Laurel E. Fay's Shostakovich: A Life

A review by Ian MacDonald

Part 1: Overview

So far as I am aware (a phrase we would all do well to contemplate for a second or two, whatever our point of view and whatever the extent of our knowledge), Laurel Fay has been working on this book, in one way or another, for at least fifteen years. Certainly there have been rumours that it was about to come out during most of the 1990s. Various speculations arose as to the reasons for her book's continued non-appearance, none of which need detain us now that it's finally here, graced with endorsements from her colleagues in the American anti-revisionist troika, Richard Taruskin and Malcolm Hamrick Brown, and a new participant, the critic Michael Steinberg. Mr Steinberg is impressed: "[Fay] is calm, bound by no political parti pris, and even when she has been defeated in her research, she is not afraid to say 'I don't know'. Long awaited, this is an immensely important book and hugely welcome." Steinberg's confidence that Fay is "bound by no political parti pris" is curious and interesting. Is he close enough to her to know this for certain? If he is, should we be wary of his generous assessment of her worth and her book's importance? If he isn't, and is just guessing about the parti pris, must we regard his judgment in general as somewhat impressionistic? Music writers are, after all, often vague about political questions, as the last decade of the Shostakovich controversy has amply illustrated.

I'll return to the subject of Laurel Fay's political parti pris at the end of what will be rather a long review. Important or not, her book contains so much to take issue with that only a sustained examination is adequate (or fair) in arriving at a verdict on her labours. Let us, then, begin at the beginning. The cover -- including the remarks of Taruskin and Brown, to which I shall likewise return later -- is par for the course. Photos include a rare one of Shostakovich with his second wife Margarita in Paris in 1958, and another, delightful, shot of Shostakovich at a football ("soccer") match. Apart from that, the picture section is a little thin. (Publishers don't budget much for photos and Fay might have had to bear the cost herself.) At first glance, the text itself is substantial: 458 pages. Then, though, we realise that around a third of this takes the form of post-text paraphernalia: the notes, the list of works, the glossary, bibliography, and index. Fay's main text runs for only 287 pages, a mere eleven pages longer than the text of my own The New Shostakovich (which further contains a 38-page chronology), nearly 200 pages shorter than Elizabeth Wilson's Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, and a little over a third of the length of Allan Ho and Dmitry Feofanov's fact-packed epic Shostakovich Reconsidered. After fifteen years of toil, this is a surprisingly modest result. Fay's notes, which are presumably her book's ultimate raison d'être, are copious without being dazzlingly learned and contain little in the way of further elucidation (apart from some addenda which might have belonged more decorously in the text). The List of Works is presented in standard academic style: subdivided by genre in abstract indifference to chronology, which some would suggest is quite a significant aspect of Shostakovich's career.

Glossaries, like chronologies, are important when dealing with places as large and eventful as the former USSR: accurate summaries of character and actions become critical. Fay's Glossary is functional, giving little more than chief dates and "main claim to fame" info. In the case of the Russian Hemingway, Isaac Babel, the latter data amounts to "he tried his hand at many professions, including the Red Army Cavalry, about which he published stories". Otherwise, Babel features in Fay's book solely as someone of note who was arrested in 1939 and shot in 1940. One of the true barometer figures of Soviet culture in the 1930s, from whose words, actions, and human associations, we can deduce so much about the tenor of those times, Babel is represented here solely as an ex-Red Cavalry chap who "published" stories. (Anyone curious to learn more about Babel's final six months under Soviet interrogation -- a tale waiting for a dramatist to pounce on it -- should consult the opening chapter of Vitaly Shentalinsky's The KGB's Literary Archive.) Indeed, Fay's fuzziness about the literary side of Soviet culture is repeatedly apparent: Demian Bedny, a subtle figure as we shall later see, is summarised baldly as "an active Bolshevik from 1912"; Blok, whose work (particularly The Twelve, his meditation on the revolution), was so influential on the composers of the 1920s, is "a leading representative of the Russian 'Silver Age'" and nothing more; Bulgakov, who during the late 1920s was by far the most successful dramatist in the USSR with four plays running at once, is described as the author of one hit, his debut The Days of the Turbins, the success of which was allegedly "never repeated"; Gorky, one of the most tragically ambivalent individuals in the Soviet culture of the early 1930s, is erroneously characterised as the "conceptualizer of Soviet 'Socialist Realism'" (whereas he was given the outlines of this sterile thesis by Stalin's arts ideologists, required to "make it work", and spent the rest of his time clandestinely defending his fellow writers from the results); Osip Mandelstam, from the start an outspokenly clear-eyed opponent of Bolshevik rule, passes by as a poet whose works "went unpublished" during the Stalin era; Mayakovsky's late rebellion against -- and fatal clash with -- the Soviet regime goes unmentioned; and so it goes...

