In the shadows of great men

A couple of weeks ago I went to see a 22 year old Korean pianist called Sunwook Kim.  There were about 200 people in the audience, mostly grey haired and all very knowledgeable about music.  The man next door to me said his mother had been a concert pianist and I recognised at least three local music teachers.  I opened the programme happily but my anticipation began to evaporate when I saw he was going to play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.  I like Beethoven and  I particularly like the Moonlight Sonata but I don’t like going to hear very well known pieces live.  The music tends to roll out as mechanically as one of those toy music barrels, both the audience and the performer know the music too well to be able to listen to it interrogatively or play it with enough freshness. Too often it becomes like relaxing into a musical armchair and I’d rather do that at home.

I needn’t have worried, Sunwook Kim was extraordinary.  The music and his playing had us holding our breath.  My neighbour was in tears and several members of the audience rose to their feet and cheered.  That doesn’t happen very often in rural East Sussex.

I was reminded of this yesterday when I talked to an old friend who is writing a memoir of St Petersburg.  It sounds like it’s very good but she’s worried about it.  ”The problem about St Petersburg is that everyone has read about it before, it’s too full of ghosts.”  My first novel, Sam Golod ( was set in St Petersburg so I knew exactly where she was coming from.  It’s very hard indeed to write in the shadow of great names and there aren’t many names greater than Dostoevsky.

The hero of the book I am currently writing is a very well known historical and mythical figure and I find it a struggle to put blood in his veins, bones in his legs and make him real.  There are two temptations; the first is to succumb to the myth and give my readers what they are already anticipating and the second temptation is to change the facts so that he is no longer recognizable and then create him anew.  The first seems lazy and dull and the second seems a bit pointless; why write about a well known figure if you are going to change him so much that he’s really a different person altogether?

My friend in St Petersburg is eating into her shadows by interviewing inhabitants of the city and survivors of it’s terrible history and letting their voices speak for themselves.  I’m trying a similar trick by collecting as much historical evidence as I can for my hero and then imagining myself into his skin and seeing what he says.   We shall see how it turns out but cross your fingers that my friend and I succeed with even a small fraction of the skill and beauty of Sunwook Kim.

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2 Responses to In the shadows of great men

  1. Like a lot of people, I was impressed by Wolf Hall. Mantel seems to have imagined herself completely inside Cromwell. That must be an extraordinary experience. I hope you get there too.

  2. Catriona Bass says:

    Strange coincidences happen in writing – I was out walking this afternoon having very similar thoughts and remembered, oddly enough, a Petersburg conductor saying to me, (not about the Moonlight Sonata but about Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik) that it is a rare magician who can get up onto a rostrum an inspire a whole orchestra and an audience that it is being played for the very first time. He was 93 when I met him and 95 when he made his international debut with the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Barbican. I don’t know how many times he had played it before Suddenly, we are in a different reality. As the opening bars burst out the conductor became their energy: the energy of children skipping through a meadow, of lovers dancing down a beach, of a person striding through life at the height of his powers. The music runs through his body to the end of his fingers. He is the music. In this moment he has no age, no biography: no sunny childhood on the Volga at the start of the twentieth century; no frozen winter in Petrograd at the height of the Revolution; no desperate escape from the Germans through the forests of Byelorussia with his baby and wife in high heels; no stoical survival of eight decades of Leningrad’s repression; no marvellous debut on the world stage as he turns ninety five and Leningrad turns into Petersburg. Even the momentousness of this occasion vanishes in the moment of the music.

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