Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Irony of Fate

Or Enjoy your Bath! is a wonderful Soviet era film that has become a holiday classic.  Here is a clip to the movie.  A couple years back they updated the movie, but I haven't seen it.

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Voyna i mir

My wife and I watched Voyna i mir (1968) over the holidays.  At 405 minutes, we broke up our viewing over three nights.  It is really incredible to watch, not only for the lavish ball scenes and expansive battle scenes that rival that of Alexander Nevsky, but for the depth of emotion that Sergei Bondarchuk plumbs and the wonderful performances of Bondarchuk himself as Pierre Bezukhov and Lyudmila Savelyeva as Natasha.  Bondarchuk lets the story unfold naturally, not rushing any aspect of it, so that one gets the full feel of Tolstoy's epic novel.

Bondarchuk took various viewpoints and even includes some sage advice of an old oak tree to Bolkonsky, and captured the addled mind of a wolf as he is being chased by a hunting party.  But, it is the lovely Natasha that remains front and center in this movie.

Fascinating closure, with Napoleon rushing back to Paris and his Grand Armee left to fed for itself in the harsh winter, with stragglers finding their way into Russian camps and sharing fires and comraderie, as if to say men are all the same and that only emperors and generals are to blame for these wars, although Tolstoy also hails the Russian spirit for so gallantly defending itself at Borodino, and leaving Napoleon with a hollow victory when he reached Moscow.

Interesting reading about Prokofiev's operatic version of the novel, which was to be initially staged by Sergei Eisenstein, but went through various transformations before finally being staged in 1953.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Vanka - a Christmas Story

VANKA ZHUKOV, a boy of nine, who had been for three months apprenticed to Alyahin the shoemaker, was sitting up on Christmas Eve. Waiting till his master and mistress and their workmen had gone to the midnight service, he took out of his master's cupboard a bottle of ink and a pen with a rusty nib, and, spreading out a crumpled sheet of paper in front of him, began writing. Before forming the first letter he several times looked round fearfully at the door and the windows, stole a glance at the dark ikon, on both sides of which stretched shelves full of lasts, and heaved a broken sigh. The paper lay on the bench while he knelt before it.

"Dear grandfather, Konstantin Makaritch," he wrote, "I am writing you a letter. I wish you a happy Christmas, and all blessings from God Almighty. I have neither father nor mother, you are the only one left me."

Vanka raised his eyes to the dark ikon on which the light of his candle was reflected, and vividly recalled his grandfather, Konstantin Makaritch, who was night watchman to a family called Zhivarev. He was a thin but extraordinarily nimble and lively little old man of sixty-five, with an everlastingly laughing face and drunken eyes. By day he slept in the servants' kitchen, or made jokes with the cooks; at night, wrapped in an ample sheepskin, he walked round the grounds and tapped with his little mallet. Old Kashtanka and Eel, so-called on account of his dark colour and his long body like a weasel's, followed him with hanging heads. This Eel was exceptionally polite and affectionate, and looked with equal kindness on strangers and his own masters, but had not a very good reputation. Under his politeness and meekness was hidden the most Jesuitical cunning. No one knew better how to creep up on occasion and snap at one's legs, to slip into the store-room, or steal a hen from a peasant. His hind legs had been nearly pulled off more than once, twice he had been hanged, every week he was thrashed till he was half dead, but he always revived.

read on

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Dreams of My Russian Summers

Curious if anyone has read this or other books by Andrei Makine. He is considered one of the top contemporary Russian writers. Dreams was his first novel to gain international attention, after it had won numerous French awards under the title, Le Testament Francais.

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Idiot

Find myself having to go back to The Idiot, as my wife bought tickets for Nekrosius's production of the novel next month.  There is an on-line version, but ordered the P&V translation, thinking I might get a fresher reading.

Eimuntas Nekrosius is Lithuania's foremost theater director, well known for his adaptations of Shakespeare and Chekhov.  He burst on the scene back in the early 90s with a wonderful interpretation of Gogol's The Nose.  He is regarded as one of the best directors in Europe and has been invited to Moscow and St. Petersburg on any number of occassions to stage his plays.  His version of The Cherry Orchard featured a  Russian cast and was very well received in Moscow.

Laimonas Briedis has a wonderful little story of Dostoevsky in Vilnius on his way to the spas of Germany in Vilnius: City of Strangers.  Seems he was mostly worried about his luggage.  Briedis culled his notes from Dostoevsky's wife's journal.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

A Hero of Our Time

Saw a good version of the story last night on Russian television. Makes me want to go back and reread the book.  This was one of Nabokov's favorites, doing the translation himself.  There was an earlier version as well.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Peter and the Wolf

A little off the beaten track, but I recently saw this wonderful British production of Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf.

Monday, October 19, 2009

For the Voice

This is one of the more interesting books of Russian poetry I picked up in recent years. Mayakovsky teamed up with El Lizzitsky to create this rather stark set of elemental poems that seemed to echo El Lizzitsky's ideas of prouns, or building blocks that could be used in art, literature and architecture.

Admittedly, I picked up the book more for El Lizzitsky than I did Mayakovsky. The idea of "prouns" have fascinated me, as they proved to be a major influence on early modernist architecture. El Lizzitsky traveled extensively throughout Europe, spending time both at the Bauhaus and in Rotterdam, where he came in contact with De Stijl artists and architects. It was an exciting time as literature, art and architecture all seemed to impact and shape each other, with many of the boundaries being removed.

