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Xerox of a Document About One Half of (the Art of) Life.

June 13, 1998


Most respected and honored Maestro,

Since childhood, I have suspected that Fate, which we were told rules over us from above, is not only all-powerful, but is also capricious and malicious. Not just malicious, but a sort of black humorist, if you will--that's Fate all over. It cracks jokes, improvises, creates all sorts of complications, and manipulates Chance as its primary instrument, its obedient emissary: originator of all coincidences, unlikely meetings, and sudden conflicts.

Then, however, growing up, we were told that Fate doesn't even exist--that there's nothing more than those coincidences, unexpected collisions, those random moments, the interplay of circumstances too numerous for us to comprehend with our meager little minds...

But whatever it is, whatever name we give it, this force, this confluence of circumstances, this erstwhile Fate, so chipper and cheerful, still goes on pretending that it's entirely innocent, that ir isn't hurting anyone, isn't forcing people to confront so many unsolvable riddles, so many awful secrets, and all the rest of the obvious--yet so cleverly untraceable!--evidence as to its own omnipotence, its own boundless ingenuity. I say again, Fate (or whatever it is) is a great comedian, offering us so many little wonderful jibes at our own expense, with never a second thought for the suffering men and women who are the butt of its cruel wit. Fate is the great satirist, you see. The original.

When you finish reading this letter, Maestro, you will marvel that its introduction started at such a distance from where the labyrinth ends. Or, on the contrary, you'll be shocked by the simple fact (in which case I doubt you will persist in reading this through to the end) that I myself was so shocked at reading your letter--which I received today--that I was inspired, or, better, forced, to write these lines in response.

Thus, in contrast to His Majesty Fate, I will try henceforth to relate my story in a logical, causal, so-called sensible order, though these words might seem inappropriate given the nonsense that is to follow. I feel something like satisfaction nonetheless, since I know I am in the right--completely and utterly in the right, in fact--though I realize that I am writing to a great, if not our greatest living personality in the world of art criticism and theory...


Since time immemorial, I have been a devoted admirer of the composer Dmitri Shostakovich. During my youth, he was the Great Modernist, Innovator, and Experimenter, while also being the arch sinner and heretic, the Soviet Debussy, and, for my generation, the Soviet Janacek or Cikker. * And, like so many other amateur enthusiasts, I particularly admired his Ninth Symphony**; I think we called it the "Leningrad"

I remember well that each time I listened to that grandiose composition, I was interrupted by the disquieting impression that within this work-doubtlessly one of genius--there was something other, something never before imagined, something even outrageous; and for a half-educated musical novice--although, I maintain, an amateur in the best sense of the word!--something also bewildering and supremely inexplicable. But that was only the beginning.

Similar to his fellow composer Prokofiev, Shostakovich too became the object of defamation, denunciation, criticism--those public burnings held so often during the period of obtuse, official dogma, everything withering under the incinerating breath of the Cold War...

Of course, I obediently dampened my enthusiasm for the composer in that world filled with revolutionaries--and, perhaps, in Russia, even counterrevolutionaries. It pained me to see my hero treated so badly, and to feel so helpless, so unable to defend him.

All this only got worse during the years when they were liquidating, for no good reason, and certainly without having proved that they were guilty of anything, all the formalists, cosmopolitans, and other savage enemies of the state supposedly making obeisance to the West. And the dizzying gap between those public proclamations and my own pure, warm feelings widened all the more whenever I listened again, in secret, to Shostakovich's Ninth Symphony... how I welcomed its triumphant sounds!

But, as I've already hinted, my appreciation of the symphony wasn't without reservation. There was something in the piece that distracted me from its overall genius. In a word, I was finding several passages increasingly disturbing ... the symphony was packed with ideas, yes, but the composer's filled-to-capacity score seemed to vanish, in certain places, as I listened ... as if behind a storm cloud or into the metallic street noise that came through my open windows, and I was overcome by ... well, something like suspicion.

Perhaps, after all, it was true that Shostakovich had been infected with the "destructive" modernism of the world musical scene, that he was manifestly un-Russian, that he was not the continuation of the great flow of the sacred classical heritage of old Russian music, in particular the "Mighty Handful": Balakirev, Cui, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin [... ]

And then, in addition, I discovered that Shostakovich's Symphony had been composed in a city surrounded by the German army--albeit a city which, after some months, had not only managed to withstand the array of German tanks, but also the bombs of the three-engine Junkers, as well as all the other show-off German inventions meant to rub our noses in their advanced technology. The fact is that Shostakovich composed his great work on death's door, so to speak--it could have happened to him that day, the next day, in an hour, in two hours, even, why not, in the next few seconds. Is it really possible to create great art when in mortal danger and suffering from terrible depression? (Today I know the answer, since I've tried it myself: it is indeed possible!) [...]

And so, today, as I remember all this, review it in my mind, I am writing to you, Maestro--well, honestly, I could not keep silent. And even if you are stunned by my reply, I will, right now, begin (and I apologize for my digressions) to answer the question you asked me.

