Sunday 14 March 2021

Sleeping Forever Beneath the Dry Earth (Part 3)

Shostakovich and his son Maxim on the Moscow-Leningrad express train, in 1962.

This is the third part of my written-but-not-yet-illustrated graphic novel about Shostakovich in the 1960s, entitled Sleeping Forever Beneath the Dry Earth. It gets a bit silly in the middle, and I'm not sorry. I'm not quite sure the end lands in the way I want, so I may revise it a little at some point. If you want to see the bit of Kozintsev's Hamlet that features in this part, click here (you also get a little bit of Anastasia Vertinskaya as Ophelia first). Oh, and a "General" is a type of enormous Soviet steam locomotive developed in the 1950s, but which was no longer in use on the Moscow-Leningrad line by 1964. Enjoy.

(If you've not read the preceding parts, start here)

Part 3 – January 1964

Scene 1

At Leningradsky Station, Moscow.

Nothing can be seen – steam obscures all view. Voices are seen from the steam, but no people at first.

Irina Shostakovich:  Mitya, our coach is… I can’t see you.

Dmitri Shostakovich:  I can’t see anything!

The steam begins to clear.

DS: Is it… no… It is! Irina, a General!

IS: A what?

DS: An unexpected delight! I haven’t seen one for years!

The steam has cleared enough now to see DS staring at the train in amazement.

IS: I’m going to find our compartment.

DS: (To the driver) Hello, excuse me… Why the change of engine?

Driver:  It’s too cold. Diesel’s out.

DS: It’s magnificent!

Driver: Mind out – steam’s coming.

Steam pours out of the engine and the scene is quickly filled with white steam again.

DS: Thank you!

IS: (from beyond) Mitya…

DS:  *cough* I’m coming! *cough* Oh. *cough* Oh dear…

White out.


Scene 2

On the train. DS stands at the door of the compartment. Irina is seated.

IS: Mitya… You’re a state! Give me your glasses.

DS: I’ve been steam cleaned! I’m wrinkle-free now.

Irina cleans DS’s glasses.

DS: Oh, it takes me back. If it weren’t for the pain in my legs, I could almost be a young man again, catching a train to an away match in some provincial football stadium.

IS: I’m still waiting for you to take me to one.

Irina hands back his glasses.

DS: Ira! You’ve kept this passion for the beautiful game to yourself.

IS: I’d like to see what it’s like.

DS: You’re too late, I fear. My football days are gone. And besides, when would we find the time?

IS: Shall we ask for tea?

DS: This is like the old days!

IS: Tea, Mitya?

DS: Oh? Oh yes! What a splendid idea.

The train moves off and is seen travelling through the outskirts of Moscow.

DS: Did you pick up Grigori Kozintsev’s letters, Ira?

IS: Yes, Mitya. Don’t fret. I’ve got the musical scenario here.

DS: Yes, I’ll have that, thank you.

DS takes the document and leafs through the sheets of paper.

DS: Look at this… there is a lot of music required here. We’ve got the title sequence to think about, Hamlet’s soliloquy, Ophelia’s death. It’s a lot! Here it just says “Scene with Ghost – seven minutes”. That’s a lot of time to fill.

IS: I’m sure it will be easier when you’ve seen the footage.

A brief pause while DS looks at the scenario.

IS: I could do with that tea now.

DS: Tea and the view of the steam from our mighty locomotive wafting by. There are worse places to be. Do you remember your first train journey?

IS: Yes. From Leningrad to Lake Ladoga.

DS: A summer holiday?

IS: No, Mitya, in 1941. During the evacuation.

DS: Goodness, Irina. I am sorry. I’d quite forgotten myself.

IS: Don’t apologise. I was six. I don’t remember that much. It was crowded. Children cried, though I don’t think I did.

DS: It was frightening enough to us adults. You must have been a brave child.

IS: Used to the terror, I think. You can get used to anything when you’re young. Except the hunger.

DS: Were you with your grandparents?

IS: I was. I didn’t think Grandmother would even make it to the train, but she did.

DS: How strange to think of us both in that city at that time. You know they flew us out? I’ve never been able to board an aeroplane since without flinching at the thought of German artillery trying to pick us out of the sky.

IS: And here we both are, going back, on the train.


Scene 3

Later the same day. At the Lenfilm Studio, Leningrad.

Irina and DS are walking with Isaak Glikman

DS: And I’m afraid, Isaak, that I really wasn’t thinking…

IS: Mitya, it’s fine. And you enjoyed the journey so much – that brought me pleasure.

DS: Irina is far more forgiving than I deserve. Thank you, Irishka! I wish you could have seen the engine, Isaak. It was like travelling in the company of an old friend.

IG: I always felt one was fast friends with a steam locomotive, until it gifted you a face full of steam.

DS: I am in the unfortunate position of being able to agree.

They reach the studio entrance

IG: Here we are. (To the security guard) Good afternoon Sasha – Dmitri Dmitrievich and Irina Antonovna are here with me.  Is Grigory Kozintsev in the building?

