Monday, 27 August 2018

Dostoevsky and Poldark, or the Brothers Carne-mazov

The Brothers Carne - Dostoevskian body doubles?
When watching the BBC's latest season of Poldark, a series based on the novels by Winston Graham about a swashbuckling Cornish landowner, my first thought was how Dostoevskian it was. (Well, if not my first thought, certainly my seventh, or ninth.) The opening episode of Series 4 (and here comes the first of several spoilers) ends with a dramatic public execution scene: will the Carne brothers, also the brothers-in-law of hero Ross Poldark, be hanged by the neck until they are dead, or not? Inevitably, I was reminded of what Dostoevsky's biography Joseph Frank euphemistically calls "the incident in Semenovsky Square" on December 22nd, 1849, when the 28-year-old writer and his fellow members of the "Petrashevtsy" reading group, all young men, were led out in the snow and formally condemned to execution by firing squad. Three of the prisoners were marched forwards, tied to stakes in a square in the heart of St Petersburg, and hooded to await the final volley (Petrashevsky himself, the so-called ringleader, defiantly refused a blindfold). An Orthodox priest, armed with crucifix and Bible, instructed them all to repent. Dostoevsky stood in the next group, fully expecting to be shot within a few moments. As he wrote later, a 'mystic terror' overcame him. These men had been condemned for treason, yet they were all quite innocent; Dostoevsky's crime, for example, had been to read Belinsky's controversial Letter to Gogol aloud to the group. They had already spent eight months in the ominous Peter and Paul Fortress. And yet, as we know, the order to fire never came; instead a drummer sounded the  retreat, and a rider announced that the men's death sentences had been commuted to exile with hard labour. The entire torturous incident (which cost one of the prisoners, Nikolai Grigoryev, his sanity) had merely been an additional moral punishment dreamed up by the Tsar. The charges on which the Carne brothers and their friend stood accused in Truro market-place were equally trumped-up, but here the suspense and mystic terror were, fortunately, vicarious.

Aidan Turner and his chest

I owe Viv Groskop, the Guardian's brilliant Poldark blogger and out-of-the-closet Russianist (I'm working through her very funny The Anna Karenina Fix: Life Lessons from Russian Literature) for my other Dostoevskian interpretation of Poldark. The actor Aidan Turner, who plays Ross Poldark, is widely celebrated for his chest (I can't imagine why). Since Turner proved reluctant to keep displaying his chest in semi-nude scything scenes after the first series, his on-screen wife Demelza's two brothers were 'bussed in as Replacement Torso action', in Groskop's words. (These are the same pair who face public asphyxiation in Season Four.) It really shouldn't have taken two more series before I realized that the brothers are, as Groskop all but points out, Dostoevskian doubles of Poldark himself. Just think of the complicated sequence of doubles in Crime and Punishment  - the rational side of hero Raskolnikov is reflected by his 'good' friend, Razumikhin, his evil sub-Nietzschean id by the monstrous Svidrigailov, and so on, so mise en abyme, as the doubles get doubles. The Idiot is even worse, with female doubles joining the fray, and Demons, if it had a plot, would lose it entirely, such is the proliferation of alter egos. The Carne brothers may be body doubles (torso doubles) of their brother-in-law in a crudely material sense, but they are also a pair of sensible Razumikhins to Ross's hell-raising Raskolnikov. Meanwhile Ross' nemesis George Warleggan, who glories in the Groskopic moniker of Evil George, is clearly Svidrigailov, attempting to debauch the women Ross/Raskolnikov loves. (I'm managing to oversimplify and distort both plots here, which is no mean feat).
Ross Poldark and Svidrigailov, alias Evil George
The final episode of Series 4 hammers home the tragic truth that Ross, Ross' late cousin Francis and Evil George all loved the same woman - making it more obvious than ever that they are essentially variations on the same man. And one of the final scenes of that episode - where former love rivals Ross and EG weep over the corpse of an (arguably, murdered) woman - was practically identical to the denouement of The Idiot, where saintly Prince Myshkin and the dynamic but all too materialistic Rogozhin weep beside the body of Natasha Filippovna, the woman they both loved.

