A Pushkin fest

16 May 2012 § 2 Comments

Dostoevsky has had a bit of a back seat this week, although it’s hard to take in any Russian culture these days without him popping into my mind one way or another – and since man of the week has been Evgeny Onegin, there’s plenty to say. The reason for my foray into Pushkin was because I went to English Touring Opera‘s production of Onegin last night in Durham, and in a last minute fit of enthusiasm decided to buy the new Oneworld Classics edition, which has side-by-side Russian and English text.

It’s been quite interesting, taking my measures of Onegin simultaneously straight from Pushkin’s poem and from the opera, and also comparing ETO’s production to my massively heavyweight recording (Semyon Bychkov, and Krasnoyarsk’s own Dmitri Hvorostovsky). Tchaikovsky’s opera was first performed in 1879, so about a year before Dostoevsky’s great speech at the unveiling of the Pushkin statue in Moscow. Dostoevsky spoke about Pushkin not merely as a Russian writer, but as a giant of European literature, who, like Shakespeare, Cervantes or Schiller, who transcends national boundaries (unfortunately the near-impossibility of translating Pushkin’s sublimely elegant Russian into English means this giant is mostly invisible outside his native land). This was at the height of Dostoevsky’s messianic ideas about Russia’s destiny to bring a god-forsaken Europe to salvation, so the fact that he praises Pushkin for the innate Russianness of his characters isn’t such a contradiction:

Yes, the Russian’s destiny is incontestably all-European and universal. To become a genuine and all-round Russian means. perhaps (and this you should remember), to become brother of all men, a universal man, if you please. 

And so on… it’s all pretty silly, but the crowd went absolutely wild over Dostoevsky’s speech, so it puts into context the ideas that were floating around when Tchaikovsky wrote his opera. Dostoevsky places Tatyana at the centre of his thinking: he even says that Pushkin really should have named the poem after her. For him, Tatyana is the embodiment of perfect, pure Russian womanhood, but also of Russia herself, and Evgeny, corrupted by the values of Western Europe, is lost in his own land, a wanderer who fails to appreciate the true virtues of the Russian spirit. He claims that Tatyana would never have run off with Onegin even if she were free, because she knows that he doesn’t see her for what she truly is; he only sees the artificial, bejewelled creature and not the steadfast and pure Russian girl. For Dostoevsky, Onegin is a blade of grass, blown in the wind, but Tatyana is secure, rooted in her native soil. I don’t happen to agree with Dostoevsky here – he gets a bit silly when he’s not writing fiction.

Tchaikovsky, too, puts Tatyana at the centre of the opera; she is the focal point of the emotional drama, and surrounded by the songs of the peasant women, he anchors her firmly in the Russian countryside, and her wonderful letter-writing aria is the thematic highlight of the opera. Safe in the knowledge that his audience would all know their Pushkin intimately, Tchaikovsky was able to abbreviate the story, describing the work as “lyrical scenes”. In fact, the basics of the plot are all there, but the bits that are missed out mostly concern the development of Onegin’s character. The focus on Tatyana, the huge tunes and lavish orchestration set the music in a firmly romantic and nationalist vein, and it struck me listening to Hvorostovsky that Tchaikovksy’s was definitely an Onegin for the spirit of time.

What was really interesting about ETO’s production was that I think it looked beyond the 1870s, and back to the original poem – within the limits of Tchaikovsky’s score, of course. The small orchestra and fast tempi lightened the spirit, and brought us back to Pushkin’s irony; his whole poem is told with a decidedly raised eyebrow, and a tone of gentle, sympathetic mockery. The emphasis is on wasted youth that cannot be relived, the foolishness of missed opportunities and mistakes that cannot ever be rectified. A tarnished mirror cutting across the stage reflected the action through a glass, darkly, giving an impression of looking back at old photos, or fleeting memories, and Onegin’s everlasting regret at killing his friend was captured in a moment: Lensky’s body remained on stage at the beginning of the ball, before he quietly got up and walked off through the whirling dancers, watched by his distraught friend.

It was a pity, but probably necessary, that it had to be sung in English. Tchaikovsky retained much of Pushkin’s original verse in his libretto, and the short metre that works so well in an inflected language like Russian ends up sounding trite when forced into English. Also, when sung well, Russian sounds beautiful. Hearing it in English put me off to begin with, but it settled down and I enjoyed the performance greatly. I came away not overwrought with emotion, which is what I expected, but quite uplifted – I’d had a marvellous evening’s entertainment and Onegin got his comeuppance with style. I’m also grateful that the production prodded me into reading the Pushkin again – it was on my long mental to-do list. The side-by-side translation is great, because I can read it at a reasonable pace, and appreciate Pushkin’s lovely writing whilst still getting every word. I think Oneworld are bringing out a bilingual edition of Pushkin poetry soon, and they’re publishing a lot of other new translations of Russian classics, including some quite interesting and obscure stuff – look out for them.

I also wrote a straightforward review of ETO’s production for the Northern Echo.


Who then is laughing at mankind?

