Monday, January 17, 2011

Black Snow

I am enjoying Bulgakov's Black Snow, which is more or less a biographical account of the process of making his early book, The White Guard, into a play.  But, he spends most of the time satirizing the Moscow Art Theatre, which he dubs the International Theatre (IT) in this book.  His prime target appears to be Stanislavsky, who Michael Glenny notes in his forward Bulgakov characterized as an "old bitch."  Seems Bulgakov and Stanislavsky came to odds over his story Moliere, which Stanislavsky drastically revised into a play.  But, in this story Bulgakov focuses mostly on his first foray into playwriting and the personages he faced at the IT.

Bulgakov has great fun with Stanislavsky in the second half of the book, as the old man takes a cleaver to his play.  The scene where Maxudov visits Ivan Vasilievich (Stanislavsky) in his home is hilarious, especially as Bombardov had described in detail exactly what would happen, but Maxudov chose to ignore the actor just the same.  Seems that Stanislavsky had a great fear of gunshots (probably for good reason) and so when Maxudov insists on keeping the suicide on the bridge in his play, Stanislavsky has little interest in the budding playwright.  Bombardov tells Maxudov later that you have agree with everything he says, but you don't necessarily have to do it.

While fascinating to read, it isn't one of his better books.  The writing is uneven and the satire falls flat so many years after Bulgakov's stint with the Moscow Art Theatre.  It is interesting more from a historical point of view as the book provides a glimpse into the machanizations of 1920s Soviet theatre.  Bulgakov was successfully able to turn The White Guard into a play.  The Days of the Turbins was one of the most successful early Soviet plays despite its positive portrayal of White Russians during the civil war.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Theme-Catcher

No question about it, Krzhizhanovsky is a fabulous storyteller.  In "The Bookmark," he tells the story of a theme-catcher, a man who can make up a story on the spot on any theme you give him.  The narrator of the story meets the theme-catcher on a crowded park bench, able to capture anyone's attention with the stories he tells.  He points to a spot on a distant ledge and immediately falls into a story of a tomcat trapped on the ledge facing the indifference of tenants who won't let it back in through their windows.  Left to suffer his fate over two grueling nights and days, which the theme-catcher meticulously describes, creating a fabulous sense of suspense in the process, an ill-wind eventually lifts the shivering cat off the ledge and drops it to its sad end.

Eventually, the narrator learns more about the theme-catcher, a man not much unlike Krzhizhanovsky who came to Moscow in 1922 and has struggled to get himself into print these past 5 years.  He tells stories of his encounters with editors and the many rejections he faced, finally giving up on the process and keeping a mental log of his many themes.

Turnbull noted that the story is a thinly veiled criticism of the social realism that came to pervade Russian literature.  The theme-catcher feels that the art of storytelling has been lost, as does the narrator who can no longer find a book worthy of his finely woven silk bookmark.  But, while the narrator seems to harbor a sense of nostalgia, the theme-catcher is only willing to look into the future, holding out hope it seems that the art will one day be revived.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Memories of the Future

I currently find myself reading Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky.  Don't ask me how to pronounce his name.   Joanne Turnbull notes in her introduction to the collection of short stories, Memories of the Future, that Krzhizhanovsky originally came from Kiev, mastered a number of languages and traveled around Europe, and eventually settled in Moscow in 1922 in a small dark flat rented to him by a former Countess in exchange for English lessons.  Thanks to an undemanding job he was able to devote the next 20 years to his dark, otherworldly prose that evoked Gogol in such stories as "The Runaway Fingers," in which a concert pianist's hand literally runs away from him in a major recital.  Unfortunately, these stories languished for decades in the State Archives, only to be retrieved in recent years and find their way into print.  Vadim Perelmuter has since compiled and edited a five-volume collection of Krzhizhanovsky's work, and in Memories of the Future Turnbull translates seven of his short stories, including the title story.

The first was "Quadraturin," a magic tube of paste that when applied to walls and ceilings can make even the most cramp Soviet apartment grow and metamorphosize into a spacious room.  The protagonist, Sutulin, is given a tube, which doesn't look much unlike a tube of artist's paint, by a mysterious man, and applies to his room, which measures a little less than 9 square meters.  Unfortunately, he drops the tube before he can apply any of the quick drying paste to the ceiling.

The next morning he awakes to find that has room has indeed grown outward in all directions, but it has taken on more polygonal proportions.  This unnerves him but for the first time he finds he can actually pace in his room and this pleases him.  He rearranges the furniture to better suit his new space.  But, fear again grows as he hears a knock at the door and worries that the landlady will see his greatly enlarged room and call the authorities.  He manages to keep his apartment secret for several days, but now grows more and more perplexed by the proportions his room has taken, growing ever deeper in lengths to the point his single light can no longer illuminate all of it.  The window appears as a distant portal into another dimension.  I won't give away the ending, as it has a wonderful Gogolian twist.

