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Book Review

Lina & Serge

Lina & Serge by Morrison

The Love & Wars of Lina Prokofiev

Simon Morrison
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2013. 336 pp.
ISBN-10: 0547391315
ISBN-13: 978-0547391311
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon Japan Find it at JPC

Summary for the Busy Executive: Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to marry composers (apologies to Willie Nelson).

Who knows what goes on inside another's marriage? Couples who bicker sail happily together for years, while those on an apparently even keel suddenly capsize. I have enough difficulty trying to figure out what goes on inside my own marriage, let alone somebody else's. I definitely married up.

Yet a leading Prokofiev scholar, Simon Morrison, author of The People's Artist on Prokofiev's Soviet years, takes on that thankless task as he relates the history of the marriage of Sergei Prokofiev and his first wife, Lina Codina Prokofiev. The book rightly focuses on Lina rather than on Serge, since we know a lot of info about Serge already, including his diaries, although Morrison doesn't resort to them much. Morrison, an ace researcher, has uncovered previously unknown details about both the composer and his wife, but he's better at research than at character analysis. His portrait of Serge has already raised hackles. Furthermore, his Serge contradicts other writers and other first-hand testimony, and his Lina contradicts itself. Of course, nobody of any intelligence or complexity consistently acts any one way, but Morrison's attempts to present the wholes fail to convince me.

As I say, the book succeeds largely in the detail Morrison was able to uncover, all the more difficult when talking about the Stalinist years. In a terror state, people tend not to write letters or keep diaries, since that is relatively permanent "evidence." However, the picture we get of Mira Mendelssohn (the woman for whom Prokofiev left Lina) is so sketchy as to be useless, and one must certainly regard hers as an important role in any study of this marriage. Instead, Morrison gives us mainly Lina's reactions to her, hardly the best witness. He at least recognizes the need to talk about Mira, but he does not provide – and was perhaps unable to uncover – anywhere near the detail on Lina, and, again, the testimony of some others contradicts Lina's vitriol.

The unsatisfactory tale of a vainglorious woman married to a world-class egotist emerges, and to me Morrison has fallen into the trap set by trying to view a marriage from the outside. The only people who really know what goes on inside of a marriage are those actually inside. In the case of "artists' marriages," I would point out that most full-time composers are self-absorbed. First, they need huge blocks of time to themselves just to put notes down on paper, a tedious chore, let alone to think of those notes. After that, most of them need to hustle up performances of what they write. This leaves very little time for family. Spouses like Alice Elgar and Pauline Strauss (speaking about a tempestuous, yet solid marriage) not only accept this, they arrange their husbands' lives and their own around his composition. Sometimes, if they've got money, like Johann Strauss's Henrietta or if the composers have money themselves (Elliott Carter, Vaughan Williams, Frederick Delius), the household pressures lessen. Finally, some spouses can either accept or resent the neglect (Ekaterina Stravinsky). Both Lina and Serge required high maintenance and they married, not really a promising start.

Born in Spain to a Russian mother, Lina grew up in Brooklyn, New York, of all places, and could speak five different languages with some fluency. So she and Serge had a head start on getting to know one another. Beautiful, smart, and a talented singer, she definitely had the diva within her. However, she also suffered from severe performance anxiety. Even though encouraged by her husband (a point for Sergei!), she seems to have sabotaged subconsciously her artistic career. Sergei was often self-absorbed, to put it mildly and often exhibited the less-attractive traits of the Russian husband (Stravinsky did so as well). In the marriage, Lina gave way to Serge more often – a point for her – but overall both of them brought unrealistic expectations, especially after the births of their two sons. Prokofiev expected Lina to negotiate the bureaucracy for him and to take care of the chores like cleaning his suits while he toured, as well as the children. After he left her, he still expected her to keep his expensive suits in the family apartment, handy should he need them. In many ways, Robert Schumann expected the same of Clara (the main breadwinner of the family, by the way). She ran the household, rented a separate house for Schumann so he wouldn't be bothered by the kids' noise, and practiced for her very profitable tours that kept them afloat. Fortunately, she could and did hire lots of help, but the chores, one way or the other, fell to her, rather than to Robert. In the same way, Lina got the dog-work.

The worst thing about Prokofiev's leaving his family for Mira was that it left Lina and the children politically unprotected during the Stalinist terror. Despite her pleas for help, he didn't think he could do much, although he certainly had more juice than she did. When he left her and the Soviets annulled the marriage, she became a non-person. The secret police arrested her and took her to the notorious Lubyanka prison, home of the KGB. Despite her many faults (including long-standing antisemitism, aggravated by the fact of Mira), Lina nevertheless showed a nobility of character once she was arrested, tortured, and sent to the even worse gulags. Although under torture (they broke bones) she confessed to crimes which never happened, in her appeals for release she refused pardons, because that implied guilt and she feared for the consequences that might be visited on her children. Her insistence probably significantly delayed her release, which occurred after Stalin's (and Serge's) death. The political clout of Shostakovich finally helped get her out after eight years. One can hardly call such a person shallow or flighty. These decisions show that she had a steel core. Unfortunately, Morrison doesn't do enough to counterbalance the earlier "amateur diva" portrait.

A book that requires cautious reading.

Copyright © 2013 by Steve Schwartz.

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