Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2016.
Na Zhong, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Nigel Cliff about his book Moscow Nights (HarperCollins), which is among the final five selections in the category of Biography for the 2016 NBCC Awards.
Nigel Cliff’s latest nonfiction, Moscow Nights, follows the life and career of a Texan piano prodigy, Van Cliburn, and recreates the turbulent Cold War period. In 1958, the twenty-three-year-old not only won the First International Tchaikovsky Competition held in the Soviet Union but also captivated the hearts of countless Russians and Americans. For a time, it seemed his talents, genuine love for the Russian culture, and his affable demeanor would help to bridge the divide between the two hostile powers. In turn, as the Cold War carried on, the role of a cultural emissary Van assumed left an indelible mark on his life and career. Days before the National Book Critics Circle’s award ceremony, I had the great pleasure to speak with Mr. Cliff on the phone.
Too watch Van’s performance, please click here.
Na Zhong: You mention in the Acknowledgements that you decided to write about Van Cliburn after you read about his death. What makes you want to write about him?
Nigel Cliff: Funny enough, I was actually looking at the Cold War and music independently, not expecting them to come together. And I read his story, the two things just lapped into each other, and I thought I had to do this story. It has everything you want: small events in the heart of a global conflict, and this young man who had decided what he was going to do with this incredible fame that was suddenly bestowed on him.
I think all my books seem to have something in common. They’re about individuals thrown into the center of world events, who haven’t tried or expected or necessarily even wanted to be in that position. My last original book was about Vasco da Gama. He was a captain who was doing his duty; he wasn’t out to change the world.
And it is the same with Van. He was an ordinary kid who had extraordinary talent. He was modest, humble, unassuming, a little bit lazy, not terribly driven in some ways, who suddenly found himself catapulted overnight to world fame. Plus I do love writing about the connections between cultural episodes and the wider world around them.
NZ: His life seems to be an ideal vessel for the Cold War history.
NC: It kind of is. The more I looked into it, the more arresting it became because you realized that he was connected with events, in some way, all the way through the Cold War. At key points like Nixon’s visits to Russia, Gorbachov’s visit to the White House, and so on. You really can tell the Cold War history through him. I couldn’t work out what Cold War story to tell because it can seem very ‘faceless’, and rather technical. The level of detail can sometimes be off-putting when you are talking about all the political machinations. With him, it puts some human face on the Cold War and allows you to tell the story from the leaders’ point of view and the people’s point of view because he had a lot of friends and fans in Russia outside the leadership.
NZ: I do enjoy the details you throw in here and there, they are real delights.
NC: It is what you look for, isn’t it? It’s a classic story of a competition with strong, interesting characters and has a wider significance.
NZ: When did the title “Moscow Nights” pop up in your mind? Why do you choose it?
NC: Quite early on. It was the only one I thought of when I started with it. And I chose it because it had a certain darkness to it and an edge of romance which Van certainly felt when he was in Moscow. And because it was the title of this song when he picked up on when he was first in Moscow. It was his parting gift. He did a canny transcription of the song, very deep and soulful. And then of course it takes you all the way through to the modern days—the climax of the story—when he came back at the White House summit and played that very song again. So it’s kind of a theme of his life.
NZ: Bringing this unique history to such vividness requires digging into a gigantic amount of materials and documents, a tip of an iceberg of which is shown in the Selected Bibliography. Can you share with us one of your typical working days? How do you absorb and process all the information?
NC: It depends on the stage of writing I’m at. There were a lot of areas that I looked into which didn’t even get into the book. It’s a big subject and I chose it to deal with the Soviet history as well because I think memories of that period are fading. I spent a lot of time traveling around in Moscow, Texas, and New York, and talking to people. I spent a great deal of time digging into government archives. I read a lot to get myself up to speed on very different subjects. Piano history as well as politics.
And a lot of the work is in the editing. With nonfiction, you always have far more material than you need. I researched all sorts of things, for instance, the day when Soviet and American troops met across the river Elbe in Germany at the end of the WWII. At one point I thought that would be an interesting place to start. I spent a lot of time researching the launch of Sputnik, and I thought that might be an interesting place to start. A lot of work gets done and gets cut away just because they don’t work for the story.
NZ: The middle part of the book reads like a mystery story with FBI and KGB monitoring Van’s behaviors and personal life.
NC: Actually I put in an FOIA application form on Van to the FBI very early in the process, and there was an enormous delay. It took a year and a half before I got hold of the material, and that was absolutely gold. One of the problems about writing about Van is that he was immensely discreet and guarded. I had this rather odd combination of being extremely garrulous and outgoing and yet extremely guarded at the same time. When reading his interviews, you have to read between the lines a lot to see what’s going on. And the FBI material really brought to the front a lot of things that I suspected and confirmed them. Because they were listening his phone calls. It was pretty shocking but pretty commonplace as well.
