Saturday, January 30, 2010

Why You Should Know Clarice Lispector

I must say I knew nothing about Clarice until I read this article.  Now I am very interested,

That unexpected encounter brought me friends I never would have met and took me to places I never would have seen. Yes, the same would have been true with Russian or Arabic or Greek: every new culture brings its food, its music, its beaches. But what Portuguese gave me that nothing else could have was Brazil’s great mystic writer, Clarice Lispector, a person so dazzling that she was reputed to be that rare woman who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf.

She came to Brazil by way of Ukraine, and adopted Portuguese as her literary language.

Read more

For those curious, here is The Passion According to G.H.

Friday, January 29, 2010

David Golder

This is certainly an odd little book.  The story seems to come more from the pages of Balzac than Dostoevsky as the cynical old Jewish banker tries desperately to reconcile his life but finds himself unable to do so without scoring one last deal in Soviet Russia.  Throughout the short account he is plagued by his wife and daughter who seem to have no other interest in him except his money.  At least that is the way he sees it, and Nemirovsky gives us little reason to think otherwise.  A few pages reveal a lighter tone when the author follows young Joy and her boyfriend in the Pyrennes as they escape into a romantic idyll.  But, alas, it is all too brief as they soon find themselves short of cash and have to return.  By this point, Gloria, her nasty mother, has assumed control of much of the Golder estate, while her embattled husband, having suffered a heart attack, retreats inside himself, unwilling to extend anymore credit to anyone, and letting the once powerful financial empire that surrounded him crumble into ruin.

There is something oddly Ayn Randish about the way we find David Golder holed up in Paris, bitter and extremely cynical, unwilling to move a muscle until his daughter comes to him one last time asking him for money in order to avoid having to marry one of his arch rivals.  Golder at first rejects and then accepts his daughter, seemingly more as a means to get back at his wife than anything else.  So, he follows through on one last score that will keep young Joy flush for the rest of her life so that she could enjoy herself to the fullest.  Something he was never able to do.

It seems more a sketch than a novel, but it definitely grips you.  The book caused quite a stir in its day.  It was Nemirovsky's first heralded work, written at age 26, and was quickly made into a movie.  For Jews, it represented all the wrong stereotypes that were prevalent then.  Seemed to me that Nemirovsky was somehow trying to come to grips with her own situation.  There was a sardonic note in her telling which indicated to me that maybe she was examining her own life in a parable directed at her parents.

Here is a review by Coetzee on Golder and the other books in the Everyman's Library edition.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Boris Godunov

One of the things I find most interesting about Russian culture is the way literature, music and theatre have become intertwined.  Operas have been made of Eugene Onegin, War and Peace, and The Idiot.  Imagine an opera of Moby Dick or Whitman's Song to Myself!  The crowning operatic achievement remains Boris Godunov, based on a drama by Pushkin.

The drama had been censored until 1866.  Mussorgsky first staged his complete operatic production in 1874.  It is a towering achievement, and finally garnered the attention he deserved.  Unfortunately, he wasn't able to come close to this peak again.  It has been remade countless times, versions by Rimsky-Korsakov and Shostakovich among them.  In 1986, Bondarchuk made a movie based on the story. 

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Love for Three Oranges

Also worth noting for those who get Mezzo, this television channel is celebrating Russian music this month with many wonderful productions, including Prokofiev's L'Amour des trois oranges, which is visually stunning and a joy to watch and listen to.

The Lady with the Dog

Another nice find on YouTube was Chekhov's The Lady with the Dog, broken up into 8 segments.  Known as Dama s sobachkoj in Russian, it was made in 1960 by Iosif Kheifits.  The story became central to Hanna's character in The Reader.  Here's a review of the movie.

Bortko's Idiot

I finally managed to get a hold of a copy of Bortko's Idiot with Yevgeni Mironov in the title role.  It was a 10-part television series done in 2003, and is available with English subtitles for those who have poor comprehension of Russian like myself.

I had hoped to see Nekrosius's play earlier this month, but it was canceled due to illnesses among the actors.  It is scheduled to come around again in February.

In the meantime I had bought an Everyman's Library edition of the novel, translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky, who appear to have become the foremost authorities on Russian literary translations in recent years.  I have to say I enjoy their translations.  While Volokhonsky does the grunt work of making a word-for-word translation of the original text, Pevear seeks to give it a narrative flow in keeping with the author's original intent, without losing the meaning.

Anyway, here is a YouTube link, with English subtitles.  Seems you can follow the entire series on YouTube in 10 minutes segments.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Being Irène Némirovsky

Jonathan Weiss wrote a very intimate biography of Némirovsky a few years back.  There are also various websites dedicated to her, including this one.  She seems to enjoy more fame now than she ever did when she was alive.  For many Jews she was very controversial in her day, as she not only converted to Catholicism, but many regarded her early books and articles as antisemitic, in particular David Golder, which was made into a film in 1930.  Weiss appears to feel that her conversion to Catholicism was genuine, and not simply a means of dodging the antisemitic laws of the time.  Either way, she was not able to escape the Holocaust.

She was born in Kiev, and raised in St. Petersburg, but French became her first language, especially after her family moved to Paris to escape the Bolshevik Revolution.  She enjoyed a certain amount of success in her day, but it was the printing of the unfinished Suite Francaise in 2004 that appears to have immortalized her.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Chekhov as seen by Nemirovsky

I feel lucky to have found an inexpensive copy of Nemirovsky's A Life of Chekhov, as it seems pretty hard to find these days.  Suite Francaise really did a number on me, as I found myself fascinated by Nemirovsky, reading her biography and purchasing other books by her.  It was fascinating to read she took such great interest in Chekhov.  It is also interesting to see BBC did a radio production of Nemirovsky's biography of Chekhov.

