Mikoyan Shuddered

Stephen Walsh

  • Shostakovich: A Life Remembered by Elizabeth Wilson
    Faber, 631 pp, £20.00, July 2006, ISBN 0 571 22050 9

In the introduction to her authoritative biography of Shostakovich, published in 2000, Laurel Fay sounds a sharp warning about the historical value of personal reminiscences:

Fascinating and useful as these can be, memoirs furnish a treacherous resource to the historian. Reminiscences can be self-serving, vengeful, and distorted by faulty memory, selective amnesia, wishful thinking and exaggeration. They can be rife with gossip and rumour. The temptation to recast the past to suit the present . . . can be hard to resist. In any case, factual accuracy is not generally one of their most salient features.

Researching a Life of Stravinsky in the 1990s, I talked to many people who had known him more or less intimately. I read, of course, Stravinsky’s own published reminiscences, and the memoirs of those who had, in effect, helped him write them. I looked at filmed interviews, including I forget how many hours of out-takes from Tony Palmer’s film Aspects of Stravinsky. I soon realised that, in order to weigh up what I was hearing, I needed to know something about the speakers’ relationships with the composer and those around him, which was precisely what I was trying to find out by talking to them or watching them being talked to. In other words, the process was circular. Leaving aside the candid liars (there were one or two), and those who had palpably refreshed their memories from books that I too had read (in one case even from a book that I had written), the only way of usefully sizing up these reminiscences was to identify such common ground as there might be, and thereafter trust one’s own judgment as to who could or couldn’t be relied on to have remembered things fairly or lucidly or accurately.

The people I met or listened to were and always had been free to say what they liked. Stravinsky lived his entire life in what, by Shostakovich’s standards, were liberal, or at least not efficiently illiberal societies. But in a society governed by censorship and fear, by the informer and the cat’s-paw, a society which offered instant and vicious redress to the envious and the vindictive, what remains of trust rapidly vanishes in a fog of self-exculpation and score-settling. Even those contemporary resources which, in a free world, one feels entitled to depend on for information at the very least unclouded by defective or recovered memory – letters, diaries, newspaper reports, interviews – have to be litmus-tested for self-censorship under circumstances where letters might have been opened or diaries rifled from locked drawers. Not every nuance or irony is as transparent as the following, in a letter of December 1943 from Shostakovich to Isaak Glikman: ‘The freedom-loving peoples will at last throw off the yoke of Hitlerism, peace will reign over the whole world, and we shall live once more under the sun of Stalin’s constitution.’ The question is, with someone as cautious and vulnerable as Shostakovich: which of the remarks that might conceivably strike the casual, or even careful, reader as in any way unexpected are to be understood as nuanced or ironic? Without some measure of certainty on this score, a letter or interview is practically valueless as a psychological document, and not much less so as a factual one.

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