What would inspire a novelist whose young adult fiction has won the National Book Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and two Printz Honors to take on the history of the Russian revolution and a composer at work during the siege of Leningrad?
For M.T. Anderson, it was the music and the composer’s role in a WWII escapade so far-fetched it might have worked as a plot for Tintin. In September Candlewick will publish Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad. It’s a long way from Anderson’s first novel for the publisher, Thirsty (1997), about a suburban vampire, or his second, Burger Wuss (1999), a revenge fantasy set at a fast-food joint. “When Tobin said, ‘I’m thinking of writing a nonfiction book for teens about Shostakovich and the siege of Leningrad,’ I probably let out a short, barky laugh,” says Liz Bicknell, Anderson’s editor and Candlewick’s associate publisher.
First Movement: The Music
Anderson had written about music before; he once wrote a column for the Improper Bostonian called “Classical Noise.” Early in his career, he authored two well-received picture book biographies: Handel, Who Knew What He Liked (Candlewick, 2001) and Strange Mr. Satie (Viking, 2003). He has an absorbing interest in classical music, though no musical training himself.
“The only instrument I can play is the stereo,” he says. “Well, that’s not completely true. I was forced to play the clarinet in seventh or eighth grade, but what I liked most about that was the adorable way it fit into the small box. Once I took it out of the box, it really didn’t go all that well.”
The clarinet introduced him to George Frideric Handel, a fortunate encounter. “That was the beginning of my attraction to the music of the past,” he says. “I love the sense of history, of listening to music created a millennium ago.”
Anderson, in fact, says music saved his life: “So long as I have music, I can go on. If I didn’t have music, no dishes would ever be washed, no weeding in the garden would ever be done, I would never drive anywhere. Doing those things with music allows me to listen deeply. So I have some self-training in music criticism through listening to it for hours upon hours.”
He was in his late teens when he first heard Shostakovich’s work—one of the composer’s concerti for cello. “I was blown away by the intensity of it,” he says. “It’s actually very good music for teenagers because it’s full of darkness and passion. I mean, there’s some joy in it, too, but, let’s face it, no one ever called him Chuckles.”
Second Movement: Dmitri Shostakovich
Certainly they did not while Shostakovich was writing his seventh symphony, popularly known as the Leningrad Symphony. At that time, 1941–1942, the composer and his family were living through what would become the deadliest siege in history.
The Germans had invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, cutting off all routes in and out of Leningrad within months. As winter set in, conditions quickly deteriorated. The Germans learned where the city kept food supplies—38 wooden warehouses stocked with oil, lard, meats, and grain; the Luftwaffe bombed them. The siege continued two more years. By then, more than a million people had died, mostly of starvation. Some of those who lived turned to cannibalism to survive.
This was a stunning reversal for the city once (and again) known as St. Petersburg, Russia’s cultural capital. It certainly shattered Shostakovich’s world. Born in 1906 when Czar Nicholas II ruled, Shostakovich showed prodigious talent as a pianist from a young age. His middle-class family nurtured it, sending him to conservatory. He learned to compose by playing until he was “inside the scaffolding of music, where its wheelworks and gears lay hidden,” Anderson writes. The Leningrad Philharmonic performed Shostakovich’s first symphony when he was 19.
Who knows what his future might have held had he not come of age at the same moment Joseph Stalin rose to power. Like other artists, Shostakovich lived in fear of producing work that would displease the ruthless dictator. Falling out of favor could mean Siberian exile, or a show trial, followed by execution. It was no vague threat. It happened to people Shostakovich knew.
He already had one strike. In 1936, Stalin came to see his opera, “Lady Macbeth of Mtensk District,” at the Bolshoi and left before it ended. The following day, an unsigned article in Pravda described the work as “coarse, primitive and vulgar,” and threatened that if the composer continued to “betray the people,” things would “end very badly.” It was rumored Stalin wrote the review himself.
Anderson began his book as an inquiry into Shostakovich and his symphony, but it evolved into a passion for the larger story of a people trapped between Stalin and Hitler.
“This book took me five years to write because I didn’t know Russian history, but what I learned blew my mind,” Anderson says. “I would be doing research first thing in the morning and come downstairs and ask my girlfriend, ‘Do you know how many people were killed in Stalin’s death camps?’ And she’d say, ‘Too early!’ ”
Anderson wondered why he hadn’t known. Few American kids get through school without knowing certain horrific WWII facts: six million Jews killed in Germany’s concentration camps; two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians.