Aside from the polymathic emigré writings of Solomon Volkov, a lack of interest in the dominant (literary) stream of Russian culture has always been characteristic of Western writing on Shostakovich. (One Shostakovich author refers to Bulgakov's famous play as Days of the Turbines, apparently under the impression that it was a "Five-Year Plan" drama set in a factory.) It might seem reasonable to expect the preponderance of literary influence and acquaintance in Shostakovich's life to have piqued the curiosity of musicologists sufficiently to persuade them to consult with their literary colleagues; alas, not so. Yet Fay sometimes shows a comparable lack of curiosity about certain key musical figures -- for example, Gavriil Popov, who is summarised as having "devoted much of his career to film music" (much as if he made this peculiarly restrictive choice entirely off his own bat). Valentin Berlinsky recalls Popov as one of Shostakovich's closest colleagues, yet his Glossary entry is considerably less informative than those on such Soviet bureaucrats and "favoured sons" as Dmitri Shepilov, Mikhail Sholokhov, Kliment Voroshilov, et al. On the whole, the impression is that Fay's grasp of who was who in Soviet Russia is based on a familiarity with the habitués of the Composers' Union and not much else.

In the main text, Fay announces her methodology as follows: "To allow the book to function as a resource, I have endeavoured to lay out [sic] the circumstances of Shostakovich's life in as balanced and objective a manner as possible." This being so, one might have thought a list of facts would have sufficed. Having to wade through a mass of neutral verbiage to apprehend "the circumstances" seems rather superfluous. Accessibility, though, is a red herring. Even to supply someone's birth and death dates, along with the bare details of their interim locations, raises immediate questions. Take Shostakovich: born 1906, died 1975, lived in Russia. The instant response of an intelligent layperson would be: "Ah! He lived under Stalin and his political heirs in one of the most murderous ideological dictatorships the world has ever seen. How did he deal with this?" The question "How?", along with its deeper and more troubling travelling companion "Why?", cannot, as Fay seems to believe, be detached from a recital of "the circumstances". Even a list of cold facts would be selective -- which is to say, interpretive. Her methodology is thus false in principle.

Descending from the implacable plane of logic to the grubby domain of actuality, we find, for example, that when describing Shostakovich's 1931 article "Declarations of a Composer's Duties" (about which more later), Fay overlooks, or misinterprets, the deeper issues it raises. Since she is at pains to appear to adopt no attitude to the "circumstances" she relates, it is almost impossible to decide whether she misses these deeper issues because of a failure of insight, or because she prefers not to see Shostakovich as a real human being, or because she is concerned to present him as politically orthodox. The innocent reader will study her ostensibly dry recital of radically contradictory extracts from Soviet publications with bemusement: what conclusion is one to draw? (How? Why?) Soon after this comes a plainer example of misrepresentation by omission. In briefly outlining Shostakovich's work for the Vakhtangov Theatre production of Hamlet, Fay (p. 71) quotes a bland assessment of the music by one of its players, Yuri Yelagin, without mentioning the same writer's report of the notorious "flute-fart" joke by which the composer thumbed his nose at the Soviet authorities and RAPM for what they had done to Russian music during the Cultural Revolution. There is a lot to say about this vulgar gesture of defiance (see The New Shostakovich, pp. 81-2; Wilson, op. cit., 80-82); in particular, there is the question of its relevance to a certain remark allegedly made by Shostakovich in Testimony, a matter I raised a decade ago:

