Dostoevsky on screen

7 March 2012 § Leave a comment

Last week I watched the first part of a film adaptation of  The Idiot. I think it was the first time I’ve ever seen anything by Dostoevsky existing outside my own head, and I found the experience slightly unsettling to begin with. Once I’d got over the shock of actually seeing real people being Myshkin, Rogozhin and the rest, I began to enjoy it. Dostoevsky is essentially a dramatic writer, and the big set-piece scenes and the intense conversations transfer wonderfully to the screen.

What does get lost though is the inner drama and torments, and of course the meat behind the dialogue. The long speeches have to be cut, and there’s only so much you can do with agonised facial expressions and creepy music, so I did wonder how much sense the film would make to anyone who hadn’t read the book. It was, however, a Russian film (made in 1959 – IMDB link here http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0051762/) so of course the idea that anyone watching it might not have read the book probably didn’t enter the producers’ minds.

And the fact that it was in Russian contributed to the unsettling oddness. Of course there should be nothing strange at all about watching Dostoevsky in Russian, but his novels have rooted themselves so firmly inside my head, that it was almost a surprise to hear the characters speaking familiar lines in perfect Russian, and to hear all the names pronounced without my dodgy Russian accent. The familiarity of it all does at least allow me to con myself that I’m understanding all the Russian perfectly!

The lead characters, Prince Myshkin (Yuri Yakovlev) and Nastasya Filippovna (Yuliya Borisova) were perfect. They’re both pretty hard acts to pull off, but they got the perfect, dangerous beauty of Nastasya and the otherwordliness of Myshkin just right. Ganya was good too, and anyone who has ever been bullied and harangued by a bossy, matronly khoziaika will immediately recognise Liza Prokovyevna Yepanchina.  Rogozhin on the other hand was too wild, as if he’d just got off a train from Siberia, not Europe. Yes, he’s mad, but there has to be some reason why Nastasya is so attracted to him, and there was absolutely none that I could see.

I think the film may only be the first part of the book – I’ve watched 90 minutes and we’ve only got to Nastasya’s birthday party – I’ll update this when I’ve finished watching it. Now that I’ve broken the ice, perhaps I need to find some more Dostoevsky adaptations to watch – any recommendations? The 2002 BBC adaptation of Crime and Punishment is on YouTube. I wonder if I dare watch it.

Is Dostoevsky depressing?

16 November 2011 § Leave a comment

A while ago, a friend of mine made a comment about Dostoevsky being depressing. It wasn’t really the time to launch into a full-blown defence, and I got no further than a feeble “no he isn’t”, but  I kept thinking afterwards about what I should have said, as one always does. I remembered it again last night; I’d had a bad day, and had a headache, but forced myself to sit down at the computer and get some work done on the book. An hour or so later, I was feeling much better: on this occasion it was probably just the absorption in work that had cheered me up, rather than Dostoevsky himself, but it got me thinking again about exactly why it is that his novels are not in the least bit depressing, and often quite the opposite.

The delight of reading any book comes from the ability of an author to absorb the reader completely, to take them to a different place, and even if that place is less comfortable than the sofa and glass of wine that’s left behind, there’s still pleasure in the sense of escape from daily life. Dostoevsky has this ability in bucketloads; his plots gallop along, full of unexpected twists and tantalisingly half-answered questions and you have to keep reading and reading out of a desperate desire to know what’s going to happen next. Will Raskolnikov get caught, or will he crack and confess? Who really murdered old Fydor Karamazov? Will Dmitry get a fair trial? Which man will Nastasya Filippovna finally choose? And so on. The novels are packed with action and drama, full of larger-than-life characters who sparkle off the page: when I’m delving into one of the novels looking for a reference, I have to be on my guard not to get sucked back into the story, otherwise I’d never get anything written.

