Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Everybody Loves Chekhov

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

My Life

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

Tolstoy by Henri Troyat

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.

Tolstoy Is Dead; Long Fight Over

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." 

The Free Age Press

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

The Last Station

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.

The Life of Insects

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

Russia Against Napoleon

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.

Heart of a Dog

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

Moscow Stations

 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

Come and See

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.