Shostakovich mocked the Proletkult by making the Prince appear to fart through a flute while, in the orchestra pit, a piccolo squeaked out a parody of Davidenko's famous mass-song They Wanted To Beat Us. The idea was stolen from Yuri Olesha's much-discussed play A List Of Assets produced a year earlier at the Meyerhold Theatre. In this largely conformist work, Olesha had attempted to square himself with the regime while clinging to the last vestiges of his self-respect, a feat Shostakovich would have found instructive, if nothing else. Part of the play's action involves a debate on the Socialist significance of Hamlet in which a Proletkult spokesman attacks the tragedy as "slobbering soul-searching" inappropriate to "the breathtaking whirl of national development". To this, Olesha's actress-heroine Goncharova replies by quoting Hamlet's remark (III:2) to the effect that he is not a pipe for others to play on, adding: "Esteemed comrades, I submit that in this breathtaking, swirling era, an artist must keep thinking slowly." Listening in the audience, the 24-year-old Shostakovich must have been impressed. "Thinking slowly, writing fast" became his creative motto, while Hamlet's declaration of independence was still haunting him fifty years later in Testimony: "A marvellous passage. It's easy for him, he's a prince, after all. If he weren't, they'd play him so hard he wouldn't know what hit him."

Yuri Olesha presumably fails to appear in Fay's book as a result of her lack of interest in Russian-Soviet literature. Yet Testimony itself features in Shostakovich: A Life only peripherally. Indeed, it is from the principles of exclusion announced in her Introduction that we see most clearly just how selective Fay's methodology actually is. For example: "Whether Testimony faithfully reproduces Shostakovich's confidences, and his alone, in a form and context he would have recognized and approved for publication, remains doubtful." In view of the now massive quantity of endorsements of Testimony from those who knew Shostakovich (many of these expressly confirming that they heard such stories from the composer's mouth), Fay's "doubtful" verdict is itself, at best, doubtful; at worst, deliberately misrepresentative. As forShostakovich Reconsidered, with its exhaustive demolition of her case against Testimony, her only comment is that "it raises as many questions as it purports to answer". It would be enlightening to know, in due course, what these questions are. Meanwhile, it seems not unjust to point out that her own book far outstrips that of Ho and Feofanov on this score, raising several times as many questions as it purports, by various means, to answer.

Of the as yet still-hidden archival resources on Shostakovich, Fay is undoubtedly correct in saying that "the process of uncovering them has barely begun". One can only register the cordial hope that it isn't left to her to accomplish this task, since, on the basis of her tardiness in producing the present book, it may take a further fifteen years to produce any such results. There is, of course, another good reason to hope that she won't be left alone to rummage through these sources: the fact that she is obviously of the opinion that Shostakovich was rather a dull man who didn't know much about what was going on in his country and consequently kept blundering in his earnest attempts to produce "a progressive new art necessary and appropriate to the new socialist reality" (Fay, notes for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra season of June 1999). Of course, there is always the chance that Fay will report archival sources which conflict with her prejudices -- yet Steinberg's claim that "even when she has been defeated in her research, she is not afraid to say 'I don't know'" fails to answer requirements. Like any of us, she must be prepared to admit, when she is wrong, that this is so. "I don't know" won't do as an excuse for anything more than local details. The big picture is a different matter -- one which demands overt (rather than, as we get here, covert) interpretation. Fay must one day frankly speak her mind on Shostakovich, justifying her interpretation in full detail.

For now, she is content to sweep aside all previous Shostakovich writing, as if her book is the only dependable thing in existence on the composer: "There is not a single even remotely reliable resource in Russian, English, or any other language for the basic facts about Shostakovich's life and works." This presumably includes her friend Elizabeth Wilson's Shostakovich: A Life Remembered. Yet for anything more elevated than factual trainspotting, Wilson's book is immensely more "dependable" than Fay's relatively slight volume; indeed, it would be fascinating to see Fay spell out precisely what she finds factually lacking in Wilson's book. As for my own work and that of my colleagues Allan Ho and Dmitry Feofanov, I leave it to readers to decide whether Fay's "year zero" declaration is anything more than irritability.

