Wednesday, December 22, 2010
Much of the second half of the novel plays out during the civil war that ravaged Russia from 1918 to 1922. Yury found himself a captive of Liberius Mikulitsin's Red Army faction, which was fighting against Kolchak's White Army. Life was pretty miserable for Yury during this time, as Liberius' faction pretty much housed themselves in earth huts in the great Russian taiga, hoping to hold out against the advances of the White Army until reinforcements came. Yury tended to the wounded as best he could given the limited supplies. He had support from a Czech paramedic who had joined the Communists and a couple of other interns.
Pasternak uses these chapters to highlight the ravages of the civil war, noting the towns that were under siege, in particular Holycross. All these towns along "The Highway" found themselves torn between the Red and White Armies, with split allegiances. Many had been burned by one faction or the other, and morale among the armies was low as they came across the burnt-out remnants of their former villages.
Yet Liberius remained hopelessly optimistic. The young commander, son of Mikulitsin who guarded the state, had chosen Yury to confide in. Yury was unconvinced that any good will come out of this war, but as long as he found himself captive he had to pay deference to the commander.
Yury had twice tried to escape, only to be run down each time. He had become ever more fatalistic in his views. He was asked at one point to counsel an ailing soldier, one of Liberius' subordinate officers, who was suffering from "the creeps," a sense of morbid doom, which ultimately led him to butcher his family rather than have them fall victim to Kolchak's forces.
Yury was also forced to witness an execution of soldiers who had operated an illicit distillery, only to have the distillery rebuilt as to have alcohol for medicinal purposes. Liberius himself had become addicted to cocaine, depleting Yury's much needed supply.
One can see how the Soviet censors wouldn't have been pleased at all with these passages, as Pasternak painted the revolutionary army in anything but heroic terms. Instead, he painted a bleak portrait of chaos, confusion and ever diminishing morale until Kolchak's army is finally defeated and these red factions finally emerged from their forest hideouts.
Varykino proved to be an all too short retreat for the Zhivagos. They seemed to settle into a relatively comfortable domesticity at the old Krueger estate that once belonged to the Gromeko family. Now it was state property, guarded by Mikulitsin and his second wife. Yury seemed to envy the cozy house Mikulitsin lived in for its study, as he imagined himself returning to his writing after all the travails he had been through. He and his family made due with one of the other outbuildings on the estate as Mikulitsin wouldn't allow them to live in the main house, much to Alexander Alexandrovich's chagrin.
The time seemed idyllic. The setting seemed more or less modeled upon Pasternak's home at Peredelkino, not the fabulous "Ice Palace," David Lean created in his version of the movie. Yury grew closer to Tonya and Sasha. Tonya became pregnant with another child. He seemed to enjoy working the land, taking on the role almost that of a gentleman farmer. His reputation as a doctor proceeded him and he finds patients coming to him almost on a daily basis, bartering food and services for his help. Pasternak provides some interesting character sketches of Mikulitsin, his wife and four sisters who once lived on the estate, one of whom had been Mikulitsin's first wife. Samdevyatov keeps them connected with the outside world, dropping in from time to time.
Still you get the sense that Yury is restless. He eventually starts going into town to continue his reading at the library. As fate would have it, he comes across Lara one day at the library and soon their passions boil over into an affair. Lara's daughter seems to accept the wayward doctor. Yury learns that Antipov is Strelnikov and he tells Lara of their encounter. She still harbors great love for him, but knows that they will never see each other again. Guilt eventually overwhelms Yury and while riding back to the estate he vows to tell Tonya, who to this point is oblivious of Yury's affair. But, again fate intercedes and Yury finds himself captured by the Forest Brothers and conscripted into their Red Army as a doctor.
Tuesday, December 14, 2010
Pasternak lavishes a long chapter on the train ride to Varykino with Yury, Tonya and Gromeko seeking the isolation of the old Krueger estate to ride out the rest of the civil war. Along the way, Pasternak offers grim notes of the strife that has ripped Russia in half. At one small burned out station, everyone has to get off and help shovel the snow off the railway line as the dreaded Strelnikov had shelled the town recently, crushing one of the many rebellious provinces in Russia. But, Yury seems to relish the bleakness. It fits into the nihilism he has developed.
Yury Zhivago is appearing more and more like a Turgenev character, a throwback to 19th century "revolutionaries" rather than a Bolshevik or a Menshevik. While his wife and father-in-law see the estate as their only chance for survival, Yury seems to view it as a means to rediscover the Russian heartland.
He and Alexander Alexandrovich discuss the fate of Russia while Tonya looks after little Sasha. Aboard are a gang of conscripted labor which Pasternak provides a few character sketches, including that of a boy who finds himself pleading with the foreman for his release as he committed no crime other than to be held as collateral for the return of his uncle. These scenes seem to show the randomness of events and how everyone is subject to the ever-changing laws of the state, which can be seen pinned up to walls of railway stations.
Eventually the train rolls up to Yuryatin, apparently modeled after the former industrial town of Perm, which was an area much under contention during the civil war. He meets a man who is a jack of all trades, but primarily a lawyer, who fills him in on the state of things and warns him that he is in for a tougher time at Varykino than he imagines. Yury also comes across Strelnikov, which is an alias Pasha Antipov has taken for himself after escaping the clutches of the Germans.
Strelnikov, which means "the shooter," is a ruthless general who now commands an entire theater and has the rebels under control for the most part. He makes no mention of his wife or daughter, but menacingly notes that he has heard of Zhivago before. The mini-series made this scene more tense than the novel, or I was just prepared for it. Zhivago is eventually returned to his family, where they prepare for the final leg to Varykino.
Rosamund Bartlett weighs in on Tolstoy in a new biography that has garnered mixed reviews. Rather than offering fresh insights, Christopher Tayler writes that she plays this one by the numbers. Of course, it is hard to top the previous biographies by Troyat and Wilson.
Monday, December 13, 2010
After serving on the front line for over a year, Yury returns to Moscow to find a city reduced to groveling for firewood to keep warm against the oncoming winter. He finds his home among the ruins of the city only to be forced to wait until finally Tonya comes down to greet him. It is an awkward homecoming as Yury finds his son a toddler who runs for cover when he enters. As best he can he tries to resume the life he formerly had with no mention and apparently not even any thoughts of Lara.
