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Dead Souls by Gogol – Interesting but challenging

January 19, 2019 26 comments

Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol (1842) French title: Les Ames mortes. Translated from the Russian by Ernest Charrière (1859)

Everything about Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol is a challenge. Reading it. Writing about it. To be honest, it was difficult to read and I persevered only because I was curious about what Gogol wanted to demonstrate with this book and because Gogol was one of Romain Gary’s favorite writer. I had already read the short-stories The Overcoat, and The Night Before Christmas.

My colleague in Russia says that Dead Souls is mandatory reading in school, which must be a lot tougher than reading Candide.

As always when I read classics, I’m not going to comment about the book, academics have done it a lot better than me. This is just my response to it and nothing else.

Before going further, a quick word about the “souls” the book title refers to. I’m going to quote Wikipedia instead of poorly paraphrasing them:

In the Russian Empire, before the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, landowners had the right to own serfs to farm their land. Serfs were for most purposes considered the property of the landowner, who could buy, sell or mortgage them, as any other chattel. To count serfs (and people in general), the measure word “soul” was used: e.g., “six souls of serfs”.

Gogol by F.Moller – 1840. From Wikipedia

Dead Souls is the journey of a middle-class Russian crook, Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov. His only goal in life is to get rich to live a comfortable life with good food, fine clothes, refine soap and perfumes. When the book opens, Chichikov arrives in the provincial city of N.N. with his coachman Selifane and his footman Petrushka. He quickly inserts himself in the town’s life, he gets acquainted with all the prominent citizens of the place, small nobility and civil servants.

He makes himself comfortable and decides to visit the country. He goes from one landowner to the other, offering to purchase their dead souls. What’s in it for both parties? The landowner pays taxes on the number of male souls they own. Souls are counted by the Russian government every few years and this count is used as the basis of the tax calculation. So, if a serf dies between two counts, he’s still considered as alive for tax purposes. If the landowner sells their dead souls, they stop paying taxes on them and the new owner pays the taxes. And what about Chichikov? What’s in it for him? Easy! A dead soul who is officially still alive is an asset. An asset can be pledged at the bank in exchange of a loan. For Chichikov, it’s a way to cash loans and have a starting capital to buy land and souls and establish himself as a landowner. (Btw, this is based on a true story and Pushkin suggested this as a plot idea to Gogol.)

In the first part of the book, we follow Chichikov from one estate to the other and meet with various types of landowners: the old widow, the paternalistic one, the philanderer, the miser…It’s didactic, you can see that Gogol wants to show you a typical Russian province. Each landowner has their flaws, their qualities and everything is told with an undercurrent sense of humor, especially at the beginning of the book.

In the second part, Chichikov finally meets a perfect landowner, one who inspires him and makes him want to better himself. He also meets someone who inspires him spiritually. In the middle of bouts of good resolutions, Chichikov is caught up by his scheme and the Russian justice is after him. He manages to dodge the bullet and settles down as a gentleman farmer with wife, children and serfs. His election at a prominent charge in the province he settled in is a farce, one that uncovers the big joke that local election are.

And that’s it for the plot.

Now, my impressions. Don’t forget that I’m French and that I read with my French literary baggage and with my French historical and cultural background.

A political novel

Dead Souls is a political opus disguised in a picaresque novel. The first part is better than the second, in my opinion. I liked the comedy side of the first part and had a hard time with the more sanctimonious side of the second part. At every turn of page, Gogol – who, ironically, wrote most of his novel when he was staying in Europe – denounces the Russian elite’s love for everything foreign. He never misses an opportunity to show that they would be better off without French wine, French cooks, Dutch fabric…

Chichikov doesn’t speak French and that tells a lot about his status. He’s not part of the Russian aristocracy who, at the time, hardly spoke Russian at all. Gogol shows the workings of small-town life, the corruption of the institutions and the collusion among the ruling class. They hold onto each other. They know exactly who misbehaved, who despoiled whom and they just find a way to let it slide.

Gogol criticizes the elite and their behavior, their tendency to look towards Western Europe and mimic London or Paris ways of life instead of being proud of their being Russian. I still find appalling that a part of the Russian aristocracy of the 19th C didn’t even speak Russian.

The author depicts their ridicules, their laziness and their lack of interest in their land. He mocks their incompetence and their quirks. In NN, the governor’s hobby is embroidery!

Dead Souls can easily be instrumentalized by politicians as it suggests to the reader to stop looking West and start leaning on Russian culture, background and strength. It can be borrowed by nationalists if they choose to pick the passages that suit their doctrine.

The serfdom system.

I knew about the law emancipating the serfs and I knew of the concept which, in my mind,  was more attached to the Middle Ages than to slavery. Reading about the transactions, the way Chichikov haggles over the price of dead souls with the owners, it sank in. It’s slavery. Pure and simple. And you need to wait for the last pages of the book for Gogol to openly condemn this system.

