Tag Archives: Anna Karenina

#TTWIB Travels in May: Reading Russia

15 May

Reading Russia

This month Becca of I’m Lost in Books is hosting a free-choice reading event of books set in Russia. I have a couple of books in mind for this:

Everyday Saints cover (Russia)

Everyday Saints and Other Stories by Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov is rather like a “Chicken Soup for the Russian Orthodox Soul,” to make a homely comparison. The author describes his awakening of faith and entry into the Pskov Caves Monastery in Pechory, near the Estonian border.

pskovo-pechersky_monastery

I learned of this book from a review by Emma of Words and Peace.  It was reportedly a bestseller in Russia, with over a million copies sold worldwide.  The personal warmth and frankness of its author have surely been a big part of its success. He tells us that, although he and his friends were reasonably happy young men with promising careers, something strange and wonderful drew them to monastic life: “for each of us, a new world had suddenly opened up, incomparable in its beauty.” He attempts to share this beauty as it manifests in daily life, through his gift for storytelling. Understanding the beauty of this Orthodox way of life is one essential to understanding the foundations of Russian culture, especially relevant since the fall of the Soviet system.

I hope to read Everyday Saints during the remainder of May, but I wanted to mention another Russian book, Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate.

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In scope and importance, this World War II novel has been compared to War and Peace. At nearly 900 pages, this will take me a while, but I’d like to make a start on it in May during our Read Russia event.

In a much lighter vein, I’d like to recommend Rosalind Laker’s charming historical novel, To Dream of Snow, in which a Parisian seamstress travels to the court of the Empress Elisabeth to embroider the elaborate gowns of the monarch and her daughter-in-law Catherine–the future Catherine the Great (for more details, see my review).

To Dream of Snow

Finally, if you haven’t read Anna Karenina yet, there are so many good translations available now. I first read the older one by Constance Garnett; it has its critics these days, but it certainly won me over (and it is free on Kindle). I like the Louise and Aylmer Maude translation in the Dover Thrift Edition, and their version was used for the movie tie-in edition to Joe Wright’s brilliant (but underrated) film.

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Another Russian classic is One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhensitsyn (trans. H. T. Willetts). Here’s a recent paperback edition.

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I hope some of these ideas are helpful; likewise, I hope to get some new ideas of mysteries, historicals, and contemporary fiction set in Russia, from other readers!

#TTWIBRAT Mini-Challenge + GIVEAWAY : Favorite Characters in Cover Art

25 Oct
Image courtesy of potowizard at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

Image courtesy of potowizard at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

I’m very happy to be hosting a mini-challenge for our Travel the World in Books Readathon. It’s about one of my very favorite things about reading–great characters! When a truly memorable character transports me to a different place and time, it’s even better, and speaks to my own longings to travel around the world and travel in time too.  A beautiful or striking book cover featuring the outstanding character I will meet in the story is sure to draw me in, whether the book is a favorite classic in a new edition or something totally new–a favorite in the making.

I’m sure you’ve had that experience too.  I like many kinds of covers featuring characters: original illustrations made just for the book cover; paintings or other art that suggests the character and gives me some notion of time, place, and personality (Penguin is a fan of this approach); or even photographs, modern or period photos of people who then become my mental image of the character as I read.

CHALLENGE

This challenge is meant to be easy, fun, and flexible. The goal is for us to share some favorite characters from around the world, especially those which have been depicted in memorable cover art. Your task is to select one or more book covers featuring any one of your favorite characters (they don’t have to be on my 100 list, of course), and post the result in the format of your choice.  Some details:

  1. You can share just ONE book cover that you especially like–that would be great.  Or, if you wish, create a COMPOSITE image, a COLLAGE, or GALLERY with several covers.
  2. Post your image on the social media of your choice. You can Tweet or Instagram it. You can post it in your blog. Whichever way you choose, be sure to include the hashtag #TTWIBRAT in your posting.
  3. Share the link with me by leaving a comment to this mini-challenge post.  Be sure that you use the specific link that will take me right to your post, tweet, or instagram page containing your submission.  I will be tweet-sharing your submissions @Fictional100, and I will feature as many as I can in a follow-up post at the end of the Readathon.
  4. This mini-challenge and giveaway will run throughout the second week of the readathon, from October 25 to 31.

