Lovebird

Russian Literature

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I am a great admirer of Russian literature. Perhaps it's because my favorite fairtales as a child were from a Georgian storybook. Anyway, I was wondering, what , in your opinion, are the most important works, or most influential, or that you simply like a lot, in Russian literature.

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I really enjoyed Pushkin's "Eugene Onegin" (maybe because of the ballet!) and Dostoevsky's "Notes from the Underground" and of course, "Crime and Punishment".

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Many of Pushkin's works have been made into ballets, and often Russian dancers name him as among their favorites. I don't think Alexander Pushkin, the great ballet master, was related (does anyone know?). Cranko's Onegin was first performed by ABT in 2001, so perhaps it will return in the not too distant furture.

For the greatest ballet based on a work by a Russian writer, I would vote for Ivan Turgenev's play A Month in the Country, as choreographed by Sir Fred Ashton. It is available for a free read on the Australian Gutenberg Project site:

http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks03/0300831h.html

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With the note that all of these were read in translation, I enjoyed the following:

Eugene Onegin (the Charles Johnston translation)

Anna Karenina

War and Peace

The Possessed

Crime and Punishment

The short stories of Gogol

Short stories and plays by Chekhov – especially ‘The Lady with the Dog’ and ‘The Three Sisters’

I haven’t read The Brothers Karamazov or The Idiot yet, I regret to say.

There are new translations coming out all the time – I just picked up the latest Anna Karenina -- but I have a partiality for the old ones by Constance Garnett, odd as they are in some respects, because that’s where I encountered many of these books first.

I would say that all of the above are important reading, but if you are forced to choose, get at least one Tolstoy and one Dostoevsky under your belt. The Gogol stories are great for starters, too.

Thank you for starting the topic, Lovebird. I hope others will chime in with their opinions.

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A warning. 19th-century Russian literature is very dense, often very long, and deeply imbedded in a precise social, cultural, and political milieu. This is the kind of literature meant for reading aloud over long leisurely afternoons and evenings , a way to pass the time in country houses where there were few other options for distraction. It helps to prepare with some sort of introduction to the time and period about which you are reading. Or perhaps a film version on video.

My own introduction was through War and Peace, which I started reading after seeing the 50s very abridged Hollywood movie (the one with Audrey Hepburn as Natasha -- dubbed into Spanish -- don't ask!!). Sergei Bondarchuk's late 60s film version is the better and more faithful film, but I could never get over the absence of Hepburn. The book was in the old Louise and Aylmer Maude translation in a small but very fat Oxford Uinversity Press edition. I still use this volume, which has required re-binding more than once.

A good relatively short intro to Turgenev is Fathers and Sons. To Tolstoy: the youthful Childhood, Boyhood, Youth. To Gogol: The Nose; also, The Overcoat. To Pushkin's prose: Queen of Spades, which has been made into a Tchaikovsky opera. To Dostoevsky: short stories like The Gambler. To Chekov's prose, the stories recommended by dirac. The 20th century is another huge area: one good intro would be Mikhail Bulgakov's Master and Margarita. And Victor Serge, imprisoned under Stalin but later able to get to western Europe: Conquered City, and The Case of Comrade Tulayev.

And, for something very weird indeed, Ivan Goncharov's Oblomov (19th century), the tale of a man so wrapped in laziness, ennui, and the existential blahs that his biggest daily decision is whether or not to bother to get out of bed. (I saw a wonderful stage play based on this last year.)

I wonder how many of these literary works -- and others not mentioned so far -- have been turned into ballets?

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Thank you for that list, bart. Although movies have often led people to good books, I myself would not recommend actually seeking out any film version first. A movie has a way of imposing itself on the reader’s imagination (and this can happen regardless of whether it is any good or not). I can’t speak for others, but I plunged right into Anna Karenina as a teenager and was never sorry. The books are long, but they pull you into their world. On the other hand, if you have trouble with the book, perhaps a good movie can help you visualize the period.

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I also prefer to start with the book. But sometimes this can be difficult, especially when we're talking about a world as unfamiliar to us as that of 19th century Russia.

A virtue of films is that they can focus on the main characters (who they are, what happens to them) by drastically downplaying the social, political, religious, cultural environment in which they live, using it primarily as a background.

A good film can hook you on the story of the main characters. If it leads you to the novel, you'll find a much richer world, and one that can be pursued at a more leisurely and thoughtful pace.

I'll give you an example taken from opera rather than film. This coming spring, Florida Grand Opera will perform a new opera, composed by David Carlson, based on Anna Karenina. Carlson says of his librettist and director:

What Colin [Graham] did was realize that Anna Karenina is really the story of two couples. Once we'd figured that out, I think everything around it sort of fell into place.
So the opera is "about" Anna and Vronsky, and Levin and Kitty. This can work very effectively on the stage or in a film. But it is only a small portion of what a careful reader will find in the novel, which presents its characters as deeply imbedded in, intertwined with, and controlled by a much larger world. (Those Russian characters who think they are independent of the world around them, and who act as if they are, tend to have a very hard time in life indeed. As Anna discovers.)

