If you haven’t read part I of this series, do not pass go–go back and read the thing!
The book was Leningrad: Siege and Symphony, by Brian Moynahan. I had picked it up for $10 from the discount book section in Indigo. I often find intriguing non-fiction there, usually having something to do with history or science or both. The subtitle on this one was “The story of the great city terrorized by Stalin, starved by Hitler, and immortalized by Shostakovich.” I knew a little about the siege (didn’t I read a book about that in the third or fourth grade?) and had a couple of Shostakovich symphonies in my CD collection—including the 5th, my Shostakovich gateway drug. The symphonic band had performed an adapted version of the final movement of the 5th for the state competitions my senior year of high school. Before then, I hadn’t really liked any 20th century composer. Later, I’d discover the delightfully stabby 10th, the 15th, the 13th with its choral depiction of the Babi Yar massacre. Like mushrooms, which I did not come to love until my late 30s (and subsequently loved passionately), Shostakovich was an adult taste. But somehow I had missed the 7th. So I went home with the book, along with a couple of others, and added it to my stack of things to read.
At some point later–I’m not sure when–I started reading the book, got perhaps 30 to 40 pages in, and then it disappeared into a pile of books under my bed. I was distracted by deadlines, projects, and worries about my eyesight. I also became immersed in finishing all of the Guy Gavriel Kay books I hadn’t yet read, which turned out to be several. I really have no idea how long the book sat there in its pile, gathering cat fur dust bunnies. But I do know it was the one on top when I cast about on a late January Monday evening for something to read.
If you’ve read the first part of this piece, you may have some inkling of how important reading is to me. There is always a two-part process for any book that engages me. I read the book, and then I must read more, almost as a way of prolonging the pleasure of the book, but also because I need to learn, to understand, to place in context, to know. The last two Kay books I had read were the two set in an alternate version of China. I, to my surprise, knew almost nothing about China beyond the basic outlines of the last century and a half or so. I was briefly ashamed of my lack of knowledge, and then shame turned to delight, as I knew there were new things to be discovered, new places to see for the first time, new people to meet.
So, there I was, in the midst of a cold, snowy, bleak January, unhappy, dissatisfied, picking up a book because there really wasn’t anything better to do and I wanted to clear out the books cluttering up the bedroom, get them read and shelved.
I read those final pages while pulling up a performance of the Shostakovich 7th on YouTube, because that final chapter concerns the performance of the symphony on August 9, 1942, in besieged Leningrad. The symphony lasts over 80 minutes, so I really only got through the first movement in reading that final chapter, but I then listened to the other three. I defy anyone to read that book, the description of that performance, and to make it through the final movement and not understand what that performance meant. I listened to that symphony for the first time that day, encountering it much as those who heard it for the first time that day might have.
The book had delivered, augmenting the power of the music, which was already imbued with an incredible power of its own. There really is no other way to explain it. That is the power of words, of telling stories, of bringing history to life. I could sit in my warm Canadian home (not open to the elements because of bombing), fridge fully stocked, cats purring on the bed beside me (not eaten for food), my friends and family not falling one by one because of starvation, and I could still close my eyes, listen to that music in the context of what I had read, and find the spirit, the humanity that had kept a city that was being strangled from dying.
After such an emotional climax, I really felt like I needed a cigarette. (I don’t smoke.) And I realized something else.
I cared again.
I ended up doing was more research—because that’s what I do. I subsequently ordered and read (300 pages, a few hours over the course of a single day) a recent book on the siege. I combed the Internet for photos and more details. I put the Shostakovich 7th on my iPhone, and played it over, and over. And I had a good excuse. My next scheduled Toastmasters speech—in our new Pathways program—was a research-based project. Well, here was some research.
And then the muses, being not silent, said “Wait.”
And then a voice from the books I had just read said “wait.” Her name was Olga Berggolts, and she was a poet. She had refused to leave her city when so many of the other artists, musicians, writers, and professors were evacuated. She stayed, and in the darkest days of January and February, when there was no food at all and all of the music had died out, she would read her words on the radio. The people of Leningrad saw her as a lifeline to humanity in the midst of a calamity that had forced their city to the edge of the abyss.
Could I tell the story I had just read in a different way, through her eyes? Could I tell it in my words, but as she might have, interspersing a few quotes from her poems into the story at key points? Could I? I had never done anything like this.
Why couldn’t I?
I will wait to share what I wrote, as that story is still evolving. (Update: It’s right here if you want to read it.) I used it for my competition the next day, still mostly on paper. With practice, I will be able to tell it without my notes, my goal for my second competition this coming Thursday. (As a side note, I Googled Olga Berggolts to find out what she looked like, and there she was, her hair in a bob, wearing a cloche and a long coat. I looked over at the red cloche I had just acquired last weekend, and thought of my long black coat. Well. Some things just happen, don’t they?)
But what this revealed is that I have a need and a desire to tell these stories. Doing so and seeing the flames of illumination in the faces of listeners—or reading the comments of those who have read my words and understood–brings me great joy. History is my vocation—but not so much the kind of history that is written in thick books with footnotes. In French, histoire means history AND story, and to me they need to be inseparable. I want to bring life to facts, to dates, to buildings, to maps, in both words and through speech. And if I look back, I have been doing this for a long time. A very long time. I have not lost the dream of being a historian at all. I just didn’t fully understand that a vocation is not defined by the job you have, or what you are paid, but in what you do, how you see yourself.