Food

I was amazed by all the banquets scenes. If French people are obsessed by food, the Russians in Gogol’s Dead Souls are strong contenders for this title. No wonder Chichikov has a pot belly, he’s always invited to receptions with lots of dishes! Only the Russian ones are mentioned and described. In the election of the local representative at the end of the second part, the quality of the candidate’s cook was part of the pros and cons list made to evaluate the candidate’s worth! Apparently, having a French cook was a bonus.

The tax and administration elements

Before the events told in Dead Souls, Chichikov worked as a custom officer and I was fascinated by the passage about smuggling goods through the border.

The workings of the court in charge of recording transactions regarding properties were fascinating too. Greasing a civil servant’s palm was a local sport, one you needed to know how to play.

The tax on male souls system left me dumfounded. The system is flawed from the start with the mortality rate they had at the time. Tax bases cannot be revised often enough to avoid frauds, especially since it’s based upon declarations and transactions that are recorded at local level by an administration whose officer is elected locally. Everything concurs to have flourishing frauds. I wonder how it was in France at the time. Probably better because that’s one thing we’ve always been good at: collecting taxes. Maybe we should create Tax Officers Without Borders and send the controllers abroad, they’d be occupied elsewhere.

I can’t believe that banks took souls as collateral. Leaving aside the obvious moral issue (which means judging with 21st C eyes what was happening in the 19thC), from a business side, I don’t understand how a soul who could die at anytime could make a sound collateral.

Globalization

We always think that globalization is a thing of our time. It puts things in perspective when Gogol describes how Swiss, French, German or Dutch peddlers made it to Podunk Russia to sell their goods. There were a lot more exchanges in the past than we think.

Theatre, theatrics and comedy.

I’ve read that Gogol wanted to emulate Dante and Homer when he wrote Dead Souls. I can’t comment on that.

It may come from the French translator but some passages sounded a lot like the theatrics in Molière’s plays. The coachman Selifane and the footman Petrushka are comic side-characters and they sound a lot like Sganarelle, one of Molière’s recurring character. There’s also scene in where Chichikov is in prison and pulls his hair out at the thought that the casket where he puts all his papers and money in now in the hands of the gendarmes. He’s out of his mind, behaving wildly like Harpagon, in The Miser by Molière. He laments “ma cassette” (my casket), “ma cassette” all the time and it’s hard not to think of the famous casket scene of The Miser. Maybe the translator emphasized that part for the French reader.

The first chapters of the first part are the rifest with comedy. The book gets darker after that and the moral rant took over. I know that Dead Souls has been made into a play and I can easily imagine it, at least for the first part.

I could go on and on about details that struck me, give you quotes and all but this billet is already long enough. I’m glad I read Dead Souls, even if it wasn’t a walk in the park. Now, I’m tempted to read Charge d’âme by Romain Gary. It’s a novel Gary wrote in 1977, after the 1973 oil crisis. He imagines that someone invented an “advanded fuel” based on capturing dead souls at the moment they leave the body and putting their energy into batteries. The whole humanity is at risk to be considered as cattle. I think it could be interesting to read it in the wake of Dead Souls. (Gogol-ish pun intended)

Fathers and Sons by Turgenev

May 3, 2015 23 comments

Fathers & Sons by Turgenev (1861). French title : Pères et fils. Translated by Françoise Flamant. For quotes, I have used English the translation by Richard Hare that I found online.

Turgenev_Peres_FilsWe are in Russia in 1859 and Arkady Kirsanov comes home to his father’s small country estate. He has finished school and brings with him his friend Bazarov. The book opens with a warm chapter where the Kirsanovs, father and son, meet again after Arkady’s long absence. Nikolai Petrovich is very affectionate with his son and really happy to have him back. In return, Arkady clearly dearly loves his father. Arkady’s mother is dead and the Kirsanov household is composed of his father Nikolai Petrovich, his uncle Pavel Petrovich and Arkady soon discovers that his father has a young mistress, Fenichka and that they have a child together.

Bazarov is introduced right away as a nihilist. He speaks his mind, believes in nothing, is only interested in science and considers art as useless. He despises women and sentiments. He likes arguing for the sake of it and rapidly enters into verbal fights with Pavel Petrovich. Arkady is full of admiration for Bazarov, Nikolai Petrovich is ready to give him some credit since his son finds him so fascinating. The first chapters of the books show these arguments between the young generation represented by Bazarov and the old generation represented by Pavel Petrovich. Bazarov speaks like an extremist, probably fueled by his youth. Turgenev is obviously trying to state a point through these dialogues. He belongs to Pavel Petrovich’s generation and statements such as this one:

Autrefois les jeunes gens étaient obligés d’étudier ; ils n’avaient pas envie de passer pour des ignares, ils se donnaient du mal, bon gré, mal gré. Aujourd’hui, il leur suffit de dire : fariboles, tout n’est que fariboles ! Et le tour est joué. Ils sont bien contents, les jeunes gens. C’est vrai, cela: autrefois ils étaient tout bonnement des propres à rien, et maintenant les voilà tout d’un coup promus nihilistes Formerly young men had to study. If they didn’t want to be called fools they had to work hard whether they liked it or not. But now they need only say ‘Everything in the world is rubbish!’ and the trick is done. Young men are delighted. And, to be sure, they were only sheep before, but now they have suddenly turned into Nihilists.

made me cringe. This sounds like the eternal dispute between parents and children and I don’t like the idea that youth is depraved, less cultured than their parents, blah blah blah. Every generation has said things like this about their children and for me it comes more from an inability of the oldest to adjust to society’s changes than from the youth being less worthy. Anyway.

