Shostakovich in love and war

Recently, I finally finished Europe Central, William T. Vollman’s massive and powerful novel about the reverberations of Nazism and Stalinism in the lives of characters (mostly historical figures) ranging from generals to artists of all kinds – the “famous, infamous and anonymous” is how Vollman sums them up. The novel is structured as a series of short stories*, some told in a relatively straightforward narrative style, and some, as Vollman puts it in a prefatory note to some 50 pages of notes on his historical sources, “embellished with supernatural cobwebs”, and I confess to getting a bit lost in those cobwebs. But I think that was my problem more than Vollman’s. For the majority of the book I was very much engaged and carried along.

One of the principal characters is Dimitri Shostakovich, who is present not only as a composer, but as the member of an imaginary love triangle: he is obsessed with a woman named Elena Konstantinovskaya, with whom he had an affair, and who eventually marries filmmaker Roman Karmen. The book’s climactic chapter is named Opus 110, and refers not to the late Beethoven sonata that most musicians think of when they hear that number, but rather to Shostakovich’s best string quartet, his Eighth. Vollman has Shostakovich putting into the quartet all the suffering he has seen and experienced – the piece is “the living corpse of music, perfect in its horror.” The chapter is knit together from motifs we have become familar with from earlier in the book, and it is remarkable how tiny fragments and allusions carry such expressive weight. It’s a tour de force of leitmotive technique. I was impressed by the lack of musical gaffes, something that is all too rare in literary work. The only problem is that Shostakovich is not a good enough composer, nor is his Eighth Quartet strong enough a piece, to bear the weight of all this atrocity.** I remember sitting through Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District at the Met several years ago, and thinking, “Well, it ain’t Berg.” The novel is magnificent, and though it made me want to go back to that quartet, I doubt I will find it to be “perfect in its horror”.

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*By coincidence, during a break from Europe Central, I read Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists, another novel in the form of a series of interconnected short stories. Extremely different from the Vollman, but equally recommendable, the book is about the staff of an international English-language newspaper based in Rome, and the stories juxtapose wry humor with the melancholy results of human desire. It’s a funny book, but to me, the melancholy predominates.

**Or perhaps his limitations as an artist make for a poignant comment on the limits of art in the face of such extremity. Shostakovich’s music may not be equal to the task, but whose is?

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