On July 27, 1841 the great Russian Romanticist poet Mikhail Lermontov had been killed at the duel in Pyatigorsk. In his short lifetime, filled with romance, military service, and bitterness, he composed numerous poems, several long poems (Demon, Valerik) and ballads, plays (The Masquerade), short stories, and a novel The Hero Of Our Time that has long been in Russian school curriculum.
The poem “I Come Out To the Path, Alone” was composed in 1841 – the year Lermontov died, and prophetically carries the gloom of predestination. It successfully marries Russian melancholy with the Romanticist fighting spirit. The disillusioned protagonist foresees his death but wishes it would lead to eternal life where he could join and enjoy the Nature.
The poem was put to music and has long been a popular romance. It also featured in The Life of Klim Samgin becoming the epitome of the spiritual searches and disillusionment of all Gorky’s characters, caught up in the ever changing Russian life at the turn of the 19-20th cc.
In the first year of this blog I happened to be anticipating the release of Quiet Flows the Don (2006) whereby I was researching the subject and came across Sholokhov’s 1926 manuscript. It was an amazing coincidence because I wrote the post 80 years after Sholokhov drafted the text.
What I find amazing, and so will you surely, is that Gorky’s copies are impressively neat. I’ve never seen his other manuscripts, but what is shown in the picture suggests an amazing clarity of his creative vision.
The image is courtesy of RIA Novosti archives in Moscow.
I have written about the film The Life of Klim Samgin previously in the Russian Los Cuadernos, but I don’t think I have actually mentioned it in English. Certainly, not in the way I am about to mention it now.
Meanwhile, The Life of Klim Samgin is perhaps the most dramatic, deep and fateful (even for its author) novel by Maxim Gorky. It was set out to describe the all-embracing internal tragedy of its protagonist, Klim Samgin, the offspring of the family of intellectuals, who was unable to find a place for himself in Russia’s political climate at the turn of the 19-20th cc. However, by depicting Samgin’s excruciating journey in search of a middle ground between continuous doubt and a burning desire to belong but also to dominate, Gorky somewhat unwittingly but very convincingly narrated the drama of many Russian intellectuals who upheld the revolutionary ideals, only to be repelled by the realisation thereof.
This personal journey of tremendous difficulty is precisely what makes the figure of Samgin rather appealing, especially in the liberal climate. He appears to be the one who constantly questions the world around him, wearing the mask of a dashing individualism all the while. His sense of self-worth doesn’t fail to engage the reader, as neither does his constant doubt which is in sync with how we understand an individual; with how we define our attitude to the Revolution; and even with the image of ‘a mysterious Russian soul’.
At the same time, as one reads the novel or watches the film, one can’t help feeling pity for Samgin. At one point at the very beginning of his story we see one of the characters describing an intellectual as this: “he doesn’t see the sadness of his role – the role of a child who is daydreaming while crossing the street, oblivious to the fact that in a moment he is to be crushed by the heavy cart of History, navigated by the experienced yet not very delicate whips“. As the life of Klim Samgin unravels, we understand that it is this very child, invested with a mission which he only vaguely comprehends. Often he is the hostage of events, a pawn not only for his parents or friends, but most importantly – for the people, the powers, and History, too.
I really love meditating about a few phrases that J.-P. Sartre dropped on the final page of Words. Culture neither saves nor justifies anyone; but it is the mirror for the mankind. The Life of Klim Samgin, conceived by Gorky as the vast chronicle of the Russian life and history from 1877 until 1917, can be seen exactly as this kind of a mirror that, predictably, is still of much use.
It was of very much use when back in the 1980s the now late Russian director Viktor Titov took to make a film based on Gorky’s novel. From comparing the text and the film, I can say that this was indeed a titanic work, and it is obvious that Titov had worked on the script for a very long time. Gorky’s novel was left unfinished, but even so it consists of four parts, and what a good student of the novel and the script quickly notices is that the script easily creates a succinct version of very many pages. While this is not surprising, in the context of the film that very closely follows Gorky’s language, this is an important trait. The whole work came out as a 14-episode TV series, every episode lasting just over 1 hour. In effect, it is a series of 14 features, joined together by unfailing directing, the brilliant and critically acclaimed work of the crew, and the outstanding performance of the cast.
The film was finished by 1987, and I believe it was in 1988/89 that I saw it for the first time on TV. Just like The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson were my gateway into writing, so The Life of Klim Samgin opened the treasures of world’s literature – and of the home library. I was so impressed by the film that I felt compelled to go and search the bookcases for Gorky’s books. Surprisingly or not, I was able to find one of the volumes from Gorky’s collected works, quite an old book with yellowy pages; one of Klim Samgin‘s parts was included in that volume. I didn’t read it then, but I found a few more old books there, and this was a fortuitous and important discovery, considering that I wasn’t even 10 years old.
Many years later I rediscovered the leading actor in this film, Andrei Rudensky. It was pretty amazing to suddenly read an interview with him in one of Moscow’s magazines. It was in 2003, and it brought many reminiscences of my childhood, including the one I’d just mentioned, about the home library. Moreover, although by 2003 it’d be 15 years since I watched the film, I realised that I remembered it quite well.
This meant that The Life of Klim Samgin left a much deeper impression that I could myself imagine. Turned out, he was about my age now when he was working on The Life of Klim Samgin, and it was his cinema debut. Considering that he had to portray his character from the age of 17 until the age of 40, this was certainly an outstanding achievement for him both personally and career-wise.