After a short stay at Nikolai Petrovich’s, the young men go to town and end up staying at another estate that belongs to Anna Sergeyevna. She’s a young widow who lives with her sister Katya. Arkady has a crush on Anna Sergeyevna who has put him in the friend zone. However, she’s fascinated by Bazarov and they spend long moments discussing, leaving Arkady to entertain the young Katya.

And poor Bazarov who has loudly exposed how foolish it is to fall in love finds himself in a love trap with Anna Sergeyevna while Arkady starts to appreciate Katya’s company. And I won’t say more about the plot.

At the beginning, I didn’t like Bazarov at all. Surely, harsh judgments like this one…

« Pourquoi ne veux-tu pas tolérer la liberté de pensée chez les femmes ? dit-il à mi-voix.- Mon vieux, parce que, d’après mes observations, les seules femmes qui pensent librement sont des horreurs. » “Why do you disagree with free thought for women?” he asked in a low voice.“Because, my lad, as far as I can see, free-thinking women are all monsters.”

…didn’t help his case with me. And it’s repeated several times only with different words.

He has the arrogance of the youth who think they know everything and despise the older generation, on principle. The man is full of principles about everything and also full of himself. Time teaches you that you need to stick to your values in life but be a bit more malleable about principles, otherwise compromises are hard to find. Being in love forces Bazarov to look at himself in a new light. He’s not better than the others and feelings cannot be helped.

After a while, they leave Anna Sergeyevna’s estate and go to Bazarov’s parents. The prodigal son is welcomed with warm embraces and tears of joy. Bazarov’s father was a doctor in the military. The family lived the life of wanderers before Bazarov Senior retired to his wife’s property. Now he grows vegetables, takes care of the villagers and spends time with his wife. He’s like Candide, minding his own business and cultivating his garden. The unwanted love feelings that can’t be repressed alter Bazarov’s behavior. He becomes less arrogant, understands his father better and shows more what his apparent harshness hides, like here, in this discussion with Arkady:

Bazarov ne répondit pas aussitôt.« Sais-tu à quoi je pense ? dit-il enfin en croisant ses bras sous sa tête.- Non. A quoi?

– Au fait que mes parents ont la belle vie ! A soixante ans, mon père se démène, il a plein la bouche de ses “palliatifs”, il soigne les gens, joue les grands cœurs avec les paysans, il s’en paye, quoi; ma mère aussi est heureuse: ses journées sont à ce point bourrées d’occupations de toute sortes, et de gémissements, et de lamentations, qu’elle n’a même pas le temps de se voir vivre ; tandis que moi…

– Toi ?

– Moi je pense que je suis là, couché au pied d’une meule…La toute petite place que j’occupe est si infime en comparaison du reste de l’espace où je ne suis pas et où rien ne me concerne ; et la portion de temps qu’il me sera donné de vivre est tellement insignifiante à côté de cette éternité où je n’étais pas et où je ne serai pas…Et dans cet atome, dans ce point mathématique, le sang circule, le cerveau travaille, désire aussi…Quel scandale ! Quelle inanité !

– Permets moi de te faire observer que ce que tu dis là s’applique à tous les hommes en général…

– Tu as raison, repartit Bazarov. Je voulais dire qu’eux, là, mes parents, ils sont occupés et ne s’inquiètent pas de leur propre insignifiance, elle ne leur monte pas à la gorge…tandis que moi je…je ne ressens que de l’ennui et de la haine. »

Bazarov was silent for a while. “Do you know what I’m thinking about?” he said at last, clasping his hands behind his head.“No. What is it?”

“I’m thinking how happy life is for my parents! My father at the age of sixty can fuss around, chat about ‘palliative measures,’ heal people; he plays the magnanimous master with the peasants–has a gay time in fact; and my mother is happy too; her day is so crammed with all sorts of jobs, with sighs and groans, that she hasn’t a moment to think about herself; while I…”

“While you?”

“While I think; here I lie under a haystack…The tiny narrow space I occupy is so minutely small in comparison with the rest of space where I am not and which has nothing to do with me; and the portion of time in which it is my lot to live is so insignificant beside the eternity where I have not been and will not be… And in this atom, in this mathematical point, the blood circulates, the brain works and wants something … how disgusting! How petty!”

“Allow me to point out that what you say applies generally to everyone.”

“You’re right,” interrupted Bazarov. “I wanted to say that they, my parents I mean, are occupied and don’t worry about their own nothingness; it doesn’t sicken them …while I …I feel nothing but boredom and anger.”

At that stage I thought that poor Bazarov had now seen the real reason to his zeal. He was trying to fill the void.