So, I guess you could say: "If you loved the movie, you really DO have to read the book." :clapping:

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bart writes:

A virtue of films is that they can focus on the main characters (who they are, what happens to them) by drastically downplaying the social, political, religious, cultural environment in which they live, using it primarily as a background.

Well...I’m not sure I’d call that a virtue -- more of an unavoidable misfortune. I did see a movie version of Anna Karenina before reading it (Garbo’s second reading of the role, with Fredric March) and was puzzled by all the stuff about Levin and Kitty I had to plow through when I got to the book. I did eventually learn to appreciate those segments of the book, but I think it took longer because I had seen a more streamlined version first. On the other hand, I don’t blame filmmakers for concentrating on Anna – if you have only two hours or so to get your story told, you have to focus on her.

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Well...I’m not sure I’d call that a virtue -- more of an unavoidable misfortune.
I should have gone for "a virtue and also a limitation," because it seems that one of the definiing qualities of film its ability to "reduce" complexity to something directly accessible to the eye and ear in a finite amount of time. This involves gains, but also significant losses, as compared to the original source.

I wonder if anyone has actually tried to publish a version of the novel that includes only her relationship with Karenin and Vronsky, as the Garbo film does.

And what about ballet? Out of curiosity, I Googled "Karenina" and "Plisetskaya," and came up with this 1988 NY Times review of the ballet created for her in 1972. Plisentskaya was 62 at the time of this performance. Vronsky and Karenin are there. But -- as in the case of Balanchine's mothers-in-law -- Levin and no Kitty seem to have been jettisoned.

http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html...750C0A96E948260

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A lot of Pushkin's work has been made into opera, Mazeppa is based on Pushkin's Poltava as well as Onegin and Queen of Spades. An author that I love but that is not very well known outside of Russia is Nikolai Leskov. I love his short stories which are mostly comedies, similar to the picaresque stories of Spain, unfortunately there, I think , only one translation available? I have read about five of his stories in the original Russian, I think it is difficult to translate because a lot of the humour would lose its meaning when translated. Lady Macbeth of the Mstsensk District, famous Shostakovich opera, is based on his tragic play. Of Gogol I would recomend Dead Souls and of course The Overcoat. Also, A Hero of Our Time by Lermontov I would say if you have not read definately try to. It's character is, I believe, the first anti- hero, modern man in Russian literature. Personally I feel this novel influenced many of the Russian realist writers. A novel that has a special place in my heart is Tolstoy's Resurrection. I have re-read many times and each time I find something else that really speaks to me. The female character, Katiusha is my favourite female character in Russian literature, with respects to Anna Karenina.

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An author that I love but that is not very well known outside of Russia is Nikolai Leskov. I love his short stories which are mostly comedies, similar to the picaresque stories of Spain, unfortunately there, I think , only one translation available? I have read about five of his stories in the original Russian, I think it is difficult to translate because a lot of the humour would lose its meaning when translated.

Yes, comic writing is most difficult to 'get' in translation. I always wanted to study Russian but it was one of those things I never got round to, alas. I will have to seek out 'Resurrection' - that's another thing on my to- do list.

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And what about ballet? Out of curiosity, I Googled "Karenina" and "Plisetskaya," and came up with this 1988 NY Times review of the ballet created for her in 1972. Plisentskaya was 62 at the time of this performance. Vronsky and Karenin are there. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html...750C0A96E948260

Um, I think perhaps Plisetskaya is having some years added on to her. Sources seem to agree that she was

born in 1925; I think she celebrated her eightieth birthday last year. Bart, maybe you are thinking of Ulanova or some other older Russian ballerina?

I have a cheap Russian bootleg VHS of her in Anna Karenina with the ill-fated Alexander Godunov. I think it's a lot of fun, there are more costume changes for Plisetskaya than one can imagine. Tolstoy???? Was he involved???

This movie is sort of nostalgic for me because it brought back memories of when I first saw Plisteskaya, it was late in the game, but geez is the game over yet? But it captures that period when she was a bit dimished

but her magnetism was intact.

Richard

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A lot of Pushkin's work has been made into opera, Mazeppa is based on Pushkin's Poltava as well as Onegin and Queen of Spades.

. A novel that has a special place in my heart is Tolstoy's Resurrection. I have re-read many times and each time I find something else that really speaks to me. The female character, Katiusha is my favourite female character in Russian literature, with respects to Anna Karenina.

Lovebird, if we count things such as poems and plays, Pushkin's writings generated a heap of operas.

