(PANK Books, 2018)
Maya Sonenberg’s After the Death of Shostakovich Père is a fascinating journey carrying the reader from Stalinist Russia, through small town rural America, to Borges’ Escher-like worlds and back again. The book is best read slowly, with a willingness to spend time on its many surprises and subtleties.
One subtlety is the book’s brilliant title. It says what the book is about — it could not be clearer. Yet it immediately unpacks all its questions. Why Shostakovich — not a household name — and who ever wondered about his father? Which Shostakovich are we talking about, and what happened after the death?
Opening the book, the first thing we see is the dedication to the memory of Sonenberg’s father, Jack, and the next thing is the epigram from Donald Barthelme’s novel, The Dead Father. Dead fathers haunt these pages, or as the epigram says, ‘He is dead only in a sense.’
The book begins with the title “Prelude” printed above a photograph of a man sitting cross-legged on the ground, the mountains of Colorado behind him, and a little girl, about six years old, nestled in his lap. The paragraph following the photo is filled with specifics — names and places: Aspen, Maine, Hotel Jerome, Kneisel Hall, Mahler, Beethoven, Secretary of Defense McNamara, and we are in media res.
Or are we? We’re immediately jump-cut to a description of the opening of Shostakovich’s Suite for Two Pianos, Opus 6, written in 1922 by the 15 year-old Dimitri Shostakovich on his father’s death. Dimitri and his sister frequently performed this piece commemorating Shostakovich père. Sonenberg, directly addressing the reader, explicitly wishes we could hear the music that that father’s death inspired.
The book, a completely satisfying read, is an elegy for the death of Sonenberg’s père, a successful artist and art teacher, blessed/cursed with too many talents, passions and demons, and probably too much charisma. We get a sense of the man’s exuberance, and the girl-child adult trying to assemble her grief into a coherent mosaic. Sonenberg betrays no hint of rancor, just the good will of intelligent love trying to come to terms with another death.
The book is episodic. There is no linear story line and chronology is out the window. Each of the four chapter-like sections of the book has its own stand-alone structure and internal coherence. The first section, “Prelude,” introduces Jack and Maya while describing Shostakovich père’s death as the inspiration for the Suite for Two Pianos.
The second section, “Danse Fantastique,” is really composed of three parts. The first is a series of brief paragraphs describing some of Maya’s memories of her father, combined with selections from his notebooks. The second part threads in a discussion of Borges’s story “The Garden of Forking Paths,” while the last part returns to selections from Sonenberg’s père’s notebooks, selections that become increasingly fragmented to trail off into
“Nocturne” is the third section. This is really an extended narrative telling of a visitation — dream — ghost story — between a daughter and dead father. Like the best of such encounters, this one ends with the living and the dead each returning to their proper place. The characters have names we have not encountered before and they may well be wearing masks to cover their true identities, Maya and Jack, but if so, only to protect their innocence.
“Finale” is the fourth and last section of the book. It begins with several paragraphs that start “My father wrote.” Soon, the two voices, Jack’s and Maya’s, become indistinguishable as the text tells of strokes and an increasingly incapacitated Jack. A discussion of loss follows in which daughter Maya brings together many of the separate elements that appeared earlier in the book: Music — ever so important to Jack and Maya — and for her, the importance of Borges, and her father’s mercurial personality. The text closes with more of Jack’s writing, to end with his farewell to his dying mother, “I kissed her face and hands,” and finally, the last sentence, “ – not a prison as I have sometimes thought –.”
Scattered throughout the book are black and white photographs of Jack and Maya, père and daughter, as well as some of his more conceptual art. The photographs merge life and art to make them indistinguishable.
One of the amazing accomplishments of this book is how the four distinct parts hold together. But there is a structure below the surface that is quite extraordinary. Sonenberg’s text parallels the structure of the Suite for Two Pianos.
The titles of the sections of the book; “Prelude,” “Danse Fantastique,” “Nocturne,” and “Finale” are those of the Suite. This is simple and obvious; what is not so obvious is that the content of each section of the text and of the Suite parallels each other.
The Prelude holds the key. Maya Sonenberg writes, “I wish you could hear the bells,” and then describes the effect of the four hands on the two pianos layering sounds on top of each other to capture the reverberant textures of a bell choir. The theme the bells peal forth recurs throughout the Suite. The “Danse Fantastique” becomes increasingly frenetic. The “Nocturne” is the perfect occasion for the extended, intricate ghost story dream with its bitter-sweet wistfulness. And the “Finale” is just that — all the musical themes, ideas, and motifs return. They recapitulate to provide a sense of completion and closure. Sonenburg’s “Finale” does exactly the same thing.
One of Sonenberg’s achievements is that her text is successful on its own terms — it is independent of the musical parallelism. Although the text is completely satisfying without knowing the music, such knowledge adds another level of appreciation. But why did Sonenberg create this connection? She explicitly states that she wants us to hear the bells, and in “Finale” she repeats, “… I heard the music and my bones shook. I want you to hear the pianos too, tolling, clanging, resounding with each other, against each other.”
I strongly recommend reading this book, and the experience will be immensely enhanced by listening to any of the several performances of the Suite available on ITunes. After all, the inspirations for the Suite and the text are parallel, the death of Shostakovich père and that of Sonenberg père.
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Leonard Temme studied writing most extensively with Marie Ponsot, Sue Walker, Walter Spara, Josh Davis, and Kristina Darling. Following extensive formal training in music composition, he earned a master’s in mathematics and a doctorate in neuropsychology. His day job is as a research scientist in a government laboratory. In addition to his professional publications, his writing has appeared in a variety of literary and small presses.