Apart from the conflict of generation, there’s also a political side of Fathers and Sons about the agrarian reform that occurred these years in Russia. If I understood well, the main change is that serfs became farmers. Nikolai Petrovich and Anna Sergeyevna are liberal and in favor of the change. I’m not familiar with this reform and the political context of Russia at the time. Turgenev wanted to make a point but I can’t write about it. The novel is also stuffed with references to scientific theories and scientists of the time as Bazarov is a doctor and interested in sciences. They flew far above my head and only impaired my reading.

Fathers and Sons was our Book Club choice for April and it unanimously received mild appreciation. I have mixed feelings about this novel. Sure, it is interesting on many levels and it is a great piece of literature. I can see what Turgenev brought to Russian literature. But –of course, there’s a but—I never felt engaged in the characters’ story. I felt they were created for the writer to put his ideas in a literary form. Turgenev wanted to make a point more than he wanted to tell a story. I could feel it and that’s why I didn’t love the book.

PS : In May we’re reading Machine Man by Max Barry.

The Awakening by Gaito Gazdanov

September 27, 2014 21 comments

The Awakening by Gaito Gazdanov. 1965/1966. French title: Eveils (translated from the Russian by Elena Balzamo)

François dévisagea son ami avec compassion. Il l’examinait comme s’il le voyait pour la première fois : ce visage ordinaire, ces yeux tristes, ces mains très blanches, très propres, aux ongles coupés court, cet air de propreté que dégageait tout son être. Pierre donnait toujours l’impression d’avoir tout juste pris un bain, de s’être fraichement rasé, de sortir tout droit de chez le coiffeur, d’avoir mis un costume qu’on venait de repasser. A part ça, il n’avait rien, même pas un métier, qui le distinguerait de milliers d’autres individus et qui rendrait son existence moins banale que la leur. Ce sont ces êtres-là que sociologues et journalistes appellent le « Français moyen ». François looked at his friend with compassion. He examined him as if he saw him for the first time: his plain face, his sad eyes, his very white and very clean hands with his nails cut short, this impression of cleanliness that oozed from him. Pierre always seemed to have just taken a bath, just shaved, just come out of the hairdresser, just put on a freshly ironed suit. Otherwise, he had nothing, not even a job, that could single him out of thousands of other individuals and that would make his life less ordinary than theirs. These people are the ones that journalists and sociologists called the “Average French” (my translation)

You’ll make up your mind about Pierre while you read this billet but to me Pierre is not the average Frenchman.

Gazdanov_EveilsEveils opens with Pierre leaving Paris to visit his friend François in Provence for the holidays. Pierre’s mother just died, he feels lonely but almost regrets accepting François’s invitation. François has an old house in the country and when Pierre arrives there, he stumbles upon Marie. François found her unconscious on the road in Provence in 1940 during the Exode. She suffers from amnesia and has become like a wild animal. François lets her live in a cabin near his house and feeds her. She’d been there for six years when Pierre sees her. Something in her tugs at Pierre’s heart and he decides to bring her home with him, in Paris. There he starts a slow process of giving Marie her humanity back. Will her condition improve? Will she learn again how to behave in society? Will she remember who she is and where she comes from?

It is hard to write about Eveils without spoilers. The French title is a give-away, Eveils is plural, contrary to The Awakening. Pierre and Marie are awakening together. Pierre had a quiet childhood with ill-matched parents. His father wasn’t good at keeping a job and tended to waste money on gambling. When he discovered he wouldn’t get the heritage he was expecting, he let himself die, all hopes of a better life extinguished. Pierre decided to take care of his mother and found a job as an accountant. Working for his mother’s well-being was Pierre’s only purpose in life. After she died, he’s disoriented and his life makes no sense anymore. In Pierre’s mind, his place on Earth is to nurture someone. So when he sees the filthy Marie in her stinky cabin in Provence, he cannot turn a blind eye and let her be while thinking he could take care of her.

Eveils relates Marie’s progress, her re-awakening to the world but also Pierre’s awakening through her. She’s not a pet project. While helping her with infinite patience, Pierre opens himself to others, finds a reason to live and builds them a nest. His apartment becomes a home.

Eveils is a beautiful novella for its sensitivity and its subtlety. It’s quiet. Pierre is a quiet person but he’s also dependable, caring, loving. He’s someone you want to be friend with because he’s the kind of friend you could call in the middle of the night and he wouldn’t let you down. He’s an honest and lucid guy. He questions his motives, analyses his relationship with Marie and knows how to put her interest first. He wonders if he’s doing the right thing. He doesn’t have a hero complex. He’s being Human and that’s the toughest goal to achieve.

So if I refer to the quote before, no, Pierre isn’t the average Frenchman. Who would take on the responsibility of a woman who doesn’t talk, forgot how to take a shower, go to the toilets, eat with cutlery? Who would be that selfless?

