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The books that defined David Bowie’s love of Eastern Europe

On the sixth anniversary of David Bowie’s death, we take a look at his favourite Eastern European books.

10 January 2022

A history buff and a voracious reader, legendary British-American rockstar David Bowie was known for his interest in Eastern Europe. In 1976, looking for an antidote to his chaotic drug-fuelled life in Los Angeles, he moved to Berlin, where he lived for three years. As a foreign visitor, he had the privilege to visit East Berlin and get a glimpse of the socialist world that few Westerners had seen.

This period proved productive for the singer, resulting in the albums known as the Berlin trilogy — Low, Heroes, and Lodger — a highly-regarded triptych within Bowie’s diverse discography. Perhaps the trilogy’s most celebrated track, “Heroes” is a song that directly refers to the wall dividing the city and the dream of coming together. Bowie’s performance of the song at the 1987 Concert for Berlin is even seen as one of the catalysts for Germany’s eventual reunification. His music could be heard across the city, and crowds of listeners in East Berlin had to be dispersed by the police, which ended in violent protests.

While Bowie’s travels around the Soviet Union are a lesser known part of his biography, photographs from that trip (most of them made by the star’s personal photographer Lee Black Childers) continue to circulate online, exciting the imagination of fans in both East and West. In 1973, Bowie, who was afraid of flying, decided to return to Europe from the Japanese leg of his tour via the Trans-Siberian Railway. This eight-day train journey clearly made a lasting impression on the artist, and he even returned to the Soviet Union in 1976, bringing along his great friend, Iggy Pop.

Still, the opportunities to travel to the Eastern Bloc were few and far between, so Bowie had to explore the region through literature. An avid reader, he famously said that reading was his idea of perfect happiness, and that the quality he most liked in a man was “the ability to return books”. It is no surprise then, that when tasked with preparing a selection of his favourite books for the touring exhibition David Bowie Is, the singer came up with a solid 100-title list.

To mark the anniversary of his death, The Calvert Journal has picked five books by Eastern European authors that Bowie loved — and we’ve even selected a song for each of them.

Still from Vladimir Bortko's TV adaptation of The Master and Margarita (2005)

Still from Vladimir Bortko's TV adaptation of The Master and Margarita (2005)

The Master and Margarita (1966)

Author: Mikhail Bulgakov

Bulgakov’s magnum opus, The Master and Margarita, is a multi-layered narrative which sees events in 1930s Moscow run parallel to the Biblical story of the last days of Jesus Christ. The novel starts with Satan’s arrival in the Soviet Union — but this visit brings much more admittedly dark humour than horror. The book is both a political satire and a touching romance, and offers up its own ideas on good and evil.

The Master and Margarita has inspired musicians from Franz Ferdinand, who wrote their song “Love and Destroy” from Margarita’s perspective, to Patti Smith, whose 2012 album Banga is titled after Pontius Pilate’s dog. Although there are no direct references to the book in Bowie’s oeuvre, his song “The Man Who Sold the World” is a perfect match for the Soviet classic. A mysterious tale of an encounter with a supernatural being who feels strangely familiar, it captures the blurred lines between the book’s malevolent or benevolent spirits.

Coast of Utopia on stage of the Russian Academic Youth Theatre (RAMT)

Coast of Utopia on stage of the Russian Academic Youth Theatre (RAMT)

Coast of Utopia (2002)

Author: Tom Stoppard

Born in Czechoslovakia, Tom Stoppard (then known as Tomáš Sträussler) was just two-years-old when his family fled the Nazis in 1939, and moved to Singapore, India, and eventually the UK. Still, the Czech-British playwright says he has always felt close to his home country and Eastern Europe on a larger scale. Based on real historical events, his trilogy The Coast of Utopia tells the story of 19th century Russian émigré intellectuals, from Ivan Turgenev to Mikhail Bakunin, exploring their personal and intellectual lives in Stoppard’s unique absurdist style.

With all of Stoppard’s characters passionately discussing the ideas that would one day lead to revolution, Bowie’s song “Changes” is a fitting soundtrack to the play. Although not all of the characters (and perhaps not even Stoppard himself) would share the song’s romanticism, the track truly captures the feeling of being on the threshold of history.

Still from Marleen Gorris' film adaptation of Eugenia Ginzburg's novels, Within the Whirlwind (2009)

Still from Marleen Gorris' film adaptation of Eugenia Ginzburg's novels, Within the Whirlwind (2009)

Journey into the Whirlwind (1967)

Author: Eugenia Ginzburg

Journey into the Whirlwind, Eugenia Ginzburg’s memoir on her time in the Soviet gulag system, can be a difficult and demanding read. Arrested on false charges in 1937, at the age of just 33, Ginzburg spent 10 years in prison and labour camps, and eight more in exile. Still, she considered herself lucky not to be killed: the methods of the Soviet secret police became more brutal soon after her arrest. A valuable account of Stalinist atrocities, Ginzburg’s book exudes empathy and a tireless generosity of spirit.

Ironically, Ginzburg was a true believer in communist ideas before her arrest. In her book, she often talks of the shared feeling between her fellow inmates that their arrest must be a mistake — Stalin, after all, would never allow innocent people to be imprisoned, they then deludedly thought. Bowie’s track “Ashes to Ashes” offers a poetic echo of Ginzburg’s ultimately shattered dreams and beliefs.

Cover of Octobriana and the Russian Underground (1971)

Cover of Octobriana and the Russian Underground (1971)

Octobriana and the Russian Underground (1971)

Author: Petr Sadecký

Imagine Wonder Woman fighting villains not under the Star-Spangled Banner, but under the hammer and sickle flag. Enter Octobriana: the scantily-clad socialist superhero masterminded by Czech writer Petr Sadecký.

Sadecký’s comic is a supposed account of the cartoonist’s visit to Kyiv, where he stumbles upon a drug-fuelled community of dissident Soviet artists calling themselves the Progressive Political Pornography group. The story, of course, was fictional: Octobriana was commissioned by Sadecký from Czech artists Bohumil Konečný and Zdeněk Burian, who never got the credit for their work. But Sadecký’s half-truths didn’t harm the comic’s popularity in the West, instead only adding to the hype.

Bowie was obsessed with the comic during his Ziggy Stardust period, and even claimed he was planning a film adaptation where Octobriana could meet his own stage character. For better or worse, nothing came out of it — but you can listen to “Moonage Daydream” and imagine Octobriana and Ziggy fighting aliens side by side.

Still from Stanley Kubrick's film adaptation of Lolita (1962)

Still from Stanley Kubrick's film adaptation of Lolita (1962)

Lolita (1955)

Author: Vladimir Nabokov

One of the most controversial books in the history of world literature, Lolita barely needs an introduction. A masterclass in manipulation, it is a story told by a pedophile who becomes obsessed with a 12-year-old Dolores Haze, whom he calls Lolita. The nauseating account of his obsession and the actions he takes to eventually consummate it is, however, brilliantly written in Nabokov’s elegant style. The book has divided readers since its publication in 1955.

Beat Of Your Drum” is a somewhat more obscure title from Bowie’s oeuvre — but even the artist himself called the song Lolita-esque.In the same interview with Kay Rush, Bowie spoke about echoes of Lolita in the 1986 film Labyrinth, especially in the relationship between his character, Jareth the Goblin King, and 16-year-old Sarah Williams, played by young Jennifer Connelly: “[Lolita] was certainly in my mind whilst we were making it. I thought that was probably a plausible subtext to what [director Jim Henson] was doing.”

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