Sunday 14 March 2021

Sleeping Forever Beneath the Dry Earth (Part 4)

Here is part 4 of my written-but-as-yet-unillustrated graphic novel about Shostakovich in the 1960s, Sleeping Forever Beneath the Dry Earth. It includes an interlude set in 1965, which I'm not sure if I'll keep. Incidentally, a version of the final speech of part 4 was the first bit of the whole book I ever wrote. I was sitting on the steps of the Albert Hall in London in the summer of, I think, 2016, queueing for a BBC Prom concert.

If you've landed on this page and want to start from the beginning of the book, click here.

Interlude – 1965

At Shostakovich’s Moscow apartment. DS is in his study. He is standing at his desk, holding the pages of a letter in one hand.

DS: (To himself) Really… just… really.

Irina enters, holding some papers.

Irina: Are you talking to me, Mitya?

DS: (Briefly still reading) How can… Irina, have you seen this?

Irina: No. I haven’t started intercepting your mail!

DS: Tischenko’s gone too far. I need to tell him.

Irina sits, putting down the papers.

Irina: What does he say?

DS: He’s been lecturing me about Yevtushenko, saying… oh, are you sure? Aren’t you in the middle of something?

Irina: I’m here now. Go on.

DS: Oh… well he’s setting me straight about Yevgeny Aleksandrovich. It’s nothing new. I heard it all in ’62, though never from my own students.

Irina: What does he object to?

DS: He says all Yevtushenko does is moralise, tell the reader not to be cruel or deceitful.

Irina: What does he think is wrong with that? It’s important to be reminded of these things.

DS: Quite! I knew you’d agree.

Irina: Are you going to reply?

DS: I wouldn’t usually… but Tischenko is more talented than the others. He needs to know.

Irina: (getting up) Do you want me to take it down for you?

DS: No – I’ve already started. I’ve reached a third side already. (Picking up his own letter) So, I thank him for his letter – there’s always room for civility, even in a telling off! Then – here we are – “I am offended on behalf of my favourite poet, or one of my most favourite poets - Yevtushenko. Let's put on one side such things as syllabic beauty, inventive rhymes etc. I don't much understand things like that. You do not like it that he sits on your shoulders and teaches you what you already know: "Don't steal honey", "Don't lie" etc. I also know that one should not do that. And I try not to do it. Except that it is never boring to me to hear those thoughts repeated one more time. Perhaps Christ talked about such things better, and maybe better than anyone. But that doesn't take away the right to speak about such things from Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, J.S.Bach, Mahler, Mussorgsky…” Then I think I’ve gone round in circles, and I’ve put a rather strange imagine in his mind, the pious composer… here: “Every morning, instead of prayers, I bring to mind a couple of poems by Yevtushenko: "Boots" and "A Career". "Boots" speaks of our conscience, "A Career" speaks of morality. You cannot get rid of your conscience. To lose a conscience is to lose everything.” And then after that I’ve started quoting the bible. Whatever will he think of me? I’ll sound like some aged father from the old days.

Irina: No, I think you’re quite right. Though…

DS: What, Ira? Please tell me.

Irina: It’s just… I did feel Yevtushenko lost the moral high ground by changing Babi Yar.

DS: Now, I’m really not sore about that. He did what he thought he must.

Irina: He could have consulted you. He was your partner in the Thirteenth. I never told you… that did anger me.

DS: And others. I know. But I do so admire him, and I do so hate falling out with people. Now I suppose I’m heading for a falling out with Tischenko. 

Irina: But you must defend what you believe. Shall I leave you to finish it off?

DS: Mm. I should. Though I’m rather losing faith in my own little sermon. I’ll see Tischenko soon and I could mention it then. Though I probably won’t.

Irina: Perhaps speaking out is the best way to honour the poet’s best ideals. (She gets up) Call me if you want me to read it.

DS gestures his thanks as Irina leaves. He looks closely at his own letter. His shoulders sink. Finally, he folds it and throws it into the bin. He leaves the room. The room is empty for a frame. Irina enters, looks back to the door, then retrieves it from the bin and reads. 

Part 4

Scene 1

Early 1969. The Kremlin Hospital, Moscow.

DS is in a hospital bed, in a private ward. There is a window behind him on his left. It’s daylight outside. He is sleeping in a sitting position with his head bent forward. His glasses are on the bed in front of him. A book is slipping from his hands.

