As a child, I heard about a book bound in wood that had once belonged to my grandfather, the composer Serge Prokofiev. I didn’t ascribe much significance to it, since I was interested in other sorts of books at the time, nor did I quite grasp my parents’ conversations about it.
Much later, we — the composer’s descendants — decided to publish Prokofiev’s substantive and highly illuminating Diaries, which appeared in 2002. The Wood Book is mentioned several times in the Diaries. In an entry dated 2 March 1916, Prokofiev recounts in detail the story of how the autograph book came into being:
The story of the “Wooden Book” is as follows: one day in the summer Eleonora and I were on the train going to Sestroretsk, and we came up with the idea that if I were to collect the autographs of important and interesting people I would be able to create a remarkable album. I decided that simply asking for the signature, accompanied perhaps by some kind of general aperçu, would merely cause the individual in question to rack his brains — “Oh, for heaven’s sake, what am I going to write for the fellow, damn it?” and would not be particularly interesting. But supposing everybody were invited to respond to the same question, that would be a different, and much more rewarding, matter. But what should the question be? Here imagination was silent, and for a while the project lapsed. Eventually, however, the question proposed itself to me: what are your thoughts on the sun? Splendid! Especially as I had recently been so powerfully drawn to it. And as all the “Cavaliers of the Wooden Book” would be taken completely unawares by the question, what a fertile field it would make for answers!
Later Eleonora warmed to the task of tracking down the right volume, since I told her under no circumstances must it be an ordinary school notebook, but one with a binding made of two plain pieces of wood edged with coarse black leather attached with ordinary nails, not fancy ones, and with a metal clasp such that hands coming into contact with it would immediately smell of metal. The size should be the same as a rouble banknote. The combination of the rough exterior and the rare preciousness of the autographs within would provide an element of piquancy. Those invited to contribute to the book would be notable figures or those who played a role in my life. Eleonora complained that she could not find a competent craftsman prepared to make an object of such crudity, particularly as the paper inside the book had to be of such exceptional quality, but at length the book was ready. It was not quite as I had envisaged, being rather too elegant, “a peasant in silk stockings”, but at least it was original and graceful, and the main thing was – it was made of wood. (1) MORE
1 - Prokofiev, Serge, Diaries 1915-1923:Behind the Mask, translated and annotated by Anthony Phillips
(London: Faber and Faber, 2008), 95