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Revisiting a wonderful book on the genius of Shostakovich @BehemothMusic @NottingHillEds

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A timely recent arrival reminded me that however bad things feel at the moment, they could be an awful lot worse. That book was “How Shostakovich Changed My Mind” by Stephen Johnson, originally published in cloth-covered hardback by Notting Hill Editions, and now released in one of their beautiful paperback volumes.

I reviewed the original book on its original release for Shiny New Books and found it to be a wonderful and engrossing book. I’ve loved Shostakovich’s work for years, but this book is about *so* much more. I’m reprinting below part of my original review (you can read the full version here) and I’ll come back at the end!

“(in this book) Johnson is taking on the healing effects of music and also specifically how the music of Shostakovich has helped him throughout his life and during his struggles with bipolar disorder. Yet the book is marvellously wide-ranging, gathering together a beguiling mix of history, anecdote and musicology to present a compelling and personal response to this great composer’s very individual work.

Johnson, who writes and broadcasts on classical music, had a troubled family life, growing up with a mother suffering from mental illness and a father who couldn’t cope. Johnson’s own problems were dismissed and swept under the table, with the overarching instruction being to not upset his mother. He found a kind of salvation in music, specifically Shostakovich, and this lifelong love of the composer’s work informs the whole book. In it, Johnson explores how music affects the human brain, why we want to listen to sad music when we’re sad, and why what we might perceive as wallowing in gloom is actually helpful.

Woven into this exploration is the story of Johnson’s own journey through life (though ‘journey’ is a term he hesitates to use), a meditation on Shostakovich’s own life and work and survival, and recollections drawn from research undertaken in Moscow for a radio documentary on the composer which Johnson made in 2006. This latter provides some particularly moving sections, including an interview with a survivor of the orchestra which famously performed Shostakovich’s Seventh ‘Leningrad’ Symphony during the siege of that city in 1942; as well as the happy acknowledgement of one of the composer’s friends that the music speaks to all who wish to hear it, wherever they were from.

And Johnson very astutely puts Shostakovich’s music into the context of the times in which he lived, with biographical details when needed, and reminiscences of the composer’s colleagues… Shostakovich did survive Stalin and his Terror, but at what cost? Like so many who made it through unthinkable times and conditions, both composer (and author) seem to suffer from survivor’s guilt (a debilitating state of mind which many believe author Primo Levi paid for with his life). No-one came out of the terror untainted …Shostakovich was not the only one to suffer in this way; but living through the unbearable tension of not knowing whether the knock on the door will come for you tonight must be unthinkable…

So what is it about music that makes us feel human and not beast (as in the quote from Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”, which prefaces the book and which Johnson is drawn back to, again and again); and why are we attracted to sad music at sad times? Catharsis is the obvious conclusion here, although I think it goes much deeper than simply the releasing of intense emotions. Again, Johnson returns to the fact that music gave him a sense of belonging – being a “We” and not an “I”, understanding that someone else felt the same way he did and was putting this into the music which spoke to him so strongly. It’s the “We” in Shostakovich’s music that Johnson also believes is what makes the composer speak so strongly to the Russian people, highlighting the collective nature of the country; and as someone for whom music of all sorts has been vitally important at various times of my life, I can empathise with this strongly.

So this was a fascinating read featuring so much; wide ranging discussions of history and philosophy; touching encounters; compelling autobiography and personal experience; and a powerful belief in the transformative power of music…Shining through all of this is the wonderful music of Dimitri Shostakovich and Stephen Johnson’s love of it. As someone who shares that love, this was the perfect read for me; but if you’ve never heard any of the great composer’s work you should do yourself a favour and not only read this book, but get hold of something by Shostakovich – your life will be transformed!”

The original hardback edition

Revisiting the book I found my original opinion unchanged; if anything, I was moved more strongly second time round and once more drawn to go back to Shostakovich’s music, which is oddly cathartic right now. As the publisher reminded me, although we are living in unprecedented times, Shostakovich and the Russian people lived through unimaginable privations; humanity does tend to pull on reserves in times of great stress and danger, and I hope we will all be coping. Working from home and social distancing is odd, but we do have homes and food and plenty of entertainment.