Here is a review of the book from The Nation.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Celebrating Gudonov

Today in history, Boris Gudonov ascended to Tsar of Russia in 1598.  Pushkin immortalized Gudonov in his play.  In some ways Boris was like Richard III, as he was believed to have disposed of Ivan's sons so that he could become Tsar.  His reign was relatively short - 7 years, but he left his legacy to his son, Feodor II.  Mussorgsky made Pushkin's play into an opera, which premiered at Mariinsky Theatre on 5 February 1873, although earlier versions existed.  The opera has been staged countless times since and is considered one of the great masterpieces of Russian opera. Here's the death scene from the film version (1954) of the opera, with Aleksandr Pirogov in the lead role.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A Bitter Farewell

Zhivago eventually finds his way back to Moscow after another long trek, bringing a teenage boy along with him who had escaped from the labor gang on the train headed to Yuriatin several chapters before.  Interesting how Pasternak likes to bring these characters back into the story.  But, their relationship eventually sours as the boy grows and develops a mind of his own, detaching himself from the cynical Zhivago who seems content to live a low life much to the chagrin of those around him.

In time he even finds another woman, although the young woman is there mostly to serve him, and he fathers more children by her.  Just when it seems Yury has the opportunity  to return to his beloved medical profession he dies.  By chance Lara has returned to Moscow and learns of Yury's death and attends his memorial.  It is an odd gathering of new and old friends, most not really knowing each other.  But, everyone is curious in the lovely Lara.

Not content to end the story here, Pasternak jumps forward to WWII, and it is here that Yury's old friend Misha comes across a young woman who turns out to be Yury's daughter by Lara.  Seems Lara died a short while after Yury died, and young "Tonya" relates the sad story to Misha.  The young woman appears to have little trace of nobility but Yury's enigmatic brother has apparently promised to send her to school after the war, hoping to restore some semblance of the family legacy.

This rather dyspeptic view seems to reflect Pasternak's own disillusionment with the course Communism had taken in Russia.  He chooses to close out the novel with a set of poems that Zhivago had penned at Varykino, and had managed to survive all these travels, thanks in large part to the young boy who had helped get them published in Moscow, along with some of Yury's insights into medicine.


Hard to draw too many conclusions from this novel.  In many ways, it seemed to me more a "work in progress" than a complete work like those of Tolstoy.  I think its impact on readers was largely due to the notoriety the book had at the time, and the romantic film that David Lean made in 1965.  I think readers today would be perplexed to find that the great love between Yury and Lara occupies so few pages in this novel.  That it is really more about Russia and the state of vast turmoil it found itself in following WWI.  Yury Zhivago is a "pilgrim" in his own strange way, trying to sort out this troubled landscape as he wanders from one end of Russia to the other and back again.

Varykino Again

After several weeks, Zhivago stumbles back to the town of Yuriatin, looking like a ragamuffin.  He manages to find a seamstress who cuts his hair and beard so that he will look more presentable to Lara, who has left a note for him in the little brick hole by the door to her flat.

Yury had made the conscious choice to return to Lara and not Tonya, although it wouldn't have mattered as Tonya and her father had long returned to Moscow and were now in the process of being deported, along with Yury's son and daughter.  Lara had gone with her daughter to Varykino thinking Yury would first return there.

Eventually our lovers find each other, but the final love scene plays out in a rather odd unromantic way, as Yury is once again torn by his emotions.  Lara plays the dutiful lover, administering to his every need.  Yury seems to find more appreciation for work habits than the tenderness she shows toward him.  With Komarovsky sniffing around town, they decide to hide out in Varykino.

Yury used the time mostly to put his poems in order while the two battled the cruel winter.  Lara's daughter seems to feel trapped in the remote estate.  A sense of uneasiness pervades the scene, the two seemed to realize that what they have wouldn't last long, although Lara has fully committed herself to Yury.  Komarovsky reappears, warning them that their lives are in imminent danger, as is that of Strelnikov, who has gone AWOL.  Not sure what to do, Yury urges Lara to go with Komarovsky while he stays behind to tie up a few loose ends before joining them on a train to the East.

As if on cue, Strelnikov pitches up, and he and Yury once again have a tete-a-tete, although much more pleasant than the one before. All the fire seems to have gone of Pavel Antipov.  He just wants Yury to tell him as much as he can of Lara.  The next day,  Yury finds Strelnikov face down in the snow with a little rivulet of blood streaming from his head, the color of wild rowanberries.

Yury never makes it to the train.  He knows he will never see Lara or Tonya or his children ever again.  He consigns himself to his fate, returning to Moscow a defeated man.


The oddest thing to me about this story is how the love between Yury and Lara is never fully realized.  It floats more like a dream throughout the novel, with the action pretty much consigned to 3 or 4 chapters.  Pasternak appears to struggle with these scenes.  His heart seems more in the war scenes and the journeys across the vast countryside, seeming to indicate that Pasternak's, and in turn Zhivago's,  real love is for Mother Russia, which has literally been cleaved in half by the warring factions.  Yury's love for Lara hovers over the story as some democratic ideal, something Zhivago knows he will never be able to realize.