Pasternak has a wonderful eye for detail in this chapter and those that follow, capturing the sense of a city and a country at its lowest point, unsure which direction the revolution will take. He paints a portrait of the fledgling house administrations and the chaos that surrounds the city as the provisional government struggles for control.
Yury seems to have adopted a fatalistic view, taking each day as it comes. In these chapters, we are finally introduced to the Gromekos. He accepts the harshness of the conditions, almost relishing the reduced status of their former household, as they now have to make due with three rooms in the former city villa. His father-in-law fills him in on the details, and eventually he reunites with Misha and a few other of his old friends. He renews his relationship with Tonya and seems quite happy to be part of the family again.
He goes back to work at his former hospital, noting the changes that have taken place. He can neither bring himself to fully align himself with the Bolsheviks or accept the defeatism of the old guard. Yury is very much his own man, taking time out to write poems in between managing the supplies of the hospital.
There are some odd encounters, such as a young man in the vestibule of an old building, which Yury had ducked into to escape the cold. The young man in his heavy fur coat drifts in and out of his dreams as he battles typhus. Afterward, Tonya tells him that the boy was a distant relation of his and provided badly needed food and supplies during this time.
But, just as things seems to have finaly fallen into a pattern, his father-in-law and Tonya decide to flee to their old estate in the Urals. Yury is against the move, but the Gromekos feel this is their only chance to survive what promises to be another harsh year as the Soviet government has yet to restore any order to the country. They get by mostly on favors and at the tale end of a long miserable winter decide to leave for Varykino.
Lara gets only passing mention at the end of the chapter as Yury encounters the mother of a soldier who helped Lara and him out at the hospital on the front.
Tuesday, December 7, 2010
Seems the first three chapters serve as little more than introduction. Pasternak chooses to sketch these chapters, culminating in Lara's attempt to strike back at her tormentor Komarovsky at the Sventitsky's Christmas Party. Again, Yury is there to witness the event and finds himself once again drawn to this mysterious woman who would come to dominate his thoughts and emotions.
Pasternak then thrusts his protagonists into the war. Yury is consigned to a field hospital in which the ravages of war quickly dispense of his innocence. He meets with Misha again and a much more cynical world view emerges. Lara had signed on as a nurse in search of her husband Pasha Antipov, leaving her daughter with a close friend in Moscow. Yury has also left his family behind, witnessing the birth of his son to Tonya shortly before being sent to the front. Essentially, here begins the story.
Yury doesn't actually meet Lara until the fifth chapter, Farewell to the Old, at an estate that has been converted into a hospital, where unrest ferments in the village and a group of secessionists led by a blind prophet, Blazheiko, hide out in the forest. Pasternak chooses to build his romance slowly. Lara finds herself drawn to the wounded Yury because of his intelligence and Yury finds himself drawn to Lara for her foreign beauty.
As the war winds down, the two find themselves ever more in contact with each other, with Yury happy to have someone he can freely share his thoughts with. He confides his relationship in a letter to Tonya, who takes it all the "wrong" way with Yury reaffirming his love for his wife in a subsequent letter. But, the seed has been planted, and everyone around them sees the love the two have for each other. However, in the chaos that followed both return to their separate homes. Lara deep in the heart of the Urals and Yury to Moscow.
You might call this a philosophical tale of love in the tradition of Flaubert's Madame Bovary and Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, set against the rapidly changing face of Russia. Pasternak does not delve too deeply into the war. Instead he focuses on the relationship between Yury and Lara, a democratic love which he feels defies both tradition and the false promise of the revolution.
Monday, December 6, 2010
Interesting how Pasternak tells his tale of Yury and Lara in parallel episodes, keeping Yury pretty much above the seismic shifts taking place in Russia, while Lara finds herself at street level. Pasternak opens with a boyhood tale of Yury that was a lot like Chekhov's The Steppe, with young Yury being taken through the countryside on a troika with his uncle and a local priest, after the young boy lost his mother. This idyllic reverie is broken by the fateful news that someone has committed suicide by throwing himself off a train. Unknown to Yury this is his father. Pasternak also uses the scene to introduce the young Misha Gordon, who would become Yury's lifelong friend, and the contemptible Komarovsky, a lawyer who had apparently aided Yury's father in making his jump.
Komarovsky is portrayed essentially as a snake in the grass, tangentially bringing ruin on Yury, although the young boy had no contact with his father, and despoiling young Lara in the succeeding chapter. The man entangles himself into many lives, but with Yury and Lara he proves to be an intractable part of their lives. Pasternak gives Lara much more attention. She too comes from a broken family. Left with her mother and brother to struggle in the seamy streets of Moscow. Unlike Yury who has a soft landing in the Gromeko household, Lara is forced to make due with her overbearing mother and a conniving Komarovsky who takes full advantage of her lowly position. At the close of the chapter, Yury and Lara first cast eyes upon each other in the Montenegro Hotel during the 1905 strikes, which resulted in Lara's mother trying to kill herself by swallowing iodine after seeking refuge in the hotel.
There is a serialized feeling to the first two parts, which continues into the third part. Pasternak seems content to play out his parallel stories through a series of episodes. Lara meets Pasha Antipov through whom we get a street level view of the strikes. Yury's uncle becomes a successful writer, trying to give the events some sense of perspective.
There is a clunky feeling to the narrative, made even moreso by what appears to be an awkward translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky. I found myself going back to the 1958 translation by Hayward and Harari, which is indeed much easier to read. I suppose the PV edition is closer to the original but at times it reads like a word for word "google translation" with jumbled syntax. The HH edition is more polished, even if it may compromise some of the translation, and left out some passages due to publishing time constraints, as Ann Pasternak Slater noted in her review.
More impressive to me is how Richard Bolt (1965) and Yuri Arabov (2006) managed to turn this novel into a screenplay. There really isn't much in the way of dialog in the early going. Yet, Arabov in the 2006 Russian mini-series gave a much fuller sense of those early chapters by filling out the characters of Alexandr Gromeko and his daughter Tonya, as well as create a very compelling villain in Komarovsky in his relationship with Lara and her mother.
Friday, December 3, 2010
In a cinematic world increasingly dominated by CGI it is great that there are still animators like Yuriy Norshteyn who painstakingly pore over every detail of their work, taking 30 years if necessary to bring a story dear to his heart to life. This is the case with The Overcoat, an animated feature Yuriy started back in the late 70s, of which he has only provided glimpses to the public like this one. He says he has some 25 minutes of this feature completed to date. He planned to show the film in 2007, but it remains unfinished. Here's more on the long overdue Overcoat.
