Saturday, December 28, 2013

Farooq Shaikh, 1948-2013


I was saddened to learn this morning of the death of Farooq Shaikh, an actor equally at ease in comedy and drama. He appeared in films directed by Satyajit Ray (The Chess Players, 1977) and Hrishikesh Mukherjee (Rang Birangi and Kissi Se Na Kehna (1983)), among may others. If you are not familiar with Farooq Shaikh's work, I recommend the following films as places you might want to start:

Chashme Buddoor (Knock on Wood, 1981): Shaikh stars as university student Siddharth (perhaps an in-joke; Shaikh had been a student at Siddharth College of Law), who meets and falls in love with the lovely Neha (played by Deepti Naval). Siddharth's roommates, though, decide to interfere, in part because Siddharth's seriousness about Neha throws their own aimlessness (and lack of romantic success) into stark relief. Soon, though, they realize their mistake—only to discover that it's much harder to get the couple back together than it was to break them up. This charming comedy written and directed by Sai Paranjpye is pleasurable not only for its tongue-in-cheek take on filmi conventions, but especially for the warm and affectionate chemistry between Shaikh and Naval:



Katha (Story, 1983): Another Sai Paranjpye film featuring Farooq Shaikh and Deepti Naval. This time, though, Shaikh plays a heartless cad, Basu. Local beauty Sandhya (Naval) sees only Basu's charm, however, and falls in love—to the dismay of Rajaram (Naseeruddin Shah), Sandhya's shy, good-hearted neighbor who has loved her from afar for years. Basu isn't evil, but he is hugely self-centered and manipulative, basically seeing everyone he meets as a means to his own ends. Farooq Shaikh effectively portrays Basu's almost pathological narcissism, while at the same time suggesting why people might be drawn to him. Of course, Basu's lies can't go undiscovered forever, but when they are revealed will it be too late for Sandhya?

Umrao Jaan (Beloved Umrao, 1981): Based on Mirza Hadi Ruswa's novel, Muzaffar Ali's film about the impossible love of the courtesan Umrao Jaan (Rekha, in her greatest role) and the Nawab Sultan (Farooq Shaikh) has achieved classic status. In the scene below, long after their affair has ended, Umrao Jaan is unexpectedly reunited with the Nawab—and with his new bride, Umrao Jaan's childhood friend Bismillah (Prema Narayan). The wistful sadness of "Justju Jis Ki Thi," composed by Khayyam and sung by Asha Bosle, perfectly expresses the emotions of all three characters in this moment:



Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (These Young People Are Crazy, 2013): In one of his final roles, Farooq Shaikh plays Rishikant, the father of the main character Bunny (Ranbir Kapoor), who looks indulgently on his son's foibles and tries to help him realize his dreams. This warm, loving role is a fitting swan song for this deeply appealing actor. Our thoughts are with his family, friends and colleagues.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Favorites of 2013: Books

Nonfiction

Tim Kreider, We Learn Nothing (2012): Somehow I'd remained unaware of Tim Kreider until this year. Kreider is a cartoonist and a writer on film, books, and, as in this collection, his own life. As I wrote in my post on We Learn Nothing, "each of his insightful (and often darkly hilarious) essays is about how a rueful, observant and reflective single man in early middle age assesses the passage of time, with its gains (experience, an occasional glimmering of wisdom, and a tenuous emotional maturity) and losses (passion, heedlessness, and many loved ones)."

Fiction

In chronological order:

Alexander Pushkin, Eugene Onegin (1823-1833): "Alexander Pushkin has roughly the same stature in Russian literature that Shakespeare does in English, and Eugene Onegin (1823-1833) is his greatest work," I wrote on my first encounter with this masterpiece in Charles Johnston's faithful, readable and elegant translation. And Pushkin's novel in verse has been an inspiration to many other artists, including Tchaikovsky, Nabokov, and more recently Vikram Seth.

Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone (1868): T. S. Eliot called it "the first, the longest and the best of modern English detective novels." The first and last of Eliot's claims for this unruly novel are doubtful, but as I wrote in my post on The Moonstone,  "Collins' novel remains compelling, less for the implausible solution of the mystery than for what it reveals about its author's unconventional life and unusual attitudes" towards opium use, mixed-race parentage, same-sex affection, and anti-imperialism.

Daphne Du Maurier, Rebecca (1938). The producer David O. Selznick wrote in a memo to the director Alfred Hitchcock that "every woman who has read it has adored the girl and has understood her psychology, has cringed with embarrassment for her, yet has understood exactly what was going through her mind." In my post on Rebecca I wrote that I would expand Selznick's observation to include "anyone who has ever felt the awkwardness of entering a social situation governed by unstated rules that everyone else seems to know instinctively—and that's pretty much all of us." My post, by the way, includes a defense of Hitchcock's version, which I've come to feel is among his best films.

Phillip Pullman, The Sally Lockhart Mysteries (1985-1994): While these young-adult novels set in late Victorian England "are firmly grounded in the grim realities of 19th-century capitalism and imperialism, they are also ripping yarns featuring criminal masterminds, powerful industrial magnates, international spies, and other fiendishly evil nemeses" for Pullman's intrepid heroine. As I wrote in my post on the series, though, due to its high level of violence and frankness about sex be prepared for some interesting questions if you give these books to a young person.

The novels of Javier Marías may be the subject of a full-length post in the near future. Many of his books are structured like mysteries, but mysteries in which there is no clear solution. Marías is more interested in the dark undercurrents in everyday lives, and the way his narrators try to navigate among uncertainties and doubts, than in neat conclusions. His style may take a bit of getting used to; most of his books are written in a way that approximates how we actually think and speak, that is, with hesitations and reconsiderations and digressions, with one thought leading into the next rather than emerging as perfectly formed and discrete ideas. With their chains of stream-of-consicousness clauses, his sentences must be difficult to translate, and Margaret Jull Costa, his regular translator, generally does an excellent job (although her occasional use of British slang may feel somewhat jarring for American readers).

Perhaps a good place to start is with his latest novel, The Infatuations (Knopf, 2013). A man is murdered on the street in an apparently random act of violence. But then it turns out that perhaps the violence wasn't so random; and then, that the murdered man may have been harboring a secret. As the narrator María explores further, the motives and culpability of the man's wife, his best friend, the mentally disturbed murderer, and the victim himself become ever murkier. The only clarity is that, when it comes to the human heart, nothing can be certain.

Biggest disappointment

Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland (Knopf, 2013). Lahiri's second novel is on many critics' best-of lists this year. But I felt that in most of this book Lahiri has taken the writing-program dictum "show, don't tell" to a blank, affectless extreme. And in those few moments in the book when she is not following one clipped, terse, surface-skimming sentence with another, she produces instead jarringly mixed metaphors and thuddingly obvious symbols:

Around Bela her mother had never pretended. She had transmitted an unhappiness that was steady, an ambient signal that was fixed. It was transmitted without words. And yet Bela was aware of it, as one is aware of a mountain. Immovable, insurmountable...

When her mother had left Rhode Island, she'd taken her unhappiness with her, no longer sharing it, leaving Bela with a lack of access to that signal instead. What had seemed impossible had taken place. The mountain was gone. In its place was a heavy stone, like certain stones embedded deep when she dug  on the beach, in the sand. Too large to unearth, its surface partly visible, but its contours unknown.

She taught herself to ignore it, to walk away. And yet the hole remained her hollow point of origin, the cold crosshairs of her existence.

