Monday, September 23, 2013

The Great Siberian Railroad

After watching a documentary on the Trans-Siberian railway, I looked for an early account of this famous journey by Eugen Zabel.   He was apparently the first foreigner to take the route from Moscow to Vladivostok, publishing his account in Germany in 1903.

Construction was yet to be completed and Zabel had to take a ferry at Lake Baikal to meet up with the under end.  He seemed to revel in this long journey, which stretched over 9000 km, noting the beauty of the iron bridges.  This is twice as long as the Trans-continental railroad in the United States, which the Romanovs used as a model.

Russia was being industrialized at a rapid rate and the only way to bring together this far-flung empire was with a railroad line linking East and West.  It wouldn't be until 1916 that the railway line was completed, 25 years after its inception date.

Russia was in a massive state of upheaval, which would stretch beyond WWI into the civil war that divided Red and White Russia until 1922.  The train figures heavily into Russian literature, no less than in Dr. Zhivago, in which we read of his family enduring long winter train rides to escape the revolution.

This lovely Faberge egg had been commissioned in 1900 by Tsar Nicholas II for Alexandra Fyodorovna with a lovely gold miniature train inside.

Paul Theroux evocatively captured this great rail experience in The Great Railway Bazaar, a trip he took in 1973, launching him on a great many travels that he would later write about. He included his experiences on the Trans-Manchurian railway, which connects to theTrans-Siberian railway at Tarskaya.   I couldn't convince my wife to take the 17-day trip next summer, so this is probably the closest I will get to experiencing the journey.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Bedside or Wastebasket

As Edmund Wilson found out, it is best not to try to predict Nabokov's literary tastes when he lent him a review copy of Faulkner's Light of August thinking Vladimir would appreciate it as much as he did.  Nabokov dismissed this work like he did all of Faulkner's work as trite and tedious romances.

Nabokov was infamous for dismissing canonical authors such as Dostoevsky and Henry James and Albert Camus.  He had no soft spot for the much revered Cervantes either, calling Don Quizote "a cruel and crude book," although he doesn't deny the influence it had on Russian writers of the 19th century.  He just felt that his dear Pushkin and Lermontov greatly rose above it in their poems and stories.

I was a bit surprised to see he so disliked Henry James.  Portrait of a Lady struck me as the type of novel that might appeal to him, as James rises above the social milieu of the time to create a very striking portrait of Isabel Archer, and James has a wonderful sense of time and space, which Nabokov liked so much about Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.

Of course, there were many novelists he did like.  John Updike and J.D. Salinger both received high marks.  He liked Melville and had a soft spot for H.G. Wells.  He also singled out great works of authors while he panned others.  Such was the case with James Joyce, praising Ulysses but blasting Finnegan's Wake.  Likewise with Gogol, whenever he displayed his strong nationalist bent in stories like Taras Bulba, while regarding Dead Souls as one of the great Russian novels, and even speaking highly of Guerney's English translation, which was exceedingly rare.

For Nabokov it was a love/hate relationship with novels.  It was either by his bedside or in the wastebasket, as far as he was concerned.  There was no in between.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Eleanor and Henry

I suppose if you had been locked away in a castle only to come out at Christmas time each year, you would be on the verge of madness, but Eleanor holds herself like a true queen in this Russian adaptation of The Lion in Winter.

The play closed the Summer International Drama Festival in Druskininkai, hosted by Rimas Tuminas.  We had earlier seen an excellent Russian adaptation of Medea with Julia Rutberg.  The old theater at the Egles sanitorium has seen its better days, and the stifling heat must have been a challenge for the actors, as they were all dressed for winter in their heavy robes.

It was only afterward that I made the connection, as I struggled through the darkly comic dialog, relying on my wife to give me a recap at intermission and when the play was over.  I was truly held spellbound by the great performance of Liudmila Chiursina as Eleanor and the wonderfully charismatic Sergei Kolesnikov as Henry, her despotic husband.

The play has been recast many times over the years, with the most recent incarnation by Andrei Konchalovsky in 2003.  Andrei seems to have made the US his home away from home, having done many American productions since he established his fame with Siberiade.  Patrick Stewart, who played Henry, personally wanted Konchalovsky to direct the film.

Of course, the classic film version remains that with Katherine Hepburn and Peter O'Toole in 1968.  However, nothing beats a great theatrical production, and I'm sure James Goldman would have greatly enjoyed this Russian telling of Eleanor and her Men (Элинор и ее мужчины) by Alexander Burdonski.

