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Music of a Life

Music of a Life

5.0 2
by Andrei Makine, Geoffrey Strachan (Translator)

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May 24, 1941: Alexeï Berg, a classical pianist, is set to perform his first solo concert in Moscow. But just before his début, his parents — his father a renowned playwright, and his mother a famed opera singer — are exposed for their political indiscretions and held under arrest. With World War II on the brink, and fearing that his own


May 24, 1941: Alexeï Berg, a classical pianist, is set to perform his first solo concert in Moscow. But just before his début, his parents — his father a renowned playwright, and his mother a famed opera singer — are exposed for their political indiscretions and held under arrest. With World War II on the brink, and fearing that his own entrapment is not far behind, Alexeï flees to the countryside, assumes the identity of a Soviet soldier, and falls dangerously in love with a general officer's daughter. What follows is a two-decades-long journey through war and peace, love and betrayal, art and artifice — a rare ensemble in the making of the music of a life.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
The Wall Street Journal [C]oncise, fable-like, light-textured yet morally serious in the highest degree....[R]ead it with delight and astonishment.

The Denver Post [A] tour de force...about partings, death, love, solitude, art, identity...[that] leaves the reader with the feeling of having gone through an epic.

The New Yorker Makine's dreamlike prose works beautifully when combined with a strong plot, as it was in his first novel, Dreams of My Russian Summers, and as it is here.

The Atlanta Journal Makine belongs on the shelf of world literature — between Lermontov and Nabokov, a few volumes down from Proust.

The New Yorker
It is 1941, and Alexeï, a budding concert pianist, is returning to his Moscow apartment two days before his first public recital when a neighbor warns him off: his parents are being arrested. Knowing that he will be sent to the Gulag, too, Alexeï flees to the home of relatives in the countryside. Then the Germans invade, decimating his family's village but providing a plethora of bodies from which he can pillage an identity. With "the pitiless mania life has for playing at paradoxes," his decision to impersonate a dead soldier allows him to survive the war but never afterward to be himself, and the fate he was eluding finds him anyway. Makine's dreamlike prose works beautifully when combined with a strong plot, as it was in his first novel, "Dreams of My Russian Summers," and as it is here. Stalin's atrocities are made visceral in this wisp of a book.
Tom LeClair
Makine is a Russian novelist living in France who has published five books in English, including Dreams of My Russian Summers, a finalist for the 1997 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. In Music of a Life, Makine works Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn territory. Alexeï Berg, twenty-one years old in 1941, is a pianist forced to flee Moscow by Stalin's police. Hiding in the Ukraine during the German invasion, Alexeï takes the identity of a dead Russian soldier, fights for the government that would imprison him, is wounded twice, becomes a general's driver, falls for the general's young daughter, is exposed as an impostor and is imprisoned. All this in a little over 100 pages, which seem more like a movie treatment than a novel: lots of action, little characterization, and let the director choose the scenery. Supposedly about "homo sovieticus," Music of a Life is as diminished as the Russian empire.
Publishers Weekly
Makine (Dreams of My Russian Summers) is a Russian migr who writes in the language of his adopted France, but retains a poetic intensity of vision that seems peculiarly Russian. His latest is an extraordinarily compressed brief novel, but it is a novel not a novella in scope nonetheless. It begins as the narrator, waiting for a train to Moscow somewhere in the wilds of Siberia, meets a mysterious musician, Alexe Berg, and is told his somber life story. Berg, a son of the intelligentsia growing up in the Stalin-shadowed '30s, is about to make his debut as a concert pianist, in 1940, when his parents are arrested, and he barely escapes, taking refuge with relatives in the Ukraine. When the Germans invade, Berg takes on the identity of a dead soldier, fights heroically throughout the war, becomes the prot g of a general and briefly imagines himself in love with the officer's daughter. Then the question of his real identity arises once more, and he realizes he can never live the kind of life he had once hoped for. It's a simple story, but Makine's lovely lyric writing excellently translated in which the scenes are imagined with a sharply cinematic focus, gives it considerable depth and emotion; the quiet ending, back in the present time, is wrenching. (Aug.) Forecast: Summers was a well-deserved bestseller, and Makine has secured fine reviews for several books since; this brief novel is a splendid introduction to the work of a major talent. 25,000 first printing. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Alexe Berg's time has finally come; in two days, he is scheduled to give his first piano recital. But as he heads toward his Moscow apartment, a neighbor furtively signals to him not to return home. His parents, suspect intellectuals who were harassed throughout the 1930s, are being arrested. Alexe flees, hiding out with relatives in the country, and attempts to survive undetected by taking on the identity of a dead peasant soldier and joining the battle against Hitler's invading forces. His deception almost succeeds, but in the end he betrays himself because at a crucial moment he cannot resist playing the piano. This act, of course, is a perfect metaphor for Makine's elegant, heart-rending little gem of a work and for his entire oeuvre: art wills out, ultimately sustaining life and helping to topple dictatorships. This is a brief book, but it is big on ideas, ably carrying on its fragile spine the weight of recent Russian history and a subtle if sharp-tongued mocking of homo sovieticus. Makine here continues the affecting work begun in Dreams of My Russian Summers, and though it resonates with the same themes as that work and others published since, this new novel feels entirely fresh and necessary. Highly recommended. - Barbara Hoffert, "Library Journal" Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
With matchless delicacy and economy, Makine (Requiem for a Lost Empire, 2001, etc.) chronicles a talented musician's victimization by the Stalinist purges of the WWII years. Russian-born Makine's unnamed narrator is introduced to us "stranded" in a railway station awaiting a delayed train, where he overhears faint strains of music, eavesdrops on an apparently elderly man who's playing a grand piano in a distant room, and weeping-and then is told the latter's life story. The stranger is Alexeï Berg, a former musical prodigy who had fled Moscow in 1941-on the eve of his first concert appearance-when his parents, a prominent playwright and a celebrated opera singer, were designated enemies of the state and arrested. In scarcely 70 pages, Makine presents a movingly detailed history of survival, adaptation, and bitter disillusionment, as Alexeï hides from Soviet authorities in an underground room at his uncle's farm in Ukraine, appropriates the uniform and identity of a young soldier (Sergeï Maltsev) whose body he finds on a battlefield, serves as a general's driver and becomes the latter's beneficiary following the war. Then, in a stunning succession of ironies, "Sergeï" grows dangerously close to the general's teenaged daughter, who urges him to "learn" to play the piano, which she's studying-with revelatory, and life-altering, consequences. Music of a Life is thin, but perfectly conceived and controlled. Its graceful narrative skillfully blends summarized action with powerfully evocative images-plague survivors wearing long-nosed masks; "the swift arpeggio of the strings snapping in the fire," in which a prized violin is burned; a woman dragging through a forest a sled which carries a smallcoffin-charged with strong understated emotion. A masterly dramatization of "the disconcerting simplicity with which broken lives are lived."

Product Details

Washington Square Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.37(d)

Read an Excerpt

Music of a Life

A Novel

Arcade Publishing

Copyright © 2001 Andreï Makine
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1559706376

Chapter One

I could quite easily pinpoint the date of that encounter. It goes back at least a quarter of a century - more precisely, to the year when a celebrated Russian philosopher, then a political refugee in Munich, coined a phrase that quickly gained currency, an expression thinkers, politicians, and even mere mortals would go on using for a good decade or more throughout the world. The extraordinary success enjoyed by his formula stemmed from one palpable merit: in two Latin words the philosopher had succeeded in summing up the lives of the 240 million human beings who, at that time, peopled the land of my birth. Men and women, children and adults, old people and newborn babes, the living and the dead, the sick and the healthy, innocents and murderers, the learned and the ignorant, workers in the depths of coal mines, cosmonauts in their celestial orbits - these and thousands of other categories of people were all linked to a common essence by this innovative expression. They all began to exist under one generic name.

Both before and since this inspired invention, people have endlessly dreamed up combinations of words to characterize the country in question. "The Evil Empire," "barbarism with a human face," "the shattered empire" - each of these locutions made itsmark on Western minds for a time. Nonetheless, the Munich philosopher's definition was by far the most often quoted and the most enduring.

To such an extent that, barely a few months after the phrase made its appearance, I heard it on the lips of a friend who, like me, lived on the banks of the Neva, and like so many others listened secretly to Western radio stations and had heard an interview with the philosopher. Yes, to such an extent, in fact, that once, when I was returning from a trip to the Far East and was held up by a snowstorm somewhere in the heart of the Urals, I recalled this term, extolled in the West but prohibited in our country, and spent part of the night applying it to the passengers who surrounded me in the waiting room of a dark, icy railroad station. The term coined by the philosopher proved to be devastatingly telling. It embraced the lives of the most diverse individuals: two soldiers, hidden behind a pillar, taking turns drinking from a bottle; an old man who, since there were no more seats, was sleeping on a newspaper spread out along one wall; a young mother whose face seemed as if it were glowing slightly, lit by an invisible candle; a prostitute watching at a snow-covered window; and a great many others.

Marooned there amid my fellow human beings, some sleeping, some wakeful, I was privately marveling at the philosopher's perspicacity.... And it was at that very moment, in the depths of a night cut off from the rest of the world, that the encounter took place.

Since then a quarter of a century has passed. The empire whose fragmentation was predicted has collapsed. Barbarism and evil have manifested themselves under other skies as well. And the formula invented by the Munich philosopher, who was, of course, Alexander Zinoviev - the defining phrase, almost forgotten today - simply serves me as a signpost, marking the moment of that brief encounter in the muddy tide of the years.

I HAVE JUST AWOKEN, having dreamed of music. The final chord fades away within me while I try to focus on individuals amid the living, breathing mass packed into this vast waiting room, in this mixture of sleep and weariness.

A woman's face, there, close by the window. Her body has just been giving pleasure to one more man; her eyes are searching among the passengers for her next lover. A railroad worker comes in quickly, crosses the room, leaves through the big door that leads out onto the railroad platforms, into the night. Before closing, the door hurls a violent flurry of snow into the room. The people settled near the door stir on their hard, narrow bench, tug on their coat collars, shake their shoulders with a shiver. From the other end of the station comes a muffled guffaw, then the crunch of a fragment of glass beneath a foot, an oath. Two soldiers, their shapkas pushed back on their heads, their overcoats unbuttoned, beat a path through the mass of huddled bodies. Snores call out to one another, some of them comically in harmony. The wail of an infant rings out very clearly in the darkness, fades into little whimperings as it sucks, falls silent. A long argument, dulled by boredom, is taking place behind one of the pillars that hold up a varnished wooden gallery. The loudspeaker on the wall crackles, hisses, and suddenly announces, in astonishingly soothing tones, that a train is going to be delayed. An ocean swell of sighs ripples through the waiting room. But the truth is that no one expects anything anymore. "Six hours' delay" - it could be six days or six weeks. Numbness returns. The wind whips heavy white squalls against the windows. Bodies settle down against the hardness of the benches, strangers press close together, like the scales of a single protective shell. Night fuses the sleepers into one living mass - a beast savoring, with every cell in its body, its good fortune at being under cover.

From my position I can hardly see the clock that hangs above the ticket windows. I turn my wrist, the dial of my watch catches the glow from the nightlight: quarter to one. The prostitute is still at her post; her silhouette stands out against the window made blue by the snow. She is not tall, but very broad in the hips. She towers above the ranks of sleeping travelers. It looks like a battlefield strewn with dead.... The door leading to the town opens, new arrivals come in, bringing with them the cold and discomfort of open spaces scoured by snow flurries. The human protoplasm shivers and grudgingly makes space for these new cells.

I shake myself in an attempt to wrest myself away from this conglomeration of bodies. To wrest those immediately around me from the blur of the whole mass. The old man, who has just arrived and lays no claim to a seat in this crowded station, spreads a newspaper out on the tiled floor, filthy with cigarette butts and melted snow, before lying down, his back against the wall. The woman whose features and age are concealed by her shawl, an unknowable being swathed in a huge, shapeless coat. A moment earlier she was talking in her sleep, a few pleading words that doubtless surfaced from many years back, from her life long ago. The only clue to her humanity I'll ever have, I muse. This other woman, this young mother, bowed over the cocoon of her baby, which she seems to envelop in an invisible halo made up of anxiety, wonder, and love. A few steps away from her the prostitute is busy negotiating with the soldiers: the two men's excited jabbering and her whispering, a little disdainful but warm and as if moist with luscious promise. The soldiers' boots clatter on the flagstones; one can sense, physically, the eagerness her body provokes, with its broad, heavy backside and thrusting bosom under the coat. And there, almost on a level with the boots, the face of a man asleep, partly slipped from his bench, his head thrown back, his mouth half open, one hand touching the ground. A dead man on a battlefield, I say to myself again.

My efforts to salvage a few individual figures from the anonymity of the whole begin to flag. Everything merges in the darkness, in the murky, dirty yellow glow from the streetlight outside, in the nothingness that extends, as far as the eye can see, around this town buried beneath a snowstorm. A town in the Urals, I say to myself, trying to link this train station to some place, some direction. But my geographical impulse turns out to be ludicrous, a black dot lost in a white ocean. The Ural Mountains, which stretch over a thousand (two thousand?) miles. This town somewhere in the middle of them, and over to the east the endlessness of Siberia, the endlessness of that snow hell. Instead of locating them, my mind mislays both the town and its station on a white, uninhabited planet. The shadowy beings around me on whom I have been focusing melt once more into a single mass. Their breathing blends together, the mutterings of nocturnal narratives are drowned out by the wheezing sounds of sleep. The murmur of the lullaby, recited rather than crooned by the young mother, reaches me simultaneously with the whispering of the soldiers as they follow hard on the prostitute's heels. The door closes behind them; a wave of cold sweeps through the room. The young mother's murmurings take shape as a faint mist. The man sleeping with his head thrown back utters a long groan, sits up abruptly on his bench, awakened by the sound of his own voice, stares lengthily at the clock, drifts back to sleep again.

I know that the time he has just seen on it made no sense to him. He could not have shown more surprise on learning that a whole night had gone by. A night, or a couple of nights. Or a month. Or a whole year. A snow-filled void. Totally off the map. A night without end. A night discarded on the verge of time ...

Suddenly this music! Sleep retreats like the undertow of a wave in which a child grasps at a half-glimpsed shell, as I do at this cluster of notes, just heard in a dream.

A sharper cold: the door has opened and closed twice. First, the soldiers coming in and disappearing into the darkness. One can hear their embarrassed laughter. A few minutes later, the prostitute ... So I had dozed off for the duration of - of their absence. "Of their couplings!" a voice exclaims within me, irritated by that prudish "absence."

This is certainly a place to dream of music. I remember how at nightfall, when there was still a slight chance of my getting away again, I ventured onto the platform, superstitiously calculating that I could will a train to arrive by scorning the cold. Bowed down under the violence of the squalls, blinded by the volleys of snowflakes, I tramped along beside the station building, but hesitated to venture any farther, so much did the far end of the platform already resemble a virgin plain. Then, noticing a faint rectangle of light in one of the outbuildings swamped amid the dunes of snow, I started walking again, or rather swaying, as if on stilts, plunging in up to my knees, striving to place my feet in a set of now almost obliterated footprints that had followed the same course. The door beside the little lighted window was closed. I took several steps toward the tracks, which were already invisible beneath the snow, hoping at least for a mirage - a locomotive headlight in the white chaos of the storm. My only consolation, on turning my back to the wind, was recovering my vision. Thus it was that this man suddenly caught my eye. It looked as if he had been thrown out of the little annex. The door, blocked by the snow, had resisted him, and to escape he must have flung himself against it with all his might. Several times, perhaps. Eventually the door had given way, and he had toppled out into the night, into the storm, his face buffeted by snow flurries, his eyes dazzled by the white flakes, losing all sense of direction. Disconcerted, he took a moment to close the door again as it dragged against a thick layer of snow. During these few seconds, while he was pushing at the door, I saw the inside of the little place. A kind of hallway flooded with bright light, lemon colored from the bare bulb, and beyond it a room. And, framed by this inner doorway, I saw a flash of ponderous nakedness, the massive whiteness of a belly, and most notably, the rough gesture of a hand that grasped first one breast, then another, vast breasts, worn out by brutal caresses, and thrust them into a brassiere.... But almost at once, with a screech of panic, a woman had appeared on the threshold, muffled up in a padded jacket (the keeper of the storeroom, who rents it out as a trackside love nest, I said to myself), and the door had closed with an angry slam.

The human mass sleeps on. The only new sound is of munching in the darkness: the old man, stretched out on his newspaper, has propped himself up on one elbow, has opened a can of food, and is lapping it up, as people do who have very few teeth left. The metallic clatter of the lid being closed makes me wince at its grating ugliness. The man lies back down, seeks a comfortable position, with much rustling of sheets of newspaper, and soon begins to snore.

The judgment I have been trying to keep at bay floods in on me, a combination of sympathy and rage. I contemplate this human matter, breathing like a single organism, its resignation, its innate disregard of comfort, its endurance in the face of the absurd. Six hours' delay. I turn and study the waiting room, plunged in darkness. The truth is, they could all easily spend several more nights here. They could get used to living here! Just like this, on a spread-out newspaper, backed up against the radiator, with nothing but a can of food for nourishment. The notion suddenly seems to me perfectly plausible - an all-too-plausible nightmare. For in these small towns a thousand leagues from civilization, this is what life consists of: waiting, resignation, hot stickiness in the depths of your shoes. And this station besieged by the snowstorm is nothing other than a microcosm of the whole country's history. Of its innermost character. The vast spaces that render any attempt at action absurd. The superabundance of space that swallows up time, that equalizes all delays, all lapses of time, all plans. "Tomorrow" means "someday, perhaps," the day when the space, the snows, and destiny allow it. Fatalism ...

Mainly from vexation, I take a turn along the well-trodden paths of the national character, those accursed questions of "Russianness" that so many brilliant brains have grappled with. A land outside history.

Excerpted from Music of a Life by ANDREÏ MAKINE Copyright © 2001 by Andreï Makine
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
The Wall Street Journal [C]oncise, fable-like, light-textured yet morally serious in the highest degree....[R]ead it with delight and astonishment.

The Denver Post [A] tour de force...about partings, death, love, solitude, art, identity...[that] leaves the reader with the feeling of having gone through an epic.

The New Yorker Makine's dreamlike prose works beautifully when combined with a strong plot, as it was in his first novel, Dreams of My Russian Summers, and as it is here.

The Atlanta Journal Makine belongs on the shelf of world literature — between Lermontov and Nabokov, a few volumes down from Proust.

Meet the Author

Andreï Makine was born in 1958 in the former Soviet Union. In 1987 he emigrated to France, where he still lives. He is the author of six novels including, most recently, Requiem for a Lost Empire and Dreams of My Russian Summers, which won France's prestigious Goncourt and Médicis prizes in 1995.

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Music of a Life 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Music of a life is a novel for the heart. It is elegant and flows so well you really feel like you are standing there with Alexei as he is going thru all these experiences. This novel is a great work that should be kept in a safe place for you will return to it over and over as the years pass and it will only get better. When you think of this author, you will think of the greats like Tolstoy, Proust and Balzac!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago