Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Scary Fairy Tales

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 Ray of Life

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

BetweenTwo Horsemen

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

Woe from Wit

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.

Herzen in Paris, 1848

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.