There is a shout from beyond the ward. DS wakes up with a start, head jerking upright. He reaches around for his glasses, finds them, and puts them on. He picks up the book again – The Diary of Anne Frank – and squints at it, trying to find his place. Finally, he gives up, places the book on the bed and looks around the room, his eyes eventually falling downward.

A nurse enters the ward.

Nurse: Dmitri Dmitrievich? Your wife is on the phone. Shall I bring it in?

DS: Yes, thank you! Very kind.

The nurse wheels in the phone, which is on a trolley.

DS: Thank you.

DS Takes the receiver and presses it to his ear.

DS: Ira? Irischka? Can you hear me?

IS: Yes Mitya. I can … you.

DS: Say again?

IS: I said… Oh, it’s not a good line.

DS: In any case, it’s wonderful to hear your voice.

IS: And to … yours too.

DS: It must be a relief to be free of all my needs! Nice and quiet.

IS: It is quiet, yes, but I’m thinking about you all … time. I look at the clock and think “it’s time to get Mitya some tea” but then you’re not there. Are they bringing you tea?

DS: Now and then. I can’t complain.

IS: Are you sleeping?

DS: Yes, sometimes. The poor wretch along the corridor often cries out in the night. It is rather frightening, though it must be hell for him.

IS: Is there anything the nurses can do? It’s important that you sleep.

DS: I’m fine. What have you been doing? I miss hearing about what you’ve been doing.

IS: Editing some articles. Nothing unusual.

DS: Does that mean the new issue is coming?

IS: Not yet. The last one will have to sustain you a little longer.

DS: Mm. I’ve read most of poems several times. There are some good ones. Which reminds me – did you manage to find the Rilke volume?

IS: And the Lorca, yes.

DS: I’m itching to see them again.

IS: I’ll bring them with me as soon as I’m allowed.

DS: I do hope it’s soon. The nurses are tight lipped about the end of the quarantine. Some nasty’s broken out, but they won’t say what. It could be days, or it could be a week – two!

IS: As soon as … let me … be with you.

DS: I’m dying to see you and have a proper conversation. Though there’s something about the quiet here. It’s given rise to strange and wild music – my thoughts are gripped by it! I think something’s coming Ira, something that couldn’t have come a moment before. Irina…? 

DS holds the phone away from his head. The line is dead. He replaces the receiver.


Scene 2

Night, in the hospital. DS is in bed, with the light on. In his hands is a large score – Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death. He is leafing the pages. He stops. He reads the vocal line.

“Forest and glades, no one is around./ A snow storm is crying and groaning”.

We see him from the window, which is streaked with rain.

“It feels as in the gloom of the night/ The Evil One is burying someone;/ Hush, it is so!”

DS looks up. There is a yelp from the man in the other room. DS sinks, in fright, further into his bed.


Scene 3

DS is in his hospital bed, asleep. IG sits beside the bed. There is a pile of books on the bedside table.

DS’s eyes open. He opens his mouth, but doesn’t say anything.

IG: Dmitri…

DS: (groggily) Irina… where?

IG: It’s Isaak Davidovich.

DS: (smiling weakly) Ahh. Old friend. My old…

IG: It’s ok. No need to speak. Rest.

DS reaches around for his glasses and puts them on. He looks towards IG and sees the pile of books.

DS: What’s that… Rilke! Is Irina here?

IG: She is. She’s only gone for a moment.

DS: You have no idea how wonderful it is to see you. Peace and quiet is all very well, but I could do without living through such a long spell again.

IG: Fortunately, you did live through it.

DS: Were many taken? Poor souls.

IG: They haven’t said. How are you feeling?

DS: I’m fine. Just fine. Though my hand is next to useless. And my legs are quite painful. And I have a terror of waking up and finding I’ve lost my sight or the use of the other hand. Or of not waking up at all.  But I’m fine, really. Besides, I’ve had Anne Frank for company.

IG: An apt companion.

DS: Now, Isaak Davidovich. I don’t suppose anyone brought her three good meals a day. Enough of me: have you been alright? Has Irina?

IG: I’ve at least been busy, and enjoying more letters that usual.