Friday, August 2, 2013


One of the difficulties in following contemporary Russian writers is that there is a notable lag in translation of novels.  Viktor Pelevin's 2011 book, S.N.U.F.F. remains inaccessible to most non-Russian speakers, and he has since come out with Batman Apollo which continues his fascination with vampires.  One has to be content with fragments for the time being.

Pelevin is perhaps the best known contemporary Russian writer, whose books are now finding their way into film, such as Generation "П" in 2011.  Given its success, you figure more film versions are in the planning.  

Although Pelevin's books have been ostensibly about the void left from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the attempt to fill it with Ameircan-style consumerism, there is a deeper reading in each one, as this is clearly someone who understands the psychological underpinnings of the chaotic world many Russians find themselves living in.  Given his flair for a good action yarn, his books are very accessible to non-Russian readers, presuming you can find them in your native language.

In many ways, Pelevin is the Kurt Vonnegut of contemporary Russian literature.  His notion of science fiction is anything but standard.  His first book, Omon Ra (1992) is a wonderful satirical look at a decaying Soviet space program, hanging on by the thinnest of threads.

"П" was released as Babylon in the UK, and a number of other small books have been translated by Andrew Bromfield.  Unfortunately, Pelevin's 2006 novel, Empire V, has yet to be translated into English.  One can only assume Bromfield is working on it.  He certainly made Babylon accessible to the English reader in a very good translation.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

A Grim War

Interesting to see that Elem Klimov's Come and See topped the list of Time Out's 50 greatest WWII movies.  It is one of my favorites as well as Klimov gives the viewer a very visceral account of the battle lines in Belarus during the war.  This side of the Soviet-German war was rarely mentioned at the height of the Soviet Union, and I don't think Klimov would have gotten the movie made if not for Perestroika.

Surprisingly, the only other Soviet film to make the Top 50 was Kalatozov's The Cranes are Flying.  Notable omissions include Tarkovsky's Ivan's Childhood and Larisa Shepitko's The Ascent.  Shepitko was married to Klimov.

However, I would say that the seeming simplicity of Ivan's Childhood is deceiving.  As I noted before, I'm not convinced the war scenes were real, but that Tarkovsky was using the standard war film conventions to tell a much more compelling story that prefigured such works as The Stalker, which ostensibly was a post-apocalyptic film.

Anyway, it is nice to see Klimov get top billing.  Here's Klimov on the making of the film.  Hit "CC" for subs.

A Matter of Faith

It's been awhile.  I haven't forgotten about this blog, just focused on other topics the past month.  I had started reading Rowan Williams' book on Dostoevsky and the matter of faith in his novels.  It is quite good, as Williams offers his interpretations of how Fyodor addressed the subject, drawing from Dostoevsky's own notes on the books, which are available in print.  Williams also heavily references Bakhtin, who wrote a study on Dostoevsky's poetics, which is also available in print.

From the accounts I've read, Dostoevsky was very faithful to his Orthodox religion.  Perhaps the most explicit of his novels is The Devils where one of his characters categorically states that there is no Pan-Slavism without religion.  This is what unites the Russian people.  Dostoevsky was always quite harsh on the budding socialist movement in the country and the nihilism so often expressed in the youth.  He even poked fun at other author's literary characters like Turgenev's Bazarov, from Fathers and Sons.  I think this is probably the reason Nabokov had so much antipathy toward Dostoevsky.

Williams draws heavily from Brothers Karamazov, perhaps Dostoevsky's most comprehensive novel on the meaning of faith, told from a multiplicity of angels, not just the three brothers.  Some critics have viewed Dostoevsky as a "Doubting Thomas" especially in the way he presents Alyosha in the novel, but Williams points to key moments where Alyosha's faith trumps older brother Ivan's reason.  Williams himself noted that Dostoevsky stated several times in his journals that if he were to choose between faith or reason, he would choose faith.  But, Williams doesn't see faith and reason as mutually exclusive.