Thursday, November 25, 2010
Interesting to read that Boris Pasternak's father, Leonid Osipovich, was an accomplished portrait artist and took Boris with him to Astapovo station to see Tolstoy before his death. Pasternak had painted and sketched several portraits of Tolstoy over the years, including this one of the Count at Yasnaya Polyana in the late 1890s. I love this painting entitled The Night Before the Examination.
I have to say I like the British book cover better than the American one, but it is between the covers that counts, and it seems in this case you get the same narrative. Ann Pasternak Slater is not happy with the literal Pevear-Volokhonsky translation, preferring the more lyrical original English translation by Max Hayward and Manya Harari. You can read her review in the Guardian.
I did notice that P-V can be too literal in previous translations like that of The Master and Margarita, to the point of calling Bezdomny "Homeless" throughout the book, when it would have sufficed to provide a footnote that the surname Bulgakov used means "homeless." In that case, I preferred the earlier Michael Glenny translation.
It has been a long time since I read the Hayward-Harari translation so it will be hard to compare, but from what I read in Richard Pevear's introduction he and Larissa Volokhonsky have chosen to maintain the awkwardness of Pasternak's original text rather than smooth out the rough edges as Hayward did to make it more palatable to an English-speaking audience.
Pevear also provides an interesting short bio of Pasternak, noting his earlier brushes with the Symbolists and Futurists before being suffused in the "socialist realism" of the Stalinist era. Being a poet, he was drawn to Blok and Mandelstam and of course Ana Achmatova, who were all looking for something beyond the lyrical, something that challenged themselves as well as readers. Here is a classic collection of his poems, My Sister - Life. Not surprisingly, this didn't fit with Stalin's vision of a new Soviet Union, and these great poets found themselves struggling to deal with the constraints of the newly created Writers' Union which all Russian writers were forced to subscribe to.
The story surrounding the book is as fascinating as the book itself. When Pasternak sought Soviet publishers for Doctor Zhivago in 1956 he was rejected, and only by a fortuitous turn of events did the book find itself into print thanks to an Italian publisher, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, who printed it in both Russian and Italian. The Hayward-Harari edition followed, adding to Pasternak's new found international recognition. He initially accepted the Nobel prize for literature in 1958, but under pressure from the Soviet Writers' Union subsequently rejected it. Pevear quotes both telegrams. This is too bad because shortly thereafter a thaw occurred in the Soviet Union, which saw a number of previously banned books find their way into print, including Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. Pasternak had died in 1960, and it wouldn't be until 1988 that his son pressed to have Doctor Zhivago printed in the Soviet Union, at the time of Gorbachev's Perestroika.
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
‘I heartily recommend taking as often as possible Chekhov’s books … and dreaming through them as they are intended to be dreamed through’ -- Vladimir Nabokov
For those with an unbridled passion for Anton Chekhov there is this box set of Collected Stories, weighing in at 1400 pages, bound in buckram, that would be a very handsome addition to any book shelf. It appears to be lavishly illustrated as well. I have a copy of The Shooting Party which I cherish.
Tuesday, November 2, 2010
I've been enjoying the bits and pieces of the literature and theater of the absurd which characterized a part of the Russian avant-garde in the late 1920s. Daniil Kharms kick started the movement with his reading of the OBERIU manifesto in 1928, although the organization apparently dates back to 1926 (read more). Kharms along with several others contributed greatly to this movement, and many of their writings have been collected into anthologies like The Man with the Black Coat and OBERIU - An Anthology of Russian Absurdism. In many ways, this movement seemed to echo that of the Italian Futurists and Dadaism, but the Russian absurdists tended to shun all political relationships, preferring to explore universal ideas and playing these ideas out on stage with the theater group, Radix. Nice to see this movement getting more attention.
Tuesday, October 19, 2010
Ludmilla Petrushevskaya's book of Scary Fairy Tales, which includes There Once Was a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby, interests me more. Especially now with Halloween approaching. Excellent review in the NYTimes.
Russians have long been fascinated with the macabre, psychics and false prophets. And, don't forget all those stories of rapacious wolves. I suppose those long winter nights have a lot to do with it. There is a long history of horror and supernatural tales dating back to Aleksey Tolstoy. Perhaps his most famous Gothic work is Vampires: Stories of the Supernatural. Even Gogol's Dead Souls conjures up the dead in its own beguiling way, and Dostoevsky long had a fascination with the dark side in all his characters that at times bordered on the macabre.
I can only imagine that Petrushevskaya draws on this rich tradition in her haunting stories.
A friend mentioned Ludmila Ulitskaya the other day and the name sounded familiar. Sure enough, I had a copy of Sonechka: A Novella and Stories sitting on my shelf and read Sonechka that night. Odd little story as it seems more a sketch for a broader novel that Ulitskaya had in mind than a novella. The story starts to get quite complicated as Sonechka's elderly husband finds himself infatuated with their daughter's beguiling friend, Jasia, a Polish girl who was trying to re-invent herself in Moscow in the late 70s. Sonechka seems oblivious to these events swirling around her, remaining devoted to her books which consoled her during her mundane childhood and years in a public library. You expect more to come out of this story, but it doesn't. It just trails off with Sonechka once again absorbing herself in her books.
The story is quite interesting, as Sonechka was born out of WWII whereas Robert, her husband, was a well-known artist who had managed to survive the concentration camps and moved back to the Ukraine after the war. After some time in the shetls, the two move to Moscow with their young daughter. Sonechka had inherited her mother's sewing machine and saved up money to buy three rooms of a wood house in an old quarter of the city. Robert had revived his painting. Tanya, their daughter, was budding into an attractive high school girl, but then she meets Jasia at night school and the peaceful life Sonechka had long imagined is turned upside down. Sonechka made me think of Kathe Kollwitz, especially as she sunk into old age.
I read one of the other stories, Dauntless Women of the Russian Steppe, which had a very eye-catching title. It focused on three Russian women drinking away their man-problems in a New York apartment in the early 90s. Seemed to echo Moscow Does not Believe in Tears.