DS: Well, as I said, time on my hands. And the replies cheered me up. Too much of my other mail has been bringing news of deaths of people I knew when I was young.

At this moment, a nurse and doctor enter the room.

Nurse: Now, Dmitri Dmitrievich, don’t move.

The nurse takes his blood pressure and quotes it to the doctor, who writes it down. They leave.

DS: (Looking glum) They measure me all the time. I’m surprised they don’t just count “days until expiration” and be done with it.

IG: It’s just blood pressure. Nothing sinister. And anyway, Irina Antonovna is being stoic. Let’s keep things bright for her.

DS: I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve that one.

IG: Come on – you’ve given so much.

DS: Stop it. I’m not a saint. You always try to make me out to be some sort of superhuman, but I’m not. I’m very human. I shit and piss and say stupid things. I’m one of the worst there is. But I’ve been given an angel.

IG: I don’t want to hear you talking this way.

DS: Well, they’ll all say it when I’m dead so why not now?

IG: I won’t let them.

DS: Isaak Davidovich! You’d have to live for ever – assuming anyone remembers who I was half an hour after I’m gone – and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

At this moment, Irina enters the room.

IS: You’re awake!

DS: Ira! What a relief to see you.

Irina goes to the bed and kisses DS.

DS: Who are all those people out there?

IS: I don’t know, but I’ve a mind to have a word with the doctors and getting you some more peace and quiet.

IG: We were just discussing angels and demons. You’ll never guess which one Dmitri Dmitrievich has himself pegged as.

IS: Oh I can. I’ve heard that one before.

DS: Well this sinner’s very pleased with his books. Thank you Irischka.

IS: I brought some more manuscript paper too.

IG: Have you written much down yet?

DS: Bits and pieces. In the night, the sound of it fills my head, and it’s still there in the morning.

IG: I’m dying to hear it.

DS: I’d sing it for you, but the experience would cure your curiosity.

IS: Have you thought of a title?

DS: I did think about that for a long while. I had time on my hands, you see. But, for the first time I can recall, I really don’t know what it is I’ve written!

IS: Well, I’m hoping there’ll be room for Lorelei.

DS: Oh yes! I want to start with Lorca’s De Profundis – sounds religious, doesn’t it? Then, some real violence: “Death walks in and out of the tavern”. Though I’m a little worried about the reference to “the smell of women’s blood”. Some of our more discerning critics might get the wrong idea. Then there’s Lorelei.

IG: Is this all one singer?

DS: No – two! Lorelei needs a man’s and a woman’s voice.

IG: I must admit that I don’t know this one.

IS: It’s the saddest story.

DS: Do you have the Apollinaire there? Really, Isaak, you must hear this.

Irina opens a book, finds the page and hands it to DS.

DS: Thank you. So:

(As DS reads, we see the action of the poem illustrated)

“In Bacharach lived a witch with fair hair

who let all the men around die of love.

“The bishop summoned her to his court

and acquitted her on account of her beauty.”

IG: I don’t know this Bacharach, but their legal system has some odd precepts.

DS: Ha! So:

“ ‘Oh lovely Lorelei, your eyes are made of precious stones,

which magician gave you the power of sorcery?’ 

“ ‘I am weary of life and my eyes are accursed;

oh bishop, those who have looked at me have perished.

“ ‘My eyes are not precious stones but flames,

throw this sorcery to the fire.’

“ ‘That fire is consuming me, oh lovely Lorelei,

somebody else has to condemn you, for you have enchanted me.’

“ ‘Bishop you laugh. Pray rather to the Virgin for me,

let me die and may God protect you.

“ ‘My lover has left for a distant land,

let me die for there is nothing I love.

“ ‘My heart is so heavy that I must necessarily die,

I would die if I would dare look at myself.

“ ‘My heart is so heavy since he is no longer there,

my heart has been so heavy since the day he left.’

“The bishop summoned three knights armed with lances:

take this demented woman to the convent.

“ ‘Go away Lore in madness, away Lore with tremulous eyes,

you shall become a nun dressed in black and white.’

“ So the four left down the road,

the Lorelei implored them and her eyes glowed bright like stars.

“ ‘Knights, please let me climb onto that rock so high

for I may see my beautiful castle one last time.

“ ‘To see once more my reflection in the river

and then I shall go to the convent of virgins and widows.’