There’s also a fair amount of humour (I even spotted a book in the library entirely devoted to the subject of humour in Dostoevsky, although its contents seemed disappointingly dry), from the straightforward buffoonery of Rogozhin’s entourage, to the sharp digs aimed at the odious and stupid Luzhin (the conversation between Luzhin and Lebezyatnikov when they attempt to discuss the “woman question” is hilarious). One of my favourite scenes is when Raskolnikov teases Razumikhin about his obvious desire for Dunya and the two of them become helpless with laughter (yes, Raskolnikov laughs!), and even the utterly terrifying portrayal of madness that is the Devil’s visit to Ivan is full of humour.

What really nails it, however, is the irrepressible love of life that pervades everything that Dostoevsky writes. Even in the midst of madness and violence, there seems to be a desperate struggle to keep going, to find some way onwards: there is no defeatism in Dostoevsky’s novels. Ivan faces his great crisis of faithbecause he loves life and humanity so much, and the reason that we retain a shred of sympathy for Stavrogin, is because he tries so hard to find and hold onto something good, even though it eventually slips from his grasp. It’s why Dostoevsky won’t let Ippolit succeed in his suicide attempt, and why Kirillov does not, in the end, willingly shoot himself. Dostoevsky sees the miracle of human life as something huge and wonderful, and it is this sense of wonder that gives him the power to magnify the excitement of life, with all its messiness and complications, to the dimensions that it reaches in his novels. Reading Dostoevsky is exhilarating, and at times exhausting. He makes big demands of his readers, but pays them back for the effort. He’s scary, exciting and sometimes a lot of fun.  And never, ever depressing.

sex, religion and politics

18 January 2011 § Leave a comment

They’re supposedly the three big unmentionables in polite society, but it’s these three conversational bombs that lie at the heart of Dostoevsky’s novels. I started off trying to see if I link one theme to each book; it would be nice if I could say well, the Idiot is all about sex, and the Devils is all about politics and Brothers Karamazov is all about religion, but it really isn’t quite as neat as that.

I’m reading the Idiot at the moment. I don’t think I’ve read it since I was 18, so I suspect I was rather youthfully idealistic about the sexual passions that run through it. This time round, I’m really struck by the destructive and unhealthy relationship between Nastasya Filippovna and Rogozhin; here are two people who probably really don’t actually like each other that much, but are utterly consumed with desire, oblivious to all sense, and to those around them. There’s some degree of that with Dmitry and Grushenka in Brothers Karamazov too, although not as fierce as Nastasya and Rogozhin.

The other big relationships are notable for their frustration and lack of fulfilment. Prince Myshkin and Aglaya almost mirror Nastasya and Rogozhin; neither of them seem to know what they want, they won’t admit that there is any attraction between them and they are prickly and defensive towards each other. In Brothers Karamazov, poor old Katerina is thoroughly confused about her feelings for Dmitry and Ivan, she probably thinks she’s in love with them both but again, it’s probably just good old-fashioned lust. (I can’t help feeling that Dmitry and Ivan are probably rather fanciable, in a hopeless sort of way). Even the great romance of Crime and Punishment, between Raskolnikov and Sonya, is not exactly wholesome.

There are happy, stable relationships, but these always seem to be between secondary characters; the lovely Razumikhin and Dunya, or Varya and Ptitsyn in the Idiot. I’m reading Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky biography at the moment, but I’m still on his bachelor days: I assume that his own life is going to shed some light on all these failed sexual relationships, since there’s so much of Dostoevsky’s own life and thinking crammed into the novels.

I’ve just been reading about Dostoevsky’s early literary life in St Petersburg, his championing by Belinsky and his circle followed by their great falling-out, and I’ve been wrapping my brain around Utopian Socialism and Left Hegelianism. I’m beginning to understand more clearly where Raskolnikov comes from, and some of the thinking behind the portrayal of Christ in the Grand Inquisitor, but I need to keep reading and thinking before I tackle Dostoevsky’s religion and politics.

This is making me wonder whether I’ve finally stumbled across some sort of idea for structuring all this. I’ll keep writing and let it cook.

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