Not quite sure what to make of Ulitskaya after this little foray. My friend tells me that Daniel Stern, Translator is well worth reading, but it doesn't seem there is a copy in English. The Funeral Party has been well received. May turn there next.
Wednesday, October 13, 2010
The Fatal Eggs is another little gem by Mikhail Bulgakov. It has been translated several times, including this excerpt from a recent translation by Michael Karpelson. It was even made into a movie, Rokovye yaytsa by Sergei Lomkin in 1996. The story takes place in the near future, narrated from a time four years beyond which Bulgakov wrote the novella in 1924. It concerns the fateful discovery of a ray of red light, artificially produced, that creates drastic effects in microscopic offspring, and eventually in frogs. Bulgakov, a doctor by training, infuses his story with enough clinical terms to make it all seem quite possible, as was the case in Heart of a Dog. The story appears to delight mostly in a H.G. Wells-like vision of the future, but is not without its social allegory of early Soviet times, leading censors to question his intents.
Wednesday, October 6, 2010
Pushkin wrote The Bronze Horseman in part as a response to Mickiewicz's The Monument of Peter the Great. Mickiewicz had been jailed and forced into exile following the student uprising at the University of Vilnius in 1823. Mickiewicz had been protesting the oppression of Lithuania and Poland following the partitions first made by Peter the Great, and continued with his daughter Catherine, who had the bronze sculpture of her father on horseback erected in St. Petersburg. To Mickiewicz, Peter was an usurper, not a liberating force, and creates an imaginary conversation between Pushkin and himself which Marinus Wes describes in his book Between Two Horsemen.
Mickiewicz was more explicit in his text than Pushkin was in his response. Pushkin took the statue as having a dark side, in the way it came to life and chased down a bedraggled Yevgeny, who carried with him the scars of the 1824 flood. The only direct reference to Mickiewicz is a footnote,
Mickiewicz, in one of his best poems, Oleszkiewicz, has in most beautiful lines described the day preceding the Petersburg flood. It is only a pity that his description is inaccurate. There was no snow--the Neva was not covered with ice. Our description is more correct, although it has none of the brilliant colors of the Polish poet.
attached to the lines,
O'er darkened Petrograd there rolled
November's breath of autumn cold;
And Neva with her boisterous billow
Splashed on her shapely bounding-wall
And tossed in restless rise and fall
Like a sick man upon his pillow.
Mickiewicz and Pushkin were friends, even if Mickiewicz tended to view all Russians as enemies by this stage in his life, eventually emigrating to Paris where he hoped to revive a Polish-Lithuanian state in exile.
Portrait of Mickiewicz by Walenty Wańkowicz (1827-28), portrait of Puskin by Vasily Tropinin (1827).
Monday, October 4, 2010
So often referenced in literature and reproduced on stage many times is Alexander Griboyedov's Gore ot Uma (Woe from Wit). Here is a subtitled scene from a 1998 production of the play, featuring Oleg Menshikov, and a clip from the 1952 movie, or you can view the 1998 production in its entirety in Russian.
Griboyedov, like Lermontov, had a hard time getting his plays past the censors in his time. Written in 1823, it was not published in full until 1861, although many versions of the play appeared in the years in between. A number of the catch phrases have since become part of the Russian language.
After watching a Lithuanian production, Mistras, I found myself looking for some perspective on Paris in 1848 and found Herzen's section of his time in Paris from 1847-1852 in My Past and Thoughts. What a fascinating time! While the play focuses mostly on Adam Mickiewicz, Herzen takes in a broader section of the revolutionary ferment, noting how Mickiewicz had fallen under the influence of Towiański and had become much too religion for his taste. Herzen's sympathies laid more with persons like Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who tried to keep a respectable paper going in the face of mounting governmental censorship, while being held in jail.
Herzen was one of the more famous Russian emigres in Paris. He was great friends with Turgenev and sat with him when Turgenev felt he had come down with cholera, which was sweeping Paris at the time. Fortunately for Turgenev he had a much lesser malady and was able to recover after a fortnight.
As Issiah Berlin noted in the forward, I was one of many who was well aware of Herzen but had never read him. I'm glad to have finally overcome that shortcoming. Herzen is fascinating to read, not only for the time he covers in his Memoirs, but the immediately accessible way in which he writes. Berlin noted that Herzen was a master of observation and one of the few writers to successfully capture a conversational tone of voice in his writing. Well acquainted with so many leading political and cultural figures of his time, Herzen provides invaluable insights into their characters, not least of which Mickiewicz, who he felt had outlived his time and become a caricature of himself.
Herzen's sharp, often acerbic comments reflect his skepticism with the Revolutionary fervor of the time. He was a strong believer in individual liberty and didn't like the way so many persons were falling in lockstep behind movements, fearing that many of the mistakes from the earlier French revolution were being repeated. He couldn't understand why Mickiewicz would idolize Napoleon to the point of doffing his hat each time he passed his statue. Herzen eventually found solace in Switzerland, after being unceremoniously deported from Paris for funding Proudhon's efforts.
The photograph by Sergei Lvovich dates from after this time.
Wednesday, September 29, 2010
Maskaradas has become a staple of the Fall season, and one we've watched several times. Lermontov had a hard time getting this play staged in his day. Vladimir Golstein notes that the poet made drastic revisions to please censors, but it wasn't until 11 years after Lermontov's death that the play was first seen. Rimas Tuminas first staged the play in Vilnius in 1997. He is currently directing Moscow's Vakhtangov Theatre.
Monday, September 20, 2010
My wife and I had been looking forward to the premiere of Ana Karenina, a modern dance production by Anželika Cholina. We weren't disappointed. Cholina appeared to take the story from the point of view of Ana, creating a dream-like atmosphere in which Ana wrestles (at times quite literally) with the tempest of emotions inside her. The Kitty-Levin story serves more as counterpoint, with Levin portrayed as an oafish man, dogging Kitty through the first act before bringing her to his estate and marrying her in the second act.
Beata Molytė shines as Ana, overwhelming the rather sober looking Vronsky, as portrayed by Gintaras Visockis. Torn by her passion for Vronsky, her place in society and her love for her son, Ana plays out these emotions on stage, at times bordering on the hallucinatory, in keeping with the emotions she for the most part kept suppressed in the novel, until her tragic end, which Cholina handled beautifully. She portrays Ana as disappearing into the darkness, with the clatter of chairs against the stage floor serving as the wheels of the train.
