Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Lina & Serge

Simon Morrison's Lina & Serge looks at the life and times of Serge Prokofiev through the eyes of Lina, his cosmopolitan wife, who was born in Spain, and lived in high style in New York, Paris, Geneva, Tzarist Russia, and who struggled through life in Soviet Russia, eight years of which she spent as a prisoner in the gulag.

Lina (1897-1989) was a singer (and in all probability not a very good one). It is pretty clear that Serge Prokofiev's attraction to her had a lot to do with her beauty (and she was beautiful), and the fact that she was willing to have a physical relationship with him without being married. He only consented to marrying her after she became pregnant with his first son, and was a terribly distant father to both of their children. Serge Prokofiev's return to Russia (he met and married Lina in the West) was an opportunistic move on his part, and Lina and the children did their best to survive while conditions continued to crumble.

Eventually Serge, who did benefit professionally from the Soviet system, fell under the spell of a Mina, younger woman who was intent on breaking up his marriage with Lina and marrying him herself. When the Soviet government decided that the marriage between Lina and Serge was invalid because it was not a Soviet marriage, Serge was free to marry Mina. Lina was given work as a translator, and eventually government officials arrested her because of suspicions they had concerning her occasional meetings with foreigners (people she knew who were visiting the Soviet Union). She was sent to the gulag for eight years, and only obtained her release through the kindness of Dmitri Shostakovich. Three years after Serge's death (Serge died on the exact day and at the exact time as Josef Stalin!) the revocation of her marriage was reversed, and Serge Prokofiev became a posthumous bigamist.

This is one of the best composer biographies I have read (and I have read a lot of composer biographies). It describes the environment around Serge Prokofiev in believable intimate and personal detail (Morrison had a great deal of source material, and close contact with the family), even though the material he presents seems like a great piece of fiction.

As a man Serge Prokofiev is still a puzzle to me, but he was also clearly a puzzle to the people who knew him well. Morrison puts pieces of music into the context of Prokofiev's life, and he does so in a way that makes perfect sense. He presents everyday life in the Soviet Union in a way that rings frightfully true, and he describes (through Lina's eyes) the presence and importance of music in the gulag, something I could never have imagined.

When she was released from the gulag, Lina had to sign an oath of silence. I'm glad that she didn't honor it.

You can read more about the book here.

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