In addition to Pierre and Marie’s story, Gazdanov puts the spotlight on ordinary people who are extraordinary for the people around them. Sure they’ll remain anonymous, like most of us but they still make a difference in their friends and families lives. Eveils and The Golden Gate have this in common: they picture our ordinary frailty and put forward the place we have in this world. These books are moving; they don’t display grand passions and dramatic scenes. They ring true because they don’t have big declarations, soul-searching conversations and spectacular epiphanies. Honestly, while they’re great plot devices, do we often have these in real life? Eveils and The Golden Gate convey deep feelings through small gestures and show the unsaid.

Eveils is great material for a French film, I insist on the French before film. This novella reminded me of the atmosphere you find in French films exploring off-the-mark relationships, like Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud. Not much is said but a lot of the characters’ thoughts are visible through their actions. I would love to see it with Sandrine Bonnaire as Marie and Grégoire Colin as Pierre.

The only slight thing that bothered me about The Awakening is Pierre’s clichéd job. Why do writers make characters be either civil servant or accountants when they want a character with a boring job? Trust me from experience, accountants, controllers, CPAs and CFOs can be quite feisty.

Anyway. The Awakening was our Book Club choice for September and apart from my earlier little complain, it was a great pick. In France, it’s published by Viviane Hamy, an excellent publisher. They have Kosztolányi, Antal Szerb, Fred Vargas on their catalogue. I couldn’t find trace of English copies of The Awakening. Please leave a comment if you found its English translation. If you’re interested in Gazdanov, you might want to read Guy’s reviews of An Evening With Claire or The Spectre of Alexander Wolf.

The Seagull was staged like a clumsy albatross

March 8, 2013 15 comments

The Seagull by Anton Chekov 1895. French title: La Mouette.

Theatre_CélestinsA couple of weeks ago, I watched The Seagull at the theatre and was disappointed. Usually, I forget quickly what I didn’t like but here it’s been on my mind since that day. I thought I’d try to write about it to find out why it didn’t fade away.

The Seagull is a play Chekhov wrote in 1895 and it was first staged in 1896. It is set in the country, in a dacha. The owner is Sorine and his sister Irina is arriving soon with her current lover Boris. Her son Treplieff is an aspiring playwright. He’s put on his play for the first time; the lead actress is Nina, the daughter of a local landowner. Treplieff and Nina are in love; she’s an aspiring actress. Treplieff is anxious to show his play to his mother and Boris for Irina is a successful theatre actress and Boris a famous novelist. The play is bombastic, Irina can’t hide her irritation and her amusement; Treplieff is devastated. Meanwhile Boris is attracted to Nina and she’s bewitched by the attention she gets from such a great man. The two first acts end with Irina and Boris going back to the city and Nina following them to be an actress and Boris’s mistress. Treplieff stays behind, devastated.

The two last acts happen two years later when the same group of people meets again at Sorin’s. What happened in their lives during these two years slowly unravels and leads to an inevitable drama.

Several threads are intertwined in the play. One is the difficult relationship between Treplieff and his mother. He’s the son of a star and he feels he will never compare to her and lacks tremendously of self-confidence. Her careless way of treating him doesn’t help strengthening his ego. The exchanges between mother and son are painful; the love they feel for each other never manages to cover the pain Irina inflicts on Treplieff. Chekhov seems to say: “Hey, she’s an actress. By definition, she’s selfish, self-centered and needs all the attention drawn to her. She can’t bear that Boris looks at someone else. How can he set his mind on someone else when he has the star? She can’t wish the best to her son, encourage him to write, consider he could be talented. He could outshine her, be a brighter star than her. How awful.”

A second thread is unrequited love. Treplieff still loves Nina when he sees her again two years after she left him for Boris. Several second characters love the wrong person and are terribly miserable. It reminded me of classic plays by Shakespeare or Corneille or Racine. These people don’t have a crush on the wrong person; they pine for them forever and settle for dull marriages. They accept their fate and the one who doesn’t ends up badly. Chekhov seems to say “Poor of them. Loving someone who doesn’t love you back is a curse. How do you eradicate feelings? How do you live your life knowing you’ll never be with the partner your heart chose?”

A third one is thoughts about theatre, its need to be reinvented. It’s also about writing as Treplieff first finds Boris’s prose quite simple, not elaborated enough. He thinks his fame is overrated. Two years after, he reconsiders his judgement. Chekhov seems to say “It requires a lot of gift to ally simplicity and style. Behind the apparent easy flow of words is either a remarkable gift and/or a lot of work.” Something I totally agree with as I particularly like uncomplicated sentences with common language but with powerful images. Boris, as a writer, is constantly taking notes. He’s like a Japanese tourist with a camera: they seem to live their journey through the lens of their camera instead of enjoying it and making mental pictures and three dimensional memories. Boris lives his life through a notebook; he notes down moments and feelings he captures for future use in his writing. As a writer, he’s like an observer and he’s totally dominated by Irina and smitten with Nina. He’s a gifted writer but he writes better than he lives his life.