Of course, one would expect this from the former Archbishop of Canterbury, but Williams relies heavily on scholarship in presenting his study of Dostoevsky, making his book a most welcome addition to the Dostoevsky library.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Tchaikovsky in Jazz

Sergey Zhilin opts for jazz groups rather than symphony orchestras when it comes to Tchaikovsky, giving the great composer's work more bounce and playfulness, such as this fun interpretation.  Zhilin also likes to go solo like this intimate and warm rendering entitled March.  Of course, Tchaikovsky has long been a favorite of jazz musicians from Shorty Rogers' The Swinging Nutcracker to Kenny Barron's Classical Jazz Quartet Play Tchaikovsky.  But, few do it beer than Zhilin, who will be in Vilnius this weekend, drawing from his latest album, Tchaikovsky in Jazz: The Seasons.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Lonely Mayanist

Yuri Knorozov was more than just a noted ethnographer with a passion for the Mayan language.  He was also a cat lover.  While a soldier in the Soviet Army in WWII, he had stumbled upon a rare collection of Mayan codices in the Berlin library, which he brought back with him to Moscow.  This apparently life-changing event inspired to devote his energies to "Mayanology" in virtual isolation from all the other work being done by Eric Thompson and others.  Michael Coe in his book, Breaking the Mayan Code, said this gave Knorozov fresh eyes, as up to this point the elaborate Mayan hieroglyphs had been primarily seen as a graphic language, not a written one.  It seemed the Knorozov had largely been forgotten at the time of the writing of this book in 1992.

Knorozov, who had previously focused on Egyptology, wrote a paper, Ancient Writing of Central America, in 1952 in which he made the case for the hieroglyphs being phonetic, not logographic as widely believed.  He used the "alphabet" produced by a 16th century Spanish priest, Diego de Landa, to help unlock the code.  De Landa's "alphabet" had similarly been dismissed by Mayanists.  It took some time before there was acceptance of Knorozov's insights, which in turn inspired a young David Stuart who eventually unlocked much of the language, as shown in the Nova television special, based on Coe's book.

Yuri became a hero not only in the Soviet Union, but was awarded the Order of the Aztec Eagle by the Mexican government for his breakthrough studies.  He was the subject of a 2000 documentary, released shortly after his death in 1999.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Portrait of an Unknown Woman

Ivan Kramskoy apparently never said who the woman in this painting was.  The portrait created quite a stir in its day, as critics were appalled by her coquettish look.  Later, many came to take this painting as Kramskoy's impression of Anna Karenina.  After all, he had been commissioned by Pavel Tretyakov in 1873 to paint a portrait of Tolstoy for his gallery.  Pavel had no luck himself getting the count to pose for a portrait, but Kramskoy managed to win Tolstoy over.  It just so happened that Tolstoy was working on Anna Karenina at the time.  However, Kramskoy painted the "unknown woman" several years later.  Maybe he was inspired by Anna, maybe not.

Others have erroneously attributed the unknown woman to a poem by Alexandr Blok.  If anyone was inspired here it was Blok, as the painting predates the poem by several years.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Sympathy for the Devil

As the story goes, Marianne Faithfull gave Mick a copy of The Master and Margarita, inspiring him to pen the lyrics to the classic song, which first appeared on the album, Beggars Banquet.  Pretty amazing when you consider the book only first appeared in print in 1967.  It was translated into English by Michael Glenny the same year (still the best translation). The album came out the following year.  Godard recorded a film of the Stones trying out the song in the studio, which was released in 1970.

The novel has a long history.  Bulgakov wrote it between 1928 and 1940 when he was assistant director at the Moscow Art Theater (MAT).  The story derives its most compelling scenes from the stage, which is probably why it has been so hard to make into film.  There have been several attempts over the years, each more infuriating than the one before.

Bortko's TV mini-series was the last attempt, which met with luke-warm response.  He literally recreated the novel chapter for chapter on the small screen. The only problem was that it had no life.  He was faithful to a fault, more worried about offending the public than he was in recreating the spirit of the novel, as he so wonderfully did in The Heart of the Dog from several years before.

Andrzej Wajda did a version that focused exclusively on the Biblical scenes from the novel in Pilate and Others (1972) which won him an honorary Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 2006.

Several other directors had been interested in the novel over the years.  Probably the most tantalizing prospect was that of Roman Polanski shooting a film version.  It is often mentioned in articles, but I haven't been able to find any details outside of a quote from Mia Taylor's article on the filming of the novel, in which Polanski claims Warner Brothers was interested at one point.  Polanski apparently had prepared a script, according to Andras Hamori.  But, it still needed work to read Hamori's remarks.  I assume this was in the late 80s.

Elem Klimov was given the green light to make a large budget film after the stunning success of Come and See, but apparently it was too much for him to consider at the time and he took a pass.  Tarkovsky had previously shown interest, but it was Yuri Kara who finally got a shot at it in 1994, completing a film that suffered brutal cuts before getting a very limited release in 1994 and was subsequently shelved.  In 2011, a director's cut surfaced that filled in many of the gaping plot holes, but it didn't fair well at the box office.  It had too much of an old school look.  It seemed that a younger audience was looking for something more along the lines of modern supernatural films like Bekmambetov's Day Watch.