“We don’t really think about the death toll in Russia the way we do in other nations, but that’s dangerous,” Anderson says. “[Russian president Vladimir] Putin’s father was a soldier on the Leningrad front. Twenty-seven million Russians died during WWII. We cannot understand Russia if we don’t understand this history.”
Third Movement: Intrigue
Anderson would not have added to the canon of volumes about Russia’s involvement in the war had he not stumbled upon how Shostakovich’s symphony arrived in the West.
“I was moved by the story of Shostakovich composing in spite of the Stalinist repressions, and while bombs were raining on the city all around him,” Anderson says. “But then to know that they transferred this symphony [score] onto microfilm like it was the blueprint for a submarine and arranged for it to be taken through deserts, across Africa, and on to the U.S.? Imagine a time when a symphony was considered so important that this much trouble would be taken.”
Anderson began with the question of why the symphony came to the West (Stalin saw a propaganda opportunity), but got stuck on how it happened. He thought he would find “some academic article that explained it”; instead, he came up empty. “I couldn’t even find out who arranged for it to be shipped to the West,” he says. “I mean, for certain, Stalin was behind this, but Stalin wasn’t down there at Mail Boxes Etc. with the package.”
Can this be chalked up to life during wartime? Who cares about how a piece of microfilm got from the U.S.S.R. to 30 Rock when the Germans were blowing up food supplies? Some details were surely lost to the Soviets’ deliberate policies of secrecy, disinformation, and censorship. “This regime worked actively to destroy the truth,” Anderson says.
Then he hit upon the idea of contacting Shostakovich’s agent. “Musical agent, not secret agent, and one of the things I love about this story is that you have to make that distinction.” The Am-Rus Music Corporation had been hired by the Soviet government to promote Russian composers in the West, but it no longer exists. Anderson tracked its correspondence with Shostakovich to the archive where it had been donated, but documents were missing pages, or had portions torn off, presumably during the 1950s, when having done business with the Russians was suddenly toxic.
Even incomplete, those documents gave Anderson leads, so he hired a Russian-speaking friend, Alina Ryabovolova, to search the archives of Am-Rus’s Moscow counterpart, the All-Union Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Nations. Bingo. There, Ryabovolova found the missing pieces, enabling Anderson to trace the microfilm’s circuitous journey. The symphony went by diplomatic pouch to Tehran, across the desert into Iraq, on to Cairo, then Casablanca, where a U.S. pilot flew it to Brazil, then Florida, then Washington, D.C., where it was delivered to the Soviet Embassy.
Its Western hemisphere premiere in 1942 was by the NBC Radio Orchestra, conducted by the noted anti-Fascist, Arturo Toscanini. The studio audience cheered as if it had heard news of a Nazi defeat. “Americans went Shostakovich crazy,” Anderson writes. The composer appeared on the cover of Time magazine. Howard Hawks bought the film rights.
Fourth Movement: A Ready-Made Audience?
Anderson has a well-earned reputation for writing challenging works for teens. He won the 2006 National Book Award for Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation, which he described in his acceptance speech as a “900-page, two-volume, historical epic for teens, written in a kind of unintelligible 18th-century Johnsonian Augustan prose by an obsessive neurotic who rarely leaves his house or even gets dressed.”
With more attention on Common Core, and integrating nonfiction into school curriculums, the book seems well-timed. However, this is not a writer hopping on the Common Core bandwagon, but one who is following his heart. Anderson admits, though, “My timing is delicious.” As Horn Book editor Roger Sutton wrote after returning from ALA earlier this month: “[T]he term I kept hearing through the exhibit halls was ‘narrative nonfiction.’”
Anderson says, “I thought very briefly about doing [Shostakovich’s story] as a novel, but the story is so bizarre and so powerful it would have been a disservice to fictionalize any of it. People would not have believed that all of this was true.”
From an educator’s standpoint, Anderson’s nonfiction saga, written with novelistic momentum, is the story of Russia in the 20th century, told through the experience of one family who lived through both Stalin’s purges and Hitler’s campaign of annihilation-through-starvation.
But for teens, perhaps it’s a story about how musicians can change the world. “Art helps people survive in the most challenging circumstances imaginable,” Anderson says. “Art, music, writing in a diary—this was what [the citizens of Leningrad] had to remind themselves they were human.”