The text manages to knit these threads together, to lead the spectator through a story and spread ideas. So the disappointment didn’t come from the text but entirely from the production. Part of the cast was in cause. Nicole Garcia played Irina and Magne-Håvard Brekke was Boris. She talks in a clipped Parisian way and he’s got Norwegian accent. He’s got a haircut à la Bernard-Henri Lévy and she acted like the actress Arielle Dombasle, who’s Lévy’s partner. They sounded wrong, all along. It didn’t help that the strong Norwegian accent reminded me of Dave, an old singer of Dutch origin; I was there with my sister and a friend, they had the same thought. Wrong cast for two important roles.

And then the production. It was staged with heavy décors. They glided on rails and consisted in full decorated rooms. They weren’t useful to the acting; they caught the spectator’s attention for nothing and were detrimental to the play. The first act was in a garden where the stage for Treplieff’s play had been installed. Did we need full rooms of the house in the background? They were used in the two last acts of the play and I found myself watching stage helps moving the décors during a scene instead of concentrating on the text. I found it annoying. In my opinion, this play deserved a light décor suggesting the garden, the rooms and letting the full power of Chekov’s words sink in the spectator’s mind. I would have preferred a production like the one Declan Donnellan did for Macbeth, light and classy. It left me frustrated and that’s probably why it lingered on my mind like a missed opportunity.

Too bad for Chekov.

The Captain’s Daughter by Pushkin

October 14, 2012 7 comments

The Captain’s Daughter by Pushkin. 1836

When I loved a book or when I hated one, billets seem to write themselves on their own will. In both cases I have many things to say about a novel that stirred strong emotions. When the time I spent with a book only triggered mild feelings, I have difficulties writing about it without yawning. And that’s where I am now that I’m supposed to write about The Captain’s Daughter by Pushkin, which was our Book Club’s choice for October.

If I’m correct, with The Captain’s Daughter, Pushkin wrote the first great novel of Russian literature. After his poetry work, he decided it was time to try prose and was inspired to do so after reading Sir Walter Scott. [Note to self: read Scott one of these days, he influenced so many Western writers of the early 19th century.]. I read a French version translated in 1973 by Brice Parrain. The free version available online is a translation by Louis Viardot  which dates back to the 19th century. Turgenev helped him translate Pushkin and Gogol into French. So it’s supposed to be faithful to the original and yet the newer translation sounds better. My question now is whether this new translation isn’t too modern and thus erases the formal atmosphere of the original. I’ll never know.

The story takes places in 1773 when Pyotr Andreyich Grinyov, a young aristocrat is sent into military service in a remote fort near Orenburg, the Belogorsky fortress. During his journey, he is caught in a snow storm and generously compensates with a coat a fellow traveler who leads him to a shelter for the night. Pyoth eventually arrives to the fortress which is actually barely better than a village with a fence around it. He gets acquainted with his commanding officer, the captain Ivan Mironov, his wife Vassilia and his daughter Masha. Pyotr and Masha fall in love but Pyotr’s parents refuse the alliance as they judge that the girl is beneath him. At that moment, the Pugachev rebellion spreads in the region and the fortress is besieged. What will become of the two lovers?

The Pugachev uprising is a historical event that took place in Russia in 1773-1774. Pushkin was interested in it and wrote nonfiction about it. Catherine The Great wad ruling Russia at the time and Pugachev claimed to be emperor Peter III and started a civil war. He raised an army and won several battles against the Empress’s army. Pushkin made an enquiry, visiting people who had lived through the period, collecting stories and building up a novel with this raw material. I suppose that this historical side is the link between Pushkin and Scott. I wasn’t blown away by the book, even if I was eager to know what would happen as it is full of twists and turns. Perhaps the translation impaired my reading and the Russian prose is better than the French. I was into the story but didn’t feel strong emotions; the novel doesn’t linger on psychological insight and is more on the side of a plot-driven novel.

However, side aspects interested me because I learnt details about Russia at the time, in addition to the historical events. Of course, I’d never heard of the Pugachev uprising and the footnotes of my paper edition were useful. I didn’t understand all the details but understood the main events.

Through the pages you can pick up information about the Russian Empire, for example how noblemen estimate their wealth according to the number of souls they own. (And there will be Gogol’s Dead Souls in 1842) I noticed that Pyotr’s personal servant behaves like a slave and yet is surprisingly literate as he can write good letters. I laughed at the description of the French teacher Pyotr had as a child. The man was lazy and more interested in wine and duels than in actual education.

Then some war customs in the 18th century Russia horrified me. Do you know what they did to traitors? Cut their nose and/or their ears. As I write this, I wonder if this custom has something to do with Gogol’s choice for his wandering appendix in The Nose. (1835-1836). And deportation, sorry exile, in Siberia was already fashionable.

The Belogorsky fortress is only a fortress by name; the army there is little trained, Captain Mironov isn’t tight on practicing. They have only one cannon and only dispose of few weapons. It doesn’t give a good image of the imperial army. I thought about Lermontov and the fortress he will describe in A Hero of Our Time (1840).

The captain’s family is nice and loving as if Pushkin wanted to put forward a part of the society which usually remained behind the curtains. The Captain’s Daughter is light but doesn’t hide the atrocities of the Pugachev uprising or the bad shape of the Russian army. For me, this novel is to the Russian literature I’ve read what Ladies’ Paradise is to Zola’s work: a unique piece without darkness, with hope and good people. I probably would have made more of it if I knew better about Russian literature.