Expired Elizabeth Warleggan, Ross Poldark's first love
Ilya Glazunov's impression of The Idiot's finale

A parallel which I could extend further, but not without risk of descending into the same gabbling incoherence as Myshkin or poor Nikolai Grigoryev post-mock-execution. 
If you've missed Poldark on-screen, there's always the books. Or the originals. And Series 5 in 2019....

Acknowledgements: I relied heavily on Joseph Frank's Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859 for the facts presented about the mock execution staged in 1849 in Semenovsky Square.

Saturday, 18 August 2018

The Kingdom of Agamemnon: In Memory of Vladimir Sharov

Vladimir Sharov 1952-2018

"I am very glad", wrote Vladimir Sharov, who died after a long illness yesterday on 17 August 2018, "that my novel The Kingdom of Agamemnon has been first published in Znamya, a journal which has been important to me in every way and practically my family home.  The novel, part of which (about 150 pages of typescript) appears below, I finished under extremely difficult personal circumstances, but now I feel that this was all to the good for Agamemnon. Difficulty in one's private life readily colludes with the story one is writing; the two find a common language from the first syllable. With this conviction in mind I wrote the final section of the novel and corrected the proofs."

And the novel opens:

I'll begin from the finale, which transformed this story into farce. I might even say, into a shameful farce. The last point has become particularly offensive for me, since the terror ended. Now I think more and more often that what I was involved with, what occupied me for so many years, deserved a different outcome. However, who knows? In the past, in 2015 - I had just returned from an expedition - a friend, deciding that I would be intrigued by it, emailed me a long article from the English magazine Esquire. The article is about one of our spies, active in Argentina from 1968 to 1990. [....] The grandson of Grand Prince Mikhail Romanov, Evgenii, was possibly a bastard - Prince Michael had no lawful offspring; however it is even more likely that Evgenii was just a typical pretender - fled in 1967 from Soviet Hungary to Argentina.

The narrator continues with the exotic adventures of Evgenii in Argentina (first backtracking to describe his birth, his early years in Russia, his mother's grief when he disappeared). By page five I was hooked. But according to the novel's back cover, The Kingdom of Agamemnon is about the life story of another character entirely, and in any case (the blurb promises) this book is vintage Sharov: "unrestrained fantasy and leaps through time, unexpected historical parallels and profound religio-philosophical analyses, large-scale group scenes and the most subtle psychology". Reading a Vladimir Sharov novel is like making your way through the whorls of a sea-shell: once lost in the tunnels, you lose all sense of direction, but the sound of the sea pulls you onwards...

  This post was originally to have been called "Rehearsals in Bloomsbury", to mark a fascinating talk at London's Pushkin House in April 2018 by Oliver Ready, Sharov's English translator, about both The Rehearsals (then just out) and Before and During (discussed here on this blog).  I had just finished reading The Rehearsals in Russian and was full of admiration for Oliver's nimble, ingenious, and very naturally styled translation. Both novels, written in the final decade of the twentieth century, are readily comparable, but as Oliver explained that evening, all of Sharov's books are interlinked. Ever since the 1970s, Sharov has been single-mindedly researching his books (just as some of his characters research family secrets), producing one every four or five years, working in national archives and in his Moscow flat. Each book is, in a sense, a rehearsal of the next: Oliver quoted Sharov's description of his own plots as "loving satire", a lovingly satirical work-in-progress to understand Russian mentality and Russian pain. Sharov's father was also a writer; the writer's childhood imagination was shaped by overheard conversations about the Gulags and other Soviet repression between his parents and family friends. Like another contemporary writer I greatly admire, Evgenii Vodolazkin, Sharov still reads Gulag survivors' testimonies. While Before and During explores the cultural currents that led up to the Revolution of 1917, The Rehearsals traces the self-destructive urges in Russian society all the way back to the mid-seventeenth-century Schism in the Russian Orthodox Church, when the Patriarch Nikon forced through radical changes in text and ritual against the will of many, including his former mentor Archpriest Avvakum. Sharov develops Nikon as a brooding, complex, deeply religious and profoundly dangerous character, who all but kidnaps a travelling Breton player, De Sertan, commissioning him to direct and produce a religious mystery play at Nikon's New Jerusalem monastery. But before the "first night" takes place, Nikon is arrested and De Sertan and his Russian players sent into Siberian exile, where they form a unique sectarian community. Not only do they continue rehearsing their mystery play about the birth of Christ for centuries, they live permanently, and pass on to their children and grandchildren, the roles they act - so the community divides into "Christians", "Jews", "Romans", and others. The role of Christ is never cast - Nikon's hope, and the community's unspoken conviction, is that the day the rehearsals are finally complete, Christ will appear and the world will end.

