Magazine article The New Yorker

Unauthorized; Musical Events

Magazine article The New Yorker

Unauthorized; Musical Events

Article excerpt

There are few documented examples of the fake or forged autobiography, although the genre probably has a long, secret history. Its most famous practitioner was Clifford Irving, who, in 1971, tried to publish the tell-all memoirs of Howard Hughes without telling Hughes. Irving's manuscript began with a brazen announcement that "more lies have been printed and told about me than about any living man" and that it was time for the "elusive, often painful truth." Irving made the mistake of releasing his manuscript while Hughes was still alive. Nothing kills an autobiography like a flat-out denial by the author.

In 1979, the Russian-emigre musicologist Solomon Volkov published "Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich as Related to and Edited by Solomon Volkov." It was a grippingly embittered monologue by the greatest of Soviet composers, denouncing Communism and chronicling a life lived in fear. In retrospect, something about the first page should have set off alarms. Like Irving's Hughes, Volkov's Shostakovich seems to protest too much. "Others will write about us," he says. "And naturally they'll lie through their teeth." This book would "speak the truth about the past"; "reminisce . . . only in the name of truth"; "try to tell only the truth."

The book arrived with impressive credentials. According to Volkov, each chapter had been read and signed by Shostakovich, who had died in 1975. Irving never met Hughes, but Volkov was acquainted with Shostakovich, and was known to have interviewed him. A year after publication, though, "Testimony" hit a snag. The American scholar Laurel Fay pointed out that seven of the eight chapters began with word-for-word quotations from older Shostakovich essays. Given that these pages bore Shostakovich's signature, it looked as if Volkov might have obtained the composer's approval under false pretenses--perhaps by showing him an innocuous collection of previously published material, then weaving the signed pages into a monologue of his own invention. Volkov never answered these charges, but other writers stepped in to defend him. The most persuasive argument, which I repeated in this magazine in 2000, was that Fay had found no borrowings on the first page of Chapter 1, which proclaimed the truth of the very book that was in the reader's hands.

A couple of years ago, Fay got hold of a copy of the Russian typescript of "Testimony." She has now reported her findings in Malcolm Hamrick Brown's new anthology, "A Shostakovich Casebook" (Indiana). There is no signature on the first page, it turns out; that claim was something other than the truth. Instead, there is a signature on the third page, which perfectly overlaps with a bland essay that Shostakovich published in 1966. Fay subjects the entire document to Sherlockian scrutiny, noting that a couple of the recycled pages had been doctored to remove datable references. A mention of the Chekhov centenary--"I am sincerely happy that the hundredth anniversary of his birth is attracting anew to him the attention of all progressive humanity"--disappears under correction tape. The American publishers could not easily check back issues of Literaturnaia Gazeta, where this statement originally appeared, but they might have noticed that a man allegedly interviewed in the seventies was suddenly speaking from the year 1960.

Recently, at a Shostakovich festival at Bard College, Fay spoke once more about "Testimony," which Limelight Editions has ill-advisedly reissued in a twenty-fifth-anniversary edition. She added new evidence to her suggestion that "Testimony" is a hoax: a memo, drafted by Shostakovich's friend Isaak Glikman shortly after "Testimony" was published, records Shostakovich, in the last months of his life, railing against the business of writing memoirs. Shostakovich is also quoted as saying, "What sort of a person is this Solomon Volkov?" The words hung in the air as Fay repeated them. You could almost hear the fear germinating in Shostakovich's harried mind: this Volkov character is hatching something. …

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