Juozas Statkevičius' form fitting costumes wonderfully evoke the period. The lighting could have been better, as the hanging chandeliers created a rather odd haziness to the ballroom and other group scenes, such as the marvelous horse race in which Vronsky takes a fall. Ana can not disguise her emotions, much to the chagrin of her husband.
Seems Cholina pretty much followed the format of the original ballet, which was also divided into two parts, and featured the music of Rodion Shchedrin. Cholina used the music of Alfred Schnittke.
Here's a clip with Cholina on the production. Photos from a/ch, klubas.lt and diena.lt.
Seems Cholina pretty much followed the format of the original ballet, which was also divided into two parts, and featured the music of Rodion Shchedrin. Cholina used the music of Alfred Schnittke.
Here's a clip with Cholina on the production. Photos from a/ch, klubas.lt and diena.lt.
Sunday, September 19, 2010
I was bemused by this article by Dara Horn on Teaching Tevye. I'm not sure where Dara is coming from, but I think she should take a closer look at the stories in question, because Tevye is no "ignoramus," and the quotes he takes from the Bible and Talmud may seem broad and sometimes out of context, but as Hillel Halkin noted in his introduction, were in most cases a propos, as we must remember that Sholem Aleichem is speaking through Tevye as he relates the changing face of Yiddish life in Ukraine.
These stories, ostensibly about the marriages and misfortunes of Tevye and his daughters, serve to tell us about various forces shaping Yiddish life. One daughter marries a revolutionary, and moves to Siberia to be with him after he serves his jail term. Another marries an Orthodox boy, with Tevye finding it very difficult to reconcile himself with the loss of his daughter to the local priest, who appears to gloat over this conversion. Another daughter flirts with a wealthy young Jew, only to pay the ultimate price when his relatives intercede on his behalf. These are for the most part sad tales that tell of the insufferable conditions many Jews found themselves in the Pale of Settlement. If Aleichem relates Tevye's tales with a robust sense of humor, it is to conceal the physical pain and emotional hurt suffered during these times. Tevye is a vehicle for these stories, although Halkin notes that Aleichem may have actually drew his inspiration from someone like Tevye.
According to Halkin, Yiddish humor was a relatively new thing, emerging in the mid 19th century. Finding themselves second-class citizens, humor became a means of dealing with the injustices and indignities that were being heaped upon Yiddish people in Tsarist Russia. Aleichem grew to become one of the most beloved story-tellers because of his ability to use humor to convey searing stories that struck the nerve of his audiences. The Hebrew references often flew over the heads of his audience, Halkin noted, which is why he leaves many of these references in Hebrew in his English translation, with a glossary in the back. The irony today is that Yiddish has been lost in time, kept alive by Yiddish scholars like Dovid Katz, who teaches Yiddish studies at Vilnius University, and has published a wealth of Litvak culture and literature.
Halkin also notes that the Tevye cycle has been adapted into many stories over the years, not just Fiddler on the Roof, and that Aleichem himself reforged some of these stories himself. It is unclear how many daughters Tevye actually had. Aleichem periodically mentions seven, but in the stories he only deals with five, and mentions no more than six by name. The stories arose over a 20 year period, intermixed with other stories either read or published during this time, and were collected later into the stories of Tevye the Dairyman, or Milkman if you prefer.
Saturday, September 18, 2010
I found myself asking if Petersburg constituted the first "Post-Modern" novel? So many of the elements we now regard as "Post-Modern" are right here in Bely's "Astral Novel" from 1913. Seems that the Post-Modernists stole from the pages of Symbolist literature.
Bely shifts back and forth in time effortlessly, with the events in the novel all taking place within a span of two days. The ticking clock inside the homemade bomb, hidden in a sardine can, comes to dominate the second half of the novel. The tension is wonderfully wrought, as Bely moves back and forth between a handful of characters in those fateful hours of the strikes that would bring about the first Russian revolution of 1905. Nikolai Apollonovich finds himself breaking these hours down into seconds, with each one ticking away slowly on a collision course with "zero."
Meanwhile, his father contemplates the distance that has grown between his son and him, and in snooping around his son's room comes across the sardine tin, not sure what to make of it. He thinks it is some kind of toy from his son's past and takes it to the library for closer examination.
Nikolai struggles to get himself free of various entanglements, including an old friend who feels Nikolai has dishonored his wife and is demanding an explanation. But, the real nemesis is Lippanchenko, who appears to be taking advantage of not only the restless young nobility in persons like Nikolai and Sofia Petrovna, but the general unrest of the city.
Lippanchenko remains a shadowy figure throughout the novel. Nikolai's dealings are mostly with Alexander Ivanovich, who seems to be the only one who understands the meaning of the revolution taking place. But, numerous misunderstandings and the nefarious activities of Lippanchenko threaten to unhinge everything. Reminded me a lot of Dostoevsky's Demons in this regard.
Through it all, Apollon Apollonovich tries to maintain his decorum, but even he feels it is sagging under the pressure of events taking place. When his wife, and the mother of son, unexpectedly returns, there seems an opportunity for rebirth, but ultimately this is a tale of disillusionment.
The novel has been compared to Joyce's Ulysses, mostly I think in the way the two authors dealt with the concept of time. Petersburg pretty much remained an obscure novel until first translated into English in the 1959. Cournos was very familiar with events in Russia at the time of the second revolution, having traveled to Petersburg in 1917. He provides some background to the novel in his introduction, but not much in the way of insight into how Bely composed this novel. It appears the recent Ellsworth translation sheds much needed new light on the novel.
The painting is The Magi (1914) by Pavel Filonov
Friday, September 17, 2010
I find myself reading Sholem Aleichem's stories of Tevye the Dairyman, after finishing Petersburg (more on Petersburg later). I have a translation by Hillel Halkin, who also writes a lengthy forward describing the Jewish condition in Russia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the time in which these stories are set. Aleichem eventually immigrated to America, as many Eastern European Jews did during this time, escaping the harsh tsarist rule that had consigned them to the Pale of Settlement. Still, some Jews prospered as Aleichem noted in his amusing introductory chapter, as Tevye meets a wealthy family from Yehupetz (Kiev) in an odd and round about way.