By documenting the evolution of this sect between the 1660s and the 1960s, Sharov models the emergence of dictatorship and dogmatism in this microcosm of Russian society: the community accepts De Sertan's script as literal, divine Truth, but they periodically despair of summoning Christ through rehearsals alone and fall upon each other in cycles of mutual destruction. (I read The Rehearsals at the same time as Jonathan Safran Foer's 2016 novel Here I Am and I was duly baffled by the unintended parallel in their first lines. Safran Foer writes: "When the destruction of Israel commenced, Isaac Bloch was weighing whether to kill himself or move to the Jewish home." The Rehearsals begins (well, its second paragraph begins): "In 1939, Ivan Trofimovich Kobylin ceased being a Jew, and the Jewish nation, of whom he was the last, ended with him [my translation]." Both books presuppose a post-Jewish world, from very different perspectives.) I won't go into detail here on the extraordinary arcs of upside-down-thinking engaged in on both sides to provoke and justify internecine slaughter, but clearly Sharov has a gift for exploring the pain of a nation often torn by antisemitic and interreligious persecution. He leads the reader to empathize with entire groups (for example, with the "Jews" who persecute "Christians" in order to invite the process of revenge persecution and extirpation which will supposedly expedite the Second Coming) even more than with individuals, although the plot unwinds through a labyrinth of interconnected lives. Like Before and During, where a cast of fantastic survivals commit mass murder in firm expectation of an apocalyptic flood (which never happens), The Rehearsals ends (and begins) on an aporic note. The "Jewish nation" has died out, but Christ has yet to appear to those Chosen.

Sharov loves to thematize translation, as Oliver noted: De Sertan's diary is translated from Breton into Russian; it is destroyed, memorized, and re-copied; the words of the Bible is translated into daily ritual, and history is translated into different conceptions. Oliver described the difficulties of translating Sharov's long, rambling, never quite disorganized sentences into English, often sending questions to the writer (relayed by Sharov's wife, Oliver Dunaevskaya, as the former preferred to avoid email) to clarify religious or stylistic nuances. On one occasion they even visited the site of Nikon's New Jerusalem monastery together, which must have been an intriguing experience (ah, to have been a pterosaur on the wall). Oliver is not only Sharov's translator but a literary scholar who has written illuminatingly about Before and During as a '(failed) experiment in "literary therapy"' and 'the outstanding Russian "madhouse" novel of the 1990s' in his monograph Persisting in Folly: Russian Writers in Search of Wisdom, 1963-2013.

I was privileged to meet Vladimir Sharov when he visited Cambridge a few years ago. He was undoubtedly a profound and talented writer, but he was also a modest and approachable human being, with a twinkle in his eye. We will keep reading and re-reading his books - and treasuring the twinkle.

You can read a Russian-language extract (cited above) from The Kingdom of Agamemnon here, and extracts from two of Sharov's other novels here. Светлая память!