Northern exposure: my weird relationship with Russian literature (and film).

pasternak-at-the-beach

Not long ago, from Netflix my husband and I received the first DVD (yes, we still do DVDs) of the new miniseries War and Peace, which came out this year on BBC. It stars Paul Dano as Pierre Bezhukov and features some other terrific actors, including The X Files’s Gillian Anderson, in supporting roles. We’re only halfway through it at this writing but already I’ve fallen in love with it. I feel qualified to say this: I’m one of those rare humans who has actually read War and Peace. Thinking back on my experience reading it, and how I responded to the film, it occurred to me that I have a very odd relationship with Russian literature, which itself is a very unique breed of storytelling. I at once love it and hate it; I think I understand it but am at the same time utterly baffled by it. And it’s not just books. Russian movies tend to affect me the same way. So what is it about the Russians and their literature that’s so compelling — and infuriating?

War and Peace was my first Russian novel. I read it in 1997, at the age of 25 — somehow I managed to avoid Dostoevsky in high school and college lit classes, though I vaguely recall poking about in Solzhenitsyn in sort of a half-hearted way in college. I loved War and Peace, the richness of Tolstoy’s prose, the pathos of the characters, especially Bezhukov, and the historical setting appealed to me as a lifelong history buff. I credit War and Peace in part for sparking my interest in the early 19th century as a historical period, which has become the focus of my research as a historian. But, like most people, I also found War and Peace daunting, cold, inaccessible, over-long and depressing. Reading it was like taking medicine when you’re a kid: it’s supposed to be good for you but it often tastes terrible going down. I admit I skipped and skimmed in the later chapters when it got especially thick. It was tough keeping all those characters straight, especially when, as is custom in Russian novels, they’re known by seemingly dozens of different names at different points in the story.

This is the trailer for the 2016 BBC production of War and Peace. It’s visually stunning.

In 2003 I discovered the work of Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. To say I was captivated was an understatement. Seeing Solaris for the first time was a transcendental experience. I believe it’s the best science fiction film ever made, though it’s mostly dismissed in English-speaking countries as the Russians’ rip-off of 2001: A Space Odyssey (actually they’re quite different). When I saw Tarkovsky’s true masterpiece, Andrei Rublev (1966), I was even more blown away. It could well be the greatest film ever made. I found Tarkovsky very much like War and Peace: excruciatingly slow, deep, heavy, filled with brooding characters deeply conflicted over their morality and mortality, and to whom depressing personal tragedies seem to keep happening with alarming regularity. If Tolstoy had been a filmmaker he’d probably be Tarkovsky. Or at least Bondarchuk.

My next Russian novel was Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, which I had tried to read several times over the years but never managed to get that far through it. I remember reading my vintage 1961 Pocket Books edition of the Doc while having a beer in the lounge overlooking the stormy Oregon coast on Christmas Day (that’s the photo that appears at the top of this article). I love Doctor Zhivago for exactly the same reasons I love War and Peace: the descriptions, the pathos, the historical sweep, the brooding characters, the ruminations on life, love, and death. Mostly death. But at the same time, while loving it, I made a sobering admission to myself: the book makes almost no damn sense. Admitting this was like sticking a shiv into the back of my best friend. But there. I said it. The book is senseless.

This fan-made “trailer” for Solaris (1972) captures a little bit of the sense of brooding wonder that pervades Tarkovsky’s seminal film.

I mean, honestly, who can keep all these characters straight? I got that Antipov and Strelnikov are the same person — that’s the novel’s big reveal — but who’s Yusupka? The same as Galliulin, right? Komarovsky is Lara’s lover, or patron, or rapist or something — but who the hell is Nikolai Nikolaevich? Does Amalia just vanish suddenly after her near-death scene, never to appear in the novel again? And what’s the damn plot? Yuri loves Lara and takes a train trip across the Urals. That’s about all I could absorb. You’ve got to hand it to Robert Bolt, who wrote the screenplay for the famous 1965 film, for making this material even marginally comprehensible. I couldn’t do it. I imagine the experience of writing the film was probably not unlike Spike Jonze’s Adaptation, the story of a screenwriter struggling to adapt a book that simply won’t work as a movie no matter what he does.

Yet, despite these problems, there’s something deeply entrancing about Russian literature and film. Tolstoy and Pasternak were geniuses, and the fact that their books are heavy, confusing and light on plot are obviously features, not bugs. Someday I’d love to try to write a Russian-style novel. I’d make it dark and brooding, it would feature a deathbed scene about every other chapter, the plot would vanish mysteriously three-quarters of the way through and it would end with a character staring at an oak tree. Of course, since I’m neither Russian nor a hundredth as good a writer as either Pasternak or Tolstoy, my attempt would invariably come off as parody — perhaps the literary equivalent of Woody Allen’s Love and Death, a comic send-up of Russian literature, especially Dostoevsky. I also have a few things I’d like to accomplish in my life other than studying Russian literature, and I’m convinced it takes a lifetime commitment, exclusive of everything else, to really understand it. Russian books are cool, but honestly, life is too short.

Woody Allen’s send-up of Russian literature in Love and Death (1975) is one of the best of his early comedies. It gets the infuriating character of Russian novels exactly right.

So I guess I’m fated to be little more than a casual cafeteria-Catholic-style consumer of Russian literature, or perhaps even worse, the equivalent of someone who drinks mostly Seagram’s wine coolers and then proclaims himself an oenophile after taking two sips of pinot noir. I don’t understand Russian literature, and I hate that I don’t understand it — and that I guess deep down I really don’t want to put the effort into trying to. Russian literature is deeply gratifying, but it’s also strangely toxic. That insoluble riddle may be what lies at the heart of its brilliance. I can be enraptured for six hours watching Paul Dano and Gillian Anderson prance about in Napoleonic costumes and utter television-script palimpsests of Tolstoy, but that’s probably about as close as I’ll ever get to really understanding War and Peace.

The photo at the top of this article is copyright (C) 2014 by Sean Munger, all rights reserved. I am not the uploader of any of the YouTube clips embedded here.
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  1. Greed and glitter: a journey through 1980s cinema, in 25 films. [Part III] – www.seanmunger.com

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