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.

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god made man

13 May 2011 § Leave a comment

As is probably obvious, I’m more than a bit obsessed (or even possessed) at the moment and I keep seeing Dostoevsky connections all over the place. I even started thinking about Raskolnikov whilst Bohemian Rhapsody was playing in the car the other day (although I suppose really Camus’s Mersault is closer). Last week I read Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ and found it profoundly disturbing. Pullman portrays Jesus as an ordinary preacher, with no particular special powers, and imagines a twin brother, called Christ, who is inspired by a mysterious angel figure and instructed to write the story of Jesus’s life in which “truth” must take priority over “history”. The angel and Christ together concoct miracles from perfectly ordinary occurrences, whilst conjuring up a vision of the church that will come and knowingly sacrifice Jesus so that the church has a great founding myth. So far, so good, it’s not far removed from the Grand Inquisitor.

As I continued to read, I found myself both appalled and attracted by the story; it’s all so plausible (not the twin brother thing, necessarily, but just the whole general idea). I know the historical Jesus stuff is nothing new, but seeing it told like this, written in a style that so closely mimics that of the gospels, even reusing familiar gospel phrases, made it feel dangerously reasonable and tempting. Then, as I’ve been writing about The Idiot and Prince Myshkin this week, I understood a bit more the effect that the Holbein painting of the dead Christ has on the characters in the novel.

The painting is of a horribly realistic dead Christ, his body bruised, his face already green with decay, god become unimaginably human. Prince Myshkin says of it that some people may lose their faith by looking at the picture, and it later exerts its influence on poor, impressionable Ippolit. We’re so used to seeing graphic images today that it’s easy to overlook the effect that this painting would have had – especially on Dostoevsky’s Russians who were more accustomed to seeing Christ portrayed in highly stylised icons, not flesh and blood realism: Dostoevsky spent so long gazing at it in the gallery in Basel where it hangs that his wife had to drag him away, fearing it would provoke an epileptic fit.

Pullman’s novel does the same thing to us as Holbein’s painting; they both force us to confront the human Jesus. Dostoevsky’s response to the humanity of Jesus is one of the themes of The Idiot and something that I’ll be exploring in the chapter I’m currently writing on Prince Myshkin and Alyesha Karamazov.

Diversions and distractions

1 May 2011 § 1 Comment

I’ve already mentioned that I felt the need to fill a rather gaping hole in my knowledge of Russian literature by finally reading Gogol’s marvellous Dead Souls, and now that I’m getting down to some serious writing and research, I’m finding more interesting diversions along the way. Firstly, I’ve had to go and reread Fathers and Sons to remind myself about literary nihilists: Turgenev’s Bazarov provides some of the inspiration for Raskolnikov.  I hadn’t read it since the first year Russian lit course, and I assumed that the copy on my bookshelf was mine from back then, so I was surprised and puzzled to find that in fact it had a sticker on the back from a secondhand bookshop in Ithaca, NY and someone else’s scribbles in it. I’m still trying to remember why on earth I bought it; I don’t really like Turgenev and rereading it now has confirmed my prejudices. I was on holiday at the time, perhaps I feared running out of stuff to read. I still haven’t quite finished it. I must wade through the last few pages whilst Bazarov dies.

My second diversion has thrown up an interesting puzzle. I’m working on Dostoevsky’s Christ-like characters, particularly Prince Myshkin at the moment, and was reading the passage where Aglaya recites Pushkin’s Poor Knight poem. I decided to look up the original Russian, and discovered that in fact Aglaya selectively quotes it and misses out several verses, completely distorting Pushkin’s vision for her own ends. Puskin’s knight is driven by a vision of the Virgin Mary, and prays only to her, excluding the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, and she is his Lady who inspires him in battle. When he dies, the Devil tries to claim his soul because he’s not been saying his prayers properly, but Mary intercedes for him and he is duly admitted to Paradise. Aglaya omits almost all references to Mary, and has the Knight daubing Nastasya Filippovna’s initials on his shield instead of Ave, Mater Dei. So the whole thing becomes even more of a mockery than I had initially realised – and of course with it being Pushkin, Dostoevsky can safely assume that his readers realise this. That’s the easy bit; now I just have to figure out how it all fits in.

Next diversion is Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ – a friend was describing it to me, and I realised that I have to read it for another take on the old problem of the conflicts between the values of the organised church and the original teachings of Jesus. These are only diversions though: I mustn’t turn into Edward Casaubon.

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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