Saturday, September 19, 2015

“Sons of Janus,” a Novel About Tchaikovsky: A Reader's Report

There's a climactic scene in Henrik Ibsen's play, Ghosts, in which the widow Mrs. Alving argues with her family's long-time spiritual adviser, Pastor Manders, over the repressive advice he had given her in the past.

“It was then that I began to look into the seams of your doctrines,” she tells him. “I wanted only to pick at a single knot; but when I had got that undone, the whole thing unraveled. And then I understood that it was all machine-sewn.”

This is how I feel when I'm reading a book in which I find factual errors: if this is wrong, how can I trust anything else you write, now?

Reading Sheila Seymour's novel about Tchaikovsky, Sons of Janus, I was constantly being faced by the mindful ghost of Mrs. Alving.

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Usually I don't write reviews. But I received an e-mail from a publisher who wondered if I might be interested in reviewing a “novel about Tchaikovsky” which they'd published, one that, he said, was "a fictional retelling of Tchaikovsky’s life based on extensive research by Sheila Seymour" that uses “material unavailable during the Soviet Era.”

As a composer who also writes “classical music appreciation comedy-thrillers,” I was curious, wondering what that “material” might be, so I said “sure, send me a copy.”

The marketing blurb mentions the author uses this “material” to write “a vivid and lively account of Tchaikovsky and his turbulent, terrorist[-]plagued,[sic] world.” A novel is usually fiction and rarely comes with a bibliography, much less footnotes, but of the sources Ms. Seymour acknowledges, only two authors have Russian names even if the titles are given in English, and the footnotes generally seem to acknowledge quotations from reviews quoted in Anthony Holden's 1995 biography or from the usual collections of letters; those from the Russian authors are historical quotes regarding Tsars Alexander II and Alexander III.

But of the more controversial aspects of Tchaikovsky's life, nothing in the way of such documentation. Are all the suggestions of his character as a gay man in a repressive society fiction? What about all the comments regarding his infatuation with young boys? When the blurb says “material unavailable during the Soviet Era,” one assumes something salacious that has been guarded to protect the image of the hero.

I have not read Holden's biography “which,” one reviewer writes, “reads like a novel.” It also claims it makes use of previously unknown “material” that the composer's death was the result of his being ordered to commit suicide by a “Court of Honor,” powerful lawyers and fellow alumni from Tchaikovsky's law school, a plot detail that appears only in passing on the final two pages of the next-to-last chapter of Sons of Janus where it is dismissed along with numerous other pernicious rumors.

The idea Sheila Seymour's book is “a novel about Tchaikovsky” of course means the author is fully capable of creating whatever she wants because, after all, this is a novel and those curious frissons you the reader can experience occur because you never know whether this is true, possibly true, or completely the invention of the author.

(Disclaimer: as a writer of “classical music appreciation comedy-thrillers,” as both of you who follow my blog would know, I love bending the reader's mind by using facts as accurately as they exist or are perceived by a public raised on the mythology of, say, Beethoven, and then swirling off into the world of possibilities where facts end, often with some outrageous plot devices - most of which are parodies - that may involve time-travel or parallel universes or Tardis-like manipulations of transdimensionality. Much of what I write about Beethoven's Immortal Belovèd in The Lost Chord or The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben is based on fact, given the fact we have no idea about her identity from what does exist. So the “fact” that they had a child is a fiction (possible, who knows? – there were questions regarding one Belovèd candidate's daughter to suggest mine is not an original idea) but no one can wonder about the seriousness with which I propose her identity or how it is revealed. So, yes, as a writer, I'm used to the concept of “creative non-fiction” where non-fiction blends into fiction.)

The structure of Sons of Janus is a series of reminiscences about the composer told from the viewpoints of friends and family (and one non-friend which was a brilliant stroke to include). Like a scholar's Festschrift, the actual focus of the collection does not appear in his own words except through their viewpoints. The reader is often left to draw one's own conclusions.