She returned to it now. At last the sand gave way, and she was able to pry out what was buried, to raise it from its enclosure. For a moment she felt its dimensions, its heft in her hands. She felt the strain it sent through her body, before hurling it once and for all into the sea.
Perhaps Lahiri should be given credit for attempting something a bit different stylistically than her usual well-crafted short stories, but as this passage shows, the writing is in places shockingly clunky. As a result, The Lowland narrowly beat out Vikram Seth's slack, overlong and sloppily written A Suitable Boy (1993) as the biggest disappointment of 2013.

More favorites: Classic Bollywood, Contemporary Bollywood, Movies

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Favorites of 2013: Movies

Some years trying to think of movies to include on my favorites list is a bit of a struggle. Not this year; in fact, I'm leaving some excellent films off the list just to keep it a manageable length. Here are my favorite (non-Indian) movies first watched in 2013:

Classic Hollywood

Libeled Lady

If in our Classic Bollywood viewing 2013 was the year of Rajesh Khanna, in our Classic Hollywood viewing it was the year of Myrna Loy. We started with the brilliant Libeled Lady (1936). When they say "They don't make 'em like that anymore," this is the kind of movie they're talking about: a witty, sophisticated comedy delivered with sparkling timing by a quartet of glamorous stars (Jean Harlow, Spencer Tracy, William Powell and a radiant Loy). Tracy plays a newspaper editor who's being sued for libel by Loy; to trap her in a compromising situation, he asks Powell to romance her. But for there to be a scandal, Powell needs to be married—and Tracy suggests his own long-suffering fiancée Harlow for the job. But as in comic opera, the convoluted plot is almost beside the point.

Myrna Loy, Asta, and William Powell in After the Thin Man

After seeing Libeled Lady, we decided that we had to rewatch all of the Powell-Loy Thin Man films just so we could continue to enjoy their affectionate onscreen chemistry. (After the Thin Man (1936) is not only the most cleverly-titled sequel ever, it gets my vote as the best film in the series.) And even that wasn't enough: we also watched some of Loy's earlier and later films, including Vanity Fair (1932)—Becky Sharp was one of her last femme fatale roles—and the decades-ahead-of-its-time The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). That film follows three World War II veterans (played by Fredric March, Dana Andrews and actual veteran Harold Russell) returning to civilian life, and their struggles with post-traumatic stress, disability, self-medication, and societal indifference. And, yes, Myrna Loy is as radiant as ever.

Independent

Today's Special

A micro-budget independent film, Today's Special (2009) was far and away the best recent American movie we saw in 2013. The cast includes Naseeruddin Shah, Madhur Jaffrey, Harish Patel, and writer Aasif Mandvi, who is brilliant at portraying wide-eyed disbelief as catastrophe piles on catastrophe. Mandvi plays Samir, a chef who reluctantly agrees to give up his dreams of moving to France in order to take over his family's struggling Indian restaurant in Queens. But Samir has never cooked Indian food before, and quickly discovers that he's in way over his head—until a loquacious cab driver (Shah) comes to the rescue. As I wrote in my post on Today's Special, Mandvi's film "shows that it's not the budget of a movie that counts, but the imagination of its creators."

Foreign

We saw some wonderful films from outside the U.S. this year, but three stood out as favorites:

Valentin

Valentin (2002), an Argentinian film, is set in 1969, just a few years before the country was plunged into social upheaval, a military coup and the Dirty War. Valentin (the wonderful Rodrigo Noya) is a precocious 8-year-old who tries to make sense of a confusing adult world. The extended scene where Valentin spends the day with his neglectful divorced dad's new girlfriend (Julieta Cardinali), and we see her dawning awareness that she faces a critical moment of decision, is heartbreaking. And the interview with writer-director Alejandro Agresti included as an extra on the DVD, shot in a poorly lit, noisy cafe in the middle of the night, is essential viewing as he reveals the elements of the film that were drawn from his own story.


No (2012), based on a play by Chilean writer Antonio Skármeta (of Il Postino fame) is about the 1988 plebiscite on dictator Augusto Pinochet's continued rule. Pinochet had declared himself President in 1973 after violently seizing power in the CIA-backed overthrow of the democratically-elected Salvador Allende. The film follows René (Gael García Bernal), a designer of slick ad campaigns, as he tries to convince the earnest, angry opponents of Pinochet to use humor, suggestion and symbolism to win the hearts and minds of voters. We want the "No" campaign to win, but at the same time we realize that René represents the triumph of image over substance in political discourse. With its urgency and immediacy, No gives at least a hint of what it must have been like as a democratic movement struggled to emerge in Chile after 16 years of brutal suppression.

My Mother's Castle

My Mother's Castle (1990) is the sequel to My Father's Glory. Both movies are based on Marcel Pagnol's memoirs of growing up in the forbidding but beautiful landscape of Provence in the years before World War I. Every image is suffused with the glow of nostalgia and the warmth of remembered family closeness.

Documentaries

Perhaps because my partner worked in theater and dance for many years, we love performing arts documentaries. We saw several excellent ones in 2013:


Pina (2011) is Wim Wender's meditation on Pina Bausch's Tanztheater Wuppertal. The choreographer herself, who died during the filming, is largely absent; instead, we watch her extraordinary, generation-spanning company of dancers performing her works, which unfold with the logic of dreams.

Pelléas et Mélisande

Two excellent films follow the complex process of staging opera. In Pelléas et Mélisande: Le Chant des Aveugles (Song of the Blind, 2008) we watch stage director Olivier Py and conductor Marc Minkowski working with a group of French and Russian performers on Debussy's mesmerizing score. This fluid documentary exemplifies director Philippe Béziat's axiom that "Film is the continuation of music by other means." Becoming Traviata (2012) follows rehearsals for Verdi's opera La Traviata at the Aix-en-Provence festival. The cast features the extraordinary Natalie Dessay as Violetta. At the end of the opera, Violetta collapses, and the final images of the film are of Dessay falling to the stage over and over, trying to find a physical expression of the emotional truth of the moment.


Every Little Step (2008) focusses on the 2006 Broadway revival of A Chorus Line. Just as in the musical, we meet the auditioning actors and learn about their lives, hopes and fears. Structuring the film as a reflection of the show that it's about is a clever device. To make it all even more meta, we also get interviews with the original cast in the present day, some grainy footage of their 1970s performances, and excerpts from tapes of the famous rap sessions held by Michael Bennett as he was developing the show. Before seeing the film I wasn't the biggest fan of A Chorus Line, but I found Every Little Step irresistible.

Stories We Tell

Finally, actress-filmmaker Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell (2012) is a compelling film about the solution to a longstanding family mystery. When Sarah reaches adolescence, her siblings tell her that there are rumors that Sarah's dad might not be her biological father. After a decade of uncertainty, Sarah sets out to find the truth—only to discover that there are as many stories about her parents' complicated marriage as there are witnesses.

Next time: Favorites of 2013: Books

Last time: Favorites of 2013: Contemporary Bollywood

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Favorites of 2013: Contemporary Bollywood

My viewing of current Bollywood movies tends to lag about six months behind their release dates. It's strange to me that no San Francisco cinema has yet realized that it should be showing first-run Bollywood films. I could travel to smarter theaters in Emeryville, Fremont or Santa Clara, but I can't quite bring myself to turn watching a movie into a five- or six-hour commitment. I'm not a fan of streaming, so I still wait for the DVD release (although eventually, of course, DVDs will be going away). But the availability of new Bollywood movies on DVD rental services like Netflix is spotty, to say the least.

