sun 14/04/2024

My Summer Reading: Conductor Vladimir Jurowski | reviews, news & interviews

My Summer Reading: Conductor Vladimir Jurowski

My Summer Reading: Conductor Vladimir Jurowski

The well-read Russian offers typically eclectic choices

Jurowski conducting the LPO at last year's PromChris Christodoulou

Born in Russia in 1972, the London Philharmonic Orchestra's principal conductor has galvanised the capital's music scene with some of the most thoughtful, groundbreaking and carefully prepared concert programmes today. His operatic credentials at Glyndebourne have been no less impressive, with attention to the right individual style in Verdi, Wagner, Rossini, Tchaikovsky and Mozart, among others.

Widely read as well as a serious film buff, and sometimes baffling his fellow musicians with the breadth of artistic reference he brings to bear on his craft, Jurowski offers typically eclectic recommendations.


What are you reading this summer?


Lyudmila Ulitskaya's Imago (the original Russian title translates as "Green Tent"). Her latest novel deals with destinies of a whole generation of Russian intellectuals, those born between late 1930s and mid 1940s – the ones we used to call "dissidents" in the days of the Soviet Union.

Ulitskaya Funeral Party[Extract from Lyudmila Ulitskaya's The Funeral Party, translated by Cathy Porter (2000, Phoenix)]

The shower was permanently occupied, with a queue of people standing outside. For a long time they hadn’t bothered with clothes, although Valentina wore a bra to prevent her large breasts chafing in the heat; normally she never wore one. Everyone was dropping wet, the sweat failed to evaporate from their bodies, towels didn’t dry, and hair had to be dried with a hair-dryer.

The blinds were half-open and strips of light fell across the floor. The air-conditioning hadn’t worked in years.

There were five women in the bedroom: Valentina in her red bra, Nina with her gold cross and long hair, so thin that Alik had once told her, “Nina, you’re as skinny as that snake-basket.” (The basket stood in a corner of the room; when Alik was younger he had gone to India in search of ancient wisdom, but the basket was all he had brought back with him.)

Also present was their neighbour Gioia, a foolish Italian woman who had moved into the building hoping to learn some Russian in this strange environment. Gioia was forever taking offence with people, but since they never noticed her imaginary slights she always magnanimously forgave them.

Irina Pearson, formerly a circus acrobat, now a high-paid lawyer, looked stunning with her waxed bikini-line and a new bust constructed for her by an American surgeon to look no worse than her old one. With her was her 15-year-old daughter, Maika, known as T-shirt (“maika” means T-shirt in Russian). A plump, clumsy girl in glasses, she was the only one of them wearing clothes. She had on a pair of wide Bermuda shorts and of course a T-shirt, depicting an electric light-bulb and a luminous message saying FUCKIT! in Russian. Alik had made it for her birthday the year before, when he still more or less had the use of his arms.

Alik himself lay on a wide divan-bed, looking as small and young as his own son. He and Nina had no children, however, and it was obviously too late for them to have any. A sort of slow paralysis was consuming the last vestiges of his musculature, and his limbs lay meek and inert, neither dead nor alive to the touch, but in some transitional stage, like setting plaster. The most alive feature about him was his cheerful shock of red hair that stuck up in front of his head like a brush, and his straggly moustache which appeared enormous on his emaciated face.


What stands out for you as outstanding summer reading in the past?


Oh, the list is too long to choose one. I’d have to mention Jan Potocki’s Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Ödön von Horvath’s Don Juan Comes Back From the War, Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun and Viktor Pelevin’s DTP(NN) - The Dialectics of the Transition Period (from Nowhere to No Place) and Pineapple Water for a Beautiful Lady.

Pelevin Omon RaPelevin has a special place. He’s a master of the new synthetic genre, a rather weird blend of magic realism and science-fiction, glued together by new-age philosophy and the very blackest Russian humour. I find his books witty, disturbing, extremely imaginative and yet very honest. They have very palpable connections with the great literature of the past - ETA Hoffmann and Gogol especially - but also with 20th-century classics such as Bulgakov, Borges, García Márquez, Vonnegut, Bradbury or Castaneda.

[Extract from Viktor Pelevin's Omon Ra, translated by Andrew Bromfield (1998, New Directions)]

Omon is not a particularly common name, and perhaps not the best there is. It was my father’s idea. He worked in the police all his life and wanted me to be a policeman too.