Some of these are more successful than others: the most insightful is Nikolai Rubinstein, Tchaikovsky's friend, boss and mentor (and for a time, roommate); the most humorous is Alexei Apukhtin, a poet and “known homosexual” from Tchaikovsky's early adulthood who gives a campy description of Gay Life in the 1860s; the saddest is a brief entry by Tchaikovsky's much put-upon wife, Antonina Miliukova; the snarkiest is by the oldest son of Nadezhda von Meck (Tchaikovsky's patron and famous correspondent; a woman he never met), a son bewailing the composer's true intentions behind accepting his mother's largesse especially when it means, in the light of financial reverses, less money for him to inherit. The weakest is Anton Rubinstein, the great pianist and composer who was also Tchaikovsky's teacher, who comes off as a guest lecturer on the historical background for those “Tchaikovsky and His Times” segments – and a not very compelling one, I feel.

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The first thing I noticed, paging through the book after I opened the envelope it arrived in, was that Ms. Seymour consistently spells Tchaikovsky's first name not as “Peter” (as it would be in English) or “Pyotr” (as it would be transliterated from the Russian Пётр, the “ё,” often “understood” by Russian speakers, pronounced “yo”) but as... “Petyor”?

Now, I've been reading about Russian music since I was 10 and reading Russian novels since I was 12, and though I never learned to speak the language, I could read the alphabet well enough to sing in a Russian Orthodox church choir for three years and teach a college course on the “Art and History of Russia and Eastern Europe” for the University of Connecticut's Slavic Center. And never have I seen the form “Petyor.”

So I asked a Russian-born friend of mine named Peter if he were familiar with it and he said no: his name might be spelled Peter, Petr, or Pyotr, but he'd never seen “Petyor.”

Russian, of course, is a language that uses an entirely different alphabet from the rest of Europe. One can, in fact, spell “Tchaikovsky” hundreds of different ways phonetically depending on the language it's being transliterated into. In fact, in Russian, it is spelled Чайковский which begins with a letter representing the “ch” sound in English, but yet we most often see it with a “Tch” in German or a “Tsch” in French, and also with a “v” or an “ff” or a “French w” which is why some people pronounce it “chai-COW-skee.”

But how you get “Petyor” out of Пётр, I couldn't tell you.

That said, two other names are consistently “mistransliterated” throughout Sons of Janus: Antonina Miliukova becomes Antonia Miliyukova; and Alexey (or Alexei) Apukhtin becomes Alexey Apukthin.

In the first case, Antonina and Antonia are two different names, though both are feminine forms of “Anton.” The “iu” in Miliukova is one syllable (a diphthong), but in Miliyukova, the “iyu” is two syllables. The “kh” in Apukhtin is a consonant pronounced in Russian like the Scottish “ch” in loch, but “kth” is not a Russian sound, perhaps just a dyslexic typo.

Tchaikovsky's brother-in-law Lev Davidov and his family live on an estate in Ukraine called Kamenka. On p.56, another of Davidov's estates is spelled Verovka; on p.57, it is Verbovka. The latter is correct.

On p.70, within 5 lines of text, the name “Vladimir” is spelled three different ways: Vladimyr, Vladymyr, and Vladymir – all three different men with different (and correctly spelled) last names, but yet it's the same first name (a little consistency, if you please). On p.148, Mme von Meck's son is Vladimir von Meck, so we have four different ways of spelling the same name. Similarly, Nikolai Rubinstein is always “Nikolai”, but on p.73, it's Nikolay Kondratiev.

On p.154 and p.162, the ancient city of Nizhny-Novgorod is spelled Ninzhy-Novgorod.

On p.74 and in the “Selected Obituaries” covering three pages at the end of the book, Klin, where Tchaikovsky made his own country home and where his museum would be founded, is spelled “KILN”! Seeing this before I started reading the book but already wondering who “Petyor” was, I admitted to thinking “Ah, perhaps this isn't a book about the composer, after all: it's about the potter, Ilyich Tchaikovsky!”

Oh, and about that “Ilyich” or Ильич (which even Russian friends of mine spell “Illyich”): this is a patronymic, not a middle name, and means literally “the son of Ilya.” So on p.33, introducing “Papa Illya Petrovich Tchaikovsky,” the composer's father (Ilya, son of Pyotr, meaning the composer was named for his grandfather – again, a Russian-speaker would know the “e” is really “ё” or “yo”), the caption for two photographs reads, “Papa Illych Tchaikovsky” which would mean Papa Ilya is his own son and however confusing the Russian alphabet may be to a Westerner, even that is impossible. (Just kidding: somebody named Ilya Ilyich would be like saying he's Ilya, Jr.)

