“Who?” This was said in a tone of voice that could only be described as doubtful. I was on the phone with an Italian friend in London, explaining that I could not call him back later that evening because I was off to a concert. “It’s Gergiev, Valery Gergiev. Don’t you know? He’s the most famous conductor in the world.” The silence on the other end was polite, but still incredulous. “He is the principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra!” I yelled in desperation. It got me nowhere. To an Italian, a musician cannot be world-famous unless his name ends in a vowel.
Gergiev brought his “Orchestra del Teatro Mariinsky,” as the handbill said, to Palermo’s Teatro Massimo for an evening of Russian music. Glinka, Borodin, Mussorgsky—you know the kind. It is very, very loud, and above all things inedible the Italian south loves noise. I remember being awakened at an ungodly hour in the center of Rome by a band of ruddy-faced garbage men outside, jumping on some metal debris with the insouciance of rock stars on heroin. It gave the word racket a whole new meaning.
The concert was a huge success, especially the bit where Prince Igor urged his men “to seek the blue sea,” and the chorus exploded in a quadruple “Hail, prince!,” which made me think that if fascist rallies hadn’t been as noisy as they were, Mussolini would still be sitting in a small cafe in Predappio nursing a grappa, a 130-year-old retired journalist with a head like Rudolph the Reindeer. But, like my London friend, the Italians here did not believe in Gergiev’s fame. If it had been, say, Riccardo Muti coming to town, we would have had helicopters, spotlights, fire brigades, mounted police in plumed helmets, the president of the Sicilian chamber of commerce, a fascis of senators from Rome, and Maria Grazia Cucinotta in savage décolleté. As it was, my wife and I were the only persons to invade the Maestro’s dressing room in the intermission.
On the way home I thought of great fame, of which Gergiev had seemed so sick that he found Palermo’s obliviousness to it a welcome change. The most famous writer in modern history, as I recalled, was Henryk Sienkiewicz, author of Quo Vadis and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1905. What made him an unpronounceable household name was the Hollywood blockbuster cobbled together in 1951 from his bestselling novel—by far the most expensive motion picture made up to that time—in which Peter Ustinov’s Nero sat in the Colosseum directing christanophagous lions.
This illustrates the queer workings of fame, since the amphitheater we know as the Colosseum of Rome was built by the Flavians on land belonging to the dead Nero in order to expunge the memory of the tyrant. Little did Vespasian know that Nero and the Colosseum would each in their own right become picture postcards of Rome, and that Hollywood would, therefore, decide to pastiche them together in the historical space of the box office.
You may say, that’s vulgar Hollywood for you. Yet fame is everywhere unstoppable. In 2001, Quo Vadis hit the big screen again, this time in its native Poland, where it, too, entered the record books as the most expensive motion picture ever made, with 32 lions roaring in the arena and the 264th Pope of Rome in the audience at the film’s opening. And guess what, the Emperor Nero was still there in the Colosseum, waving happily to the lions.
Few people realize that Boris Pasternak, whose genius, until suffocated by what in his private letters he calls the “sludge” of Soviet life, could be compared with Shakespeare’s, was moved in middle age to write his mediocre Zhivago by the clamorous international success in 1939 of another Hollywood extravaganza, Gone With the Wind. The saga of the American South was transposed to the scene of Russia’s revolution and civil war, only with furs and snow flurries instead of corsets and cotton plants, and nobody was the wiser.
That clever trick, however, would not have garnered Pasternak world fame and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, had it not been for the political standoff between Washington and the Kremlin in which the CIA and the KGB played the roles of literary agents, critics, publishers, and censors. That the reputation of a poet of genius—the kind that graces the earth once every five centuries or so—should have come to rest on a piece of derivative rubbish that briefly became the bone of contention between the two superpowers is a memento mori every shudder as compelling as the Hollywood vision of Flavian Rome.
So I wonder if Gergiev isn’t entitled to a little ennui and a little appreciation of the Sicilian attitude to music: Who plays loudest, plays best, but to be a really famous musician one must be an Italian. Here at least the rules of the game are clear, and neither the CIA nor Hollywood can change a single point in the total score.