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  • The Musical-Artistic Story: Hoffmann, Odoevsky and Pasternak
  • Neil Cornwell (bio)

The artistic story is an acknowledged sub-genre of Romantic fiction. The ‘artist’ – usually a poet or writer, sometimes a painter, or occasionally a representative of another art form – is a common enough figure in Romantic literature, with extensions into the Gothic-fantastic, through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. One has only to think of Bulgakov’s ‘Master’ (in his celebrated The Master and Margarita). In other, on the whole more mainstream – though often at least equally complex – areas of, for instance, Russian fiction, another obvious figure of some prominence would be Doctor Iurii Zhivago. American campus fiction (without my wishing, by any means, to reduce Pale Fire to that rather bland category) offers Vladimir Nabokov’s rival figure of the poet, John Shade.

In the case of the art (painter or painting) story, we can trace a line from E. T. A. Hoffmann in ‘Signor Formica’ and ‘The Jesuit Chapel in G.’ (‘Die Jesuiterkirche in G.’) through such subsequent Romantics or romantic-realists as Gogol and Balzac. This would continue on, through Poe, Hawthorne and Henry James, to the early Nabokov of ‘La Veneziana’ (‘Venetsianka’), and of course beyond, into the present century. ‘Portraits in words and portraits in paint are opposites, rather than metaphors for each other’, in the view of A. S. Byatt.1 The composition of prose fiction concerned with the actual painting of pictures (portraits or otherwise) may be a somewhat different matter; however, anything resembling a detailed analysis of the complexities and possible sub-divisions of the artistic tale will have to remain outside the scope of the present essay.

The musical story may seem, at an initial glance at least, a poor relation within the overall Romantic or Neo-Romantic ‘artistic’ tradition, although two of Pushkin’s dramatic ‘Little Tragedies’ had musical themes. Just five years after Odoevsky’s Russian Nights (Russkie nochi), Dostoevsky produced what was to have been his first full-length novel, [End Page 35] Netochka Nezvanova (1849), the first section of which is effectively a musical story, recounting the ‘career’ of the mad violinist Efim (stepfather of the eponymous narrator). The figure of Prince X may even have been based on (Prince) Odoevsky. Later parts, too, might have aspired to something of a musical path, given that Netochka subsequently proves to have a fine singing voice.

Moreover, such significant later works as The Kreutzer Sonata (Kreitserova sonata) by Tolstoy and, indeed much later, Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus (which has itself been analysed alongside Doctor Zhivago)2 can also be invoked. Russian literature, it may here be stressed, provides – in addition to Tolstoy’s novella of musically inspired jealousy, and the two main works to be discussed in the present paper – a number of diverse offerings in prose fictional forms. These include: Korolenko’s ‘The Blind Musician’ (‘Slepoi muzykant’); Chekhov’s ‘Rothschild’s Violin’ (‘Skripka Rotshil’da’); the so-called ‘Symphonies’ of Andrei Bely; Elena Guro’s ‘Picasso’s Violin’ (‘Skripka Pikasso’); Nikolai Gumilev’s ‘The Stradivarius’ (‘Skripka Stradivariusa’), which invokes Paganini; and ‘Moscow Violin’ (‘Moskovskaia skripka’) by Platonov (in which, it is argued, ‘the main hero [. . . ] appears to be the violin itself ’).3 There are also later composer-based stories by Iurii Nagibin. Yet another violin is to be found, too, within the œuvre of Pasternak: the poem ‘Skripka Paganini’ from the collection Poverkh bar’erov (Over the Barriers).4 An entertaining exercise, perhaps, would be to contrast Tolstoy’s heavily moralistic Kreutzer Sonata with Chekhov’s near-contemporaneous ‘Romance with Double Bass’ (‘Roman s kontrabasom’), in which the double bass case owned by one Pitzikatoff is employed in the carrying around of a naked woman. It should be mentioned that English literature had also offered its own violin (indeed Stradivarius) novel, The Lost Stradivarius by John Meade Falkner (1895) – a work fusing its musical theme with the ghostly supernatural.

A perhaps at first sight unlikely Chekhov story, ‘The Black Monk’ (‘Chernyi monakh’), has not just ‘the cyclic form that is typical of Chekhov’s mature prose’, but, as first pointed out by no less a figure than Shostakovich, it is a story built around a musical...


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pp. 35-55
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Archived 2009
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