NZ: What is the most surprising thing about Van or the history that you came across during the whole creative process?
NC: One thing I would say is that, as usual, when you are writing these books, the story changes. You think it’s about this kid who had this spectacular launch and incredible career afterwards, and was beloved in the Soviet Union and America, but of course it is and it isn’t.
The book always kicks into play when you find out what seem like small items leading to a direction that allows you to find the truth at the heart of it. The realization that Van did not have an easy life—not only when he was being pursued by agencies and having to be cautious, but that the Americans and the Russians, in turn, were not particularly receptive to his approaches.
I think that changed the book. All of this makes him a real person and it wasn’t just a story of a famous celebrity. And it adds to the explanation of why he dropped out after less than twenty years because there was a lot of pressure on him. There wasn’t just pressure to be the greatest artist, live up to his status every tiny sat-down at the piano, there was a lot of political disappointment and anxiety as well.
NZ: To me the poignancy of Van’s story is that his reputation and popularity as a pianist are unavoidably associated with his political value. It seems that his musical talent is somehow exploited by politics. How would you evaluate him as a musician and as an individual?
NC: I think there is no doubt that he is an exceptional musician. You have to look at the explosion of admiration for him in Russia and in Moscow in 1958. The quality of the people who were praising him as another Rachmaninoff—Sviatoslav Richter and Goldenweiser, who was a friend of Rachmaninoff’s, and Gilels—all the greats.
His repertoire was limited because he wanted it to be. He was really only attracted to the Romantics, and that caused him some problems, because although theses pieces were incredibly popular and brought out massive audience, they weren’t at the time necessarily very esteemed by critics and serious musicians. Obviously, there were equally good, in some pieces, better pianists in the world at the time, but he got a lion share of popular acclaim and money. There was a lot of distain addressed to him because of his fame and, perhaps, his conservatism when music was concerned.
He was exploited by his personal manager Sol Hurok and managers of venues he played at. And, in a way, by his audiences because they just wanted him to play Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff over and over and over again.
And he saw his public duty as a great honor. The connection he had between Russia he prized all his life. And I think he became friends with LBJ, Nixon and so on. There was a childish way he had: he talked to presidents in exactly the same way he talked to normal people. I don’t think he would felt himself exploited politically, but I think he did have a difficult time living up to this role that he was cast in. The role of being a friend of Russia as well as an American hero. I think that was tough. If anything I would say he let himself to be exploited musically and politically, and, in the end, that made life hard for him. He was a generous man, he wanted to give audiences what they wanted and he wanted to be helpful politically. He let that be his life.
NZ: Given the current geopolitics, what kind of lesson can we draw from it?
NC: (Laugh) I am surprised that people don’t ask it more often, it seems so obvious at the moment. When I started writing this book, it seemed to be about a beautiful story from a vanished past, and then all this talk of a new Cold War came up and you start writing something which seems very current, and you start wondering if another Van is needed today to bring the Russians and the Americans together. Then Trump turns up, and you don’t know what the story is going be read about anymore, I mean, this wonderful flowering of friendship between the two nations’ leaders…
What I’m saying is that the situation is changing all the time around the book, so I am sort of fascinated myself to see what happens and see how the book is read as a result. I read sort of reader-response theory and stuff at college, and here it is on the ground—the response is changing year by year rather than over a long period of time.
NZ: Do you think we will ever see another Van Cliburn, free from politics and ideologies?
NC: It was a combination of personality and politics and pianos. The idea to Russians at that time that a kid from Texans could turn up, not only loving their music and their culture but playing with this rhapsodic passion and insight into the lost past of Russian music—the romantic style which had been edited out by the Soviet Union. Politically, that made a difference. It can’t be done again, and all these stories are unique, of course. They do have resonances with us. Van has a bit of Everyman despite his talents. His story does show that ordinary people through simple, good qualities can actually make a difference to the world. So in that regards, we might have another Van. Maybe in North Korea.
Nigel Cliff is the author of three acclaimed nonfiction works Moscow Nights: The Van Cliburn Story—How One Man and His Piano Transformed the Cold War, The Last Crusade, and The Shakespeare Riots. He is a Fellow of Harris Manchester College Oxford and a Fellow-elect of the Royal Literary Fund. He and his family live in London.
Na Zhong is a first-year nonfiction MFA student at The New School and a native of Chengdu, China. She holds a BA in English Translation and an MA in English Literature. She is working on a nonfiction project about a Chinese garden and 40 Chinese craftsmen in New York in the 90s. Her past works can be found at her website: naomizhong.strikingly.com