GIVEAWAY

I am giving away a copy of one of the following books, featuring Fictional 100 characters on their gorgeous covers, to ONE lucky winner.  These are all chunksters, in acclaimed translations, and well worth adding to your personal library and your lifetime reading (or re-reading) plan.  Follow the links to Goodreads for more details about each one.

The GIVEAWAY is open to those who participate in the mini-challenge and share a fabulous character cover or covers! Because the prize is a print book, which I will ship to your doorstep, this print-book giveaway is open in the US/Canada only. International readers who enter will receive a Kindle version of one of these books if they win.

The winner will be selected by random drawing from those who ENTER using the link below. I will notify the winner by email and arrange to send your prize.

Entry-Form

I can’t wait to see and share your cover selections for favorite characters. If you are participating in the #TTWIBRAT Instagram Challenge, today’s theme is Favorite World Lit Characters, so feel free to share the same photo here if it is a book cover. Thank you for participating, and enjoy the rest of the Travel the World in Books Readathon!

And There’s More!

Also be sure to check out the main Travel the World in Books Readathon 2015 Giveaways Page and enter to win a book from among the 18 books generously offered there! See more details at Mom’s Small Victories.

Giveaways page button

“Les Misérables” (2012), or, the Problem of Putting an Epic (Musical) on Film: A Review

30 Dec

This season offered moviegoers adaptations of two sprawling, classic novels, Les Misérables and Anna Karenina. They represent two rather different solutions to the inevitable problems of selection and compression when one is dealing with such huge stories. Both novels unfold over some time in their fictional worlds and, likewise, take the attentive reader days, months, or even years to absorb fully. But movies have only two or three hours to lay out the essentials and take the reader from emotional point A to point B, or to points X, Y, and Z.

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In Les Misérables, the selection and compression of incident was given in advance by the adaptation for the stage, Boublil, Schönberg, and Kretzmer’s hugely successful musical. The undulating succession of emotional lows and peaks which Victor Hugo wrote are all here with a song to embody each. But is this a help to the film or too big a constraint on the pace of storytelling in a medium so different from the stage?  The stage is a place where scenes can be rotated into view or merely suggested with a backdrop or a few props, where action is limited by space, and where audience and actors agree that a character may stop, lift us up (with the strength of a Jean Valjean!), and symbolically carry us through the emotional journey of a song.  In a film, especially one that is avowedly “realistic” in its aim, the agreement is a bit different. The story is told scene by scene at more or less the pace of life; gaps in time–sometimes huge ones–serve the purpose of compression. The screenwriter’s and film director’s arts involve first selecting the scenes that will piece together the narrative and then setting them up (requiring again a whole universe of choices) for the camera to capture.

In Tom Hooper’s film of Les Misérables, the succession of songs seems to force a certain staccato pace on the events, as if they must be reeled out quickly before the song is over. Because this cuts against the grain of realism in what the eye sees, the film seems oddly rushed and busy, and star Hugh Jackman, as Jean Valjean, mirrors this pace in his valiant, breathy singing.  Fantine’s fall from seamstress to prostitute, after selling her locket, hair, and teeth, apparently occurs all in the same day, in the space of a few desperate hours, while the song that brackets it takes mere minutes.  The cuts and scene changes that permit the illusion of the passage of time, in a fine version such as the 1998 nonmusical film (starring Liam Neeson and Uma Thurman), are not available here.

Les_miserables_1998_film_poster

Perhaps the frenetic pace of Fantine’s degradation conveys its tragedy, but as a viewer I was ironically grateful when the motion ceased while she sang “I dreamed a dream”–this song, both in the musical and in the film, bestowed the gift of time, room to contemplate all her character had undergone and would yet suffer.

Does this mean that a sung-through musical is not possible on film? Not at all. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), directed by Jacques Demy, is successful precisely because it never feels rushed or constrained by the songs; its dreamy quality matches song to action in a way that is awe-inspiring, justifying the admiration this film has received. For Les Mis, Hooper faced the doubly difficult task of adapting an adaptation, and he likely felt an obligation to include all the songs from the musical out of respect for its fans;  but this ready-made “screenplay,” in song form, short-circuited the possibility of making a musical better adapted to screen storytelling.

In Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina, the artistic tables are turned. Other films to this point have used conventional realism and judicious scene selection to solve the problem of compressing Tolstoy’s massive masterpiece. Wright, however, used the freedoms and conventions of the stage to make a brilliantly unconventional adaptation.

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Placing his actors on and off a theater stage allowed abrupt scene changes and mere suggestions of incidents that were not out of place but rather served the emotional impact of the story. When Vronsky’s horse suddenly and fatally tumbled off the stage, the viewer was jarred into real shock comparable to Anna’s, and “realism” of a very different sort was managed creatively (such a fall might indeed break a horse’s back or crush its rider). Yet it is not real–it’s a film, and we knew that “no animals were harmed in the making.” It’s an illusion achieved with cuts, special effects, and clever choices, part of the overarching illusion that the whole story can be recounted before the viewers’ eyes. Wright straddled film and theater, moving between them in a way that was surprising and constantly fresh, and a sophisticated commentary on both.

But Les Mis made a different set of choices: film realism and live singing. It has many strengths within those confines, not least of which is a complete realization of the stage musical. It fleshes out the action in epic proportions, to the point of floating a full-size galley (so it seems) for prisoner Jean Valjean to sweat and pull and sing into harbor. On this grand epic canvas, several other performances stood out and deserve mention. Anne Hathaway (Fantine) and Russell Crowe (Javert) found each of their character’s genuine center, and both sang very effectively. Anne will likely bring home many well-merited awards, probably an Oscar. Amanda Seyfried sang the aerial notes of Cosette with natural beauty and sincerity, and I would have wished more screen time for her.  Eddie Redmayne (Marius), hitherto best known for playing Jack in The Pillars of the Earth, was a bracing surprise, for his screen charisma and excellent singing. But the biggest and most welcome surprise was the cameo of Colm Wilkinson as M. Myriel, the saintly bishop whose gifts of candlesticks and forgiveness purchased Jean Valjean’s soul for God, launching the miracle of his new life and pilgrimage of faith. Wilkinson reminds us of the possible heights an actor can reach in portraying the soul of a great man. Hugh Jackman embraces this challenge wholeheartedly and seems to understand the moral choices that beset Jean Valjean as well as the prayerfulness with which he approached those choices. As it did for Wilkinson in the stage musical, Jackman’s best moment arrived in the pivotal song, “Bring Him Home.” And so Jackman fulfilled the role, especially its greater physical demands in the film. Was he a “revelation” in the role? Perhaps not. But like Jean Valjean, he proved himself utterly faithful to it.

Related post:

Breakage and Mending in “Anna Karenina” (2012): A review of the film by Joe Wright

4 Dec

Each new film adaptation of a classic must make choices about the images and symbols that will accompany its characters and help to reveal the significance of what happens to them. This is especially true when adapting a very long, profound, and polyphonic novel such as Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. 

Annakarenina2012poster

Such choices by a director and by actors will forever color the impressions of a viewer encountering the story for the first time, even if she or he should go on to read the novel or watch other films of it.   For viewers who already know it, from its original or other renderings, a new adaptation is still an exciting opportunity to experience the work in a completely new way. In its boldness, Joe Wright’s 2012 film adaptation of Anna Karenina does not disappoint, with its abundant creativity and fresh emphasis, attributable undoubtedly as well to Tom Stoppard’s screenplay.

I’d like to highlight one motif that struck me as I watched (and listened–sounds are very important in this film too).  That motif is the alternation of breakage and (when possible) mending, mostly concerning the delicate relationships between people but extending to other things as well.  The viewer learns right away that the film will dance between scenes explicitly framed on stage as moving tableaux and “real” scenes, often introduced by spillage of the action over the proscenium or stretching out across an infinite rear stage. This gives the whole film an impressive trompe l’oeil quality, where one can’t always be sure what one is seeing. (The last scene of the film is a particular triumph of Wright’s  technique.) This method yields the first “breakages”–breaking the habitual rules governing the boundaries between stage and life, and breaking with our expectations of how period novels should be told on film.  In effect, the director announces immediately, “This will not be a well-behaved costume drama, so watch carefully!”  And indeed we do, because besides being sumptuous, it is paced quickly with sudden switches and interruptions.  Interestingly, chronological sequence is obeyed, giving the viewer at least one reliable anchor.  Perhaps, since Tolstoy inserted so much foreshadowing into his plot, there is little need to rearrange events to hint at the final outcome.

