Wearing a lifejacket that blinks its feeble red light:

Little light, shining
Little light, guide them
To me
My face is all lit up
My face is all lit up
If they find me racing white horses
They’ll not take me for a buoy
Let me be weak, let me sleep,
And dream of sheep
Oh, I’ll wake up to any sound of engines …

I grew up on an island surrounded by the North Atlantic, and I’ve returned to it. Drowning, hypothermia, loss at sea, the terrible solitude of survival, however brief, in cold salt water: these are not abstract images but hard, hard realties. My grandfather Francis, who served in the Royal Navy in WWII, ended up in the water like that three times. Three God damned times: ship destroyed, buddies dying, bobbing in helpless misery in salt water where others wanted to kill him. Him, and how many others? He came home. He never spoke of it. I only learned about after he’d died.

That water not unforgiving — it’s indifferent. And there’s the terror of the solitude.

So the song has its power.

The video, recorded last month, shares that power. Bush is really in water there. not terribly cold … but cold enough that she developed mild hypothermia and had to stop filming for a day.

Dangerous? Perhaps. What risks will you take to communicate?



The story of Rasputin — his behaviour, his murder — gets stranger all the time as details emerge. For example, I only learned a few months ago about the involvement of not only one Prince Felix Yusopov but also the potential involvement of Britain’s MI6, who at the very least wanted to keep an eye on things.

So the common disclaimer seen in many movies and novel, “This story if a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any persons, living or dead”: it seems Prince Felix played a role there, too. Duncan Frye explains.

Rasputin, still shimmering through history, remains a weird figure to me — weird in the old sense, wayward. Boney M had fun with him, of course, even appropriating a Turkish folk song for it, and Epic Rap Battles of History invite him round for a duel with, uh, Stalin. (I love Epic Rap Battles of History’s work, but I admit, I can’t laugh much at this one.)

For a certain man who lived in Russia long ago, he’s left quite a stain.