God is a Russian

29 June 2011 § Leave a comment

I’ve been quiet on here recently because I’ve been doing battle with those monsters of depravity: Svidrigaylov, daddy Karamazov, Valkovsky and above all, Stavrogin. Not terribly pleasant company, although I find Stavrogin hideously compelling. I’d be like Dasha, desperately wanting to save him from himself.

My next train of thought is taking me directly back to Russia itself, and Dostoevsky’s vision of Russia as holding the key to humanity’s salvation.  On first glance it’s just the usual raving Russian nationalism, coupled as this so often is, with deeply uncomfortable anti-Semitism. With Dostoevsky his nationalism has additional theological complications. We may make jokes about how “God is an Englishman” but for Dostoevsky God is to be found firmly lodged in the hearts of ordinary Russian people; humanity’s salvation is to be found in Russia. To get to the bottom of all this, and to put things into context I’ll have to sketch out a bit of the history of the slavophil and westerniser tendencies that so divided Russia in the 19th century. I also need to decide which of Dostoevsky’s characters to hang this chapter around: it’s not as obvious as it is with some of the other themes I’ve written about.

Loosely connected with this, I’ve been re-discovering my own thoughts about Russia from the times I’ve spent there; one of the things I hoped to do with this book was to give it a personal angle by looking for Dostoevsky’s Russians in the Russia that I experienced. Over the last couple of days I’ve been reading all my letters from Siberia to my (now) husband, ploughing through pages of my younger self moaning about how bored I was, and having endless preoccupations with food (good food, bad food, shortage of food, abundance of food…). It’s been fun in parts, although poor old Russell did have to put up with a lot of drivel. My Moscow letters look as if they’ll be more interesting: I was older, wiser, more confident when I lived there, determined to have a good time and to immerse myself in Russian life.

The Siberian letters were full of frustration about Russia: petty officials, the difficulties of getting anything done, the rapacious university staff who organised the exchange, and the general dirt and dreariness of Krasnoyarsk, but there was also the kindness and generosity of our hosts and friends, the incredible beauty of the countryside, the amazing richness of culture even in the middle of nowhere (I was at concerts, ballets or opera almost every night it seems). I think much of what goes on in Russia is driven by the passionate love of life that Dostoevsky writes about, and it produces excesses at both ends of the scale, the glories and the horrors. It’s not a place for moderation, for the middle way, and I think that’s the clue to why I love it so much. I’m not convinced about the salvation bit though!


Notes on House of the Dead

4 June 2011 § Leave a comment

Last night I went to Opera North’s production of Janáček’s From the House of the Dead, which I’d been looking forward to for ages – opera and Dostoevsky – what’s not to like? The opera was wonderful, with some great singing, and even though it was a concert performance, it came across really well. I wasn’t reviewing this one, which was nice because I was able to think about it more from a Dostoevsky point of view, and I’m going to write about how I think the book and the operal interact. If you’re after a conventional review, I recommend Laura Kate Wilson’s review on Bachtrack of the full staged production, and  I certainly agree with what she says about the quality of the singing.

It was clear from the programme synopsis that Janáček’s version is a severely curtailed and edited version of Dostoevsky’s book. As a structure for an opera, it mostly works very well; he takes a few of the key stories that the prisoners tell, as they recount their crimes, mixing them in with the lively and nonsensical peasant folk banter that fills the book. The action happens off-stage, and the musical depiction of the flogging is particularly shocking. I was surprised too though at how lovely some of the music is: the overture immediately evoked for me the harsh beauty of the Siberian landscape with its great rivers, endless forests, and the rolling steppe. In the book the narrator, Goryanchikov, marvels at the beauty around him, and the view from the river, and there’s a similar description at the end of Crime and Punishment: notably these are the only times I can think of where Dostoevsky describes countryside at all, and Janáček’s music immediately brought to mind those passages, and my own memories of Siberia.

The shocking tale of Shishkov, Akulka’s husband becomes a central part of the third act; a long and demanding narrative, sung fabulously by Robert Haywood. However, Janáček goes astray here I think by merging the character of Akulka’s lover, Filka Morozov, with one of the prisoners, Luka Kuzmitch. It seems improbable that the wronged husband could spend years in jail side-by-side with his wife’s lover and his old drinking buddy, with neither of them realising each other’s identity until Filka/Luka dies of TB. That’s the sort of thing that belongs in Mozart.

My impression of the opera is that it’s very definitely Janáček’s story, not Dostoevsky’s. Dostoevsky’s book is just a framework, a starting point, and I think Janáček has a very different message. Janáček wrote about finding the spark of God in the minds of criminals but for Dostoevsky, the whole question of guilt and remorse, and inner goodness was much more ambiguous. In House of the Dead itself, the narrator Goryanchikov concludes that the peasants feel no remorse at all, although later in his story The Peasant Marey Dostoevsky remembers the kindness of a peasant from his childhood and wonders whether the rough prisoners around him could also have been like Marey themselves. Dostoevsky certainly wanted to find the spark of God in the people, but his initial experience in prison was horror at how utterly evil some of the criminals were and the remorse shown by Janáček’s prisoners as they tell their stories is entirely absent  from Dostoevsky’s book.

The whole question of freedom is another interesting and complex part of the book that is probably too subtle to be conveyed by opera. Janáček neatly frames the story with the injured eagle, which is tended by the prisoners and released at the same time as Goryanchikov (who himself seems but a fleeting visitor to the house of the dead, and the complicated political relationships between the gentry and political prisoners with the peasant convicts is another necessary omission from the opera), but a lot of the book focusses on the need of the prisoners to find their own form of freedom whilst they are incarcerated, even when, by exercising that freedom they often act against their own best interests. This desire of human beings to assert their free will whatever the consequences is one of Dostoevsky’s central themes, from the Underground Man’s Crystal Palace right through to the Grand Inquisitor. Janáček’s call to freedom is more uplifting and positive: the desire of the wild bird to fly free, the desire of the prisoner for liberation.

I also found myself wondering, of course, what Dostoevsky would have made of it. There’s so much in his writing about his relationship with visual arts, especially painting, but I’ve not come across anything about music. I will venture to say that I think he would have appreciated Janáček’s opera as a work of art in itself: he maintained that if art is to have a message, it must also give pleasure otherwise the message is lost, and Janáček passes that test with flying colours. I suspect that Dostoevsky might have been a bit grumpy and precious about his own book being turned into an opera, but I loved it.

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