Monday, October 21, 2013

The Shostakovich Nose: An Assignment

There's a live/HD performance coming up Saturday of "The Nose" by Dmitri Shostakovich in the William Kentridge staging which opened at the Met in 2010.  So here's some homework.  No, not the Gogol story, silly--which you have already read and fully assimilated.  Rather, take a swing at something by Andrey Platonov, perhaps particularly Happy Moscow, which I mentioned briefly the other day (cf. link, link)  and which captures better than anything I know the mood of anxious and giddy expectancy that seems to have swept (urban) Russia in the 30s--that is, before the Great Purge of the later 30s which did so much to define the Stalinist experience in our memory.  

We know that Shostakovich embarked on his career in a mood of high optimism; we know that Stalin didn't cotton to his operatic writing (he was probably baffled and disturbed by it all).  We know that Shostakovich, unlike so many of his contemporaries, survived the turmoil that devoured so many of his contemporaries, and that he went on to become a Soviet icon.  In his introduction to the new NYRB edition Happy Moscow, Robert Chandler says:
A conventional view of Russian history sees the 1917 Revolution as a movement of Utopian  promise and the mid-1930s as a time of fear-shackled, conventional thinking in every area of life.  In many respects, however, it was the other way around.  For several years from 1917 the Bolsheviks were trying simply to cling to power, most people were trying simply to survive, and only a tiny--though vocal--artistic avant-garde was proposing Utopian plans for the restructuring of both the world and the human psyche.  By the middle 1930s, however, it was the State itself that was claiming to make Utopian dreams into a reality.
 Chandler also retells a wonderful anecdote from Wolfgang Leonhard, the German  historian, about emigrating to Moscow in 1935 with his German communist mother.  He reports that they couldn't get any adequate maps.  The only ones they found showed what the city was like before 1914, and what it would be like in the future.  

Afterthought:  And you know, now that I think of it, I remember one other item that captures the same spirit of Moscow in the 30s. That would be the early chapters of Francis Spufford's Red Plenty, of which I wrote here.  Read 'em all, and in any event, enjoy the opera.  

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