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21 November 2018

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Lina & Serge

The Love and Wars of Lina Prokofiev, by Simon Morrison (Houghton Mifflin, $26)

Prepare yourself for a Hollywood sequel to The Last Station. Yet one that is infinitely more contemporary, heart-wrenching and unequivocal.

Simon Morrison, thanks to unfettered access to secret archives of family letters, memoirs and materials, has reconstructed the fascinating and tragic life of the woman who was Serge Prokofiev’s love and muse.

Lina Prokofiev gave up a promising stage career to help the iconoclastic performer and composer ascend to the heights of fame, returning to Soviet Russia with him in 1936 against her own better judgment, only to be cast aside on the eve of WWII when he fell in love with a younger woman. Her subsequent attempts to escape from the USSR came to naught, and her foreign roots and interaction with foreigners led to eight crushing years in the gulag.

To some, a central question of this tale will be how much you forgive a self-obsessed genius. Yet the fact is, as Morrison writes, Prokofiev “had no respect for tradition” – not in music, not in his personal life. And when he and his wife grew apart, he did nothing to stop her persecution, arrest or exile. Another fact is this: upon separating from Lina, Serge’s music suffered. His audacious, anti-traditionalist creative output of the 1930s fizzled in the 1940s, around the time he deserted Lina. Yet it cannot all be chalked up to the loss of his muse. For in parallel with the deterioration of the couple’s relationship was a decline in Prokofiev’s official favor. He only clawed his way back to the top through composition of increasingly traditional, Soviet-friendly works.

Morrison tells this tale with great compassion and detail (the anecdotes and side notes about the intersection of the couple’s lives with other notables throughout the 1930s and 1940s alone makes this book worth reading). While one comes to sympathize with Lina’s and Serge’s predicament – caught in a trap that is largely of their own devising, it is hard not to come away with a diminished respect for the celebrated composer, as something far less than an honorable man.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: May/June 2013