In formal conversation, someone might be referred to as, say, Mikhail Gregorievich or Ekaterina Gregorievna – first name and patronymic – rather than just Mikhail or Ekaterina but there's also a collection of nicknames or “diminutives” available that could be used by friends and family who might call these two people Misha or Katya. Ms. Seymour chooses to avoid the use of the patronymic except in the composer's case. His brother Anatol (or Anatoli) is usually referred to familiarly as Tolya. Brother Modest, to whom Tchaikovsky was quite close, is never referred to as anything but Modest, yet if you read their letters, he is almost always “Modi”. And nobody in this novel, family or friends, ever calls the composer by his expected nickname, Petya.

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Then there are numerous misspellings or “wrong words” – substitutions like “canon” (a musical procedure) for “cannon” (p.103), “riskier” for what I presume should be “risque” (p.148) or the constant and annoying misuse of “premier” for “premiere” – too many to go into here.

I have to admit, before this, I have never read a book with a red pen in hand: there are 72 pages in my copy of Sons of Janus with red marks (sometimes several per page) out of a total of 187 pages, not counting the chronic use of “Petyor” or the misspelled names of his wife or the poet-friend used throughout.

On p.84, Nikolai Rubinstein is complaining about the composer's partying lifestyle when he needs to be working on a new opera, when “other guests brought back reports of the pleasures to be encountered there: fancy picnics, walks, late nights playing bezique, impromptu musical evenings – and lots of rowdy drinking sessions, seriously lots of rowdy dinking sessions.” Now, even with the repetition, someone not familiar with the hedonistic lifestyle of 19th-Century Russian homosexuals may wonder what exactly “rowdy dinking sessions” entail...

One of my pet peeves is the phrase “reached a crescendo” which I found on p.101-102. One does not simply “reach” a crescendo. In music, a crescendo is the gradual increase of volume over a period of time (a few beats, several measures). To use “reach a crescendo” means you still have to go through the crescendo itself, having reached the point where the crescendo begins, not ends. Instead, the expression could be “reached a fortissimo” or something, if you want to keep a musical allusion. “Reached a climax” would probably be better. Commonly misused, to most musicians and music-lovers reading it, it is cringeworthy.

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Speaking of which, now, Mrs. Alving, let's look at purely factual information.

On p.65, Nikolai Rubinstein is telling the story how Tchaikovsky was commissioned by his publisher to make piano arrangements of 50 Russian Folk Songs. The author writes, “The collection had already been worked over by Balakirev and so Tchaikovsky did the decent thing, dedicating his version, Fatum, to Balakirev and sending him a copy for comment.” Fatum, however, is a completely different piece, a dark orchestral tone poem called “Fate” which Tchaikovsky destroyed after its premiere (yes, someone was able to reconstruct it from a set of long-lost orchestral parts, so the piece does still exist). It has nothing to do with the 50 Russian Folk Songs other than the fact it was composed around the same time and Balakirev's name is associated with both of them.

On p.69, Ms. Seymour writes, “Tchaikovsky turned all his initial euphoria and subsequent grief and despair into the dominant themes of a new piece of work, a ballet based on the classic love story Romeo and Juliet...” One of his most famous works, Romeo and Juliet is an overture-fantasy and was never intended as a ballet. Yes, Prokofiev wrote a ballet based on Shakespeare's lovers in 1935, but that is outside the sphere of this novel.

On p.95, Antonia Miliyukova [sic] dates her entry, describing her delights as a social-climbing wife of a famous composer about to receive her husband's “boss” and closest friend into their new home, June, 1877. They were married on July 18th, 1877.

In the chapter supplied by Anton Rubinstein, historical facts about the Crimean War are glaringly inaccurate. On p. 107, the author writes “Tsar Nicholas died whilst on campaign in the Crimea in 1855.” In fact, Tsar Nicholas I, famous as a soldier in his training, his rule, and his role as a father, had not left the Imperial capital of St. Petersburg where he died of pneumonia after having caught a chill at a wedding.

