Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Madonnas of Lenningrad

When I was kid, there were a lot of books in the house, and when I would get bored I would troll through the bookcases looking for something to read. And it was in this way that at age 16, I came across Harris Salisbury's "The 900 days: The Siege of Leningrad." It was a big. thick book and it was a cold, rainy Saturday morning, so I grabbed it and started reading.

I read about Leningrad, or St. Petersburg, Russia; and, I was simultaneously fascinated and horrified to learn that the Nazi's laid siege to the city for 900 days - 2 1/2 years - after first bombing the food warehouses! It was like a horror movie that slowly, slowly unfolded, and the book profoundly affected me.

Fast forward a few(!) years, and I am walking through Target and somebody has (serendipitously for me) picked up a book and then set it down in the candle section. And, the book is called, "The Madonnas of Leningrad."

"The Madonnas of Leningrad" is about a young woman - a tour guide at the Hermitage - who spends the siege hiding out in the Hermitage basement. To keep her sanity, she MEMORIZES part of the vast art collection! (Hence the title of the book. A lot of the paintings are of the "Madonna and Child' variety.)

(Here is a picture of the Hermitage!)

I will go off on a tangent here and point you toward the website: www.hermitagemuseum.org Take a look! It is fantastic, both the art and the czar's former winter palace, itself. While you are at it, visit the online gift shop. I bought some postcards of both the Winter Palace, and the Madonna paintings for a "Madonnas of Leningrad" gift basket I made for my cousin. The basket also contained a copy of Shostakovich's 7th Symphony - the "Leningrad Symphony." More on the Leningrad Symphony below. But, for now, back to our book!

The book starts in modern times, and Marina and her husband are elderly and living in America. Marina is suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Ironic, because this is the same Marina that memorized all of that art work... We spend most of the book inside Marina's head with her as she flashes from the present back to the past, and the war years.

It was interesting seeing the world through the perspective of a person with Alzheimer's. I kept thinking, "Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time." That is, of course, a quote from Kurt Vonnegut's, "Slaughter House Five." Billy Pilgrim experiences events repeatedly and out of chronological sequence, and so does Marina. And, both are World War II survivors.

So, between the war and the Alzheimer's, I hope I am not making this sound like an ugly or depressing book. Because it's not. It is beautiful. This is a women who spent a world war focusing on art and beauty. In her old age, she returns to the lovely "memory house" that she created in her youth. And, ever the tour guide, in the last chapter she shares it with someone else, in a very moving scene. Please consider reading this very beautiful book!

And, now, as I promised, back to Shostakovich's Leningrad symphony. Shostakovich was in Leningrad during the siege - though he was evacuated at some point. He wrote the Leningrad symphony about the siege. I was so delighted to stumble on this piece of music - a soundtrack for this book!

The story of how the symphony was played in Leningrad is very moving. Many members of the orchestra were dead or very weak. People had to go around the city and find people who could play the various instruments. But, the symphony was ultimately played in Leningrad during the siege. Another victory for art over war...

The symphony really follows the invasion. In the first movement, you can HEAR the tin soldier-like Nazi's march in. The second and third movements kind of drag - as I am sure the siege did. And the fourth is the best 'triumph over adversity' music I have ever heard. It has actually become my favorite piece of music. This is another example of the literature and music pairings of which I am so fond. Give it a listen! (Of course, it goes much better with the book!)

No comments:

Post a Comment