The stories are filled with religious anecdotes as Tevye tries to come to terms with his lowly place in the world. These amusing reveries are passed along to Aleichem, who sets himself as the narrator of these stories. Halkin noted that Aleichem used a number of pen names, this being the one that stuck, which literally translates into "Hello, there." He grew up in the vicinity of Kiev, where a monument commemorates him on Rognedinskaya street. These stories were first published in the Warsaw yearbook Der Hoyzfraynt, constituting a vibrant part of Yiddish culture in Russia and Eastern Europe.
Tuesday, September 14, 2010
Monday, September 13, 2010
Bely draws on Pushkin's The Bronze Horseman as his inspiration for Petersburg, prefacing each part with pieces from the immortal poem. In this poem we find a young man, who the narrator has chosen to call Yevgeny, driven mad by the destruction wrought from the flood of 1824, which destroyed his his love's home and cast about its inhabitants if after a battle. Yevgeny wanders around for a year in a state of delirium eventually coming upon the bronze sculpture of Peter, at which he hurls his abuses, only for the menacing statue to come to life and chase him through the streets of Petershburg and to his doom. With the popularity of the poem, Falconet's statue of Peter the Great became known as The Bronze Horseman.
The Neva figures heavily into the poem, like an untamed beast, whose waves plunge the city into chaos. It took decades for the city to bring the waters under control with a series of locks and canals. Pushkin appears to wrestle with the strengths and weaknesses of this great city that Peter built, protecting Russia from the North and exposing it to the West.
And thus He mused: "From here, indeed
Shall we strike terror in the Swede;
And here a city by our labor
Founded, shall gall our haughty neightor;
'Here cut'--so Nature gives command--
'Your window through on Europe; stand
Firm-footed by the sea, unchanging!'
Ay, ships of every flag shall come
By waters they had never swum,
And we shall revel, freely ranging."
By contrast, Bely seems to take an opposite view, seeing Petersburg as a decaying vision, personified by Apollon Apollonovich. Here again the Neva figures heavily into his novel, as if on the verge of retaking the city.
Friday, September 10, 2010
Pasternak to Isaiah Berlin,
".. of course Andrey Bely was a genius – Petersburg, Kotik Letaev are full of wonderful things – I know that, you need not tell me – but his influence was fatal."
and what did Berlin think of Andrei Bely?
"... a man of strange and unheard-of insights – magical and a holy fool in the tradition of Russian Orthodoxy."
Andrei Bely (1905) as seen by Leon Bakst.
Thursday, September 9, 2010
Sergei Eisenstein goes back two years before the first Russian Revolution to the strikes of 1903 and the subsequent suppression that followed in his feature length debut, Стачка. The film was made in 1925 and was steeped in revolutionary references, including the famous scene near the end of the film where he compares the suppression to cows being slaughtered at the abbotoirs. He would go onto make Броненосец Потёмкин (Battleship Potemkin) that same year, which dealt with the mutiny that occurred in 1905. His strong visual style would become the hallmark of early Soviet film.
As I read Petersburg, first published in 1916, I probably could use a few more annotations, as there are so many references that if you aren't fully knowledgeable of the events that surrounded the 1905 uprising, you will find yourself missing a lot of them. My overall sense of the novel is that Andrei Bely was channeling Gogol while setting his characters against each other like chess pieces. Each chapter seems to represent a "move," or series of moves, leading toward a fateful ending. I can see why this is one of Nabokov's favorite books from the 20th century, as it has much of the sardonic wit and clever juxtaposition of characters that you read in Nabokov's books.
A new translation by John Elsworth apparently breathes more life into the novel. I have been reading the Cournos translation, which I haven't found that stilted, as Katya Galitzine notes in her review of the book, but am curious to read the Elsworth translation as he goes back to the "more complex 1913 version" of the novel. Here's an audio interview with John Elsworth from The Leonard Lopate Show.
Here's a set of reflections by Nikolai Berdyaev regarding Bely's Petersburg, which he describes as an Astral Novel, written in 1916.
The painting is Manifesto of October 17th, 1905 by Ilya Repin
Sunday, September 5, 2010
On a lighter note, one of my favorite Soviet animated features is Hedgehog in the Fog, made by Yuriy Norshteyn in 1975, and winner of numerous international awards in the years that followed. Norshteyn has done a number of other wonderful animated features, but has yet to finish his long overdue adaptation of The Overcoat.
Thursday, September 2, 2010
Don't know quite what to make of this early short novel by Chekhov. He seems to be presenting young Egor as the future of Russia as the boy finds himself thrust into a journey across the limitless Steppe with his uncle and a bishop in a mad race to catch up with the mysterious Varlamov. While this action propels the first half of the story, it seems little more than a way to hold the reader's attention as Chekhov seems more interested in describing the vast prairie land of his mother country and Egorushka's impressions, as he is being taken to a boarding school in a distant town.
Along the way we are treated to some rather odd characters sketches such as two Jewish brothers where the shabby covered chaise stops briefly as the boy's uncle, Ivan Kuzmitchov, tries to gauge how distant Varlamov remains on the road. The description of the Jewish brothers would make many readers today cringe, as they are cast as gross caricatures. Forced to sit for a cup of tea, Kuzmitchov can barely hold himself, so anxious to continue the journey despite night having fallen. He wants desperately to complete his transaction with Varlamov before others get to him first. When Father Christopher wants to do his blessings, Kuzmitchov can contain himself no longer, but the elderly Bishop does so just the same.
In time, we learn that Varlamov is a wealthy landowner. One of the wealthiest in the broad region. Meanwhile, Egorushka tries to absorb all these new impressions and make sense of them, especially when he finds himself passed over to a wagon train so that Kuzmitchov and Father Christopher can continue their chase unfettered by Egorushka's questions and complaints.
The wagon train dominates the second half of the story with the young boy forced to deal with a whole new set of circumstances. We are treated to a variety of character sketches of persons barely removed from serfdom and one story after another of the dangers that befall merchants like Kuzmitchov on this seemingly desolate road. The stories are told at night with everyone sitting around the campfire, leaving Egorushka with fitful dreams. Eventually, a storm overtakes the caravan and the young boy is left chilled to the bone.
Without much drama, Egorushka is eventually reunited with his Uncle and Father Christopher in an unnamed provincial city. He finds out that his Uncle has competed his deal with Varlamov, but finds himself too sick to share in his Uncle's pleasure. Father Christopher takes care of the boy, rubbing oil and vinegar into his body that night to take out the chill. The next morning the young boy awakes reinvigorated and ready for the next stage of his journey. His Uncle pawns him off on a distant relation and this is where Chekhov chooses to leave the reader, as if the first act in a much broader play.