I saw a theatrical production in Vilnius some years ago, which I thought was very good.  Oskar Koršunovas went to the heart of the novel and presented a spectacle that I thought was very much in the spirit of Bulgakov.  There have been many other theatrical productions, including this recent one by Simon McBurney, but can't say whether it is worth watching or not.

So, here we are nearly 50 years after the samizdat copy was released in 1967, and very quickly made the rounds all over the world, as if Woland himself had sent the book on its wild journey.  Yet, there is still no definitive film version of the novel.  Maybe there never will be, but it is hard for me to imagine someone else won't be interested in it in the years to come.

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Stern October Has Deceived Me

We have been watching a 2005 mini-series on Sergei Yesenin.  It seemed to me a rather sloppy production with Sergei Bezrukov emoting all over the place.  He was most maddening in his brief interlude with Isadora Duncan, poorly played by Sean Young.  You feel sorry for the young "translator" caught between them in these tumultuous scenes that took him from Moscow to the beaches of Italy and eventually to New York, where he very quickly grew weary of this relationship and returned to Mother Russia.

As the poem title implies, Yesenin was a reluctant Bolshevik at best, and eventually turned his back on Trotsky, played very well by Konstantin Khabenski, replete with his famous pince-nez.  This pretty much sealed Yesenin's fate in the brave new Soviet Union, which emerged from a bitter four-year civil war.

Yesenin served briefly in WWI, but was able to avoid the worst of the civil war, focusing on his poetry.  He did a number of collaborations which brought him fame.  He was one of many young poets at the time vying for attention.  He co-founded the movement Imaginism, which included Anatoli Marienhof among others.  Most of his poems celebrated his homeland, such as Land I Love.  Unfortunately, I couldn't find a copy of The Stern October Has Deceived Me, which expressed his ultimate disillusionment with the Soviet experiment.

There was no doubt about his impulsive nature.  He married four times between 1917 and his untimely death in 1925, lastly Tolstoy's granddaughter, Sophia Andreyevna.  Igor Zaitsev frames the series in a detective story, with Aleksandr Michailov playing the gumshoe who re-examines the events that led to Yesenin's death some 60 years later during the Perestroika years of the Soviet Union, only to find there are still Soviet officials that don't want the truth to be told.  The belief that Yesenin had committed suicide had long been questioned, and the series makes it clear the NKVD saw him as a threat to the state.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Mayakovsky in America

In 2005, the complete journal of Mayakovsky's Discovery of America was presented for the first time.  It is a thin, colorful paperback that chronicles his round about trip to the United States via Cuba and Mexico in 1925.  He apparently had some trouble getting a visa directly to New York, given his political views, and was advised by his good friend, David Burliuk, to use a "back door," which turned out to be Laredo, Texas.

Mayakovsky, like many Futurists of his era, was fascinated by American industry and technology.  He saw it as a model for Soviet industry and was determined to get a first hand glimpse of these marvels of ingenuity.  He had some problems in Paris, having lost some of his cash to a "highly talented thief," making due the best he could over the next three months.

Cuba and Mexico held much more fascination for him, as it turns out, but New York also proved to be worth his wait when he finally reached the big city on July 30.  There he met up with Burliuk and other Russian emigrees, who provided him contacts and places to stay for his forays into the heartland of America.  He never made it out to San Francisco, as planned, citing loneliness for his beloved Lili as his reason for cutting his trip short.

However, an interesting book, Mayakovsky in Manhattan, came out in 1993 chronicling an affair Mayakovsky had in New York. It was written by his presumed daughter, Patricia Thompson, a.k.a. Yelena Mayakovsky.  It seems he didn't miss Lili that much.

His Poems about America were published during his lifetime, as were excerpts from his travel log, but it took nearly 80 years to collect his American sketches into one volume, bringing this long voyage of discovery to a close, as noted in the introduction to the volume.

The drawings are by David Burliuk for the original publication of his American poems.

Monday, February 18, 2013

All the World's a Stage

There was some confusion when an Italian film company was in Vilnius filming scenes for an upcoming version of Anna Karenina.  I think a lot of folks expected to see Keira Knightley in town, although Vittoria Puccini appears to be quite a beauty herself.  This is the third adaptation of the film in the last four years.  An earlier Russian television version was completed in 2008, which garnered mixed reviews.

