Monday, November 26, 2012

Forgotten Wives

There was an interesting passage in Laimonas Briedas' City of Strangers in which he described Dostoevsky's brief visit to Vilnius on his way to Baden-Baden.  The passage was drawn from Anna Dostoevsky's diary, in which she describes her husband refusing to go out that night for fear his baggage might be stolen.  It seemed Fedya lived in a very agitated state, especially when confrontied with a strange place.

I was curious to find out more and did a search for her diary.  Unfortunately, I couldn't find any previews, but stumbled across Leonid Tsypkin's novel, Summer in Baden-Baden, which is drawn from Anna's diary.  He mentioned the Dostoevskys' layover in Vilnius, but described only their morbid fear of Jews, who dominated Vilna at the time.

Poking around some more, I found that Alexandra Popoff has written a new book on The Wives of Russia's Literary Giants, which looks very tempting.  We often take these wives for granted, but in recent years they have been brought to life in such books as The Last Station, in which Jay Parini focuses mainly on Sofya Andreyvna and her battle with Chertkov over Tolstoy's estate.  Largely fictional but no less compelling, the  book elevated Sofya into a major player in Tolstoy's life.  It was made into a film starring Helen Mirren.

Getting back to Anna Dostoevsky, she did play a major role in keeping Dostoevsky's works in print, and was very instrumental in getting Stanislavsky to stage his short novel, The Village of Stepanchikova, ten years after Fedya's death.  The play would prove very influential on subsequent writers like Samuel Beckett.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

A Passion Play

I'm well into The Brothers Karamazov.  It is easy to see that this novel was serialized in its day.  Each chapter is like a little charge of dynamite, designed to string the reader's attention along from one installment to the next in this very melodramatic story.  For a murder mystery it takes an awfully long time to get to the murder.  I'm a quarter of the way through the book an old Fyodor is still very much alive and well, although Dostoevsky maintains a strong tension between the brothers.

The novel is essentially a study of predestination vs. free will with the main characters introduced in a meeting with the Father Superior at the youngest brother's monastery on the outskirts of a remote Russian town. Dostoevsky's characters are for the most part "Sensualists" struggling with their own inner demons.  Even within the monastery Dostoevsky reveals schisms and tensions, notably between the Father Superior and  the ascetic Father Ferapont, who is not willing to accept a miracle associated with the ailing senior monk.

When Alyosha, the youngest brother, is forced to confront Katerina in an effort to resolve a conflict between his two brothers, Mitya and Ivan, he finds himself beginning to question his own faith.   Alyosha is a bit like Prince Myshkin from The Idiot, a young holy fool who takes pretty much everything at straight value, even as he finds himself being toyed with by the ladies in this novel.  He is willing to give up the church for darling Lise, who the Father Superior apparently cured of her palsy.

Meanwhile, Mitya looms like a rogue bea, crashing into his father's house and beating him within an inch of his life over their shared lust for Grushenko, a local harlot, who both seem intent on marrying.  The patriarch is the most humorous character in the novel, although pathetic in nature.  He hoards his money for his own personal enjoyment, much to the chagrin of oldest son, Mitya, who feels he is the rightful heir to it.

Dostoevsky provides a long introduction on Fyodor's two wives and the children borne from them, noting that Mitya feels like he got the short of the end of the stick.  Ultimately, this is a novel about him, but for the first quarter of the book, Dostoevsky chooses to deal with him peripherally, mostly through the eyes of Alyosha.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Return

Andrei Zviagintsev's The Return is apparently meant to be read allegorically, but I think the film works better on a simpler level of human emotions.  Granted, there are some easily recognizable allusions and the father figure is a rather stark one, but the boys are the stars of the film, particularly young Ivan on whom much of the emotional weight is carried.

Ivan Dobronravov is excellent as the younger brother.  He reminded me a lot of young Ivan in Tarkovsky's great Ivan's Childhood.  The film opens with the boy unable to make the leap from a tall light station on a remote lake shore, which his brother and several other boys had done.  His mother comes to retrieve because he is too ashamed to climb down, forced to face the ugly jeers the following day in this chronology of events.