So I haven't yet seen Chennai Express, Shuddh Desi Romance, Phata Poster Nikla Hero, Ram-Leela, R...Rajkumar, Krrish 3 or, of course, Dhoom 3 (although in the cases of the last two, it sure feels like I've seen them already). My favorite contemporary Bollywood films are necessarily chosen from those released from late last year through the first half of this year. And they are:

Sridevi in English Vinglish

English Vinglish
Shashi (Sridevi), an Indian housewife and mother, begins to feel excluded and taken for granted by her family, the rest of whom slip easily between Hindi and English. On a trip to New York to help with the wedding of her niece, feeling overwhelmed and isolated, Shashi decides to take a crash course in English. Her choice has unexpected consequences for those around her, her family, and especially for Shashi herself.

English Vinglish (2012) was Sridevi's first Hindi film after a hiatus of nearly a decade. In my original post on English Vinglish, I wrote that it "is a nicely observed and thoughtful film on issues of language, cultural identity, and family dynamics...And I hope it's only the first of many well-written, nuanced roles for Sridevi on her return."

It also has an improbably catchy title tune; somehow that "Hah!" perfectly captures Shashi's joy in her small triumphs as she begins to broaden her linguistic (and emotional) horizons:




Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani
A smart, tomboyish but shy girl falls secretly in love with a popular, extroverted boy. She never lets him know, but eight years later she's blossomed into a beauty—and is suddenly reunited with her old crush...

Ranbir and Deepika in YJHD

Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (These Young People Are Crazy, 2013) is largely a mashup of elements from two earlier Karan Johar films, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (Something's Happening, 1998) and Kal Ho Naa Ho (Tomorrow May Never Come, 2003). So it doesn't win any points for originality. What it does have, though, as those earlier films did in Kajol and Preity Zinta, is a compellingly sympathetic heroine. As I wrote in my original post on YJHD, "Deepika, cast against type, gives an utterly believable and highly affecting performance as Naina." As the unobservant object of her affections, Ranbir Kapoor is also in good form, but it's Deepika's Naina that we come to care about.

Oh, and having an item by the fabulous Madhuri Dixit doesn't hurt, either:




Kandukondain Kandukondain
Speaking of compellingly sympathetic heroines, Kandukondain Kandukondain (I Have Found It, 2000) has two: Sowmya (Tabu) and Meenu (Aishwarya Rai). This film doesn't quite qualify for my Contemporary Bollywood Favorites list even under my extremely lax and entirely self-imposed rules: it wasn't released recently, it's not a Bollywood film, and I didn't watch it for the first time this year. I can't resist giving this wonderful Tamil adaptation of Sense & Sensibility another plug, though. As I wrote in Bollywood Rewatch 3, Rajiv Menon's film "manages to be surprisingly faithful to its source while believably updating the story to the present." And if there's no scene in Austen's novel where Marianne Dashwood dances in front of a giant stylized peacock, there should be:



Next time: Favorites of 2013: Movies

Last time: Favorites of 2013: Classic Bollywood

Friday, November 29, 2013

Favorites of 2013: Classic Bollywood

It's time once again for my roundup of movies, television shows, books, and music first encountered (although not necessarily first released) over the past year. In our classic Bollywood viewing 2013 was the year of Rajesh Khanna.

Rajesh Khanna and Mumtaz in Aap Ki Kasam (Your Promise, 1974)

Rajesh Khanna and Mumtaz: Prem Kahani

Somehow after Bollywood viewing that's spanned 10 years and nearly 300 films we had never managed to see any of Mumtaz's movies before. I regret that we didn't discover her sooner—she and Rajesh are wonderful together. Their chemistry is utterly delightful to watch, as in Laxmikant-Pyarelal's title song for Prem Kahani (Love Story, 1975):


But the course of true love doesn't run smooth. In the days of the Quit India movement, wounded freedom fighter Rajesh (Rajesh) seeks refuge from a police manhunt with his childhood friend Dheeraj (Shashi Kapoor). Two inconvenient problems which Rajesh has overlooked: Dheeraj is himself a police inspector, and he's celebrating his wedding night with his new bride Kamini (Mumtaz)—the woman Rajesh loves, but rejected so that his martyrdom wouldn't burden her with widowhood. The stage is set for conflicting loyalties, parallels to Puccini's Turandot, and barely suppressed emotions surging unbidden to the surface.

I wrote in my original post on Prem Kahani that "Kamini is an incredibly compelling character: smart, courageous and complicated. And Mumtaz is wonderful in the role. In a film packed with male stars, she more than holds her own, and makes Kamini the focus of our sympathies." Mumtaz is not only adorably vivacious and playful, she can convey profound depths of feeling, as in "Phool aahista phenko" (Gently pluck the rose):



As Memsaab wrote in her wonderful review of Prem Kahani: "This is Hindi cinema at its finest, honestly. So much communicated so beautifully in one simple song! How to explain it when someone says 'Oh, Bollywood—those are musicals, right?' Sigh."

Rajesh Khanna and Sharmila Tagore: Amar Prem

Mumtaz is not the only heroine who makes a superb jodi with Rajesh. Last year we also saw two of the movies in which he was paired with Sharmila Tagore, Aradhana (Adoration, 1969) and Amar Prem (Immortal Love, 1972). Both have great soundtracks; Aradhana's songs were composed by S.D. Burman and Amar Prem's by his son R.D. Burman. "Chingari koi bhadke" (A raging fire) is a beautifully melancholy example of R.D.'s art:


Anand (Rajesh) is trapped in an unhappy marriage, and seeks solace in the arms of the courtesan Pushpa (Sharmila). As in Prem Kahani, their love story does not have a conventionally happy ending, but that's one of the things that makes the film so emotionally affecting. As I wrote in my original post on Amar Prem, it "remains radical more than 40 years on for suggesting that true families are those formed by love."


Waheeda Rehman in Teesri Kasam

Raj Kapoor and Waheeda Rehman: Teesri Kasam

We also explored some other classic movies this year. Teesri Kasam (The Third Vow, 1966) is a gorgeously photographed, wistful film featuring Raj Kapoor and Waheeda Rehman, and excellent songs composed by Shankar-Jaikishen (lyrics by Shailendra).

Hiraman (Raj), a bullock-cart driver, is hired to transport the nautanki dancer Hirabai (Waheeda) to her next performances at a village fair. Over the hours they spend together on the lengthy journey they form a deep attachment. Hiraman awakens emotions in Hirabai that for many years have remained buried, as we're shown in the lovely, sad "Sajanwa Bairi Ho Gaye Hamar" (My beloved has become my enemy):



Hirabai recognizes, though, that no matter how much she cares for Hiraman (and he for her), they inhabit different worlds. As I wrote in my original post on Teesri Kasam, "Sometimes, no matter how much we might wish otherwise, love can't conquer all....Teesri Kasam is a minor-key masterpiece that rewards multiple viewings."




Next time: Favorites of 2013: Contemporary Bollywood

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Suggested reading: Sex and death

Louise Brooks as Lulu in Pandora's Box (1929)

Another in the occasional series of my favorite recent articles, posts, etc. from around the web:

1. Is the marriage plot still possible?

It can seem as though contemporary mores have killed the time-honored marriage plot. In the post "Who cares if Tanu Weds Manu?: The new Bollywood romantic comedy," I wrote: "So in a modern world where everyone can choose (and change) their romantic and sexual partners at will, where class and caste barriers are diminished and the concept of social disgrace seems quaint (at least, once you've graduated from high school), is the romantic comedy still possible?"

