Against Bare Bottoms

Simon Morrison

In April 1955, two years after Prokofiev’s death from a stroke, his widow and his two sons arranged for two chests of documents to be shipped to Moscow from New York. Prokofiev had left them in a safe during his final overseas tour in 1938, presumably because he worried that his personal papers might fall into the hands of Soviet agents. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, charged with acquiring (or confiscating) the foreign archives of Soviet citizens, forced Prokofiev’s family to have the documents returned to the Soviet Union. The chests arrived in Moscow in July 1956. Their contents were sealed in the vaults of the Central State Archive of Literature and Art, but weren’t catalogued: only the composer’s heirs were to have access to them. Later that year, Prokofiev’s first wife was released from a Soviet prison camp, where she had spent eight years falsely charged with treason. Mira, his second wife, died in 1968, his younger son, Oleg, defected to the West in 1972 and his older son, Svyatoslav, accepted French citizenship in 2000, a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Still the archive remained sealed, nikomu ne vydavat’ – not to be seen by anyone without the written approval of the Prokofiev estate.

The only papers to have been released are Prokofiev’s diaries for the years 1907 to 1933. Svyatoslav published them in Russian in 2002, reconstructing them from his father’s idiosyncratic shorthand, which omitted vowels and redundant consonants. Volumes I, 1907-14, and II, 1915-23, were translated by Anthony Phillips and published in the UK in 2006 and 2008 respectively. The third and final volume, also translated by Phillips, came out at the end of last year. The set – 2735 pages – is produced as stylishly as the Russian edition but with better annotations and a proper index. Phillips’s colossal labour is an indispensable contribution to the history of musical modernism. Prokofiev was intolerant, impetuous and obnoxiously self-centred, but he had an unmatched musical ear, an eye for detail and a keen wit. His lexicon of invective and arcane slang is not easy to translate into English, but Phillips succeeds magnificently. Put-downs range from ‘haemorrhoidal’ to ‘unhorsed’ (meaning ‘at a loss’); Russia is derided as ‘Bolshevizia’; personal belongings are ‘impedimenta’. Prokofiev’s descriptions of his own works pale in comparison to what he says of those by his rivals; his account of the modernist music scene adds to the historical record. He had a close personal relationship with Stravinsky during his pre-Soviet years in Paris, as well as with Poulenc and the composers’ collective known as Les Six. He writes about the experience of touring to places as far-flung as Buffalo and Odessa with the flair of an experienced travel writer: he even notes the bathroom fixtures in his hotel rooms.

The diaries render moot the central question of Prokofiev studies: why did he return to Russia in 1936, when censorship and ideological mind control were at their worst? He went back, we learn, because he never really left. In 1919, Lenin’s cultural commissar gave him permission to make a name for himself in the West, on the understanding that he would act as an ambassador for Soviet culture. But he was homesick even before clearing customs at Angel Island, and fretted that he would not be forgiven for seeking his fortune elsewhere – not that he found fortune in America. Penniless and undernourished, he fell victim on his US tour to bizarre illnesses (he refers to a ‘plague of abscesses’ in his throat). The worry persisted through his years in Paris, put a strain on his marriage and alienated him from his colleagues. He didn’t fit in among the Russian expats, and preferred the quiet area around the Invalides to more fashionable Montmartre and Montparnasse, and games of chess to champagne receptions. Interruptions to his routine were forbidden, except when it came to the Soviet officials who courted him and eventually won him over.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in