Hans Keller

  • Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich edited by Solomon Volkov, translated by Antonina Bouis
    Hamish Hamilton, 238 pp, £7.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 241 10321 5

I don’t trust Mr Solomon Volkov an inch, and as for Miss Antonina Bouis, the question of trust hardly arises: Shostakovich is supposed to have said that ‘Hamlet was screwing her’ (i.e. Ophelia) in Nikolai Pavlovich Akimov’s (1901–1968) production of Hamlet which, at the time (1932), ‘was highly regarded in the American literary press’ – or so Mr Volkov informs us. On every page, the reader is confronted with this two-tiered question: did Shostakovich actually say anything of the sort? If so, what precisely did he say? Is there a Russian equivalent for ‘to screw’ in this sense, and if so, how ‘equi-’ is it? What, for that matter, is the Russian for the ‘Leningrad con man’ highlighted a page or two later? Moreover, why does Shostakovich talk about what didn’t happen, and not about what did? He goes on about not having written a Hamlet opera with Vsevolod Emilevich Meyerhold, and about having written the music for Akimov’s production of the play, but there’s not a word about his extensive music for the Hamlet film, which we in the West have seen and heard. Was it, in parts, derived from the incidental music? It can’t have been extracted from it, because, inevitably, it’s much longer.

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[*] Only the orthography of the translation has been Anglicised for the benefit of UK readers – so we are confronted with an American text spelt the English way. The effect is incongruous and irritating, for among the multi-dimensional differences between American English and English English, orthographic differences are the least significant – yet superfically the most obtrusive.