Anyway. We also have books, which as I always say are my great comfort in times of need. This is one that I absolutely loved and can’t recommend highly enough. Whether you prefer the lovely cloth-bound hardback or the pretty paperback with French flaps, I really hope you’ll track this one down and enjoy it! 😀

2018 – so what were my standout reading experiences? :)

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When it comes to doing an annual best of list, I tend to leave it to as close to the wire as possible; I’ve been known to read some corkers that end up at the top of the tree in the dying embers of the year. I also like to stretch the format a little, going for themes or concepts as well as just titles or authors. Anyway, without further ado, here’s what rocked my reading boat in 2018!

Books in translation

I don’t keep detailed statistics about the kinds of book I read, but I *do* now keep a list! And I can see from a quick glance down it that I’ve most definitely read a lot of works in translation. This has always been the case with my reading, and I’ve probably tended to focus on French, Italian and of course Russian originals. However, I’ve branched out a little more this year, with Spanish-language works, a stand-out Polish book (the incredible Flights!) and of course continued very strongly with the Russians…

They pretty much deserve a section on their own, but suffice to say I’ve encountered a number of authors new to me, from a shiny new book in the form of the marvellous The Aviator, to a poetic gem from Lev Ozerov and a very unusual piece of fiction (if it was fiction…) in the form of The Kremlin Ball. The wonderful humorous and yet surprisingly profound Sentimental Tales by Zoshchenko was a joy. Marina Tsvetaeva has been an inspirational force, and in fact Russian poetry has been something of a touchstone all year. I don’t think I will *ever* tire of reading Russian authors.

I spent quite a lot of time musing about poetry in 2018, actually, including the intricacies and issues of translating the stuff… Part of this related to the Baudelaire-Benjamin rabbit hole into which I fell, and I’ve actually been gifted a very fat book of French poetry in verse translation which I’m really looking forward to. The Baudelaire prose translations I’ve been reading are just wonderful and so I’m hoping this approach will work for French poetry generally.

To pick out one particular book in translation would be hard, but I do want to say that Saramago’s Death at Intervals has remained with me since I read it, particularly the delicate portrayal of the relationship between Death and the Cellist. In fact, whilst browsing in Foyles at the start of December, I found myself picking the book up and becoming completely transfixed by the ending again. Obviously I need a re-read – if I can only work out where I’ve put my copy…. :((

And a book of the year must be the poetic wonder that is Portraits without Frames by Lev Ozerov. Books like this remind me of how much I’m in debt to all the wonderful translators in the world!

Club Reads

The club reading weeks which I co-host with Simon have been a great success this year, and such fun! We focused on 1977 and 1944 during 2018, a pair of disparate years which nevertheless threw up some fascinating books. I was particularly pleased to revisit Colette, Richard Brautigan, Sylvia Plath and Edmund Crispin, as well as exploring Borges‘ work. The clubs will continue into 2019 so join in – it’s always fascinating seeing and hearing what other people are reading!

The British Library

I think BL Publishing need a special mention for the continuing wonderfulness of their books; I’ve read a number of their Crime Classics this year, which are always a joy, and I’ve also been exploring the new range of Science Fiction Classics which they’ve been putting out. I credit them, together with a chance Virago find in a Leicester Charity Shop, with my discovery of the books of the amazing Ellen Wilkinson – definitely one of my highlights in 2018!

They publish other books than these, of course, and as well as the excellent Shelf Life, I was gifted some fascinating-looking volumes about areas of London for my December birthday – I feel a possible project coming on…. 😉

Non-fiction

I’ve always been fond of reading non-fiction, and this year I’ve read quite a few titles. Inevitably there have been Russians (with How Shostakovich Changed My Mind being a real standout) as well as Beverley Nichols on the 1920s and numerous books about books. However, there’s been quite a focus on women’s stories with Ada Lovelace and Mary Shelley both featuring strongly, as well as Flaneuse, a book that intrigued and frustrated in equal measure. The French Revolution made a strong entry, with Olympe de Gouges’ Declaration of the Rights of Women proving to be stirring stuff. Looking down the list of books I read, there’s a lot of Paris and Russia in there!