Adelle Waldman thinks so ("Why the Marriage Plot Need Never Get Old," New Yorker, Nov. 14, 2013). Not because we resemble the heroes and heroines of the great 19th-century novels, but because they resemble us:
"The issue turns on where we think the narrative power of those older novels originates—whether it’s attributable to the social constraints on their characters (as well as the satisfying decisiveness of their fates—the suicides on the one hand or marriages that last “forever” on the other), or if, instead, these novels are, like so many contemporary novels, primarily dependent on psychological and internal drama.

"I think that, if we look closely, we find that much of their strength derives from the internal and the timeless—from conflicts rooted in the perversity of human nature and the persistent difficulties of social life."

2. The revenge of Lulu

Would Emma have avoided marrying Charles Bovary if she'd known he was #ObsessedWithMom? Would Elizabeth Bennet have been more on her guard if she had learned that the #TallDarkAndHandsome Wickham had a #WanderingEye?  Deborah Schoenman writes about Lulu, a social networking app where women can rate the men they date ("What’s He Really Like? Check the Lulu App," New York Times, Nov. 20, 2013):
"Last summer, Neel Shah, a comedy writer, was at a bar in Los Angeles on a date with a woman who pulled up his profile. 'She started reading me these negative hashtags and I was like, "Uh, this is awkward,"' said Mr. Shah, 30, whose profile has been viewed 448 times and 'favorite' eight times for an average score of 6.7 [out of 10]. His hashtags include #TallDarkAndHandsome and #CleansUpGood, along with the less flattering #TemperTantrums and #WanderingEye."
Lulu sounds a lot like RateMe Plus, a formerly fictional feature of the near future in Gary Shteyngart's novel Super Sad True Love Story (2010). As Shteyngart describes RateMe Plus, it's an app that allows others to instantly rank you in categories such as "Fuckability" and "Male Hotness." The main character of Super Sad True Love Story, Lenny, "naturally had a lot of problems with his Fuckability—entering a bar in newly chic Staten Island (one prediction that has not yet come true), he is immediately and publicly ranked as the fortieth-ugliest man out of the forty men present." (See "Suggested reading: Google Glass.")

Lulu, of course, was the anti-heroine of Franz Wedekind's plays Earth Spirit (1895) and Pandora's Box (1904), which became the basis of both G.W. Pabst's film Pandora's Box (1929) and Alban Berg's opera Lulu (1937). In the plays, film and opera, Lulu is outcast, condemned, and ultimately murdered for daring to adopt behaviors—having sex purely for pleasure, and using her partner's desires for her own ends—that men have always been able to take for granted. Is the way that Lulu (the app) enables women to assume the formerly male prerogative of publicly rating and shaming (or praising) their sex partners the ultimate revenge of Lulu (the character)?


3. Bad sex, part 1

Bad writing about sex just makes you feel embarrassed for the writer, especially one whose literary pretensions are painfully obvious. Jonathan Franzen's first novel The Twenty-Seventh City has been reissued, and Parul Sehgal reviews it ("Jonathan Franzen’s First Novel Was Terrible (But It's Being Reissued Anyway)," Slate Book Review, Nov. 2013):
"In this novel, Franzen first glimpses his plot, that small fertile plot that will sustain three more books: the psychosexual dramas of the nuclear family; his horror of Midwestern complacency, hectoring mothers, militantly joyless fathers. We see, too, the missteps that will continue to dog him, especially the satirist’s blind spot for his own fallibilities, for his own Midwestern complacency, his propensity for hectoring and militant joylessness. For how completely he is a Jonathan Franzen character."
The villain of Franzen's novel is a sexually manipulative South Asian woman whose aim is to subvert a morally pure Anglo man who stands in the way of her corrupt (and profitable) real estate schemes—and terrorist plots. Alas, Sehgal writes, "I confess I’m making the book sound more entertaining than it is."


Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux as Adèle and Emma
in Blue Is The Warmest Color

4. Bad sex, part 2

Film critic Manohla Dargis has bravely opposed the (largely male) critical consensus that has anointed Blue Is The Warmest Color as a masterpiece about women's desire. In "Seeing You Seeing Me: The Trouble With ‘Blue Is the Warmest Color'" (New York Times, Oct. 25, 2013), she writes,
"I first saw 'Blue Is the Warmest Color' at Cannes, where I wrote 399 dissenting words on the movie and raised some of the issues I had with it...Primarily, I questioned [director Abdellatif] Kechiche’s representation of the female body. By keeping so close to Adèle, he seemed to be trying to convey her subjective experience, specifically with the hovering camerawork and frequent close-ups of her face. Yet, early on, this sense of the character’s interiority dissolves when the camera roves over her body even while she is sleeping. Is Adèle, I had wondered then, dreaming of her own hot body?"
In her original article, Dargis wrote that "the movie feels far more about Mr. Kechiche’s desires than anything else....'Men look at women,' the art critic John Berger observed in 1972. 'Women watch themselves being looked at.'* Plus ça change...."

For a contrary view, see Richard Brody's "The Problem With Sex Scenes That Are Too Good," New Yorker, Nov. 4, 2013. Brody has called Dargis' article "malevolent" ("Out Loud: Sex Onscreen," New Yorker, Nov. 18, 2013, 8:10 - 8:30).


Man Carrying Corpse on His Shoulders (detail). Luca Signorelli (ca. 1500)

5. Death, boredom, and smart phones

Do Italian Renaissance artist Luca Signorelli, the boring but strangely compelling contemporary novels of Karl Ove Knausgaard (My Struggle) and Tao Lin (Taipei), and Louis C.K. have anything in common? The wide-ranging intelligence of Zadie Smith discovers that they do: each is struggling to come to terms with the unfathomable—our own mortality ("Man vs. Corpse," New York Review of Books, Dec. 5, 2013):
"'You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s what the phones are taking away, is the ability to just sit there…. That’s being a person…. Because underneath everything in your life there is that thing, that empty—forever empty.'

"That’s the comedian Louis C.K., practicing his comedy-cum-art-cum-philosophy, reminding us that we’ll all one day become corpses. His aim, in that skit, was to rid us of our smart phones, or at least get us to use the damn things a little less ("You never feel completely sad or completely happy, you just feel kinda satisfied with your products, and then you die"), and it went viral, and many people smiled sadly at it and thought how correct it was and how everybody (except them) should really maybe switch off their smart phones, and spend more time with live people offline because everybody (except them) was really going to die one day, and be dead forever, and shouldn’t a person live—truly live, a real life—while they’re alive?"




* John Berger, Ways of Seeing. London: British Broadcasting Corporation and Penguin Books, 1972, p. 47.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani


The name Karan Johar in the credits of a film signals immediately that it will be glossy, formulaic and manipulative. I know this full well going in, and yet more often than not his movies still manage to sneak under my critical defenses.

It doesn't much matter whether he's listed as writer, director, or producer. The look, tone and content of most of the films he's involved with immediately announce them as a Karan Johar product, even if someone else is credited with the screenplay or direction.

That's certainly the case with the Johar-written Kal Ho Naa Ho (Tomorrow May Never Come, 2003), which was the first Bollywood film I ever saw, and which to this day remains one of my favorite movies. Nikil Advani directed KHNH, but as his post-KHNH career has demonstrated either he had an incredible case of beginner's luck or he was getting constant input and advice from Johar. (Advani was Johar's assistant director on Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (Something's Happening, 1998) and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (Sometimes Joy, Sometimes Sorrow, 2001).)

One reason I mention KHNH is because it established or continued tropes that Johar's films have frequently returned to since. Dostana (Friendship, 2008) and Student of the Year (2012) center on love triangles (as does his first film, KKHH), while Wake Up Sid (2009), I Hate Luv Storys (2010), and Ek Main aur Ek Tu (One Me and One You, 2012) feature opposites-attract main couples. All of the films focus on the struggles of their characters to find their paths in adult life in the decade following their graduation from college.

