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.