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.

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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?

 

Ra-Ra-disclaimer

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.

 

“I stole this from …”

I listen to music when I write. I make playlists for different projects — mixtapes for characters, rough maps for themes. Many of my characters listen to music, find themselves haunted. Josh Bozeman, the unreliable narrator of Double-blind, wants to forget the first movement of  JS Bach’s Brandenburg Number Two, in part because it reminds him of his own complicity in a violation. Employees at radio station VOIC in Sky Waves sing Ron Hynes’s “Sonny’s Dream” for hours after hearing it on the air. (I’ve observed this behaviour at ever radio station where I’ve worked; that song has serious power.)  In deluded your sailors, Seth Seabright busks “I’m Not Jesus,” a song by Apocalyptica with Corey Taylor that helped me get into a safe mental place to confront the novel’s themes of childhood sexual abuse.

Much of the writing I admire seems to be part of a larger conversation, both within itself and outside itself. Flannery O’Connor, John Donne, Franz Kafka and Christopher Marlowe hash out questions, sometimes agonies, of identity, power, faith,  violence, and grace. While I can’t write like that, music is becoming part of the conversations in my fiction. In This Marlowe, set mostly in England in 1593-4, I mention just one Elizabethan song, and that only by straining historical accuracy with a backstory of theft: John Dowland’s “Fine Knacks for Ladies.” I don’t know much about Elizabethan music. For me, much of the appeal of so-called historical fiction is the conversation it can have with a reader’s present, and with the writer’s present, so I stopped worrying about Elizabethan music.  Instead, I broke a sentence’s easy parallel structure with the narrator’s phrase “maps and legends” to allude to the REM song by the same name. The image and idea of maps, of not always understanding them, are key to what I wanted to do with this novel. Later, main character Kit confronts Izaak, fellow Cambridge divinity student and now state examiner – and torturer. Kit demands to know if Izaak can blush in shame: “Or dost thou lack the blood?” Calm, Izaak answers: “What I lack not is license. Grace, too.” These two former divines argued about ideas of grace at university, and Izaak is one manifestation of the power in my fictive world, the menace and violence arriving, as the Tragically Hip put it, with “no knock on the door.” 

I love the Tragically Hip. I’m still unfolding songs from the 1990s, let alone the steady gifts from the 2000s. When creative doubt freezes me, I crank “My Music @ Work.” The first Tragically Hip song I sat down with liner notes and took in was “Grace, Too.” I was just starting to gestate what would become This Marlowe that summer, 1994, and “Grace, Too” got tangled up with a character based on real-life intelligence agent Robin Poley. My Robin, a dangerous man struggling for control, “a total pro here … armed with skill and its frustration,” parallels Kit to the very end. 

“Grace, Too” helped me write This Marlowe. It’s that simple. That important to me. 

Did I steal something?

Another Tragically Hip song  I listened to while writing This Marlowe is “Fifty Mission Cap.”  The song demonstrates the leap – or perhaps fall –  into empathy. The speaker is an experienced pilot considering a hockey player: “Bill Barilko disappeared that summer.”  The speaker identifies with Barilko through the defiance and joy of accomplishment and flight. He’s also pragmatic about the dangers: “He was on a fishing trip (in a plane crash).”  Then the speaker tell us “I stole this from a hockey card.” It’s not just any Bill Barilko hockey card; it’s the one the pilot keeps “tucked up under [his] fifty-mission cap.” A talisman? A good luck charm? A reminder?  What matters is the connection he’s made with Barilko, the empathy. That, and the attempt to take the pain and confusion of a violent death into something better, or at least something meaningful.

Writing This Marlowe became an act of wish fulfillment. I admire Christopher Marlowe’s work, yet I know very little, with certainty, about the man. We’ve got the intriguing traces in official records. A Canterbury cobbler’s son who receives a divinity scholarship conditional on a promise to take holy orders. Cambridge hesitates to award his MA; the Privy Council gets involved; Marlowe never does become a Church of England priest. He writes plays and poems: startling, outrageous, beautiful, terrifying. And then, a mess. In 1593, a xenophobic poem, posted to the door of a church, blames immigrants and refugees for England’s problems and threatens violence and fire, all while alluding to several of Marlowe’s plays. Thomas Kyd, who once shared rooms with Marlowe, is arrested on suspicion of writing this poem. (I can’t think of a less likely suspect. For a start, the poem sounds nothing like Kyd’s work. Or Marlowe’s.) Thomas Kyd makes a damning accusation from prison. Kyd later says he was tortured, and I believe him. The Privy Council issues an arrest warrant for Marlowe on of atheism, considered a form of sedition, only to give him the very lenient instructions to make daily attendance. Ten days later, Marlowe dies, stabbed during a brawl over who would pay the bill at a rooming house.

A violent death.

A stupid one.

It’s meaningless. A fiery genius dies young for that?

The story in the coroner’s report is, at best, suspect. I’ve no idea what happened in that room. I can’t know Christopher Marlowe any more than the Tragically Hip’s pilot can know Bill Barilko. The knife, the age, the arrest — it’s  stuff I could steal from a book flap. 

I stole other things, too: biographical details of various Elizabethans, notations in source documents. Then I took liberties. My first duty: not to a shopping list of fidelity but to my story. 

Violence comes as no surprise to my character Kit. He knows how dangerous Ingram, Nick, and Robin are. He knows he is the reason Tom Kyd suffers under Izaak Pindar. I made my character’s death mean something, even if only to him, because I want the real Christopher Marlowe’s death to have meant something. 

Something more than the market value of the fatal dagger, the amount carefully recorded in the coroner’s report.

I worked it in to look like that.

(The balancing act with “Fifty Mission Cap” collapses here, because I’ve got no experience with being a pilot, or with facing violent death. I nearly drowned once, in a swimming pool. I felt no menace, no fear; the beauty of the sunlit water distracted me. I’ve been ill for several years with an aggressive autoimmune disease, and while I think much more now about mortality, I hardly expect my own death to be violent. Painful, perhaps. I can’t know that, either.)