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.