Sasha: Yes – he’s booked… projection room three. It’s down…

IG: I know the way, Sasha. Dmitri Dmitrievich? Into the labyrinth.

Isaak, Dmitri and Irina make their way along darkened corridors within the film studio.

DS: Ah! It’s barely changed.

IG: I often used to find you here, before the war.

DS: This is a place of many ghosts.

IS: How many caught in the siege, I wonder.

DS: What a dreadful time.

They continue in silence for a while. The studio corridors are quite dark. DS stops to look through an open studio door. When he looks back, Irina and Glikman are nowhere to be seen. He realises he is alone.

DS: Isaak…? Irina..? Ira…? Oh… Oh dear.

DS heads along a darkened corridor, past racks of costumes. He comes to a larger space, which opens up into a gloomy castle hall.

DS: Oh! Elsinore!

DS continues, awed by the scale. Voices are heard in the distance. DS walks on.

DS: Hello? Isaak?

DS wanders through another door, towards the voices. He walks right into a set for a film. There is a crew shooting a scene in a circus, with actors and two dogs which are getting out of control.

Director: Cut! Can’t you keep that wretched dog in shot?

Crew 1: (to DS) Who are you?

DS: Oh I’m sorry… I’m so sorry. Please forgive me.

Director: Lights! We’ll reset the scene.

Crew 2: Grab the dog! He’s off!

Crew 1: Which one? Barbos? Or Bobik?

Crew 2: I don’t know! The one running around the set!

DS backs out the door with an apologetic expression. He is again in a darkened corridor. In the distance, there are voices.

Innokenty Smoktunovsky: I can hardly bear to watch it.

Anastasia Vertinskaya: At least you got to do something with your face.

They are leaning against a studio wall, smoking cigarettes.

ISm: Wonderful. You did see the faces he made me pull? And everything I suggested he ignored.

AV: It is Kozintsev’s Hamlet, I suppose.

DS is seen recognising the name of the film as he approaches the pair.

ISm: Let him pull faces, then.

AV: Well I’m coming round to it. It’s very beautiful.

ISm: Hallelujah! Those hours playing with lighting weren’t for nothing.

AV: He probably would have got it done quicker if you hadn’t argued so much.

ISm: So it’s my fault?

DS has reached them.

DS: Excuse me, excuse me, I am sorry…

ISm: Who are you? No one’s allowed here.

DS: I’m so sorry. I was with my wife and my friend Isaak Davido...

ISm: What are you talking about?! We haven’t seen…

AV: Kesha! It’s Shostakovich!

ISm: Good God!

DS: I am sorry, but could you direct me to Grigory Kozintsev’s room?

AV: Yes! Please, follow me.

DS: Thank you – most kind.

AV glares at ISm, who shrugs emphatically.


Scene 4

At the screening room.

Grigori Kozintsev, IS and IG and standing talking. GK is touching IS’s shoulder reassuringly.

AV: Grigori Mikhaylovich, I think we’ve found a friend of yours!

IS: Mitya!

Grigori Kozintsev: Dmitri Dmitriyevich! I was starting to worry that we’d misplaced my favourite composer. I’ve got some stories for you! Are you well? But quickly, did my notes answer all your questions on the musical requirements?

DS: Mm… well…

GK: Ask me anything, please.

While the conversation continues, DS sits with IS, IG and GK. ISm sits behind.

DS: … the ideas are only coming to me slowly.

GK: Trust the pictures. The editor tells me some of them are even quite good.

IS: We have been looking forward to seeing the footage, haven’t we Mitya?

GK: Wonderful. We were just about to look at one more scene then it’s lunch. Did I talk to you about the ghost?

IS: No. We’re ready to be surprised!

GK: Then I think you might like this. (To the technicians) Vanya – roll it.

The Ghost Scene plays.

Film: night time – a clock is seen, with figures revolving. Horses, moving uneasily. Hamlet’s group walk through a creaking wooden door. They step back in surprise. The ghost is seen beside the castle.

HORATIO: Look, my lord, it comes!

HAMLET: Angels and ministers of grace defend us!

Horses bolt into the mist. Hamlet runs up a bank behind the ghost. The ghost moves in front of the castle with Hamlet seen moving behind. DS is seen watching with mouth open. The ghost then moves above the tiny figure of Hamlet. Hamlet addresses the ghost at the water’s edge.

HAMLET: Where wilt thou lead me? speak; I'll go no further.

Ghost: Mark me.

HAMLET: I will.

Ghost: And lend thy serious hearing to what I shall unfold.

HAMLET: Speak; I am bound to hear.

Ghost: So art thou to revenge, when thou shalt hear.


Ghost: List, list, O, list! If thou didst ever thy dear father love--

Ghost seen moving towards frame.


Ghost: Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.

DS watches, mouthing “most unnatural”.

HAMLET: Murder!

Ghost: Murder most foul, as in the best it is;

But this most foul, strange and unnatural.
The serpent that did sting thy father's life
Now wears his crown.

HAMLET: O my prophetic soul! My uncle!