The story is told through the pages of a diary the two boys keep when confronted with their father after 12 years.  The father is presented in Christ form, laid out in bed as in Andrea Mantegna's painting.  All we learn about him is through the two boys, as he takes them on a fishing trip that turns into a tumultuous journey. 

You can read pretty much what you like into the film.  Allusions abound, but what makes the story gripping is the relationship which develops between the father and his two sons, especially the doubting Ivan, who can't bring himself to accept this strange man as his father.  All he had to go on was a photo taken when he was still a baby, which he pulls from a book of mythology in the attic.  Older brother Andrei seems to have an inkling of a memory, but relies more on his mother's assertion than his own judgement.

Zviagnitsev leaves his story open ended, allowing for multiple conclusions.  Some might find this frustrating, but it works especially well in this film.  Here's the trailer.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

At the Bottom

I read Gorky's The Lower Depths to prep me for a Lithuanian production this past week.  I couldn't help being reminded of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, especially in Luka's role in the play.  Made me wonder if O'Neill stole a page from Gorky.  Both of these playwrights drew on their own experiences in creating a view from the bottom of urban society. 

Gorky's play had more resonance in 1902 with theater viewers used to plays that dealth with either a fading or debauched aristocracy.  The reaction was visceral according to Solomon Volkov who wrote extensively  in his book, Magical Chorus, about the play and Gorky's relation to Chekhov and the Moscow Art Theater.  Gorky quickly found himself the hottest property in Moscow and soon St. Petersburg. 

The play, which focuses on a group of lost souls in a squalid tenement building in Moscow, was picked up by the London Theater in 1911 and made into a movie by Jean Renoir in 1936.  It can be found in the Criterion box set with Kurosawa's 1957 version,  Luka is a pilgrim who brings a bit of hope to the beleagured denizens who struggle to cope with the crumbling world around the world.  In many ways the play presaged the revolution that would come in 1905, which is one reason it remains a very popular play.  But Gorky had no way of knowing this then, anymore than Dostoevsky in his presicent novels.

What makes the play work is that it deals with specific human emotions and gives a vivid account of those living at the bottom of society.  Each still seems to hold out for something better like the Baron who is constantly referring to his aristocratic past, much to the chagrin of the whore, Nastya.  Satin is the deepest cynic, but even he is moved by Luka, who has his strongest influence on the Actor who tries to recapture his golden moments on stage.

Oskar Koršunovas in his recent production, Dugne, dispenses with the intrigue of the first three acts and focuses almost exclusively on the fourth act, giving the play a very contemporary feel.  Luka, the landlord and the landlady have been dispensed with, although they are referred to by the others.  Satin takes the principal role with the Baron and the Actor also having key roles.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Edge

We found ourselves watching Край,or the Edge, last night.  It dates to 2010 and features one of my favorite actors, Vladimir Mashkov.  It seems made largely for foreign consumption as noted in this review in kinokultura.  The film is set in the aftermath of WWII with a fallen war hero finding himself a very reluctant champion of German survivors in a gulag on the edge of Siberia.  The film is played more for action than it is meaning, but nonetheless offers some pithy theatrical moments.

It is a muscular movie, in some ways similar to Konchalovsky's Runaway Train, as much of the action swirls around two rival locomotive drivers, but seems to come down to uprooted nationalities.  There was a surprise appearance from one of my favorite Lithuanian actors, Vladas Bagdonas, as an exile in this penal colony, although most of the detainees were German.  This of course leads to much tension with the local Russians, which Ignat no longer feels part of it, made adamantly clear when they won't let him drink with them.  Such moments are a bit too melodramatic, but the film has a good flow even if it doesn't feel like it is going anywhere.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Remembering Laika

On this day in 1957 Laika was launched into space.  The perky young female, only 3 years old, was originally named Kudryavka, on account of her curly hair, but I suppose Laika was easier to wrap your tongue around.  Laika underwent rigorous training for her flight aboard Sputnik 2.  For decades the Soviets held up Laika as a symbol of their space program, which Viktor Pelevin poked fun at in Omon Ra.  But, even he didn't know at the time of his writing that Laika hadn't survived her space odyssey.  Information wasn't released until 2002 that Laika died of asphyxiation, when her oxygen ran out on board.  Laika has been honored on postage stamps around the world.