It seemed to me that Chekhov projected Young Egor as the future of Russia, and that those he fell into association with on this journey the past and the turbulent present. The Steppe encompasses and comes to hang over this story in the form of a massive thunderstorm that shakes the boy to the bone. He describes the landscape in detail, noting a couple of villages along the way, and reveling in the streams in which the boy gets to swim. It is a pleasant story but one that doesn't have much meat to it, like his other more character driven stories.
I see that Sergei Bondarchuk adapted The Steppe to film in 1977, but I haven't seen it.
The painting is Vladimirka Road (1892) by Isaac Levitan
Wednesday, September 1, 2010
While technically a war movie, Tarkovsky chooses to take a more abstract approach to the ravages of war in My Name is Ivan. We find a young Ivan moving between blissful reveries with his mother and sister by a minimalist lake shore to those where he is seen penetrating behind German lines during WWII, bringing back reconnaissance to numbered Soviet commanders.
The war scenes are presented realistically while the idyllic beach scenes are far more dream like, but in watching it again I'm not convinced the war scenes are real. Rather, a product of his imagination, especially the use of code in the beginning and the counting he does with the twigs, berries and seeds in the young lieutenant's office. I think Tarkovsky purposefully tried to keep the relationship between the conflicting images ambiguous, using marvelous camera work such as the scene where young Ivan drifts off to sleep and moves up a well in his dream to the image of he and his mother looking down a well.
You can see the influence Kalatozov had on Tarkovsky, as many scenes are reminiscent of The Cranes Are Flying and The Letter Never Sent. Apparently, Tarkovsky had approached Kalatozov's camera man Sergei Urusevsky to do the film, but the credit goes to Vadim Yusov.
Wonderful first feature length film that opened the door for Tarkovsky to a much wider audience. He had previously done a short film of Hemingway's The Killers (1958).
The Golden Calf sounds a lot like a modern update of Dead Souls. In this case Ostap Bender rides through the Hinterlands in a yellow jalopy in search of an elusive millionaire. Sounds like a good translation. As Mark Twain once wrote in The Awful German Language, it is very hard to translate humor.
Ilf and Petrov love the idea of searching out millions, probably best characterized in The 12 Chairs, which Mel Brooks made into a movie back in 1970. Here's the classic Soviet version directed by Mark Zakharov and featuring Andrei Mironov as Bender, but alas no subtitles. Well worth the look just the same.
Also great fun is the adventures of Ilf and Petrov's American Road Trip.
Tuesday, August 31, 2010
Seems everyone is celebrating Chekhov these days. Two new films, Ward No. 6 and The Duel came out this past year, and many earlier films were being screened at festivals such as this one sponsored by the NW Film Center of the Portland Art Museum, this past May, which included Soviet classics such as The Seagull (1970), directed by Yuli Karasik.
Of course, The Seagull is one of those favorites that has been done several times, including this earlier version by Sidney Lumet. I guess the main draw of Chekhov is that he still appears so modern more than 100 years after his untimely death.
Monday, August 30, 2010
I continue to work my way through Chekhov's short novels, although not in chronological order. I finished My Life (1896) the other night. It is told through the point of a young man with the ostentatious name of Misail, who has opted for a workingman's life, much to the indignation of his father, the town architect. Chekhov uses this character to voice his own misgivings about growing up in a provincial city of 60,000 inhabitants. He offers a number of interesting character studies, including an amusing view of local theater.
Initially, Misail finds himself having as difficult finding a place among the workers as he did among bureaucrats, but in times settles on housepainting as his vocation, representing the flip side to his father. Misail lives among the poor as he struggles to shed his noble bearing. His father can't stand it and repeatedly tries to get his son to change his ways, but to no avail. When Misail attracts the attention of some of the younger aristocrats, including his sister, this becomes too much for his father to bear and he has the governor of the town threaten his son with a public flogging.
Misail remains undeterred, but eventually his attraction for the daughter of a railroad engineer earns him a place back in society, as they opt to restore a farm her father had bought off an old lady along Tolstoyan lines. Of course, Chekhov isn't content to revel in this rustic idealistic life and shows how Misail's and Masha's best laid plans go to ruin. Misail felt Masha was like an actress who adopted her role as a countrywoman only to shed it when things didn't work out like she had imagined.
Misail comes across a bit too much like a paragon of virtue, admonishing himself for being taken in by the aristocratic life and their flirtation with the condition of the poor, criticizing everyone around him and eventually returning to his role as a housepainter as if it is his true nature. I liked the way Chekhov initially pitted the son against the father, but I think it would have been a more effective story if Misail had not so easily been able to reconcile his feelings.
The painting is Spring, Kitchen Gardens (1893) by Alexei Savrasov.
Friday, August 27, 2010
Here is an abridged copy of Troyat's magisterial biography of Tolstoy. Unfortunately, there are only a few pages from the Last Days of Tolstoy's life with all the arguments over Tolstoy's diaries which Chertkov had in his possession and Sofiya (or Sonya as Troyat calls her) very much wanted returned. Tolstoy kept promising they would be returned but apparently Chertkov retained them. Anyway, she felt great animosity toward Chertkov which was reflected in the movie.
You can buy a second hand copy of Troyat's biography from Abebooks and other sources at very low prices.
Here is a copy of the obituary from the New York Times, dated November 20,1910. It is noted,
ASTAPOVA, Sunday, Nov. 20.--Count Tolstoy died at 6:05 this morning.
The Countess Tolstoy was admitted to the sickroom at 5:50. Tolstoy did not recognize her.
When one of the heart attacks seized him Tolstoy was alone with his eldest daughter, Tatina. He suddenly clutched her hand and drew her to him. He seemed to be choking, but was able to whisper:
"Now the end has come; that is all."
Interesting to find out that Chertkov helped create The Free Age Press when exiled in London in 1897. This is where he met up with the Maudes who would eventually translate much of Tolstoy into English, and Aylmer Maude would write the biography The Life of Tolstoy Later Years. But, it would seem that Chertkov and the Maudes had a falling out, judging by this undated letter from Tolstoy. Interesting that he praises their translations. I don't know how well Tolstoy understood English, but the Maude translations have been raked over the coals in the years that followed, most notably by Nabokov.