The reviews have been mixed on the 2012 British adaptation as well, but after watching it this weekend I was won over by Keira Knightley's performance and the fascinating theatrical interpretation of the novel, using constantly changing theater backdrops to give the story heightened dramatic effect.  This worked especially well in the first half of the movie as Joe Wright literally set the stage for the characters.  Wright moves at a pretty fast pace, unlike the novel, covering a tremendous amount of ground in short order.  He had Tom Stoppard to help him abridge the text into a smooth narrative that still managed to capture many of the subtleties of Tolstoy's text.

The idea of staging the scenes, particularly the haunting horse race, in a hyper-reality theater was really a masterstroke, and Wright and Stoppard deserve a lot of credit for this.  Wright uses a number of theatrical tricks, including Anna's frantic stroking of her fan turning into the hoofs of the horses as they come out of the dark and onto the stage, only for Vronsky to come careening off his beloved Frou-Frou into the lower audience.  Anna gasps so audibly from her box seat that everyone at once knows her interest in the rider.

Knightly really shines in this film.  I had my doubts as most of Anna's emotions were internalized in the novel. Keira has emerged as one of the great leading ladies of our day, able to convey so much in her characters.  She gives Anna the full body of emotions without overdoing it.  Everyone else hovers around her.  Aaron Taylor-Johnson is pretty much eye candy as Vronsky, and Jude Law offers a very subdued version of Alexei Karenin, a bit too sympathetic for my taste.  Levin and Kitty remain on the periphery, but are well played by Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander.  Matthew MacFadyen, as Oblonsky, is the only one to really compete with Keira on stage.  He fills his character with all the aplomb that Tolstoy gave him in the novel.

Wright touches on but doesn't expand on the wonderful asides between Oblonsky and Levin, like the time Oblonsky joined Levin for a hunt on his distant estate.  Still, there are some wonderful rural scenes, captured in rich colors like a Repin painting when Levin thrashes hay with his peasants.  It is clear that Wright and Stoppard read and absorbed the novel.  They didn't treat it lightly.

The movie more or less folds in on itself in the second half, much like the novel, as Anna finds herself isolated from the social world she once inhabited and imagines Vronsky chasing after other women.  The stage sets turn into dark interiors with a brooding Anna trying to find her way between Karenin and Vronsky.  This is a man's world, which Anna made all too painfully clear to Dolly when she first consoled her in regard to her brother Stiva's numerous affairs.  There's a very nice scene where Dolly visits Anna in a cafe toward the end of the movie, supporting her decision to leave Karenin, but alas Anna simply can't bear up under the pressure.

The film rushes a bit too quickly to an end, making for some rather confusing scenes between her and Vronsky and Karenin.  She was clearly a tragic figure in Tolstoy's novel, but you don't have as much empathy for her in the film, largely because Karenin and Vronsky are both made into sympathetic figures.  As a result, Anna comes across as "an awful woman" having brought catastrophe upon herself.

Perhaps this is an attempt to update the novel, since it is hard for viewers today to understand just how claustrophobic 19th century aristocratic life could be for a woman who wanted something more than her much older husband could give, namely love.  In this sense, Anna Karenina mirrors Madame Bovary, but unlike Flaubert's creation, Anna is not able to overcome her situation, in large part because all her actions are made much more visible in society.

Wright ends his story with Levin and Kitty, but alas we don't get enough about them for us to really feel the strength of their love.  It is treated pretty much as a child-like love given both of their naivety in such matters. Their idealistic love was meant to counter that of Anna and Vronsky, with Levin's and Kitty's love more or less taking over the second half of the novel.

Just the same, I wasn't disappointed.  I thought it was an inspired production offering a bold new interpretation of the novel.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Shrove Tuesday

I see things don't change much reading Anton Chekhov's wonderful short story, Shrove Tuesday.  I was helping my daughter with math this morning after making her pancakes.  Pancakes are the traditional fare on the eve of the Lenten fast throughout Russia and Eastern Europe.  Chekhov celebrates the occasion in an amusing way through Pavel Vasilitch.


Painting by Elena Shumakova.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Of Life and War

A couple recent acquisitions include an 1887 English translation of Tolstoy's Sebastopol Sketches and a 1985 translation of Vasily Grossman's Life & Fate.  The first was translated by Frank Millet from a French edition of Tolstoy's frontline stories from the Crimean War.  He was perhaps Russia's first war reporter.  The latter from the man regarded as the Soviet Union's premier war reporter.

Sebastopol is interesting for a number of reasons.  These sketches represent an awakening for Tolstoy as well as laid the groundwork for his triumphant work, War & Peace, as Alan Yentob noted in the History Channel documentary on The Trouble with Tolstoy.

Life & Fate is of course Grossman's most celebrated work.  The novel came to symbolize Russia's role in World War II much the same way Tolstoy's War & Peace symbolizes Russia's battle with Napoleon's grand army.  Grossman has enjoyed a lot of attention as of late, with new collections of his work, but it is fun to go back to the original in this case, at least the first English translation.

The novel was written in the late 50s, but shelved by KGB officials.  A copy was smuggled out of the country in the mid 70s, but it wasn't published until the mid 80s.  It didn't appear in Russian until the Perestroika years, serialized in Oktyabr magazine in 1988.  Grossman had died in 1964.  The Robert Chandler translation is still the one to read in English.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Why Caged Birds Sing

Apparently, I'm not the only one looking up Meryan people after watching Silent Souls.  The film by Alexei Fedorchenko explores the role of Meryan traditional customs in a post-Soviet world, but it seemed to me the odd ceremonies surrounding weddings and funerals had less to do with the ceremonies themselves, but rather how we struggle to cope in a rapidly changing society.  The Merya themselves seem to be related to the Mari, or Volga Finns, but this film doesn't go into such contentious matters, keeping the story more on the level of allegory.

The central character, Aist, sets out to write a journal to break the boredom of working in a paper mill in a remote northern region of Russia.  It is a region apparently heavily populated by Meryans, so that when his boss, Miron, wants to give his dead wife a proper Meryan funeral, taking her to the river where they spent their honeymoon, the police officer doesn't think much of the dead body in the back seat of his SUV.  Along the way, Miron begins "smoking" about his past, relating memories he wouldn't otherwise tell.  Aist seems to accept all this as a matter of course, often falling into narration, as the dialog itself is rather threadbare.  These are after all rather silent souls, although the souls that Fedorchenko refers to are those who came before, drifting in the great river of time, like Aist's father, a Meryan poet whom he tells about in retrospect.

Adding to the cryptic nature of this film are a pair of buntings which Aist insists on bringing, as he lives alone and there would be no one to take care of them.  Miron just shrugs his shoulders, and in the course of the journey takes interest in the birds, noting that his wife Tanya loved birds but couldn't stand to see them in cages. The Buntings, or Ovsyanki, as the film is called in Russian, are constantly chirping throughout the long drive.

Miron slowly comes to the realization that he kept his much younger wife in a cage, having her succumb to his pleasures rather than allowing her to realize hers.  I suppose that is why when he eventually tells Aist he knew about the affair she had with him, he doesn't hold it against him because he enjoyed seeing her happy in the surveillance camera clips he had on his cellphone.  But, their marriage wasn't without happiness, as Miron draws on more of his smokey memories.  It just wasn't realized the way it should, as he tries to come up with an explanation for her untimely death.

The film takes on a droll tone as the two buy birch shovel and axe handles at a hardware store that they eventually use for a funeral pyre on which they lay Tanya.  Miron scatters her ashes on the river.  Aist drifts back to an amusing memory he had following his father as he laid his beloved typewriter to rest on an icy lake,  after deciding that his poetry was over.  These intersecting memories are united by the river itself which Aist likens as the ultimate judge, deciding who to take.  It is not for us to decide our fate, but it seems the buntings work as agents for the river.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Speech at the Stone

There isn't much you can add after such a dramatic trial but Dostoevsky offers an epilogue in which he still manages to turn emotions and leave us to wonder what will be the fate of Dmitri Karamazov.

It seems that Katya wasn't so cold-hearted after all, professing her love for Mitya and assuring that she and Ivan will do everything they can to ensure his escape.  Grushenka comes in on this scene and isn't quite sure what to make of it after Katya's performance at the trial, but says she is willing to forgive Katya if indeed they do free Mitya as planned.

Rather than go through a long escape scene, the narrator instead ends with Alyosha attending the funeral of little Ilyusha, and having one last tete-a-tete with Kolya, the little boy with an anarchistic spirit, which I guess in some way makes Alyosha think of how Mitya may have been like at that age.  It is a touching scene, made all the poignant with his "Speech at the Stone," but not the way you would have expected this long story to end.

One can only speculate on the connections between these two threads.  The only thing that ties the plight of Ilyusha with that of Mitya  is Alyosha's oldest brother having assaulted Ilyusha's father in the streets, and Ilyusha falling into a fever over the incident, which ultimately ended in the little boy's death.  Mitya may not have been responsible for his father's death, but he does bare some responsibility for Ilyusha's death, and I assume Dostoevsky wanted to leave the reader with that impression.

Yet, Mitya is seemingly oblivious to any of this, as it is all told through Alyosha, who may or may not have related it to Mitya all those times they met in the prison cell.  For Mitya, his only grief appears to be that he cannot be with Grushenka in the penal colony, and this grief he cannot bear, falling ill after the trial and being treated in a hospital where Katya comes to visit him.

Ivan is similarly infirmed, and we are left to speculate whether he will recover or not from his "brain fever," brought on by his own deep sense of guilt.  Alyosha and the two women seem to be the only ones to have weathered this tempest.

It is a difficult book to come to terms with.  I welcome other thoughts on The Brothers Karamazov.  It is certainly Dostoevsky's most complex and in many ways most compelling novel.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Trial of Dmitri Karamazov

The final chapter on the trial of poor Mitya is so compelling that I couldn't believe anyone hadn't done a play or film specifically on this chapter.  Sure enough there was a 1958 Off-Broadway production at the Jan Hus Playhouse.  I imagine other productions have been done in other countries, as it is pretty hard for me to imagine others haven't seen the great theatricality of Dostoevsky's closing chapter.

The entire story is pretty well summed up, with a few tantalizing "catastrophes" thrown in for good measure.  Dostoevsky appears to relish the high drama he creates, twisting and turning his characters through the guise of the third person monk who narrates the book.  In fact this is the first chapter where the third person narrator appears plausible, as he like many others have squeezed into the town hall to witness this trial that has captured the imagination of Russians far and wide, and to hear him tell it, the foreign press as well, thanks largely to the would-be writer, Rakitin, who probably would have made for a more convincing narrator, had not Dostoevsky chose to make him such a pivotal part of the story.

In the previous chapter on Ivan, the narrator noted that Rakitin was the one responsible for dissemating the story, along with other pieces of juicy gossip to the Petersburg press.  But, as Mitya's famous defense attorney, Fetyukovich, demonstrates, Rakitin is hardly the most reliable of sources.

Ultimately, it is a letter harbored by Katya that undoes Mitya.  She is unable to stand for Ivan's maddening testimonial on the dock in which he claims to be the one ultimately responsible for his father's death.  As a result, she bears Mitya's letter, which to this point she had held close to her breast, in which he not only said he would kill his father but laid out his program, which pretty much followed that which the prosecutor had presented.

Mitya surprisingly takes this pretty cooly, but not Grushenka, who throws herself on Mitya, shouting you see what that she-devil is all about.  It seems Katya really did love Ivan after all, and the thought of him admitting a guilt he was only responsible for in thought and not deed was too much for her to bear.  The guards break up Mitya and Grushenka, and the prosecutor adds the damning evidence to the case against Mitya.

To this point, the defense attorney had done a pretty good job of casting doubt on all the testimonials, including that of Grigory, whose insistence that the door was open before Mitya purportedly clubbed him with a brass pestle had been the most damning evidence to date.  Mitya continued to insist he never entered the house, but that Smerdykov was the killer.

Smerdyakov looms like the butler in this crime.  We never really learn much about him other than he was most likely the bastard child of old man Karamazov, and raised by Grigory like the other boys, only Grigory didn't have much patience for him.  The old manservant clubbed Smerdyakov as a young boy, which apparently led to the epileptic seizures that would haunt him to the very end.  But, it seems that Smerdyakov wasn't such a fool after all in the confession he made to Ivan in Chapter 11.  The only problem is that Ivan was so rattled by his internal demons that he couldn't bear testimony to this last statement by Smerdyakov without plunging into his own maddening despair and thereby tainting his story.

It doesn't matter that there are large enough holes in the prosecutor's case to drive a troika through, the suicide by Smerdyakov at the end of the previous chapter pretty much kills any other viable suspect, which the prosecutor duly notes in his closing argument.  The defense attorney does his best to make a case for Mitya, but there is simply too much damaging evidence to overcome.

This isn't so much a murder mystery, as it is an elaborate study on the nature of guilt and how Ivan's little tract on the relationship between man and God apparently compelled Smerdyakov to take out his vengeance on his bastard father, with the seeming purpose to ruin the Karamazov family as a whole.  Shades of Poe's The Rise and Fall of the House of Usher here.

However, it seems Dostoevsky's greatest inspiration was Gogol's The Dead Souls, from which he draws upon heavily in the closing chapter, comparing Russia to Chichikov's wild troika as it sped across the great expanses.  This is a moral tale couched within a crime drama, with the Karamazov family representing the various degraded states of sensuality, with Mitya forced to assume the guilt for this debauched family.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Trouble with Tolstoy

Nice two-part special on Leo Tolstoy by the History Channel.  Probably no writer has affected so many people as has Tolstoy.  Alan Yentob takes the viewer on an impressive journey over the expanse of old Russia in search of Tolstoy's vast legacy, starting and ending at his beloved Yasnaya Polyana.

I was particularly drawn to Tolstoy's time at Sebastopol, where he experienced the ravages of the Crimean War.  This became the subject of his Sebastopol Sketches, making him one of Russia's first front line writers.    These stories are relatively hard to find, despite having first been translated into English by Frank Millet in 1887.  There is no publication any longer in print but you can find the 1887 available at abebooks for a good price.  These "sketches" would implant in him the seed for his epic work, War and Peace.

There is a nice intermixing of past and present in this documentary, as well as interviewers with great grandchildren, biographers and other persons who have been touched by Tolstoy.  The Battle of Borodino is re-enacted outside Moscow, and Tolstoy's novel remains the "Bible" of those who replay this historic event, but none have captured the scene as well as Sergei Bondarchuk did in his epic cinematic recreation of the novel.  I was surprised Yentob didn't reference the film.

In Part Two Yentob explores the troubles with Tolstoy, as his conscience became rattled while staying the night in a remote tavern, following the success of his novel.  It seems it was at this point that Tolstoy seriously began to question his place in the world, making the remainder of his life a kind of existential journey that would put him at odds with virtually everyone around him.

The painting is by Ilya Repin, dated 1907.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Red Christmas

As the story goes, we have Bulgakov's The Days of the Turbins to thank for Stalin reviving the tradition of Christmas trees in the Soviet Union.  Stalin was big fan of Bulgakov, protecting him from critics and making him  the director's assistant at the Moscow Art Theater, which Bulgakov had great fun with in Black Snow.  Bulgakov never got along with Stanislavsky.  Anyway, Stalin sanctioned the first Soviet tree in 1937, a 15-meter tree unveiled at the Hall of Columns in Moscow's Trade Union House, capped by a Soviet red star.

Ornaments during Stalin's time tended to be ideological and also marked key events like the signing of the Yalta agreement.  It was only after his death that one saw more festive ornaments to choose from.  We still have a few from this latter period.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

"S novim godim" or how to enjoy your New Year!

The Orthodox New Year is still two weeks away, which makes for a very festive fortnight in Moscow and throughout Russia and other Orthox countries. There have been a few attempts to create a new holiday movie to replace the time honored Carnival in Moscow (1956), but only a relative handful have been worth remembering. My favorite is The Irony of Fate (1975). There was an attempt to update this film in 2007 but it fell quite a bit short of the original, even with Andrey Myagkov, Barbara Brylska and Yuri Yakovlev reprising their roles. Eldar Riazanov couldn’t leave his Carnival alone either. He chose to reprise it in 2006. Snegurochka , or the Snow Maiden , has been done several times, but it is the 1969 film that is the gem. Other notable holiday films include Morozko, aka Jack Frost, Pokrov Gates, featuring a young Oleg Menshikov, Charodei , or the Magicians, and Come Look at Me with the late great Oleg Yankovsky. There’s even this great Christmas Eve tale based on a story by Gogol, Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka. There is also this odd musical, This Merry Planet , where aliens visit the Soviet Union during a New Year’s Eve celebration, and blend right in. And, of course, the immortal Snow Queen (Снежная королева) from 1966, and an earlier animated version from 1957, based on Hans Christian Anderson’s classic tale.
с Новым годом

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Come Look at Me

I was surprised this film dated from 2001, as it had the look and feel of a late Soviet film.  It is a wonderful character study set during the holiday season, with a lonely woman bringing home a total stranger as her boyfriend to try to cheer her ailing mother.  The film floats in a kind of "magical realism" without pandering to the audience like the more recent Yolki films.  Oleg Yankovsky is in fine form as the dashing stranger and  Irina Kupchenko is wonderful as the melancholy Tatyana.  Yekaterina Vasilyeva and Natalya Shchukina round out the intimate cast.