A particular target of Fay's documentary wrath is Sofiya Khentova, the semi-official biographer of Shostakovich in Russia, whose published works on aspects of his life run to many volumes. Dismissing Khentova's main two-volume biography as "a minefield of misinformation and misrepresentation", Fay nevertheless quotes from Khentova fairly liberally, as a trawl through the Notes to Shostakovich: A Life will reveal. Fay, it must be said, is "balanced" enough to report Khentova's "ideological slant" (an inevitable characteristic of anything published in the Soviet Union) but not quite so balanced as to mention Maxim Shostakovich's hotly angry dismissal of Khentova's biography reported by David Fanning in Gramophone in May 1991: "I hate, I khhhate her book. She makes him look like a genuine son of the ****ing Communist Party!" More serious is Fay's attitude to the memoirs and interviews which have emanated from a multiplicity of former friends and colleagues of the composer since glasnost made it safe to speak truthfully: "Reminiscences can be [my emphasis. -- I.M.] self-serving, vengeful, and distorted by faulty memory, selective amnesia, wishful thinking, and exaggeration[...] Memoirs need to be treated with extreme care, evaluated critically, and corroborated by reference to established facts... I have not excluded the evidence of memoirs -- Soviet, ex-Soviet and post-Soviet -- but I have treated it with the utmost caution, filtering out false or improbable allegations and screening for bias and hidden agendas..." In practice, this appears to mean that Fay quotes from primary sources what suits her, leaving the rest, for the most part, out of her exposition. Compare, for example, what she quotes from Shostakovich's letters to Tanya Glivenko and what I quote from the same source in Shostakovich Reconsidered (pp. 530-554). Look carefully, too, at what she elects to acknowledge as being said by Elizabeth Wilson's witnesses.

Readers are entitled to ask on what basis Fay distinguishes probable from improbable allegations or screens out "bias" (let alone "hidden agendas"). In the case of controversial figures like Shostakovich, it is the duty of a scholar to conduct such screenings-out in the public eye, not to privately censor evidence which she, for undeclared reasons, considers suspect. This is especially true of a book which its author announces as a "resource". In truth, the "resource" which Fay claims to have compiled would have to consist entirely of raw, unedited documentary material in order to qualify as "objective"; yet we already have something of this sort before us -- Grigoryev and Platek's About Himself And His Times -- showing that even the plain documentary record requires editorial exegesis of the sort Fay wishes to us to believe that she is not indulging in. For those new to this subject, About Himself And His Times is a KGB snow-job comprised of public statements and articles officially ascribed to Shostakovich under the Soviet dispensation. The profound unreliability of this material -- vastly more untrustworthy than Testimony could conceivably be claimed to be, even by the most sceptical analysis -- is rarely acknowledged by anti-revisionists. Much of what Fay quotes or otherwise cites in order to establish what she calls "the circumstances" of Shostakovich's career derives from this fundamentally disinformational ethos. In short, Fay's methodological stance in Shostakovich: A Life is both theoretically and practically untenable, to put it politely. Hers would have been a more valuable book if she had simply done what any other biographer does: concede the inescapability of judgmental selection and present us, openly and honestly, with her view of things. Her assertion that she is merely providing us with the raw material wherewith to come to a balanced view of Shostakovich will not wash and one can only marvel that she comes before us with such a disingenuous claim.

It goes without saying that facts and statements about Shostakovich and others in his milieu need to be handled with kid gloves on account of the devious political currents flowing below the surface of almost every word and action in the USSR. That delicate handling, however, depends primarily on interpretation -- and such interpretation depends in turn on contextual understanding. An important part of this understanding in Shostakovich's case involves an in-depth appreciation of why his public statements, in the form of articles, speeches, and interviews, are not to be relied on at face-value. Fay acknowledges that "he destroyed the letters he received and counseled his correspondents to do the same". She does not seem fully (deeply, empathetically, imaginatively) to grasp why Shostakovich did this. Her failure to comprehend the psychological tone of the epoch she is purportedly representing -- along with her disregard of the real intellectual inner life behind the conformist facade which was then obligatory -- cripples her interpretation at birth.

Now is the time for a detailed examination of Fay's view of Shostakovich (for that is what Shostakovich: A Life is). We will see that she prefers to depend on the official Shostakovich of sanctioned Soviet publication than on the unofficial Shostakovich found in the memories of his family, friends, and colleagues. We will also see that her bias in this respect is uncoincidentally attached to a basic incomprehension of the broader politico-cultural background to Shostakovich's life, work, and opinions.

Review Part 2. Back to Shostakovichiana.