Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Masquerade

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

Ana Karenina

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, and

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Teaching Tevye

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

Of Time and Space

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

Tevye the Dairyman

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

Le Nez

Here is a wonderful adaptation of Gogol's classic short story, The Nose, by Alexander Alexeieff from 1963.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Bronze Horseman

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

Madman or Genius?

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."

here's more

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

Hedgehog in the Fog

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

The Steppe

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

Ivan's Childhood

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).

Ilf and Petrov

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.