Bookish arrivals

There have been *so* many bookish arrivals this year, that at times Mr. Kaggsy was getting quite fretful about the fact that we would soon be unable to move around the house… However, I *have* been clearing out books I think I won’t return to, and intend to continue having a bit of a (careful) purge in 2019. I have been very fortunate on the bookish front, though, and having not been able to afford much in the way of books when I was growing up, I’m always grateful to have them and thankful to the lovely publishers who provide review copies.

There *have*, inevitably, been some particularly special arrivals this year. My three Offspring gifted me the Penguin Moderns Box Set for Mothers’ Day, and although my reading of them has tailed off a little of late, I do intend to continue making my way through them in 2019, as so far they’ve been quite wonderful.

And a year ago (really? where has that year gone!) I was ruing the fact I couldn’t get a copy of Prof. Richard Clay‘s fascinating monograph Iconoclasm in Revolutionary Paris: the Transformation of Signs, and forcing one of my offspring to borrow a copy from their university library to bring home for me to read over the break. Through diligent searching and bookseller alerts, I managed to secure a copy, which I was inordinately excited about. On the subject of the Prof’s documentaries, I’m very much looking forward to seeing his forthcoming one on the subject of memes and going viral – watch this space for special posts! 🙂

New discoveries, rediscoveries and revisits

One of the delights of our Club reading weeks is that I always seem to manage to revisit some favourite authors, as I mentioned above. However, this year I also reconnected with an author I was very fond of back in the day, Julian Barnes. The Noise of Time was a hit last year, and I finally read and adored The Sense of an Ending this year. I now have a lot of catching up to do.

Returning to George Orwell is always a reliable delight, and I made peace with Angela Carter after a rocky start. Robert Louis Stevenson has brought much joy (and most of his work has been new to me), and Tomas Espedal’s Bergeners was my first Seagull book. I keep being drawn back to Jose Saramago, though; Death at Intervals really got under my skin and I *must* find my copy…

Challenges

I’ve been keeping my commitment to challenges light over the last few years, and this is actually working quite well for me. I don’t like my reading to be restricted, preferring to follow my whim, and I think what I’ve read has been fairly eclectic… I dipped into HeavenAli’s Reading Muriel celebration of Spark’s 100th birthday; dropped in on the LT Virago Group’s author of the month when it suited; joined in with the reading clubs (of course!); and for the rest of the time mostly did my own thing. It’s been fun… Will I take part in any next year, or set myself any projects? Well, that remains to be seen…. 😉

So that’s a kind of round up of the year. Looking down the list of books I’ve read, I’m more than ever aware of the grasshopper state of my mind – I don’t seem to read with any rhyme or reason. Nevertheless, I mostly love what I read, which is the main thing – life is too short to spend on a book you’re really not enjoying…

The genius of Shostakovich @shinynewbooks @BehemothMusic @NottingHillEds

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I’ve been lucky enough not only to review some wonderful volumes for Shiny New Books, but also to read some real treats from Notting Hill Editions. Those two strands coincided in this really outstanding book which I was ridiculously excited about reading and reviewing!

I have a bit of an obsession with Shostakovich anyway, so I was probably the ideal reader for this one… An absorbing, moving and thought-provoking mixture of memoir, musicology and history, I found it unputdownable. You can read my review over on Shiny here!

I should add here as a coda to my review that I learned after its publication that author Stephen Johnson has put a page of audio reference clips on his website, which would be a useful aid for anyone reading the book, particularly if they aren’t literate in musical notation (like me!)

The clips can be found here:

https://www.stephen-johnson.co.uk/shostakovitch-clips/

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