To this list of KHNH descendants add Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (These Young People Are Crazy, 2013). Naina—Deepika Padukone in one of her best performances—is a shy, bespectacled medical student. On impulse she joins a Himalayan trek with a group of her former college friends including the free-spirited Aditi (Kalki Koehlin) and the troubled Avi (Aditya Roy Kapur).

Also along on the trip is the popular, extroverted Bunny (Ranbir Kapoor). He seems to possess everything that Naina feels she lacks: confidence, social ease, spontaneity, fearlessness, good looks. Of course, Naina falls hopelessly in love with him, although Bunny is unaware of her feelings, or perhaps dismisses them as just another crush. Fate intervenes, and the two are separated, seemingly forever.

Naina and Bunny are very reminiscent of KHNH's shy, bespectacled MBA student Naina (Preity Zinta) and the object of her secret love, the popular, extroverted Aman (Shah Rukh Khan). The two Nainas are even given the same nickname by their crushes, "chashmish" (please forgive any spelling error; it's translated as "specsy" in the subtitles of KHNH):

Naina (Deepika Padukone, YJHD)

Naina (Preity Zinta, KHNH)

Eight years later, at Aditi's ultra-lavish wedding, Naina and Bunny are unexpectedly reunited. And at this point there are strong echoes of another Karan Johar film. Like the heroine of KKHH, Anjali, Naina has apparently carried a smoldering torch for her clueless crush for eight years. But this time Bunny begins to see her with new eyes, and has a familiar question for her:

Are you married?
Bunny and Naina reunite after 8 years (YJHD)

You didn't get married either?
Anjali (Kajol) and Rahul (Shah Rukh Khan) reunite after 8 years (KKHH)

But despite all the parallels, which writer/director Ayan Mukerji underscores with all the subtlety of hot pink highlighter, YJHD isn't a remake of either KKHH or KHNH—quite. Unilke KKHH's Anjali, the smart, accomplished and gorgeous Naina somehow doesn't have another man in her life. And unlike KHNH's Aman, Bunny doesn't have a life-threatening disease, he's got a relationship-threatening aversion to commitment.

There are many good things in YJHD. Deepika, cast against type, gives an utterly believable and highly affecting performance as Naina, and her chemistry with Ranbir seems very real. Ranbir, although his role plays more to type than cutting against it, also convinces as Bunny, a guy who is single-mindedly focused on his dreams of travel and adventure. And when Mukerji's script isn't cribbing from other movies (and sometimes when it is), it gives Deepika and Ranbir several heartbreaking scenes together.

It's also great to see some veterans given screen time, and making the most of it. Farooq Shaikh (of the classics Umrao Jaan (1981), Chashme Buddoor (1981) and Katha (1983), among many other films) plays Bunny's father, who, despite their conflicts, helps him realize his dreams. And although her "surprise" item number was highly publicized before the film's release, watching Madhuri Dixit dance is always a pleasure:



However, I want to talk a bit about the ending of the film, so If you haven't yet seen YJHD, be aware that spoilers follow.

Deepika gives such a moving performance as Naina that we want above all else at the end of the film to see her happy. And the film supplies us with what is intended to be a happy ending. But when Bunny gives up the dream job he's been working towards for eight years to be with Naina, my logical centers started to kick in. This seems like a surefire recipe for resentment and recriminations once the honeymoon has worn off. As Bunny himself realizes,

You're very different from me

While it's unusual (and partly redresses an immense imbalance) to see the man making sacrifices for the couple, rather than (as is so often the case) the woman, I think Naina and Bunny will be facing some major issues in the not-too-distant future. Just to be perfectly clear, I would think the same thing if being with Bunny required Naina to give up her medical practice. I'm just not sure I see a way for this couple to be together and for both partners to be fulfilled.

Unless Bunny can somehow learn to take Naina's wisdom to heart. If Bunny ever goes looking for his heart's desire, he probably doesn't need to look any further than sharing a gorgeous sunset over Udaipur with Deepika Padukone:

Let's just enjoy the moment

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Reaching the end of the line: Vikram Seth's Golden Gate and A Suitable Boy

Vikram Seth© 1990 Aradhana Seth
The Golden Gate
After Eugene Onegin, I turned to Vikram Seth's novel in verse The Golden Gate (Random House, 1986), which is written entirely in the form of Onegin stanzas. And I mean entirely, from the dedication and table of contents to the "About the Author" note.

It's an astonishing homage from one writer to another, and an amazing performance in its own right. The Golden Gate's stanzas are fluid, witty, and follow the intricate Pushkinian rhyme scheme (see Pushkin's Eugene Onegin) while rarely landing with a thud on an obvious rhyme or stretching too far for a groan-worthy one, unless it's with an implied wink to the reader. (Seth does display a Nabokovian love of puns and wordplay, which he—just—manages not to overdo.)


The book is also filled with the texture of everyday life, or at least everyday life as experienced by highly educated young professionals in the San Francisco Bay Area in the mid-1980s. (Seth attended Stanford, where he studied economics and creative writing, so he was obviously drawing on some first-hand experience.) References abound to real-life bars, radio stations, streets, places, events, and political issues: several of the characters participate in an anti-nuclear weapons demonstration at "Lungless Labs" (a thinly veiled allusion to Livermore National Laboratory, where atomic weapons are designed and where a series of nonviolent blockades took place in the early 1980s). So Bay Area readers (or, at least, Bay Area readers of a certain age) will regularly experience a little frisson of recognition.

Those who have previously read Eugene Onegin will also experience that frisson, and not just because of The Golden Gate's verse form. The main character in Seth's cast is John, whose description is very Onegin-like:
Gray-eyed, blond-haired, aristocratic
In height, impatience, views, and face,
Discriminating though dogmatic,
Tender beneath a carapace
Of well-groomed tastes and tasteful grooming...

A passionate man, with equal parts of
Irritability and charm..." [1]
And like Onegin, John winds up in a serious quarrel with his best friend.

The book does so much so well and so cleverly that it feels a little churlish to complain that the romantic travails of its privileged characters simply aren't that compelling. John, in particular, seems (like Onegin) to almost wilfully destroy his own happiness, but utterly lacks Onegin's tragic dimension. Ultimately, despite its many virtues, The Golden Gate feels slighter than it should.



A Suitable Boy
There's nothing slight about Seth's next novel, A Suitable Boy (Harper Collins, 1993): it weighs in at nearly 1500 pages and close to 2 pounds (and that's the paperback edition). Set in northeastern India a few years after independence, it's the story of several families connected by marriage and friendship. It has more than two dozen characters, but its temporal scope is surprisingly limited: the action seems to take place over the course of a single year.

I have to confess that I'm writing about the book while I'm still immersed in it, so all of my judgments are necessarily preliminary and contingent. But it seems to me that so outsized a novel has to justify its length, as least if it wants me to be one of its enthusiastic readers. The reviewer's blurbs printed in the book compare A Suitable Boy to Dickens, Trollope, and Eliot. But while the novels of those writers are indeed lengthy, every scene (even most of Trollope's notorious hunting scenes) furthers the narrative or expands our sense of the characters. The events described at such great length and detail in Seth's novel instead often have the messiness, and one might say the pointlessness, of real life. Something happens, and then another thing happens, but it's not always clear why we are being told about it.