El Lizzitsky would turn out to have a better fate than Mayakovsky under Stalin, who appeared to become very quickly disillusioned with the Soviet state, publishing such works as The Bedbug and The Bathhouse which satirically aimed at the petty bureaucratic society the great socialist nation had become under Stalin.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Generations of Winter

Several years ago I read Aksyonov's epic story of WWII Soviet Union. His literary family has mixed Russian and Georgian blood, and he moves between the two countries throughout the novel, in presenting his very engaging story of the Stalinist era. I can't say I remember it all that well now, but the war scenes were quite riveting as the father, a venerated general who had fallen out of favor with Stalin and put in jail, is brought back to the front line at Stalingrad to try to turn the tide in the war.

The book pretty much presents Stalin as a coward, but he isn't the focus of the story. It is more about the pervasive influence Stalinism had on life and how this former aristocratic family struggles to cope with the ever-changing times, and eventually revolts against it. The book has often been compared to War and Peace.

I dug up this review from the New York Times.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Urga (Close to Eden)

Probably my favorite Mikhalkov movie is Urga, which in its sparseness speaks volumes, reminding me quite a bit of Kurosawa's Dersu Uzala. This is a more modern tale as Mikhalkov juxtaposes a Russian truck driver with a semi-nomadic Mongolian family after he drives his truck into a river. What you get is a wonderful slice of life that is rarely captured on film.

Dark Eyes (Oci ciornie)

It has been years since I watched Dark Eyes. It made a pretty strong impression on me at the time. Marcello Mastroianni plays Romano, an Italian aristocrat, who recounts his tale of love and romance for a lovely Russian, and in turn Russia, to a fellow passenger aboard a cruise ship. The film captures the end of the Tsarist era, which Mikhalkov so much loves. Here is a clip that provides the introduction to the movie.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Andrei Rublev

Immediately suppressed by the Soviets in 1966, Andrei Tarkovsky’s epic masterpiece is a sweeping medieval tale of Russia’s greatest icon painter. Too experimental, too frightening, too violent, and too politically complicated to be released officially, Andrei Rublev has existed only in shortened, censored versions until the Criterion Collection created this complete 205-minute director’s cut special edition.

Interesting documentary on Tarkovsky.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Pushkin's Children

One of my favorite contemporary Russian writers is Tatyana Tolstaya. She also has a talk show on Russian television which my wife enjoys very much. I think she is a distant relation of Tolstoy, not that she promotes the claim. She has written several books, and my favorite is Pushkin's Children, a collection of essays and book reviews where she explores the enigmatic "Russian Soul," while looking at the modern political situation in Russia. She looks both inside and outside her country in the way Russia is presented. Not as personal or deep as Pamuk's classic Instanbul, but very satisfying nonetheless.

She was pretty tough on Mother Russia in this book. As Richard Eder noted in the review that is linked, she didn't spare anyone, not least of all, Gorbacev, who became such a darling of the West. She also talks about the unusual position women find themselves in Russia, having assumed many of the high education jobs and positions in society, but getting little of the respect that goes along with these roles. Great book for those looking for an intimate view of life in 21st century Russia.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Russian Ark

Russkii kovcheg's grand tour through the Hermitage—and Russian history—is presided over by an unseen narrator. As the film starts, he mumbles about an accident and it is clear he has little knowledge of quite where he is or why. After following a group of officers who have arrived for a ball in through a small back entrance, the narrator meets a tetchy and eccentric man in black, another time traveller and the only person who is aware of the narrator's presence. The man (who later turns out to be the Marquis de Custine, a 19th-century French diplomat), is more used to the oddities of coming to in another historical period, although he is rather bemused by his new-found ability to speak perfect Russian.

from a review in Kinoeye. Here's the trailer to the movie.

Natasha's Dance

I read this book by Orlando Figes a few years ago, which provides a sweeping view at Russia's cultural history. As Lisa Jardine notes in her Guardian review:

Figes sets out to capture the many-stranded complexity of the idea of cultural 'Russianness'. But this is not just a cultural history, despite Figes's title. His book is especially angled to arouse the interest of those to whom the works of a litany of Russian artists, musicians and authors are already familiar and much-loved, as familiar as the curious Russian-clad figures in Figes's striking photographs are alien. What was it about Russia and its influences that inspired the novels of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, the plays of Chekhov, the music of Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky, the choreography of Stravinsky, the paintings of Chagall and Kandinsky?

No small task, and I thought Figes did a wonderful job. My wife's older cousin, a drama critic in Moscow, noted that Figes missed a key point here and there, but overall he felt it was a pretty good general history.

What I liked most was the way Figes wove all these strands together, making it feel that in Russia and even to some degree in the later Soviet Union there was a great sense of cultural continuity, arguably beginning with Pushkin's Eugene Onegin. So much of Russian literature is self-referential and the writers, composers and artists all seemed to move within tight circles. There was the odd man out like Dostoevsky or Goncharov, but it was interesting to read how much an influence Pushkin had on Gogol, and how he inspired Gogol to write Dead Souls, one of my personal favorite novels.

War and Peace

Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky have begun a quiet revolution in the translation of Russian literature. War and Peace is their latest translation. It is an extraordinary achievement, particularly because Pevear does not speak or read Russian but relies on a literal translation (with notes on syntax, nuances of meaning, and literary references) by his wife Larissa to write a more finished English draft. What really makes this wonderfully fresh and readable translation stand out from its predecessors is its absolute fidelity to the language of Tolstoy.

from a review by Orlando Figes in the New York Review of Books.