In your kind and, really, precious letter, you ask to what causes I attribute the fact that my book of apocrypha (by which I mean, of course, the retelling of a historical or biblical anecdote from a fictional and satirical perspective--and then not only the book in question, since in the end there's a measure of the apocryphal in all my recent books) was received so coldly by young literary critics in particular--savaged, in fact, condescendingly and contemptuously.

An explanation occurred to me this morning while watching a televised concert (of, yes, Shostakovich's Ninth) performed under the baton of Leonard Bernstein, with his insuperable solo additions. The concert was part of a famous American TV series designed for children, and meant to educate and inspire a continued interest in music.

I heard an analysis given by Leonard Bernstein, who was not only the composer of West Side Story and other musicals and light compositions, but is to all appearances also an enlightened musicologist, musical theoretician, and scholar. In particular, this analysis was an excellent, even ingenious synthesis of knowledge concerning Shostakovich's "Leningrad" Symphony, about the origins of the contradictions surrounding its composition, its completely contradictory reception, the polemicists who were so enthusiastic about the piece, yet also vicious and full of hatred. I know precisely how they felt.

[...] But I am coming to your letter, Maestro! So: you asked me why I thought the young critics had turned against my last book, all those years ago. Where did it come from, their contempt--what were they feeding off of?

Many years later, today in fact, just a short while ago, I learned from Leonard Bernstein (who was incredibly fond of his audience of children and really gave them the benefit of his wisdom, as though hauling his entire education up onto an altar and sacrificing it in their honor) that Shostakovich's "Leningrad" Symphony is also his Ninth. And not only that, but that this symphony was a type of apocrypha itself--a fictionalized, perhaps satirized historical incident. And not only that, but that he drew from the ambitious ninth symphonies of his predecessors, starting with the great Beethoven and not even ending with Brahms (?) of Mahler. [...]

But the author--and audience--for apocrypha must possess certain characteristics in order to produce or enjoy the form, that a most elegant and demanding parodic genre. There must, in the work, be a lively and tangible tension between the theme of the subject being parodied--the historical, societal, human subject--and the deliberate distortion of it. On the audience's part, the uninformed listener will not be able to recognize the parody in Shostakovich's symphony, since this person won't have heard and thus won't recognize some of the tonalities of the symphonies that have preceded it, in particular Beethoven's. In the same way, an uninformed reader of Capek's apocrypha, or those of Romain Rolland, can't really appreciate their stories, characters, or humor--which quite intentionally contradict the biblical, antique, historical, societal, or personal content of the original, be they from Greek or Roman antiquity, the Holy Scriptures, or from medieval or even contemporary history. A knowledge of whatever texts or incidents are being parodied lays the groundwork for one's appreciating the artistic effect of a given apocrypha; ignorance of the author's source material destroys the satire's very reason for existing.

For example, it is impossible to criticize one's own political and societal circumstances openly during a dictatorship, when censorship is at work. This is when the apocrypha form becomes especially useful as a means of getting one's message across only to those intelligent and well-educated readers who are likely to understand it. This is why so many satirical comedies in those days took place in ancient times or in far-off or nonexistent places (though, sadly, the very fact that the powers that be didn't "get" the joke also had terrible consequences--for instance, twenty years of police-enforced silence for some of the authors, myself included). For better or for worse, parody, unfortunately, remains incomprehensible to a great many people--is often destined to be misunderstood or not understood at all. (And then occasionally to be brutally punished.) [...]

So. Please turn on your stereo and kindly put on Shostakovich's "Leningrad" symphony. Please take note of the thoughtfulness, something similar to tender devotion, with which the author is parodying his predecessors. He does not "throw them overboard," but instead bows to them from the heights of his spirit, his discernment, and of course, his musical genius. Such a mighty, artistic giant and pioneer--such a person is only born once a century, and so must naturally ignite a great fire of hatred among all the talentless also-rans and small-minded envious onlookers and of course the executors of order, those numb, futile political careerists and noncommissioned officers in the reserves, for example, a certain Zhdanov, *** who never even knew what a cello or a piccolo was, what their functions were as instruments, never knew their language, what tone means, what a subdominant is, didn't know the difference between art and its opposite. We may refer to this state of mind using a term from Khrushchev's era of relative enlightenment: Zhdanovschina.

I don't believe for a second that that midget lost his temper over the dissonance in Shostakovich's or Prokofiev's scores. What made him angry was that he did not know, did not understand, had no notion what they were trying to accomplish. And it made him feel inferior.

May we all be rescued from such people--let us have wise rulers, and even, God help me, wise critics covering the arts, critics who have knowledge, erudition, and intelligence, holding jobs for which such qualities are considered a conditio sine qua non. And one more as well: they must know how to love ...

* Jan Cikker (1911-1989), one of the foremost modern representatives of the Slovak classical musical tradition. One of his compositions is based on the works of Romain Rolland, who later appears in Karva's text.

** Shostakovich's "Leningrad" Symphony is in fact his Seventh, not his Ninth.

*** Andrei Alexandrovich Zhdanov (1896-1948), a Russian Bolshevik and later leading Communist politician who, among other atrocities, oversaw the official reprimand of musical greats such Aram Khachaturian, Sergei Prokofiev, and Dmitri Shostakovich.
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Author:Karva, Peter
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Short story
Date:Jun 22, 2010
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