I read Frances Stonor Saunders on the Zhivago story with great interest because I visited Boris Pasternak in 1958, by which time the novel had been published (LRB, 25 September). I was taken to see him by the Oxford Russian scholar Ronald Hingley, a friend of the Pasternak family. The photograph of his dacha in Peredelkino takes me back to a memorable day, Pasternak sitting at one of those upper windows with his eye on the garden gate, where a large shiny black car would occasionally stop for a minute or two and then move slowly on. In a typical Russian joke the writers’ colony established by Stalin was nicknamed nye-Yasnaya Polyana after Tolstoy’s home Yasnaya Polyana, the Clear Glade. It was the un-Clear Glade.
Pasternak talked to us for hours about everything, not only literature and music but his own story, including his famous telephone conversation with Stalin. Stonor Saunders considers at some length how far he understood and perhaps even invited what was coming to him from the Soviet authorities. The last thing Pasternak said as we left was: ‘When you get home you will wonder how much you should publish of what I have said to you. I have only one request: publish everything.’
Stonor Saunders repeatedly insinuates that the Zhivago affair was unscrupulously exploited behind Pasternak’s back by the CIA, MI6, the Foreign Office etc as part of the Cold War ‘engine of false realities’, even blaming the BBC for refusing Isaiah Berlin’s suggestion that they censor broadcasts of the novel on the Russian-language service. I wasn’t involved myself, but friends of mine were, and I would describe that as a travesty, and an insult to Pasternak. The Cold War was not a ‘feint, counterfeint round of pugilism’ or ‘a protracted argument about washing machines’. It was above all about freedom. Pasternak knew that Doctor Zhivago was a blow against totalitarianism, and what the consequences might be for him; he also knew that totalitarianism is vulnerable to such blows. Indeed it can be argued that the reason Pasternak was not actually murdered was that the heirs of Stalin were beginning to lose their nerve, and the publication of Doctor Zhivago in Russian and its dissemination in Russia were part of that process.
I find it strange that it is fashionable to run down those who were in the front line against Moscow in the Cold War. Stonor Saunders goes on about ‘the Foreign Office’s propaganda shop’, ‘the CIA, MI6 and their little helpers’, ‘vulgar propaganda … being churned out by the fronts and “assets" of MI6 and the CIA’. Not many people would write in that tone about those who worked against Fascist or Nazi totalitarianism. The myth of ‘Pas d’ennemis à gauche!’ persists even among those who should know better.
Jenny Diski’s meditations on stationery cupboards reminded me of one I used to know well, in the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum (LRB, 31 July). You opened an innocent-looking panelled door and entered a narrow corridor lined with glass-fronted shelves of files, with closed cabinets below. It smelled of all the quires of A4 and carbon paper, pencils and typewriter ribbon stored there. After about three metres you met a copying machine in a corner so that you had to turn right through ninety degrees. Then, past a kettle on a cupboard top, you proceeded another two metres or so along the corridor to a blank wall.
My boss had just had a flaming row with an impatient and arrogant foreign museum director, who had come to negotiate some loans. Not having got what he’d wanted, he flounced out of the keeper’s office uttering some devastating parting comment, flung open the door of the stationery cupboard and disappeared inside. He reappeared shortly afterwards, having come up against the copying machine, the kettle, and the blank end wall. His departure via a genuine exit was less theatrical.
I can’t help feeling, in the light of Diski’s more recent piece, that she might find a certain solace in the thought of that stationery-cupboard-cum-cul-de-sac (LRB, 11 September). At any rate, I wish her the solace that comes from using lots more stationery for many future creative purposes.
The law of joint enterprise is complicated, but it is unfairly attacked by Melanie McFadyean (LRB, 25 September). One cannot be convicted merely ‘on the basis that you must have realised that someone you were with might commit a violent act with that intent, even if you didn’t share it.’ One must first agree to commit a criminal offence with the perpetrator of that violence. Nor does a defendant have to prove anything to be acquitted, as she suggests. It is for the prosecution to satisfy the jury that the defendant did foresee that his co-defendant might commit the offence during the course of the joint enterprise but nevertheless continued to take part in it.
Sir Anthony Hooper’s explanation of the effect of the Supreme Court’s decision in R. v. Gnango (which is a different type of case) is also open to dispute. He claims the decision means that where two gangs engage in a fight in which a participant dies, a member of the same gang as the deceased is liable for his murder. In that case, the defendant and Bandana Man were not involved in a chance mêlée. Both wanted to engage in a potentially homicidal shooting-match. Unless the members of both gangs had that intention, as distinct from an intention merely to use unlawful violence, it is doubtful that a member of the same gang as the deceased could be convicted of murder. The leading judgment made clear that it would be ‘undesirable’ to ‘charge with murder parties to an affray who had not themselves intended that it would result in serious injury’. There is no injustice in holding the parties to a homicidal shooting-match responsible for the deaths of the other parties to it or of innocent bystanders. This is motivated by a desire to protect the public and not, as McFadyean suggests, out of ‘contempt for the defendants’. She quotes, without comment, Tony Powell’s claim that he ‘had no intention of killing anyone’. Surely a jury could with certainty infer that intention from what he now says he did, which was to point a gun at a drug dealer and shoot him? It might be of interest that Mr Powell’s account now is somewhat different from the one he gave the jury at his trial in the Central Criminal Court in 1994. There he testified that he was merely at the scene to buy cannabis, had not approached the victim’s door and that someone else had fired the shot, something McFadyean neglects to mention.
