Revolutions all round

<strong>Sergey Prokofiev: Diaries (1915-1922) - Behind the Mask</strong>

Edited by Anthony Phillip

Unfair as it might be, Russian composers and artists of the 20th century seem to be unable to escape from their political context, their every gossipy aside or "hidden meaning" scrutinised for historical import. Richard Strauss's Nazi sympathies or Elgar's imperialist jingoism fail to elicit the column inches dwelling on Shos takovich's was-he-or-wasn't-he-a-believer relationship with Stalinism.

However, the historical detail in the second volume of Sergey Prokofiev's diaries (for a review of the first, Prodigious Youth, see NS of 22 January 2007) is so intriguing that it is hard not to be unfair. The modernist (or as he would have preferred, neoclassicist) composer emigra ted in 1918 but, after a few visits from 1927 onwards, settled in the USSR in 1935. In 1937 he composed a Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution, so it's worth finding out exactly what his private thoughts were on the event. "Farewell Bolsheviks! Farewell 'comrades'! From today it will no longer be a badge of infamy to wear a tie and no one will tread on my toes," he writes on 16 May 1918 after boarding the steamer out.

Yet the diaries also make clear inadvertently that this was hardly a response to cruelty or oppression. Prokofiev arranged a meeting with Anatoly Lunacharsky, the Bolshevik "commissar of enlightenment", to express his desire to emigrate, and got flattery and a no-questions-asked passport in return, something that his countrymen would have found unimaginable 20 years later. Meanwhile, for all their disdain for "commissars", friends and collaborators of his such as Alexandre Benois or Vsevolod Meyerhold were paid employees of the communist government. It would seem that Prokofiev, like other members of the Russian intelligentsia, had far more quarrel with the chaos and popular energies of revolution than he would with the "stability and order" promised by Joseph Stalin. Revealingly, when asked in a (hilarious) interview with US customs whether he was in sympathy with the Bolsheviks, he replied: "No, because they took my money away."

That he was acquainted with both the neoclassicist Benois and the increasingly futurist Meyerhold is a pointer to Prokofiev's peculiar status at this point - being either lumped in by critics with an artistic "return to order" or condemned for dissonance and nonconformism. These must be the only diaries that exhibit an interest in the Italian futurists' "noise-machines" (he visits Marinetti et al in Milan) as well as a fondness for the late-Romantic melodrama of Rachmaninov, with whom he spends much time in the United States. It is remarkable, now that Prokofiev's works are so uncontroversial, how audiences were affronted by them in the 1910s, frequently booing and hooting. "Either this is not music, or I am not a musician," declares one of his opponents. Frequently his detractors seemed to think the compositions were jokes being played on them, and their denunciations were as savage in Chicago as they were in Petrograd.

Nonetheless, the historical rather than the musical minutiae are what seems most valuable in this book, from pondering the assassination of Rasputin (a good subject for an opera, he notes) to eyewitness accounts of revolution. The composer missed October 1917, but he was directly (albeit unintentionally) caught up in the February uprisings that overthrew the tsar. The descriptions here of street fighting and police charges have an intense clarity, irrespective of his fear of the "mob". It does all become a little more prosaic upon his emigration, and his responses to the American landscape are not es pecially insightful: he attends a motor race, is unimpressed with "beautiful, flat-chested and unresponsive" American women, and has an evening on top of the Woolworth Building.

What Prokofiev did have was an extremely dry wit, which occasionally results in some fine, bitchy one-liners, from his disdain for Mahler's Seventh Symphony ("like kissing a stillborn child") to his fear of the futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky ("I always wonder: is he going to hit me, not for any particular reason, just because?") to his pride at being proclaimed "best-dressed man in Chicago". At his best he has a gift for the surprising phrase, the unexpected insight and the occasional laugh-out-loud bon mot. It appears much of his time was spent reading German idealist philosophy and "destroying" or "annihilating" various unfortunates at chess.

This is an impressively edited work, with Anthony Phillips's footnotes, indexing and appendices all scrupulously detailed and informative, albeit nowhere near as politically impartial as they think they are. At the same time, one can't help but wish in places that he'd adopted a rather harsher editorial approach. Particularly in the later diaries, the composer's lapidary prose fails to enliven interminable descriptions of parties, romantic indecisiveness and suchlike - the editor could have made heavy cuts here to produce a significantly less unwieldy and laborious book. The subtitle Behind the Mask is also a strangely inappropriate choice, implying that the diaries offer some kind of insight either into the creative process, or into some hidden emotional depths beneath the elegant surface. On the contrary, for all his assiduous reading of Schopenhauer, and regardless of his obvious brilliance, Pro ko fiev comes across as arch and sometimes charming, but not exactly overburdened with intelligence or sophistication.

The title of the review by Ben Hecht that appears in the appendix - "Fantastic Lollypops" - seems more apposite for these occasionally sparkling, sometimes histo rically intriguing, and decidedly oversized jottings. Prokofiev himself might have preferred it that way.

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, High-street robbery

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide