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March 30, 2011

Book Notes - David Bezmozgis ("The Free World")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Of all the writers selected in New Yorker's "20 under 40" group, the only one I hadn't read anything by was David Bezmozgis. Impressed by the company he was in, I promptly picked up his short story collection Natasha and Other Stories and added it to my ever-growing to-read pile. I just finished the collection last week, after being prompted to read it by Bezmozgis's magnificent debut novel, The Free World.

The Free World chronicles the Krasnansky family's emigration from Latvia to the West and their extended stay in Rome as they await their final destination. Bezmozgis shares a compelling example of the Soviet Jew immigration experience, influenced no doubt by his own life. Brilliant social commentary and humor is evident throughout the book, but it is Bezmozgis's depiction of the family and its inner struggles that resonate so greatly.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"Bezmozgis makes good on the promise of his celebrated first book, Natasha and Other Stories (2004), in his spectacular first novel. Sharply funny and fast-paced, yet splendidly saturated with intriguing psychological nuance and caustic social commentary."

In his own words, here is David Bezmozgis's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel, The Free World:

I listen to a lot of music when I write. In fact, I'm not sure I can write without it. Typically, I play the same song or songs on permanent repeat for days, weeks, or even months. I choose a piece of music that suits the tone or the mood of what I'm writing and let it play until it filters into my subconscious so that I no longer hear the music but rather sense it. Since The Free World took me something on the order of six years to write, I listened to a lot of different music. I won't attempt to list or even remember it all but it ranged from Feist to Beethoven's piano sonatas (particularly the Moonlight) to old klezmer recordings to a great deal of Russian music. Some of these things found their way directly into the book as, in fact, there are a number of songs that play a role in the book and are quoted or referenced by name.

"My Gypsy Song," Vladimir Vysotsky

The Free World is set in 1978 and chronicles the adventures of a family of Soviet Jews making their way from the Soviet Union to North America via Rome. As such, most of the musical references are Russian, of the period or earlier. So it should go without saying that my playlist would include something by Vladimir Vysotsky, the preeminent Russian bard of the 60s and 70s. For people not familiar with "Russian bards," they were and are singer-songwriters, something like folk-singers, sometimes subversive, poetic, political, vernacular. Vysostky, who was also an actor and a poet, as a musician, bore some resemblance to Bob Dylan, or maybe more precisely, Tom Waits. On this song, which is in the traditional Gypsy mould, his voice is at its gravelliest--a gravel mixed with shrapnel and shards of glass.

"How Do You Do Mister Brown"

This is a of novelty jazz song, kind of nonsense song, that I discovered on a Soviet Jazz compilation record. The record didn't attribute the arrangement or the music to anybody, but I've since discovered via YouTube that the recording was made in 1932 in Berlin by Eric Harden. The song consists of the phrase "How do you do, do, Mister Brown" repeated numerous times by numerous voices. It's a silly song but I was charmed by it and it ended up making its way into the book. There are sections of the story that hearken back to Riga in the 1930s and I've dropped the song in there.

"The Internationale"

Since one of the characters in the novel, the family's patriarch, Samuil, is a communist from boyhood, the anthem has a special significance to him and thus to the novel. It appears twice. Once during a radio broadcast of Lenin's funeral. This was a historical detail that I discovered in an excellent history of Russia written by Orlando Figes. The funerary broadcast ended with the playing of the Internationale. I imagined how moving that must have been to a people in mourning and deeply in the throes of what they considered the Revolution. The song recurs later in the novel. I listened to versions of it in many languages, including an English adaptation of the Russian by Paul Robeson. But mostly I listened to the Russian version and confess to being moved by it, moved by the thought of the millions of people who sincerely believed in the revolution, who felt that their lives depended on it, and who were ultimately ruined by it.

"Dark Night"

This is one of the most famous WWII Soviet ballads. Like many of those ballads, it's a love song. In it, a soldier at the front thinks of his beloved back home. It begins, Dark night/ only bullets whistle on the steppe. Like the best of these songs, it is earnest and openly sentimental, as though directly from the heart. It is also quite fatalistic. Whereas American songs of the period held a note of optimism, even if a melancholic one--I'm thinking here of something like "I'll Be Home For Christmas"--the Soviet ones often acknowledged death.

There's a scene in the novel where the song is performed spontaneously and somewhat ironically by the emigres during a blackout in an Italian hotel.

I found this song and most of the other WWII ballads of the period on a site called It offers a remarkable archive not only of Soviet music, but "socialist" and "communist" music from all over the world. Its home page opens with the words, "Dear Comrade!"

"Kolibelnaya," performed by Anna German, music by Matvey Blatner, lyrics by Mikhail Isakovsky

Kolibelnaya translates as lullaby. I came across the song when rifling through old Soviet records that my parents had brought over from Latvia. The song was on an album by Anna German. I found the song incredibly wistful and moving. I can't say exactly why. I suppose because it reminded me of my forgotten Soviet childhood. Or, simply, of being a child. In any event, I listened to it endlessly, playing it on a record player I'd purchased for the express purpose of listening to these records and to a box of others I inherited after my grandfather died. Somehow, in a way I still can't explain, this one record eventually went missing. I searched for it endlessly but to no effect. Fortunately, YouTube had a video of Anna German performing the song. It is essentially identical to the recording I had. I suspect that even if you don't understand Russian you will be affected by her performance. I included the song at a critical moment in the novel. Now, I can't imagine how that scene would have functioned without it.

The only other song that shows up in the novel is the Beatles' "Get Back." It is performed by students at a drunken university graduation party in Riga in the 1970s. I needed a good, energetic dance song. And one that would have been known to hip Soviet students. In fact, the song seems peculiarly Russian to me. As though the chorus just begs to sung with a Russian accent. "Get Bek, Jo Jo!"

There were a few other songs I listened to a lot but which didn't make it into the book. More Russian WWII ballads--"The Little Blue Shawl, Ogonyok" which I translate as "My Little Flame," and "Sacred War"--and also two Italian songs: the Italian communist anthem, "Bandiera Rossa," and the eerie Italian WWII partisan song, "Bella Ciao."

David Bezmozgis and The Free World links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
audio excerpt from the book

The Jewish Week review
Library Journal review
New York Observer review review
The Outlet review
Telegraph review
Time Out New York review
Toronto Life review

National Post profile of the author
New Yorker interview with the author
Toronto Star profile of the author
The Walrus Blog interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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