Now you’ve read this post and seen different covers for it. But none of the quite matches with the story. My edition has a portrait of Catherine The Greatand the ones I included here are anachronistic.

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In November, our Book Club is reading Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler.

I need a fix, cause I’m going down

September 24, 2012 25 comments

I Remember my Grandpa by Truman Capote (1943) French Title: L’été indien

The overcoat by Nikolaï Gogol (1842)  French title: Le manteau.

I know, the title of this post will probably get me weird hits on the blog. I didn’t coin the sentence, the Beatles did. It has, in a way, nothing to do with I Remember my Grandpa and in another way everything to do with it. As expected, September is busy. Children are back to school and there are millions of tiny things to organize. Each year you swear you’ll be better prepared the next time and each year you end up running urgent errands at the last minute to buy the precise pencil required by the math teacher. You need to register to football, music classes and other side activities. To top it off, August is a dead month at work in France and when September hits, life resumes and everybody rushes into unsolved issues; your email box explodes and your agenda overflows with meeting requests. Add busy weekends to this weekly flow and your reading life shrinks to an unbearable size.

And that’s what happened to me. I couldn’t concentrate on Proust at night, couldn’t read the Tabucchi book I wanted to start and couldn’t read Anna Edes along with Max as I intended to. It became unbearable. I needed a fix of literature, like some must consume their own drug. But I’m still confused at how much I need to read, at how I feel smothered if I don’t have that quality time with the words of others. I went to the library and borrowed audio books to take advantage of the one-and-a-half hour I spend in the car every day.

That led me to Truman Capote’s short story I Remember my Grandpa. Johnny is seven and he’s living in a remote farm in Virginia with his parents and his grand-parents. His father runs the farm and barely makes ends meet. The farm is so isolated that Johnny can’t go to school. The fragile economical balance of the farm and the fact that its location deprives Johnny from any solid education pushes his father to move out. Johnny discovers they will move the next week to another city, that his father has found a job on another farm, that someone else will rent and run his childhood farm and that they will leave his grandparents behind. This new development saddens the grandpa and he tells Johnny a “secret” before the boy leaves.

Jean-Claude Rey tells the story, he doesn’t read it. His voice is warm, changes of pace and takes the innocent tone of a young boy who sees the events at his own level, understanding more than the adults think he does and less at the same time. We never quite know what children grasp from their surroundings or from the relationships and feelings around them. I’m convinced they build a theory of their own to cope with situations and don’t necessarily ask questions when they feel they have a satisfactory explanation, be it of their own making. Besides this, the short story also shows the difficulty to live upon isolated farms before WWII – I’d say it’s set in the 1930s, since Johnny’s dad has an automobile. Johnny’s father seems to be the villain here since he separates his son from his childhood home and cuts his wife and son from her family. And yet, he’s the one who has enough courage to make that decision, enough love to want a better life for his son and enough intelligence to realize that a good education helps climbing the social ladder. It’s a short and catchy read. I wonder why the French title is L’été indien. True, they leave the farm in the autumn but it’s under a snow storm, not exactly the mild and pleasant weather the idea of Indian summer conjures up.

The busy weekends continue and this weekend we were at the realm of wild capitalism aimed at children, ie Waitingland Disneyland Paris. Believe me, my parental duty now done, I never want to set a foot there in my life again. The organization is lacking, the prices are outrageous and the food is so bad that McDonald’s suddenly seems like a gourmet restaurant. But I get carried away. Thank God for the kindle, I started to read The Overcoat by Gogol when I was in waiting lines. The grotesque tone of the short story suited the situation. Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin is a civil servant in Saint Petersburg. He works in an office as a devoted copyist. The man lives poorly, hardly takes care of himself, is always mocked by colleagues but he loves his job and copying. Seen from outside, his life is miserable and copying is the only thing he does but Akaky Akakievich is content. His wages are low and he can’t afford many fantasies, every coin is needed. So when his tailor refuses to mend his overcoat, saying the fabric is thin beyond repair, he’s desperate. Where is he going to find the money to buy a new overcoat? The cold is biting and he endeavours to spare all the money he can to find the way to pay for his overcoat. This adds a new goal in his life and it changes his attitude and… I won’t tell you what happens. It’s great Gogol, in the same trend as The Nose.  He makes fun of the army of civil servants working in St Petersburg and always has a funny word to describe situations. He shows how a goal can change a man, help him stand for himself. He also insists on how the wealthy and powerful tend to trample on poor people, treating them as cows sweep off flies with their tails. The ending is as funny as a fable by La Fontaine. That helped.

Otherwise, unread blog entries are piling up in my mailbox, sorry, sorry, sorry. I’m still reading The Turn of the Screw and it seems that no tool is going to fix my interest on it. I have to hurry though, or I’ll screw up for my Book Club meeting on Thursday. Yes, I know, the pun is terrible but a weekend of waiting lines turned my brain into mush. I need a fix, cause I’m going down

Let’s die for ideas, OK, but only of slow death

March 8, 2012 10 comments

The Suicide by Nicolaï Erdman 1928. French title: Le Suicidé. Translated into French by André Markowicz.

Mais rappelez-vous comment ça se passait dans le temps. Dans le temps, les gens qui avaient une idée, ils voulaient mourir pour elle. A l’époque où nous sommes, les gens qui veulent mourir n’ont pas d’idée, et les gens qui ont une idée ne veulent pas mourir. C’est une chose qu’il faut combattre. Aujourd’hui plus que jamais, nous avons besoin de défunts idéologiques. But remember how it was in the old days. In the old days, the people who had an idea wanted to die for it. Nowadays, the people who want to die don’t have any idea and the ones who have an idea don’t want to die. It is something we must fight against. Now more than ever we need ideological deceased.

I’d never heard of Nicolaï Erdman before I watched his play The Suicide at the theatre the other day. If you’re like me, then a bit of biography won’t hurt. Nikolai Erdman (1900-1970) is a Russian writer. His first play, The Mandate was played in 1925 and was a huge success until 1930 when the authorities thwarted it. It wasn’t showed again until 1956. He wrote his second play, The Suicide (In French, Le Suicidé, literally The Suicided) in 1928. It was censored in 1932 and won’t be put on in Russia until 1982. It will be the end of Erdman’s career as a playwright. From there on, he will live upon his job for the cinema and will influence the Russian theatre by working with young directors. He will always remain in the shadows but according to the foreword of my French edition, he will be highly influential.

Now, the play.

First scene. Semione, an unemployed Russian of the 1920s wakes up his wife in the middle of the night because he’d want more of the sausage they had for diner. His wife isn’t pleased and they start arguing. During their fight, Semione resents that his wife has a job when he’s out of work. He feels bad to live on her wages and his wife is afraid he might commit suicide. When he leaves the room, she wakes up the neighbour and tells him his husband is suicidal. From then on, the word spreads among a small community and all kinds of people want to use his suicide for their own profit and want to influence the substance of his farewell note.

The intellectual representing the intelligentsia asks him to mention that he killed himself for the sake of the persecuted intelligentsia. A nymphomaniac wants him to explain he couldn’t live without her and committed suicide for unrequited love. A writer also wants to use Semione’s suicide to promote his cause. The priest wants to use his suicide to show that the Church is oppressed.

They all go very far, negotiating what he should write, organizing a farewell lunch, setting an hour of death and taking care of the funeral. Only Semione doesn’t want to die.

In one of his songs, Georges Brassens says Mourons pour des idées, d’accord, mais de mort lente, which is the title of this post. In this play, Erdman explores the reasons why someone should sacrifice themselves for a cause. As mentioned in the opening quote, those who have ideas don’t want to die and those ready to die don’t have ideas, the intellectual says. It reminded me of the terrorists who put a bomb while they know they won’t survive. They are manipulated into thinking they are heroes for their cause, that they bought their ticket to paradise. Several people try to feed Semione with ideas to take over his suicide for their own ends.

On the verge of killing himself, Semione wonders about life after death and someone advises him to ask the priest, as he’s a specialist. Here is the priest’s answer:

Le Père Elpidy– Voulez-vous que je réponde comment: selon la religion ou selon la conscience?Semione – Quelle difference ça fait?Le Père Elpidy – Une difference co-los-sale. Ou je peux parler aussi selon la science.

Semione – Moi, ce serait selon le plus juste, mon père.

Le Père Elpidy – Selon la religion – c’est oui. Selon la science – c’est non. Et selon la conscience – personne ne sait.

Father Elpidy– Do you want me to answer according to religion or according to consciousness?Semione– What’s the difference?Father Elpidy – A HU-GE difference. Or I can speak according to science too.

Semione – For me, I would like the most accurate, Father.

Father Elpidy – According to religion, it’s a yes. According to science, it’s a no. And according to consciousness, nobody knows.

Semione questions the meaning of being human, there is a direct reference to Hamlet in the text. He brings historical events at a human-being’s height. For example, he says that when there is a war, leaders think of political moves while all John Does only wonder if their battalion is call up right away or not. In French we say, chacun voit midi à sa porte (literally, everyone sees noon at their own door) or in other words, we all grasp events and circumstances according to our own selfish and narrow or limited perspective. It’s also from a man’s point of view, far from Nations and big collective concepts.

The Suicide is like a Vaudeville with a Gogolian sense of humour and a slight touch of Beckett. Can you imagine it? It’s hilarious and cynical at the same time. The text includes incredibly bold sentences on Marxism and the author certainly knew well that the play would be censored. It’s about suicide but it’s also Erdman’s suicide as a playwright.

I think the French title, Le Suicidé (The Suicided) is better than the English one. The word doesn’t exist in French either but the neologism express very well the plot of the play: everyone wants Semione to commit suicide and be a useful victim when thinking of suicide only makes him realize how much he enjoys life, as miserable as he can be, it feels good to be alive.

Highly recommended.

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