Thursday, August 26, 2010
I finally had a chance to watch The Last Station and have to say enjoyed it, largely because of Helen Mirren's marvelous performance as Sofiya. She really held this movie together, as it threatened to devolve into a rather tedious melodrama at times. Christopher Plummer gave Count Tolstoy the weight he deserves on screen, and the rapport between he and his wife was very good, particularly the wonderful bedroom scene.
I was a bit bemused by the portrayal of Vladimir Chertkov. He comes across as such a cad. From what I've read, Chertkov was completely devoted to Tolstoy's legacy, and wasn't trying to steal the estate out from under Sofiya, as was implied in this movie. He organized a new publishing house, Intermediary, in 1885 at Tolstoy's initiative, which published Chekhov, Leskov, Ertel, as well as Tolstoy. Here is Chertkov with Tolstoy,
and a book Chertkov published of his Last Days with Tolstoy. Chertkov came from a wealthy background himself and was able to fund many of his efforts, including the publishing house.
I can understand Sofiya's worries over the estate within the context of this film, and certainly Helen Mirren made you greatly empathize with her character, but one has to wonder how much of this story was actually the case, even if Parini apparently pored over reams of journals, memoirs and reminiscences. You can see Parini casting himself as Valentin Bulgakov, taking the side of Sofiya in the disputes which followed. Anyway, it was great fun and one has to expect a few artistic liberties along the way.
I wouldn't call it light reading, but The Life of Insects is a book you can consume at one sitting. You will probably find yourself wanting to reread parts of it, particularly the interesting dialog between fellow moth-men, Mitya and Dima, which as their names imply appear as two halves of the same coin.
Viktor Pelevin's short novel from the early 90s is not so easy to categorize. Some have viewed as allegory, others as science fiction and fantasy. It would seem Pelevin took his cue from a few lines of Brodsky,
I sit in my garden and the lamp is burning.
Not a single lover, friend or servant.
Not a single lord or beggar present
Nothing but the harmony of insects' droning.
not Kafka as many persons would like to think. Pelevin purposely keeps the reader off balance with all the shape-shifting that takes place as his insect humans move freely back and forth from one form to another.
The book essentially follows three stories with three other short pieces fit into the interlocking chapters. Perhaps the most compelling story is that of Marina, a queen ant who descends to earth in the form of a shapely young women in a tight-fitting mini skirt and stiletto heels, finds herself having to clip her wings to adjust to a new world along the Crimean coastline. She happens to have just enough crumpled up ruble notes in her little purse to see a French film that more or less serves as her training film. From that point she begins to build her nest using a trowel to dig and her skirt as a little sack to help disperse dirt away from her entrance at the base of an decaying motel. In her hunt for food, she encounters a rival queen ant with Pelevin seeming to relish the "ant fight" which ensues. Marina also waits longingly for her male ant to come, decorating her chamber more or less as she remembers in the film, doing the best she can from available materials. At the extreme point of despair, she hears the tell-tale sound of a trowel nearing her chamber, finding her mate in the form of a decorated soldier named Nikolai. True to the nature ants, the world she soon finds herself invited into is a military one. The ball Marina attends gives the reader the sense that this military order hopes to revive Tsarist times in the wake of the Soviet collapse. But, the happy spell she finds herself in soon crumbles and Marina is left to tend to a cache of white eggs. Only then does Marina seem to fully realize who she is, abjectly consigning herself to her fate.
Pelevin's metamorphoses take on dream-like proportions in his tale of two moths, which is reminiscent of Dostoevsky's The Double, with the hallucinogenic dreams evoking an "underworld" not unlike that of Alice. The moths, Mitya and Dima reach the most existential levels of the novel as they try to discern between light and dark. Unlike Kafka, where it is essentially a long journey into darkness, Pelevin plays with both halves of the same sphere, quite playfully even in his chapter with the dung beetle. There is no clear beginning or end, but rather a fascinating little journey into the lives of insects.
Tuesday, August 17, 2010
Lieven's account in Russia Against Napoleon could not be more different [than War and Peace]. He concentrates on the men who led the Russian Army to victory -- the young Czar Alexander and his close advisers -- and shows that they won because they got more things right than Napoleon did. They understood him better than he did them, and while Napoleon may have been a battlefield genius, Alexander showed greater diplomatic skill in bringing together the coalition that eventually defeated him. That was no easy matter, given the fear of the French that prevailed in the German lands, and the fear of Russian predominance as well.
One of my favorite film adaptations is Sobachye serdtse (1988), serialized here on Youtube, replete with English subtitles. Vladimir Bortko captured the spirit and textural feeling of Bulgagov's classic short novel. You have to do a double take as the film looks like it was made in the 30's, but was produced during the Perestroika years. A lot of credit goes to Yevgeniy Yevstigneyev, who is excellent as Professor Preobrazhensky.
Friday, August 13, 2010
A book that comes up often in discussion is Moscow-Petushki, or Moscow to the End of the Line, by Venedikt Erofeev. It is essentially a drinking book, as Venya, who has lost his job, discusses the sad state of Soviet affairs over multiple bottles of vodka as he makes his way by train from Moscow to Petushki. For obvious reasons, this book was published abroad in Israel and France before finally finding its way into Russian print in 1989. I'm not sure if this is the perestroika Gorbacev had in mind, but it seemed to sum up a lot of persons' feelings at the time.
Tuesday, August 10, 2010
A fellow Mubi fan directed me to this Belarussian film, Come and See (1985), which offers a unique view on World War II and its aftermath. It was one of the most-watched Soviet movies of all time with many haunting images. It appears to be getting a second look, judging by this recent review by Roger Ebert Unfortunately, the full length version is no longer available on YouTube, but here is an extended trailer.
Wednesday, July 28, 2010
Looking forward to a new translation of Dr. Zhivago by Pevear and Volokhonsky, which is due out this October. Apparently, the widely available translation was put out in haste back in 1958, and surprisingly no publishing company has thought about revisiting the novel until now.
Tuesday, June 29, 2010
Took a little break from Russian themes, but find myself yearning for a good Russian novel again. I have a copy of The Golovlyov Family weighing heavily on my nightstand, but I don't think I'm for Shchedrin's gloomy tale this summer. Probably opt for more Chekhov after thoroughly enjoying The Duel.