Ian Penman mentions that at the start of his career Elvis recorded two songs on a ‘summer night … “That’s Alright" and its flipside’ (LRB, 25 September). In fact there was no flipside, presenting the producer, Sam Phillips, with a problem. Once ‘That’s Alright’ had been played on air, having first been rejected by several local radio stations uncertain about the song and its performer’s racial origins, there was an urgent need for a flipside so that a single could be released. A week or so later – the exact date isn’t known – Elvis recorded a buoyant reworking of a well-known country hit, ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky’.
Penman goes on to talk about ‘Southern boy Elvis’ being patronised on his first TV appearance by the host, Steve Allen, who had him ‘deliver his song to an actual slobbery hound dog’. In fact, Elvis had appeared on TV a number of times before and long before ‘Hound Dog’ was recorded. The Steve Allen Show had Elvis in white tie and tails, a desperate – and embarrassing – response to the impact of Elvis’s earlier performance of ‘Hound Dog’ on the Milton Berle Show. ‘He gave an exhibition that was suggestive and vulgar,’ one typical reviewer wrote, ‘tinged with the kind of animalism that should be confined to dives and bordellos.’ Under pressure to cancel the show, Allen offered instead ‘to do a show the whole family can watch and enjoy’. It’s difficult now not to squirm at Elvis’s evident discomfort.
Ian Penman refers to the vehicle in which Elvis Presley was travelling in March 1965 when he had his bizarre Damascene moment as a ‘tour bus’. Elvis hadn’t toured since 1957 and would not do so again until 1970. In fact he was travelling by motorhome from Memphis to Hollywood to shoot the movie Harum Scarum. Also, any visitor to Graceland will confirm that, far from being the ‘huge echoing mansion’ Penman describes, it is a surprisingly modest residence, such as would be regarded as standard by any Premiership footballer.
Ian Penman mentions that he and his friends have no clue where they were when Elvis died. No Elvis fan myself, I do happen to remember quite vividly where I was. My wife and I had flown into Heathrow from our home in the US, arriving on the morning of 16 August 1977 by way of Freddie Laker’s short-lived airline. I remember walking up Charing Cross Road and seeing the Evening Standard’s headline. The main story, splashed all over the front page, was about a giraffe that had splayed in the zoo and was fighting for its life. Above the masthead was: ‘Elvis Presley Dead’. A country that values its wildlife over our pop stars can’t be all bad, I thought.
Beverly Cove, Massachusetts
Wagner was, as Eliot Weinberger mentions, a student of Eugène Burnouf’s work on Buddhism (LRB, 11 September). The Introduction à l’histoire du Bouddhisme indien can be seen in Wagner’s library at the Villa Wahnfried today or, if not today, when the library’s doors reopen to the public – if they ever do – following protracted building work. Wagner studied Buddhism more generally too, as well as other Indian philosophy.
However, Weinberger’s claim that the composer ‘left an unfinished “Buddhist" opera at his death’ is misleading. Die Sieger (‘The Victors’) was never really begun. In 1856 Wagner outlined a scenario in which the Buddha would appear on stage as a character, some of the ideas seemingly drawing on Burnouf (and on Karl Friedrich Köppen’s Die Religion des Buddha und ihre Entstehung, from 1857). However, Wagner never completed the sketch, let alone a libretto or music. He later told Ludwig II he had plans to resurrect the drama and indeed suggested a production for 1870, but nothing materialised. Rather than leaving an unfinished opera, Wagner subsumed the project into Parsifal, in which Buddhistic ideas sit somewhat uneasily alongside heterodox Christian themes. As so often, his intellectual method proved less Socratic than agglomerative, ideas overlapping each other as in a rudimentary geological overlay. But Kundry’s gruelling reincarnations and Parsifal’s arduous travails continued to bear strong Buddhist influence. Wagner remade Christianity in other images, one of them Buddhist, just as he remade Buddhism in other images.
The scenario for Die Sieger would return in the late Jonathan Harvey’s opera Wagner Dream (2007), composed to a banal libretto by Jean-Claude Carrière. Wagner’s scenario is interspersed with a retelling of the day of his death in Venice. Here Wagner (a spoken role) expresses greater regret that his plan hadn’t progressed than he seems ever to have done in life.
Royal Holloway, University of London
Seriously, though, your coverage of the conflict between Palestine and Israel is a true disgrace for a publication that considers itself critical and progressive, and above all it’s intellectually poor and disappointing. Sad, wouldn’t you agree?