In addition to the ones you mention, there are Boris Godunov, Ruslan and Lyudmila, the Golden Cockerel, The Tale of the Tsar Sultan, Mozart and Salieri, The Stone Guest as well as some less well known ones.

An oddity opera-wise is Franco Alfano setting of Resurrection. This doesn't stay too close to Tolstoy!

Richard

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War and Peace is my favorite novel ever. i'd always heard it was so heavy and difficult, and then I couldn't put it down -- I loved these people so, it was a physical feeling, I just loved them -- Natasha, Nikolai, Pierre, Andre, Maria, the old Prince and the old Count Bezukhov, God how I loved him, what a wonderful old man. The scene where he danced the Daniel Cooper with the old lady at Natasha's name-day party had me beside myself with joy; the LOVE in that family! God how I loved them all.

Though the last time I re-read it, I got bogged down when the Mason started in on Pierre about his wife.

I had seen the BBC tV version before I read it, ALL 26 episodes (they ran on KQED twice a week all summer, and i scheduled the week around them). Let me recommend that series to anyone who's curious but afraid of W+P. Young Anthony Hopkins played Pierre, and he was wonderful. The whole thing was wonderful; I had to read the book after just to get back

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I read War and Peace in the early 80's, when sick in bed with the flu for four days. I expected it to be Dostoyevski X 4 heavy, but I really loved it.

I'm still inching my way through Anna Karenina and savoring it all, even the footnotes. So far, the jewel has been Tolstoy's description of Karenin's internal life.

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Um, I think perhaps Plisetskaya is having some years added on to her. Sources seem to agree that she was

born in 1925; I think she celebrated her eightieth birthday last year.

Sorry, I wasn't writing clearly. The ballet was made in 1972. Plisetskaya would have been in her late 40s at that time. The Times review was of a 1988 performance in Boston, when she was 62.

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Um, I think perhaps Plisetskaya is having some years added on to her. Sources seem to agree that she was

born in 1925; I think she celebrated her eightieth birthday last year.

Sorry, I wasn't writing clearly. The ballet was made in 1972. Plisetskaya would have been in her late 40s at that time. The Times review was of a 1988 performance in Boston, when she was 62.

Well, I may have not been reading all that clearly, too! :wallbash:

:) It's amazing how long she has keep on performing. She made an appearance in NYC somewhere in the mid 90s. I didn't see it , only hearing about it the next day. But did she perform as part of her 80th birthday? I remember a report in the archives here of a performance she gave shortly after her 79th birthday.

OK, I'll give up Maya and let this go back to Russian lit.

Richard

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In addition Glinka's romance, Ya Zdes Inezilya, is based on a Pushkin poem. Does anyone know if Tsar Saltan is even performed still, or Kai and Gerda? I have recently finished Dostoyevsky's The House of the Dead. In many of his novels Dostoyevsky exhibits a deep understanding, and more importantly an acceptance and sympathy, for distressed human beings. For this aspect of Dostoyevsky I recomend Netochka Nezhvanova, or Nameless Nobody in English ,about an orphan and her failed musician father.

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My favorite Dostoyevsky novels are Crime and Punishment -- but especially The Idiot. I wonder whether it would be possible to make a ballet centered on the character and problems of Prince Myshkin?

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Valery Panov did a version of The Idiot some years ago with himself and Rudolf Nureyev in the leading roles.

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Does anyone know if Tsar Saltan is even performed still,

I have recently finished Dostoyevsky's The House of the Dead.

Lovebird,

I don't think that the operatic version Tsar Sultan is done all that often. Maybe once in a great while.

But Janacek's operatic treatment of The House of the Dead, which inserts "From" into the title, is done fairly

regularly. Peter Gelb, the new honcho at the Met Opera, has included it in his plans for future seasons.

I'm a real fan of Janacek's music.

Richard

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I did not know there was an opera based on The House of the Dead, thanks for telling me :crying: Of the many opera adaptations, the one I like the most is Prokofiev's War and Peace. Resurrection is an excellent story for an opera, with an excellent female character. Also Chekhov's story Lady with a Dog is a wonderful story for an opera, concise plot, lots of opportunities for the two principal characters. Lady with the Dog is one of my favorite works of Chekhov, his prose in this story is lyrical, gently humorous and melancholy. Anna Sten gave two of her best film performances in literary adaptations, The Brothers Karamazov and We Live Again, based on Resurrection. She was wonderful in both, I recomend We Live Again for her portrayal of Katiusha.

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The last adaptation of Russian Literature for opera that I saw was Prokofiev's The Gambler, based on the story by Dostoevsky. It was very powerful onstage.

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Of the many opera adaptations, the one I like the most is Prokofiev's War and Peace.
According to a footnote by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky from their translation of Anna Karenina, "Tolstoy believed that the need for adjusting music to literature and literature to music destroyed creative freedom" (7-7, p.835)

But, luckily, Prokofiev ignored this.

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