“Up there, the wind blew her untied hair,

the knights cried: Lorelei, Lorelei.

“ ‘Down there, on the Rhine, comes a boat

and, on board, there is my lover, he has seen me and calls.

“ ‘My heart becomes so tender, it is my lover returning.’

She leans over and falls into the Rhine.

“To see her in the water, the beautiful Lorelei;

her Rhine-coloured eyes, her sun-like hair.

DS: What do you think?

IG: I think she’s powerfully tragic. There’s a little of Katerina Izmailova in there too.

DS: Mm. I think Apollinaire and Leskov share a certain sympathy for women pushed around by men.

IG: What else is there?

DS: Let’s see. Next there’s…

There are loud voices at the door. The doctor calls over to Irina:

Doctor: There’s some men here for Dmitri Dmitrievich. They say they’re from… which publication did you say…?

Reporter: (calling out) Is Shostakovich there?

Irina: What on earth…?

Doctor: They say they’ve been promised an interview

Reporter: Are you going to recover, Dmitri Dmitrievich?

DS looks bewildered.

DS: Well…

Irina: No! Do they just let anyone walk in here? (To the doctor) My husband is supposed to be resting… no, all of you – out you go!

Irina leaves the room, leaving DS with IG, who sits back beside the bed.

DS clasps his face, which is a picture of distress.

IG: Just despicable. Walking in here like that.

DS still looks lost.

IG: Really. Without scruples, those people.

DS: Maybe this is how the dying feel when vultures begin to circle.

IG: Come on. No one’s dying. Look – how about I read some of this poetry?

DS: Not just now.

IG: I don’t suppose there’s anything cheerful here.

DS: No. It’s all sad poems by people who died too young. I used to devour the stuff. Now I can’t help thinking all the poems are about people we used to know.

A pause.

IG: Do you know what popped into my head recently? When you invited the whole Zenit squad for dinner! You remember?

DS: Yes - a fine evening.

IG: When was that. ’37? ’38?

DS: ’40, I think. You know how many of them died in the war?

IG: Mm.

Another pause.

IG: I think I’ve got a paper here, if you want to hear some news?

DS: Mm. Ok.

IG looks into his bag and pulls out a newspaper.

DS: Isaak, what do you think happens when we die?

IG: Well… I… I think there’s an awful lot of fuss, and of course, depending on how many people spent time sucking up to you, a really terrific funeral…

DS: No, Isaak. I’m serious. Who knows what becomes of Lorelei’s soul? What is there after all… this?

IG: Oh. Something. Maybe warmth and contentedness. I don’t know about any General Secretary of the Heavens, but…

A pause.

DS: Mm. I imagined that, at one time.

Another pause.

IG: If the stories of my youth are any guide, you’ve no need to worry unless you frighten death itself. I recall heaven judging those sorts of antics very poorly…

DS is not paying attention, instead looking away despondently.

IG: Dmitri?

DS: Yes…? Oh. Forgive me. I don’t mean to be inattentive. I’m tired and these morbid thoughts are clouding my mind. I only slept a little last night - our friend along the corridor was in full voice. It’s funny that you mention Zenit, because when I did at last drift off, I dreamed I was at the Lenin Stadium, of all places, in full Zenit kit, mid-match, running deep into the opposition half. The crowd was roaring appreciatively. And as the ball found my feet, I looked up to find our old friend Shelagin alongside me, appearing just as he must have during the ’37 season. You remember that? He smiled at me as one would to a close teammate, and as I returned the kind acknowledgement, he disappeared in the blast of an exploding shell, and there was only a shallow crater and a shower of earth where he’d been. I dodged another blast, and then to my right I saw beside me dear Ivan Sollertinsky, whose friendship I’ve so missed these past years. I felt a deep stab of horror as he too vanished in a fresh shell blast. And as the noise and the smoke subsided, the pitch and stands stood eerily empty, and then snow began to fall, filling the craters and covering the earth all around. I stood for a while, desolate in the silence. Then, I ran on into the thickening blizzard, and looking back, saw only the soft impression of my own feet in the snow. Now, if you’ll forgive me, I feel the need to be alone for a while – please, my dearest friend, this is no slight against your much valued company!

Glickman leaves. DS removes his glasses and covers his eyes with his free hand.

Read the fifth and final part here.

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