On the same page, she writes about the peace conference “in Paris, the city Tsar Nicholas had entered in triumph after the defence of Moscow and fall of Napoleon” in 1812. Unfortunately, that was Nicholas' older brother, Tsar Alexander I. Nicholas didn't become tsar until 1825.

On p.130, Mme von Meck talks about the difficulty of being a mother trying to make advantageous matches for her sons. She writes, “Eleven of my eighteen children have survived infanthood.” That alone is remarkable, almost as remarkable as her having had eighteen children; but, astounding as that may seem, she actually had “only” thirteen children...! She married her husband when she was 16 and he died about 26 years later. Let's not make this any more difficult for the poor woman than it already was.

On p.137, Mme von Meck writes about Tchaikovsky's new opera, The Maid of New Orleans! This is an opera about the historical 15th Century Joan of Arc who never got near New Orleans. The opera is The Maid of Orleans. (Insert “LOL” here.)

On p.146, Mme von Meck describes events following the death of Nikolai Rubinstein, a.k.a. The Chief, writing about the occasion “when Anton Rubinstein performed Petyor's Second Piano Concerto which he had dedicated to the Chief. Rubinstein's delivery was exquisite – tender and poignant.” Actually, the pianist who performed Tchaikovsky's new concerto was his own student, Sergei Taneyev. The conductor was Anton Rubinstein. Now, granted, she doesn't say he was the pianist, but the implication seems to be the performer here was the soloist, not the conductor.

On pp.146-147, Mme von Meck also mentions that Nikolai Rubinstein had arranged for Tchaikovsky to write something for the Great Exhibition of 1883 – actually, that was scheduled for 1882 – either “a general Opening Overture, a piece to mark the Tsar's Silver Jubilee... and [or?] a cantata to mark the dedication of a cathedral commissioned in 1812 to mark the defeat of Napoleon. None of the choices had enthused Petyor, but he had opted for the third” (that would be the cantata, a choral work). She later mentions its title, The Year 1812 which is the original title of the Festival Overture we know simply as “The 1812 Overture.” A completely orchestral work with an added brass band and even a barrage of cannons but without chorus, it is not a cantata – though it quotes national anthems associated with both the French and the Russians, both of which are anachronistic but I digress. Regardless of the date Mme von Meck mentions, the overture was premiered in August of 1882.

On p.154, in the chapter supplied by Nadezhda von Meck's embittered son, Vladimir, he writes of the composer's niece who is going to marry one of his younger brothers, thus uniting the families which delighted Mme von Meck and infuriated her eldest son. He describes his future sister-in-law Anna, daughter of Lev and Alexandra Davidov, as “as pernicious and divisive as her brother” even though, clearly, since Anna was the daughter of the composer's sister, “Petyor” would've been her uncle. This relationship is mentioned again on p.158.

On p.155, the same embittered Vladimir von Meck complains – after the Tsar bestowed on Tchaikovsky an annual stipend of 3,000 rubles, making Mme von Meck's monetary gifts to him unnecessary – that Tchaikovsky then donated the money she'd given him to write a piece he premiered in Prague to a local musicians' charity: “it was just too much. We were not keeping only him... but now out-of-work Hungarians as well!” As astute a businessman in the railroad industry as Vladimir von Meck would have been, he would certainly have known that the people of Prague were not Hungarians.

On p.12, Ms. Seymour states she uses only “New Style” dates to avoid the confusion caused by Russia's not having adopted the modern calendar the rest of Europe was using until after the 1917 Revolution. But this creates a problem when guest history lecturer Anton Rubinstein returns for a post concerning Tsar Alexander III, dated “Christmas 1893,” beginning “Tchaikovsky is dead.” Now, according to the Russian Orthodox church calendar in the “Old Style,” Christmas is celebrated in January and even today, the Orthodox Church still officially observes its holidays according to the Old Calendar. So January of 1893 means Tchaikovsky would still be alive for another 11 months: he died November 6th, 1893. If she wrote, “December, 1893,” fine. But she didn't.

Well, I think that's enough.

Now, given all of this, I would say Ms. Seymour's novel might be more enjoyable to read with a little editing and fact-checking, in which case I might consider recommending it. As it is, as currently published by Austin Macauley of London (you can read more about them, here and here), what do you think I should suggest?

I mean, what would Mrs. Alving do?

- Dick Strawser