The early scenes visit the daily life and family strife of Stiva Oblonsky, Anna’s brother, played delightfully by Matthew Macfadyen, who was Keira Knightley’s Darcy in Joe Wright’s 2005 film of Pride and Prejudice. As Stiva, Macfadyen turns in an expansive, scene-stealing performance! His arrival at his office is a tuneful, surreal dance that made me wonder if this would be a musical throughout?  But in the first of many abrupt ruptures, the background melody of the characters’ lives is broken by the jangling of tragedy, the death of the train attendant, witnessed by Anna and blighting her initial passing encounter of Vronsky at the station.

Anna comes to visit her brother’s family in Moscow on a mission to mend the marriage whose breakage is threatened by Stiva’s unfaithfulness to his wife Dolly. Anna’s appeal to her sister-in-law to forgive her straying (though loving) husband works, and the breach is mended, despite Stiva’s inability to change his ways significantly.  Anna’s visit, however, gravely disrupts the life of Kitty, Dolly’s 18-year-old sister, who has hopes of marrying Count Vronsky, a young army officer. Seeing Anna so utterly captivate Vronsky at the ball where she imagined he would propose to her sends Kitty into despair and illness.  Before she learns the truth about Vronsky, Kitty turns down a proposal from the progressive farmer and landowner Levin, but that is not the final word for them. Wright’s film handles this counterpoint tale of Kitty and Levin’s redeeming love with extraordinary charm and sincerity. I won’t spoil it with more details, but it unfolds through fine, restrained performances by Alicia Vikander and Domhnall Gleeson. Gleeson in particular captures Levin’s mysterious mixture of inner quiet and turmoil.

The rough outlines of Anna Karenina’s tragedy are well known, part of worldwide culture, but for any who are coming to her story for the first time, there are spoilers ahead…

As Anna, Keira Knightley must demonstrate layer upon layer of fragility as the character suffers a series of ruptures in all the major relationships of her life. Knightley does have such acting resources, which she showed in The Duchess (2008; a story with many parallels and some important divergences from the present one) and in the somber fable Never Let Me Go (2010).  But because the actress herself is so young, it is hard for her to show some of the nuances of Anna’s vulnerability and pain as she is compared to the young princess Vronsky’s mother intends for him. It is not only that she may be supplanted, but that she feels time slipping past her.  Despite her undeniable part in creating the fatal string of events, the word “inexorable” seems the only one to describe the cascading breakages–with her husband, lover, son, and her friends in Petersburg “society”–that leave Anna unconnected, like a beautiful marionette with all its strings cut. Although Vronsky and Anna were both judged by society for their behavior, their positions were never equivalent. Vronsky risked some things, notably in his career, but Anna risked everything. He could escape the situation by marrying, but she had no escape, she thought, but the one she chose.  In the end, she allowed herself to break like a fallen bisque doll.

I called “breakage” a motif in the film rather than simply a theme because Wright uses it repeatedly in both sights and sounds. I’ve never heard so many loud, sudden noises in a film that didn’t involve explosions or car crashes! Everyone seems poised to be startled (including the audience). The rapid scene changes and dislocations between stage and “real world” reinforce sudden revelations in the plot or strong emotions.  For example, when Anna flatly tells her husband that he is not mistaken, that she indeed loves Vronsky and is his mistress, the carriage they are riding in registers Karenin’s shock with a screech.  Often, Anna’s voice seems to catch in her throat and she draws in breath audibly.  Her gasp becomes a scream when Vronsky’s horse suddenly falls, in one of the most brilliant bits of stage business–and filmmaking–I’ve ever seen. (We know this is coming, but the surprise and horror are triggered as if we didn’t.)  Vronsky is thrown clear but the horse’s back is broken, and the unbearable shot rings out. Vronsky has lost one of beings he loves most, and the foreshadowing of irreparable brokenness is complete.

Wright’s film made me see Tolstoy’s great domestic novel as an especially poignant study in entropy, the tendency of the universe to increase in disorder: How easy it is for a horse and rider to fall, for a bone to break, or for a marriage to fail.  Mending, when it is even possible, requires tremendous energy and calls forth humility and steadfast qualities, especially love, loyalty, and forgiveness.  Without them, the din of heartbreak can be deafening.

 

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