If such a multi-focal novel can be said to have main narratives, they are chiefly the college-age Lata Mehra's attempts to fend off her mother's endeavors to arrange her marriage to "a suitable boy," and the dissolute Maan Kapoor's unhappy love affair with the singer Saeeda Bai. Along the way we witness a demonstration that ends in violence, a rural hunt for wolves, a court case surrounding the Zamindari Abolition Act, and a stampede at a Pul Mela religious gathering (based on the 1954 Kumbh Mela tragedy). Many of these incidents seem to be included to provide Seth the opportunity to write set-pieces, rather than because the structure of the work demands them.

Of course, sprawling sagas don't need justification if the incidents are of sufficient interest and the writing doesn't tax our patience. But the writing in A Suitable Boy often feels slack, full of needless detail. At one point Haresh, one of Lata's suitors, invites her and her mother to his place for lunch, and for no discernable reason we are treated to the entire menu:
First there was tomato soup. Then fried fish for everyone except Mrs Rupa Mehra, who had vegetable cutlets. Then there was chicken curry and rice with fried brinjal and mango chutney (Mrs Rupa Mehra had a vegetable curry.) And finally there was caramel custard. [2]
Perhaps this recitation says something about the tastes, economic standing or cultural background of Haresh which is too subtle for me to understand. Or perhaps this is intended as a kind of cinematic montage, where the flat description of the succession of dishes emphasizes the void of conversational silence that surrounds them. Or perhaps it's meant to add some local flavor, as it were. But scenes like this one lead me to suspect that Seth simply didn't know what to leave out.

Seth's writing can also be surprisingly sloppy. Fifty pages in I came across this sentence: "But despite Professor Mishra's open-armed avuncularity, his Falstaffian bulk and charm, Pran detected something dangerous: his wife and two young sons were, so it seemed to him, afraid of their father." [3] If this wordy, awkward, and ambiguous sentence (Mishra isn't his wife's father, thankfully) was an isolated instance, it could be overlooked. But clunkers like this crop up regularly throughout the book. To take a few more examples at random:
"'No—no—I have to go—' Varun found his voice at last, and almost fled from the hall without even laying a bet on the next race." [4] Does "almost" refer to Varun's precipitate exit from the hall, and if so, does "almost fled" mean "did not flee"? Or does it refer to his betting, and if so, does "almost...without even laying a bet" mean that far from leaving hastily, he stopped to make a bet on the way out? Indeed, when he is spotted a few minutes later he is celebrating his winnings on the race, so he must have bet. So what is this sentence intended to mean?

"Lunch was presided over by Miss Mason, a desperately ugly and lifeless woman of forty-five...the lifelessness of Miss Mason succeeded in freezing most of the conversation." [5] I would imagine it might. Although "lacking in energy" is one of the meanings of "lifeless," when applied to persons the far more common meaning is that they are dead. Perhaps Seth was anticipating by a decade or so the rise of the zombie as a cultural referent; or perhaps he should have chosen another modifier.
"[The room] was full of heavy furniture...and at the far end of the room...hung an oil painting of an English country scene containing cows. Mrs Rupa Mehra thought of their edibility, and was upset." [6] Again, "their" is grammatically ambiguous: while of course it is intended to refer to the cows, it could also refer to the heavy furniture and oil paintings, which indeed aren't very appetizing.

"For today she had no wish at all to talk to Kiran or anyone—least of all to Mrs Rupa Mehra." [7] The character on whose thoughts we are eavesdropping is Lata Mehra, Mrs. Mehra's daughter— would she really mentally refer to her own mother by her full name and honorific?
These are all the sorts of minor errors and awkwardnesses that are easily committed in the heat of inspiration, but which rewriting, and the careful attentions of copy editors, should eliminate. But on the evidence of what wound up being printed, it seems that A Suitable Boy didn't get very many drafts or much copy editing.

My judgment is undoubtedly premature and unfair; after all, I've only read two-thirds of the book so far. And if I come to feel differently after completing it, I will happily modify these comments (watch this space!). But at page 1018, A Suitable Boy feels as though could have been a superb novel—worthy, perhaps, of the comparisons to Dickens, Trollope and Eliot—if only it were shorter.

And this is where my train of thought reaches the end of the line. Thanks for bearing with me on this journey from Tim Kreider to Vikram Seth via Nabokov, Pushkin and Tchaikovsky, but I can't pretend that all of what I experience or seek out is as carefully connected as this sequence suggests. It's great when it happens, but I also try to leave myself open to serendipitous discoveries or just the randomness of everyday life. While I've been writing this series, I've also been reading the novels of Javier Marías, watching the postwar films of Jean Renoir, listening to superb recital recordings by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Janet Baker, attending operas by Boito and Verdi, and anticipating the pleasures of Shuddh Desi Romance, Chennai Express, Phata Poster Nikla Hero and Ram-Leela. So have no fear: randomness will be reasserting itself with my very next post.

Last time: Eugene Onegin - The Duel 

Update 4 November 2013: The last third of A Suitable Boy confirms the mixed impressions made by its first part: we are treated to more lengthy digressive set pieces (Parliamentary debates, legal arguments, election speeches and a cricket match), underelaborated incidents, and clunky sentences ("The Chief Secretary's eyes drifted across his table" [8]; I hope he was able to recapture them before they flew out the window)—not to mention a preemptive self-comparison to Middlemarch.

At the wedding that (of course) concludes the novel, there are hints of a sequel: "'You too will marry a girl I choose,' said Mrs Rupa Mehra firmly to her younger son [although her daughter isn't marrying a girl she chose, so where does that "too" come from?...never mind.]...'A suitable girl, and no exceptions.'" [9] And indeed, it was recently announced that, having missed a June 2013 deadline for the delivery of the manuscript of A Suitable Girl to Penguin, Seth was negotiating a deal with another publisher. The novel is now expected to be published by Orion in the fall of 2016. Let's hope the additional time allows Seth and his editors the opportunity to avoid some of the faults of A Suitable Boy.

--

1. Vikram Seth, The Golden Gate, Vintage Books, 1987, p. 5.
2. Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy, HarperPerennial, 1994, p. 621.
3. A Suitable Boy, p. 54.
4. A Suitable Boy, p. 476.
5. A Suitable Boy, p. 621.
6. A Suitable Boy, p. 621.
7. A Suitable Boy, p. 634.
8. A Suitable Boy, p. 1053.
9. A Suitable Boy, p. 1467.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Following a train of thought: Eugene Onegin - The Duel

Onegin and Lensky's duel, by Ilya Repin, 1899

The second of two scenes:

II. The Duel
A hotheaded young poet becomes enraged at an acquaintance's flirtatious attentions to his beloved, and challenges him to a duel. It's a famous scene from Pushkin's Eugene Onegin. But, as with Tatyana's letter, life came to tragically imitate art.

In 1831 the 32-year-old Pushkin had married the 18-year-old Natalya Goncharova, and the couple became fixtures in the fashionable life of St. Petersburg. Natalya was considered to be one of the most beautiful women in Russian society and had many admirers both before and after her marriage, including Tsar Nicholas I.

