Monday, August 27, 2012

Wine turns to vinegar

The wine quickly turns to vinegar in this story, as Irene Nemirovsky fashions a novel around her early life in Kiev, Petersburg, a remote region in Finland and ultimately Paris.  As a set of memoirs it is interesting to read, as Nemirovsky provides her fans with a number of salient details, but as a novel it is rather banal, told in third person although we see the story exclusively through the eyes of the protagonist, Helene Karol, from age 11 to 21.

Obviously, Irene hated her mother.  She paints her in the most harsh terms, while doting over her father who manages to rise from a bookkeeper in Kiev to a rich investment banker in Petersburg thanks to a gold deal he struck in Siberia after he was fired, due to his wife flaunting herself in public.  As his business deals keep him largely away from home, a still young mother takes on a younger lover, much to her daughter's chagrin, planting the seeds of hatred that would ultimately fuel Helene's "revenge."

But, this is less a revenge novel than it is a set of memoirs which offer some tasty vignettes of young Irene anxious to break the bounds of the aristocratic lifestyle she finds herself in.  Seems her only friend is a French governess who schools her so well in French and its customs that she feels more French than Russian, more Catholic than Jewish.  The family summers in Paris are her only reprieve growing up, and she desperately longs to make her time there permanent.

Sadly, Nemirovsky doesn't have much of a sense of humor.  We see her as a petulant and angry child throughout the first half of the book, emerging into an uneasy womanhood in the second half where she learns the art of flirting in a village of Russian emigres in Finland, by toying with a young man named "Fred," who has a family of his own.  This inspires her to plot her revenge against her mother.

Meanwhile, dear old Dad is busy socking away money, shares, bonds and whatever else he can easily transport as the civil war in Russia threatens to change the old order.  One can understand her resentment against her mother, but there isn't much about her father to suggest he was a better alternative.  But, seeing so little of him, Irene projects on him a more positive image.  Ultimately, she finds herself alone, hence the title of the novel, forced to make decisions for herself that she doesn't want to make.

Nemirovsky fans should enjoy the novel, but those new to her may want to look somewhere else first.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Final Frontier

The Paper Soldier offers a very unique view of the "space race," in taking the point of view of a doctor responsible for the health and well being of the cosmonauts, Gagarin and Titov, in the weeks leading up to the historic launch.  This is no rose-tinted perspective, but rather how Chekhov or Pasternak might have imagined the space program, as all the action takes place in the distance, while the doctors deal with abject life in Baikonur, the remote cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

It is a very well-crafted film, theatrical in its approach, with Aleksei German stripping away the heroic aspects of the epoch-making flight by treating Gagarin as a periphery figure.  German invents a doctor who struggles with the enormity of the situation, torn not only by the importance of the moment, but between a wife and a mistress.  One in Moscow, the other in Baikonur.  Here we see shades of Dr. Zhivago, as Nina represents his cosmopolitan world view and Vera the more pragmatic woman.  Interestingly enough, Chulpan Khamatova plays the cosmopolitan wife in this film, where she had played Lara in the Russian mini-series of Zhivago.

What struck me was the bleakness and squalor of Baikonur.  It looks literally like the end of the line to the railroad with a camel framing in a shot of a test rocket shooting into space in the distance.  It makes you wonder how the Soviets ever got a rocket into space.  The film takes its title from a ballad originally sung by Bulat Okudzhava.

You can watch the film in parts in Russian on Youtube.