“Listen to me, Ommy,” he used to say to me when he’d been drinking. “If you join the police with a name like that... then if you join the Party...”

Although my father had occasionally shot at people, he wasn’t really vicious by nature; in his heart he was a cheerful and sympathetic man. He loved me a lot, and hoped that life would at least grant me the achievements it had denied him. What he really wanted was to get hold of a plot of land somewhere near Moscow and start growing beetroot and cucumbers on it - not so that he could sell them at the market or eat them (though that too), but so that he could strip to the waist, slice into the earth with his spade, and watch the red worms and the other underground life wriggling about, so that he could cart barrowloads of dung from one end of the holiday village to the other, stopping at other people’s gates to swap a few jokes. When he realised he would never get any of this, he began to hope that at least one of the Krivomazov brothers would lead a long and happy life (my elder brother, Ovir, whom my father had wanted to make into a diplomat, died of meningitis at the age of 11, and all I remember about him is that he had a long oblong birthmark on his forehead).

My father’s plans on my behalf failed to inspire me with any real confidence - after all, he himself was a Party man, and he had a perfectly good Russian name, Matvei, but all he had earned for his efforts was a miserly pension and a lonely, drunken old age.

I don’t remember my mother too well. The only memory I have is of my drunken father in his uniform trying to pull his pistol out of its holster while she clutched at his arm, her hair all messed up, and shouting, “Matvei, come to your senses!”

She died when I was still very young, and I was raised by an aunt and went to see my father on weekends. He usually had a red and puffy look, and the medal he was so proud of hung crooked on his soiled pyjama jacket.


What are you going to read next?


I’m not sure it’s going to be my next reading – and maybe not even next summer’s either because of my continuing Glyndebourne activities - but it's been on my mind for ages to get my teeth into Thomas Mann's Joseph and his Brothers. More imminently, I’ll probably continue where I left off with People, Years, Life, the memoirs by Ilya Ehrenburg: an amazing panorama of life in the first half of the 20th century.

Jurowski. Joseph and his brothers[Extract from Thomas Mann's Joseph and His Brothers, translated by John E Woods (1926-43, Everyman's Library)]

How had things gone with Eliphaz, Esau’s splendid son? Eliphaz had been borne to Esau by one of his Hittite-Canaanite wives, worshippers of Baal, whom he had brought home to Beersheba early on and about whom Rebekah, Bethuel’s daughter, used to say, “It wearies me to live among the daughters of Heth.” Even Jacob was no longer certain which of them Eliphaz called his mother; it had probably been Adah, Elon’s daughter. In any case, Yitzchak’s 13-year-old grandson was strong for his age and an uncommonly likeable young man - a simple spirit, but brave, openhearted, high-minded, upright in body and soul, and devoted to his wronged father with a proud love. Life had proved hard for him in more ways than one - because of both the complicated situation of his family and issues of religion. For no fewer than three creeds battled for his soul: the El-Elyon of his grandparents, the Baalim of his mother’s clan, and a thundering, arrow-shooting divinity named Kuzach, honoured by the mountain tribes to the south, the Seïrim or people of Edom, with whom Esau had had ties from early on and to whom he then later converted completely. The awful pain, the helpless rage that that hairy man had endured as a result of the decisive events in the dark tent of his almost blind grandfather - events that had been initiated by Rebekah and would drive Jacob from his home and herds and into foreign lands - had cut the boy Eliphaz to the very quick; and his hatred of his falsely blessed young uncle so completely consumed him that it had become life-threatening, was obviously more than his tender years could handle. At home, under the eye of the watchful Rebekah, there was nothing he could do about the thief who had stolen the blessing. But when it turned out that Jacob had bled, Eliphaz ran to Esau and in hurried words demanded that he pursue the traitor and slay him.
But Esau, damned to the desert, was far too broken a man, far too weakened by bitter tears shed over a fate in the netherworld to be in the mood for the deed demanded of him. He wept because tears were his due, because they fit his role. His way of looking at things and at himself was conditioned and ordered by inborn rules of thought that firmly bound him, as they did the whole world - for their pattern had been stamped by the signs of the circling cosmos. Blessed by his father, Jacob had finally become the man of the full and “beautiful” moon, but Esau was now a man of the dark moon, and thus a man of the sun, a man of the underworld - and in the underworld one wept, though one might possibly become very rich in treasures there.

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