Natalya Pushkina, by A. P. Bryullov, 1832
One of those admirers was Georges d'Anthès, a dashing young cavalry officer just a few months older than Natalya. It was d'Anthès' attentions to his wife that Pushkin resented, and with good reason. In a January 1836 letter to his adoptive father (and rumored lover), Baron Jacob van Heeckeren, d'Anthès wrote of Natalya:
"...I am madly in love! Yes, madly, for I do not know which way to turn. I will not tell you her name, because letters can go astray, but remember the most delicious creature in Petersburg and you will know her name, and what is most horrible about my position is that she loves me too, and we cannot see each other, it has been impossible up to now, for the husband is revoltingly jealous...To love one another and only to be able to speak of this between two figures of a quadrille is terrible." [1]
Apart from d'Anthès own claims, is there any evidence that Natalya returned d'Anthès' feelings? Pushkin himself once remarked, "Il l'a troublée," which can be variously rendered; perhaps "he disconcerted her" or "he flustered her" would be fair approximations. We also have the diary of Mariya Mörder, a maid of honour to the Empress Alexandra. Mörder described d'Anthès as "astonishingly handsome"; she wrote of seeing d'Anthès and Natalya together at a ball in February 1836, "they were madly in love!...how happy they seemed at that moment!" [2]

Georges d'Anthès
If there was a mutually acknowledged attraction between the two, it would hardly be surprising. Like Tatyana's sister Olga in Eugene Onegin, Natalya was light-hearted, youthful and flirtatious; Pushkin was emotionally volatile, describing himself as "changeable, jealous, susceptible, violent and weak, all at the same time." [3] He was also unfaithful: perhaps one reason he was so furious at d'Anthès' pursuit of Natalya was that it held an unflattering mirror up to his own not-very-admirable behavior.

During the Shrovetide celebrations of mid-February 1836, d'Anthès attempted to go beyond dancing and flirting, and initiate an affair with Natalya (who by then was several months' pregnant, although her condition may have been concealed by her tight corsets and voluminous dresses). He wrote to Heeckeren that Natalya
"...refus[ed] to violate her duties for a man whom she loves and who adores her; she described her situation to me with such lack of constraint, asked my pardon with such naïvete, that I was really conquered and could not find a word to reply. If you know how she consoled me, for she knew I was suffocating and was in a terrible state, and when she said to me: 'I love you as I have never loved, but never ask more than my heart, for all the rest does not belong to me and I can only be happy in honouring all my duties, pity me and love me always as you do now, my love will be your recompense'; I tell you, I would have fallen at her feet to kiss them had I been alone." [4]
How much of this conversation indicates true feeling and how much is the conventional language of flirtation and the courtly cavalier servente tradition is difficult to say (and to our uncertainties we can add d'Anthès unreliability as a narrator). This scene does bear a striking resemblance, though, to a moment at the end of Eugene Onegin. After an absence of several years, Onegin returns to St. Petersburg; one night at a ball he sees Tatyana—no longer a lovestruck country girl, but now a regal, self-possessed lady of the court, married to a prince. In Pushkin's poem, Tatyana's husband is briefly mentioned as a "grand general," and has a few lines of dialogue; in the opera, Tchaikovsky amplifies the character, giving Prince Gremin a warm and tender aria in which he expresses his devotion to his wife.

Onegin is dazzled by the new Tatyana, and in an ironic reversal writes her a passionate letter. Receiving no response, he finds a way into her house:
          "...An emotion
of wild repentance and devotion
threw Eugene at her feet—..." [5]
Tatyana then reproves him:
          "...I beseech you, go;
I know your heart: it has a feeling
for honour, a straightforward pride.
I love you (what's the use to hide
behind deceit or double-dealing?)
but I've become another's wife—
and I'll be true to him, for life." [6]
Here is how Tchaikovsky rendered the scene. His Tatyana, because she is more vulnerable, more conflicted, and more anguished, and because she has a husband who loves her to distraction, is even more sympathetic; and, of course, the music adds another emotional dimension:



But life rarely has the satisfying finality of art. D'Anthès continued to pursue Natalya more or less openly as she returned to society in late summer after the birth of her daughter. Anonymous letters were soon circulated that implied that Pushkin had been cuckolded, and a duel was barely averted when d'Anthès agreed to marry Natalya's sister (!). Now Natalya's (and Pushkin's) brother-in-law, d'Anthès used his new familial proximity to intensify his campaign of seduction.

Finally, at a winter ball attended by all the court (including the Tsar), d'Anthès' overfamiliar behavior towards Natalya enraged Pushkin to such an extent that a duel became inevitable. It took place in the early evening of Wednesday, January 27, 1837. According to the rules agreed on by the seconds, cloaks were placed on the ground ten paces apart. The two men would begin twenty paces apart; at a signal, each man could advance up to where the cloak had been placed, and fire at any time. D'Anthès fired first, and Pushkin fell, mortally wounded. (He was able to raise himself on his left arm and shoot d'Anthès, wounding him in the arm and chest, but not fatally.) Pushkin died two days later.

Alexander Pushkin, by Vasily Tropinin, 1827
In Eugene Onegin Lensky and Onegin attend a ball held at the Larin's for Tatyana's name-day (January 25). In his boredom with and contempt for the rural society in which he finds himself, Onegin decides to revenge himself on both Tatyana and Lensky by monopolizing and openly flirting with Tatyana's sister Olga. Lensky and Olga have been sweethearts from childhood, and Lensky is infuriated by Onegin's deliberate affront and by Olga's flattered acquiescence.

A challenge is issued, and the poet meets the jaded man of fashion at dawn the next morning. As with the addition of Prince Gremin's aria, there is a telling difference between the opera and the novel. In Pushkin's original Lensky writes a poem in the predawn darkness full of romantic clichés. Onegin, although he feels some affection for Lensky, can't take either his poetic or his romantic aspirations entirely seriously, and neither, Pushkin signals us, should we.

In the opera, though, Lensky's poem becomes an aria of longing and foreboding; Tchaikovsky's sweeping music gives the moment quite a different weight than does Pushkin's irony:



Finally, the outcome of the duel seems eerily prescient of Pushkin's own death:



The video excerpts in this post are taken from the 2007 Metropolitan Opera production conducted by Valery Gergiev and featuring Renée Fleming as Tatyana, Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Onegin, and Ramon Vargas as Lensky. Robert Carsen's effectively spare production places the emphasis on the intimate drama between the characters, as Tchaikovsky desired. This production has been issued on DVD and is also available through Met Opera on Demand; it's strongly recommended.

On CD, the first choice by general consensus is the 1955 mono recording with Galina Vishnevskaya as Tatyana, Evgeny Belov as Onegin, and Sergei Lemeshev as Lensky, accompanied by the Bolshoi Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Boris Khaikin. I haven't heard it, but I am definitely going to seek it out.


Khaikin's conducting is praised as "nuanced" and "delicate." By all accounts on the other end of the emotional spectrum is the version conducted by James Levine in 1988. It features Mirella Freni as Tatyana, Thomas Allen as Onegin, Neil Shicoff as Lensky and Anne Sofie von Otter as Olga, accompanied by the Staatskapelle Dresden. Levine's lush, passionate approach is highly effective, and the cast is excellent (even if none of the principals is Russian); Shicoff is an especially ardent Lensky. It was this version that I happened across at a library sale this summer, and which inspired me to seek out Pushkin's brilliant novel in verse. T. J. Binyon's biography of Pushkin (Knopf, 2003) was an invaluable source for this post, and is fascinating in its own right.

Next time: Vikram Seth's Golden Gate and A Suitable Boy

Last time: Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin - The Letter

--

1. T. J. Binyon, Pushkin: A Biography, Knopf, 2003, pp. 502-503.
2. Binyon, pp. 503-504.
3. Binyon, pp. 245.
4. Binyon, pp. 504-505.
5. Alexander Pushkin, Eugene Onegin, translated by Charles Johnston. Penguin, 1979, p. 228.
6. Eugene Onegin, p. 231.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Following a train of thought: Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin

Tchaikovsky in 1877
The first of two scenes:

I. The Letter
A young woman writes an impassioned letter to a man she has met only briefly, declaring her love for him and placing her fate in his hands.

