To Russia with love

One of the things I most love about books is how they can take you completely by surprise. They can remain in your mind long after the last page has been read, they can sweep you into a new world, and, just sometimes, they're like encountering that person who you meet and feel immediately as though you can't remember a time when they weren't part of your life, and who, you know, will continue to give you joy for a very long time.

I've mentioned before the odd library that formed part of my Hall of Residence at university. Among the many books that I read there the one that stands out the most was Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. I'd seen the film (but at that stage not read the book) of Breakfast at Tiffany's, and so rather associated Capote with the light and frivolous. In cold blood was neither of these, but was a dark examination into the brutal murder of a Kansas family, and the minds of the killers. It was a chilling piece of reportage told in a gripping novelistic manner. Except for the basic history of the events that unfolded in Holcomb, Kansas, I quickly forgot any detail of the book; but the atmosphere that surrounded it has made the book linger long in my memory.

Recently I saw the film Infamous (great performances from Toby Jones as Truman Capote and Sandra Bullock as Harper Lee) which told the story behind the writing of In cold blood. Although (as with any biopic) I would be careful not to be completely trusting, there were some fascinating snippets. Did you know, for example, that the character Dill in To kill a mockingbird was based on a young Truman Capote, a close friend of Harper Lee? The snippet that grabbed my interest though the most was the recently published book that Capote toted to Kansas The muses are heard. An account of a recent tour by an American opera company to Russia at the height of the Cold War sounded fascinating, and I was quickly onto Amazon trying to find it.

The book itself as a solo work is long out of print, but it can still be found included in Portraits and Observations, a collection of essays by Capote. At 178 pages long The muses are heard is a pretty substantial essay, it's also one of the most fun non-fiction works I've read in some time.

Muses are heard is the delightful account of the Everyman Opera Company's tour of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. Hot off the back of a successful world tour, the Everyman Company takes its (for that day extraordinary, even today unusual) company of black American singers on tour to Leningrad, just in time for Christmas 1955. Russia had never seen an American opera company before, let alone so many black singers. The Americans were expecting to be tailed by the KGB and continually bugged.

The title is a quote from one of the Russians in charge of the tour "When the cannons are silent the muses are heard". It's a wonderful combination of innocence abroad, a hint of skullduggery, some wonderful laugh-out-loud moments (note to self - a World War II US Army Russian phrasebook can lead to misunderstandings), and a great feel-good book. Despite the Cold War, trains without restaurant cars, and microphones in the bedrooms the opera company's attempts to bring America to Russia are met with success. The singers are warmly feted, and the Americans are met with genuine curiosity along with some heartfelt pleas for sponsors.

The company itself were a motley crew ranging from wealthy socialites such as Mrs. Ira Gershwin to hard working (and sometimes living) musicians to crusty English stagehands, who are amused and somewhat confused by the majestic rooms that the Soviet Union's hotel agency has arranged for them.

Capote is adept at character sketches. He has a wonderful lightness of touch, and a genuine flair for the comedic moment. I adored this book. Wonderfully funny, occasionally touching (the children of the company's delight in this new weird world, and the genuine joy of the company when they are unexpectedly presented with a Christmas tree by their hosts were moments to savour), I absolutely adored it. A curious mix of travelogue, spy thriller and Damon Runyon. Non-fiction chicken soup for the soul. A great pick-me-up whatever the weather.


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