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.