But the woman's name isn't Tatyana Larina; it's Antonina Milyukova. And the man she is writing isn't Eugene Onegin, but the composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Antonina's letter arrived in mid-May 1877 at a critical point in Tchaikovsky's life. Eight months previously he had written to his brother Modest about his intention to get married in order to "eradicat[e] from myself my pernicious passions"—his homosexuality.[1]

While Antonina's first letter was lost or destroyed by Tchaikovsky almost immediately, her second and third letters, both dated May 16, still survive. In them she writes,
"I see that it's now time that I began to master my feelings, as you yourself told to me in your first letter. Although I cannot now see you, I console myself with the thought that you are in the same city as I am...[W]herever I may be, I shall not be able to forget you or lose my love for you. What I liked in you [when I first came to know you] I no longer find in any other man; indeed, in a word, I do not want to look at any other man after you....

"I am dying of longing, and I burn with a desire to see you, to sit with you and talk with you, though I fear that at first I shan't be in a state to utter a word...Farewell, my dear one...I cannot live without you...I implore you: come to me. If you knew how I suffer, then probably out of pity alone you would grant my request."[2]
It seems impossible that either Antonina or Tchaikovsky were unaware of the echoes of Eugene Onegin in this situation. From Tatyana's letter to Onegin:
"...if you've kept some faint impression
of pity for my wretched state,
you'll never leave me to my fate.
At first I thought it out of season
to speak; believe me: of my shame
you'd not so much as know the name,
if I'd possessed the slightest reason
to hope that even once a week
I might have seen you, heard you speak
on visits to us, and in greeting
I might have said a word, and then
thought day and night, and thought again
about one thing, till our next meeting...

Another!...no, another never
in all the world could take my heart!
Decreed in highest court forever...
heaven's will—for you I'm set apart...

Imagine it: quite on my own
I've no one here who comprehends me
and now a swooning mind attends me,
dumb I must perish, and alone.
My heart awaits you: you can turn it
to life and hope with just a glance—
or else disturb my mournful trance
with censure—I've done all to earn it!..."[3]
There are echoes as well of Onegin's response to Tatyana in Tchaikovsky's reply to Antonina. David Brown writes in his critical biography of the composer that Tchaikovsky apparently told her that her love for him would diminish if she really knew his imperfections and failings, and "had counselled his infatuated admirer not to let her feelings run away with her."[4] As Onegin tells Tatyana:
"...Should your perfections be expended
in vain on my unworthy soul?
Believe (as conscience is my warrant)
wedlock for us would be abhorrent...

You'll love again, but you must teach
your heart some self-restraint; for each
and every man won't understand it
as I have...learn from my belief
that inexperience leads to grief."[5]

Elizaveta Lavrovskaya
On May 25, shortly after receiving Antonina's first letter, Tchaikovsky visited the mezzo-soprano Elizaveta Lavrovskaya. The composer was casting around for a new opera project; Lavrovskaya suggested Eugene Onegin. Just a few days later Tchaikovsky reported to Modest that "the idea seemed to me wild, and I didn't reply. Afterwards, dining alone at an inn, I recalled Onegin, fell to thinking about it, next began to find Lavrovskaya's idea a possibility, then was carried away by it, and by the end of the meal had made up my mind." [6]

It was Tatyana's letter to Onegin that inspired Tchaikovsky to begin work on the opera, and it was this scene that was the first that he composed, using almost entirely (as he did throughout the opera) Pushkin's words. Tchaikovsky later wrote his friend, the composer Sergey Taneyev, that "I burned with the fire of inspiration when I wrote the letter scene"[7]:



That Tchaikovsky was inspired to compose this scene shortly after receiving Antonina's letter is surely no coincidence. And writing the scene made him view her in a new light:
"Being completely immersed in composition I so thoroughly identified myself with the image of Tatyana that she became for me a living person, together with everything that surrounded her. I loved Tatyana, and was furiously indignant with Onegin who seemed to me a cold, heartless fop. Having received a second letter from Miss Milyukova, I was ashamed, and even became indignant with myself for my attitude towards her...

"In my mind this all tied up with the idea of Tatyana, and it seemed to me that I myself had acted incomparably more basely than Onegin, and I became truly angry with myself for my heartless attitude towards this girl who was in love with me. Because the second letter also contained Miss Milyukova's address, I immediately set out thither, and thus began our acquaintance." [8]
Reader, he married her.


Tchaikovsky and Antonina after their wedding
The marriage, which took place on July 18, was a catastrophe from the first. Tchaikovsky had told Antonina that he could never love her, but despite her acquiescence to his conditions for their wedded life he quickly realized that he had made a terrible mistake. In a letter to his patroness Nadezha von Meck written three weeks after the wedding he described his growing anguish:
"As soon as the [marriage] ceremony was over, as soon as I found myself alone with my wife with the consciousness that it was now our fate to live with each other inseparably, I suddenly felt not only that she did not inspire me with even a simple feeling of friendship, but that she was hateful to me in the fullest sense of that word. It seemed to me that I, or at least the best, even the sole good part of the real me—that is, my musicality—had perished irrevocably...My wife was in no way guilty in my eyes: she had not invited herself into the bonds of matrimony. In consequence, to make her feel that I do not love her, that I look upon her as an intolerable encumbrance, would be both cruel and base. There remains pretence. But to pretend all one's life is the greatest of torments. And where in all this can one think of work? I fell in to deep despair, the more horrifying because there was no one who could sustain me or give me hope...

"[My wife] loves me sincerely, and wants nothing except that I should be calm and happy. I pity her greatly."[9]
Those feelings of pity and sympathy for women trapped in loveless marriages pervade the opera. In the very first of Eugene Onegin's "seven lyrical scenes in three acts" we learn that Tatyana's mother loved another man at the time of her marriage to Larin. Her new husband, perhaps sensing something of her feelings, took her away from the city to his country estate. She sings,
"I busied myself with the household,
became resigned and settled down...
Habit is sent us from above
in place of happiness."[10]
Tatyana is surrounded by women who have had to sacrifice their feelings on the marriage altar and replace happiness with habit and duty. In her distress on the sleepless night she decides to write to Onegin, Tatyana asks her nurse Filipyevna whether she has ever been in love. Filipyevna tells her the story of being married at age 13 to a boy she had never met, and the tears she wept as her maiden plait was untwined, she was taken to the church, and then into the household of a family of strangers.

Both stories, her mother's and her nurse's, foreshadow Tatyana's bitter fate. And as my loving partner noted, with its focus on the plight of its heroine, the opera could have been entitled Tatyana. There is only one scene that does not feature her, and that scene will be the subject of the second part of this post.

Next time: Eugene Onegin - The Duel

Last time: Pushkin's Eugene Onegin to Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin

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[1]  As quoted in David Brown, Tchaikovsky: The Crisis Years (1874-1878). Gollancz, 1982, p. 104.
[2]  Brown, pp. 138-140.
[3]  Alexander Pushkin, Eugene Onegin, translated by Charles Johnston. Penguin, 1979, pp. 100-102.
[4]  Brown, p. 138.
[5]  Eugene Onegin, pp. 113-114.
[6]  Brown, p. 142.
[7]  Isaiah Berlin, "Tchaikovsky, Pushkin and Onegin," Musical Times, v. 121, no. 1645 (March 1980), p. 166.
[8]  Brown, p. 143.
[9]  Brown, pp. 150-152.
[10] Dmitry Murashev, "DM's Opera Site: 'Eugene Onegin' by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky libretto (English)."