Monday, January 11, 2010

A Friend of the Family

I find myself reading The Village of Stepanchikovo, a book Dostoevsky wrote while in Siberian exile.  Ignat Avsey gives a very interesting introduction to the povest, noting that it was originally intended as a play, but given no takers Dostoevsky made it into a narrative.  As it was, it took several publishers, before having the book serialized in 1859, and was mostly panned by critics.

Avsey also notes that Dostoevsky drew a lot from Gogol, and that Foma Fomich may have been a caricature of Gogol himself, which Dostoevsky had lost respect for.  He also notes other influences like Dickens, whom Dostoevsky read while in exile, and Moliere's Tartuffe.

The story revolves around a dysfunctional gentry family in a remote village in which a man of dubious nature has managed to gain sway.  Rostanev's young nephew comes to visit and is soon caught up in a maelstrom of events largely the result of Foma Fomich, who isn't formally introduced until the middle of the narrative.  Written largely for comic effect, the story is not without its insights into the crumbling aristocracy of Tsarist Russia. 

It wasn't until the end of the nineteenth century that Dostoevsky's wife approached Stanislavsky with the novella.  He apparently so identified himself with Colonel Rostanev that he had a very difficult time reconciling himself with Foma Fomich.  So, the play languished for years until finally produced in 1917, and became both a critical sensation and popular success.  Largely, it seems, because of the parallels drawn between Foma Fomich and Rasputin.

I saw a Lithuanian production of the play a couple years back with Rolandas Kazlas in the title role.  It was very well done and Kazlas was excellent.  Jonas Vaitkus is one of Lithuania's leading theater directors and a mentor to many of the younger directors today.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson

On a lighter note, Russian television has been showing episodes of the Sherlock Holmes series that was made back in the early 80s. Vasily Livanov and Vitaly Solomin starred as the intrepid duo.  The program was one of the most successful in Soviet television.  It pretty much covered all the short stories, which have been handsomely bound into a new annotative 2-volume setHere's a clip from the series, with subtitles. 

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Black Monk

In perusing online texts of Chekhov, I came across The Black Monk.  My wife and I saw a stage adaptation of this short story years ago with Sergei Makovetsky as the black monk.  It was excellent.  I usually have to read translations before seeing these plays as my comprehension of Russian is very weak, but when you have excellent actors like Makovetsky, their actions pretty much carry the story.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Chekhov and Tolstoy

Great picture of Chekhov with Tolstoy in the Crimea in 1897.  

Journey to Sakhalin

Getting back to books, Sakhalin Island by a relatively young Chekhov is a must read.  The book provides so many insights into Chekhov, and as Robert Peckham noted in his review altered the author's writing style leading to the great literary works that followed.  Peckham further notes,

Sakhalin Island focuses as much on a moral and conceptual geography as it does on a physical location. Throughout the book Chekhov demonstrates that for most of his contemporaries Sakhalin was less a place than an imaginary topos; because it had acquired mythical status, its existence had become fictitious. Significantly, Chekhov observes that the official charts of the Tatar and Sakhalin coasts are notoriously unreliable and that the captain of his boat 'follows his own, which he draws up and corrects while sailing.'

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Taras Bulba

Vladimir Bortko's adaptation of Gogol's  controversial novel (now available on DVD) created a big stir when it was released last year.  Bortko has built a fine reputation as one of Russia's premier directors, having brought Bulgakov's Heart of a Dog and Master and Margarita to the screen.  He also did a fine adaptation of Dostoevsky's The Idiot.  This led persons to wonder why such a blatantly pro-Russian version of this novel, which shows the Wild Cossack plowing through fields of Polish noblemen, slicing them down to size.

The main thrust of this movie, which Ellen Barry notes in her review, appears to be an attempt to show that there is no separate Ukraine, bringing back the Pan-Slavism that has long dominated Russian thought.  Of course the odd thing is relying on Gogol for any historical picture, given his sardonic view of early 19th century Russia, not to mention the dementia he eventually developed.  However, being a Ukrainian, with Polish ancestry, who identified himself as Russian, seems to be enough to ground these long running sentiments in Taras Bulba.

Anyway, the movie is worth watching for its visual effects alone.  One of the most lavish Russian movies ever made.  You just have to take Bortko's political motivations with a grain of salt.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Cranes are Flying

Recently watched this wonderful film that seems as fresh today as it was 50-plus years ago when it was made.  It captures the sense of coping with WWII from the domestic side, as lovely Veronika is forced to live life without her boyfriend, Boris, who volunteered for the front.  After a fateful explosion, she comes to live with Boris' family and is soon seduced by the brother, an inspiring concert pianist, who she is never able to fully warm up to.

At the heart of the story is a stuffed squirrel with a little basket of nuts, which Boris gave to his dear "Belka" before leaving for the train.  In the basket, Boris had stuffed a note which isn't revealed until much later when Veronika and Mark have relocated to Siberia, with Moscow under siege by the Germans.  Veronika has not be able to forgive herself for giving up on Boris, and it is during a tough scene at a hospital, where she works as a nurse for Boris' father, that the point of her unfaithfulness is driven home by a wounded soldier who gets a "Dear John" letter.

It doesn't make it any easier when she learns the fate of her first love.  The movie doesn't pull any punches and probably would have never seen the light of day under Stalin.  Not that it is politically charged, but there are some biting comments made by the father in regard to state of Soviet affairs at the time.

I can't help but think that if more movies like this had been made available to the broader public during the Cold War there would have been much less tension between the Soviet Union and the West, as this movie gives a very humane view of life behind the Iron Curtain, which we saw so little of in the West.