9 May 2012 § Leave a comment

Dostoevsky isn’t really a writer for the dictionary of quotations. Granted, there are a few famous lines – “Everything is permitted”, “beauty will save the world” – but to quote them like that is to take them right out of context, and render them meaningless. The other day though, I was thinking about this, and wondering if I could come up with a “favourite quote” from Dostoevsky’s novels. The closest I could manage comes from the conversation “over the brandy” between Fyodor, Ivan and Alyosha Karamazov. Fyodor alternately asks his sons whether God and the immortal life exist. Alyosha says yes, Ivan, no. One last time, Fyodor asks Ivan:

“…I say, Ivan, tell me for the last time and categorically: is the a God or not? I’m asking you for the last time”.

“And for the last time there isn’t”.

“Who then is laughing at mankind Ivan”

Ivan answers that it must be the Devil, before quickly going on to assert that of course the Devil doesn’t exist either. But it’s that bleak, poignant question, from the disgusting old drunkard, “who then is laughing at mankind?” that brings me up short every time I read it. He doesn’t ask who is judging us, or protecting us, or loving us – no, all that Fyodor Karamazov thinks we are fit for is being laughed at, or mocked. It’s probably the most truthful thing the old man ever said.

Here we are, industrious little ants, who seem to think that we have an important place in the universe, and the idea that if there’s any point to our existence it’s just to amuse a cruel deity nicely puts a stop to any anthropocentric ideas about the universe being created purely so that we can exist in it. We all need to be laughed at from time to time, to shake us out of our pomposities, to deflate our sense of self-importance. If it applies to us as individuals, why not the whole species? We’ve created such wonderful things – Durham Cathedral, the B-Minor Mass, The Brothers Karamazov –  but we need a reminder that in the grand scheme of time and space, we’re really nothing.

Yes, the question of who is laughing at us is terrible, but it has a frightening beauty to it, that echoes the frightening beauty of that vast empty universe in which we float. In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams imagines the “total perspective vortex” which drives its victims to insanity by showing them just how small and insignificant they are in relation to the rest of the universe. Perhaps just being laughed at is the best way to deal with the problem – if there is anyone there to laugh at us.

Fyodor Karamazov seems to have reached his old age untroubled by the metaphysical questions that torment his sons, particularly poor Ivan. Ivan gets himself tied up in horrible knots thinking seriously about the problem of God and his creation, when a little humorous detachment might have helped him to disentangle himself from his deadly confusion. Dostoevsky must surely understand this, for why else would he conjure up for Ivan his greatest comic creation – the Devil that springs from serious Ivan’s own imagination to taunt and tease him. If there’s no God to laugh at us, we have to create our own petty demons to do the job for us.

The First Blogger

1 May 2012 § Leave a comment

I’ve been inspired to make more effort to write on here by none other than Dostoevsky himself. In a letter to Vladimir Solovyov in January 1876, he describes his innovative publishing venture Diary of a Writer:

I’ll write about things I’ve heard and read – everything or anything that has struck my imagination during the preceding month…. Its account of an event will not be as a news item so much as an effort to show what more enduring effect the event will leave behind it, more related it a general trend. Finally, I have no intention whatsoever of confining myself to simple reportage. I am not a chronicler. What I have in mind is a diary in the full sense of that word, i.e., an account of what has caught my personal interest, even if it is just a whim.

I’ve seen other people describing Diary of a Writer as being like a blog, and browsing through it again last week, it struck me how absolutely spot-on that description is. Published monthly, (or thereabouts) from 1876-77, it’s a chaotic mixture of journalism, polemic, memoir, short stories and reviews and it was incredibly popular.  To take a random example, the issue for March 1876 covers a debate about idealism versus reality, a short story about an old woman, musings on European government, Don Carlos, spiritism, and the youth of Russia.

And like today’s bloggers, Dostoevsky became actively engaged with his readership: his open and candid style spurred many ordinary Russians to write to him with their own thoughts and often their own problems, and this grumpy old man did his best to respond to them all individually. When work on The Brothers Karamazov forced him to cease publication of the Diary, he had 7,000 subscribers, and received hundreds of letters from his readers begging him to continue. He did manage to start it up again 1880-81 but only managed a couple of issues before he died.

The Diary served for Dostoevsky as a laboratory where he carried out his preparatory work for The Brothers Karamazov, so there’s a lot on court cases, suicide and horrible cases of child neglect (all the examples in Ivan Karamazov’s great raging against God are to be found there in the Diary). It’s also really useful for getting behind the scenes and seeing a bit of Dostoevsky the person – apart from odd passages in the novels, this is as close as we get to any sort of autobiography.

There’s an awful lot of it though, and quite large chunks of it show an uncomfortably unattractive side to Dostoevsky, particularly when he goes off on long xenophobic rants: Russia was busy helping to liberate the Southern Slav nations from the Ottoman Empire at the time, and Dostoevsky saw the war as the first sign that Russia was fulfilling her destiny to bring salvation and brotherhood to the world – it all gets a bit much. The Diary is a marvellous idea in theory, and there are some rather good little stories and other gems lurking in its pages, but the truth is that Dostoevsky’s strengths lie in his fiction, not his journalism.

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