After Hamlet’s reaction, ISm is seen behind DS looking exasperated. 

Ghost: Ay, that adulterate beast,
to his shameful lust
The will of my queen:
But, soft! methinks I scent the morning air;
Brief let me be.
Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole,
With juice of cursed hebenon in a vial,
And in my ears did pour
The distilment;
Thus was I, sleeping, by a brother's hand
Of life, of crown, of queen, at once dispatch'd:
O, horrible! O, horrible! most horrible!

Ghost’s face seen. Irina now looks in amazement

IS: His eyes! 

Ghost: Fare thee well at once!
The glow-worm shows the matin to be near,
And 'gins to pale his uneffectual fire:
Adieu, adieu! Remember me. Remember me.

The ghost is gone as the dawn breaks 

Hamlet: The time is out of joint: O cursed spite, That ever I was born to set it right!

GK: Vanya, stop there.

The film stops and the lights come up.

IS: My goodness Mitya! Did you see his eyes?

DS: The ghost? That shook me, I must say.

GK:  Ready for something to eat?

IG: I’ll go and check everything’s ready.

GK: Thank you Isaak. Shall we?

DS: Wonderful. Irina, something to eat?

IS: (Resurfacing from her own thoughts) Eat? Yes. Lunch. Could it come here? Are you feeling up to the walk, Mitya?

DS: Yes. I feel quite revived by the wonderful footage.

GK: You like it?

DS: Yes – wonderful!

GK: What about Pasternak’s text?

DS: Wonderful! Everything is quite wonderful.

GK looks to IS for assurance.

IS: I’m quite sure Mitya will have a lot more to say when we’ve seen more.

DS: Yes – wonderful. (DS turns to IS) I just hope I can muster that sort of inspiration! I don’t want to disappoint those two great masters who were so kind to give me the job.

GK: (turning back to DS) I confess I haven’t spoken with William of Stratford about it, but I understand that old man Kozintsev’s overjoyed to be working with his favourite composer again.

DS: Let’s just wait until one particular soliloquy is scored. Then we can breathe out.

GK: Don’t dwell. Hamlet cannot be a succession of Great Speeches. Fanfare and portent are for monarchs and circuses, not for questions of conscience.

DS: But isn’t it the heart of the play? Doesn’t it need the most searching music?

GK: I can only speak for myself, but I find my thoughts turn most deeply inward in the most banal of situations – tying my shoelaces, or looking out the train window. At those moments, it’s quiet, and the monologue in my head is a gentle, constant one. An observer would see nothing but the vacancy of thought upon my face.

DS stands to go with GK, but pauses for a moment to steady himself.

GK: Are you ok?

DS: I’m fine. Only, these days conscience and all those other voices are having to share the space between my ears with another which complains loudly of the pain in my legs. Yes, I’ll be just fine. Do you remember, Grigori Mikhaylovich, rushing around these corridors, what, 30 years ago, to find a piano and hammer out some cue? It all seemed easier then. Lighter.

GK: It did. But it’s easy to forget the effort it all cost us, when the sweat’s dried and we’re no longer out of breath. Time seems to dissolve the memory of doubt. And you think “did it really cost me this much before? Surely not.” But it did. More, maybe.

They walk towards the door, and DS stops again. An idea has occurred to him.

IS: Do you want to sit awhile, Mitya?

DS: No, no it’s not that. That clock, at the beginning. Could I suggest something?

GK: Of course.

DS: Just an idea. Leningrad once had fine bells. Your clock, just now, reminded me of that.

GK: Mm. With the figures.

DS: Yes! The King’s court has its fanfares. Perhaps the night has its bells and its own special music. Melodies that call out all the strange and deathly things and that speak too softly to hear in the day. I can feel a tune coming, something that would send a chill of fright and regret down your spine if you were awake late enough to hear it.

GK: This is the stuff! How wonderful to work with you again. Just a minute. Vanya...!

GK leaves DS and IS, to speak with his crew.

IS: See, it’s coming together already.

DS: Being back here stirs a lot of things.

IS: It does.

DS: Do you remember the old bells?

IS: No, not really.

DS: Leningrad was at least for me once filled with friends and… football games. Can this ever have been a happy place for you?

IS: It might still. It’s getting better. I’m sorry, Mitya. We should be concentrating on the music. But I wasn’t expecting that film to make me feel this way. When I saw the ghost’s eyes just now, I thought, with shame, that I can’t remember their eyes. Mother, Father, any of them. I don’t even have a photograph.

DS: Irischka…

IS: I was only six.

IG comes back along the corridor, and sees DS and Irina speaking.

IS: This is indulgent – Anyway, look. Here’s Isaak come back to find us. (calling out) Thank you Isaak Davidovich! (Isaak waves back)

DS: (just to Irina) Ira, it’s important. But you’re right – let’s not get left behind. Knowing my luck, we’d get very lost in this… tomb of a place and I’ve no desire to become one of Lenfilm’s ghosts just yet!

DS and IS head off into the studio corridors towards IG.

On to part 4.

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