(written 5 Sept 2008) I am currently giving much thought to the importance of screen adaptations. I have to think simultaneously of the stage adaptations, too, because very often we are speaking about one and same text adapted to either stage or screen. The reason why I am so preoccupied with the screen adaptations is because I feel that particularly Russian cinema of today suffers from the lack thereof. At the same time, world’s cinema is probably just as deprived by the lack of attempts to put to screen the “old” or “foreign” narratives that exist out there.
To think about it, somehow it seems much easier to create a YouPorn channel, or to make a soft- or hardcore porn film, or to blend a pornographic content with some metaphysical or political discourse, than to actually put to screen the narrative of de Sade as it is. This is not to defy or to forget Pasolini’s Salo (that draws on 120 Days of Sodom), but de Sade was writing on the wane of the Age of the Enlightenment, and he was drawing on the hyperbolas of Rabelais and contemporary ideas of theatre, in particular. The scholars who pointed out to de Sade’s striking theatricality are correct in that they first find the place for de Sade in his own time, instead of dragging him all the way into the 20th c., openly linking Sadism to Fascism.
(120 Days of Sodom – French and English texts).
Another example is, obviously, Hamlet. A classical role, a secret dream or ambition of many film makers and actors alike. Olivier’s adaptation is Shakespearean, so much so that certain frames remind you of the Renaissance and Baroque paintings. Kozintsev’s film does not depart far from the Renaissance theme but at times can even remind the viewer of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Zeffirelli’s adaptation is an interesting go at understanding Shakespeare that has taken the director well beyond Shakespeare’s times, very close to Freud, but potentially not too far from the truth. The re-positioning of Hamlet’s soliloquy is a great achievement, in that we are invited to view Hamlet’s situation on a different dramatic level. Usually Hamlet’s soliloquy is followed by his dialogue with Ophelia in which he orders her to become a nun. We are left not with Hamlet but with Ophelia who is trying to cope with the evidence of the mental break of her beloved. In Zeffirelli’s film the dialogue with Ophelia precedes the soliloquy, so when Hamlet gets to his “to be or not to be” it is indeed the question, for at that point he is finally left totally alone.
However, all mentioned adaptations more or less faithfully follow Shakespearean notes; they are set in either medieval or quasi-medieval (~Renaissance) times. The adaptation by Kenneth Branagh is different in that it uses the full 1623 text, but brings it to life in the middle of the 19th c. Branagh chose the time for its state of political turmoil, sex and post-Napoleonic glamour. The problem, however, is that in 1848 The Communist Manifesto was published, not to mention many Revolutions that preceded and followed its publication. The political climate was far too different from the one in which Shakespeare produced his play. And the beginnings of psychiatry leave one suspecting that Claudius could easily send his nephew to the asylum instead of hiring two guys to spy on Hamlet. This could indeed be a great and masterful adaptation, if it adapted the text to the time. Instead, we have something of a family theatre that went too far – pretty much like the feast in Luis Bunuel’s Exterminating Angel.
I deliberately took two different examples, one of a narrative (de Sade), another of a play (Shakespeare), to underline the difficulty of adapting a text to the screen. Many more examples can be cited, particularly The Death in Venice as it was written by Thomas Mann and subsequently adapted by Luchino Visconti. Visconti’s film was already criticised by Alberto Moravia who as yet acknowledged the doubtless subtlety of Visconti as the film’s auteur. Umberto Eco has a good sub-chapter on it in Mouse or Rat: Translation as Negotiation. It is worth a notice that Eco chose a Hamletian expression to illustrate the conundrum: there is, of course, a big difference between a mouse and a rat, but exactly what did Hamlet mean, and thus how to translate it into a foreign language?
We may think these linguistic nuances have no relation to cinema; in such case, however, we forget that a film is in itself a translation of a literary text into the language of cinema. It is a delicate and laborious process of finding a cinematic equivalent to verbal or visual metaphors. And here we have many more problems emerging that concern the crew, cast, and even the audience as the mediators between the source text and the target text. The 2006 premiere of the long-abandoned Quiet Flows the Don on the Russian TV comes to mind. Much of the criticism was based on the fact that the “foreigners” dared have a go at playing Russian characters. Strangely enough, a careful reader of Sholokhov’s novel will recall that the Cossacks positioned themselves vis-a-vis even Russians. If we take it to the letter, then the only true adaptation can be produced by the Cossack community. However, it has not yet been produced, whereas the problems that Sholokhov raised and discussed have not lost their importance more than 80 years later, whereby it is perfectly possible for the “foreigners” to relate to these problems and therefore have a go at playing out the source text to their, foreigners’, native audience.
This is all the better subject to think about as a Hollywood version of Master and Margarita is in the making. The fame of this novel is such that it is virtually unadaptable and that it sends a curse on its makers. Given the number of diabolic characters in the novel, both in proper and figurative sense of the word, this should not come as a surprise. What will be a surprise is, of course, how Hollywood treats Bulgakov’s Soviet Moscow, especially given the changes in Moscow’s political climate and in political relations between America and Russia in the recent years. The question is, perhaps: is there a possibility that this interpretation will be more political than any that previously existed? Shall it draw any parallels between Stalin’s Moscow and Putin’s/Medvedev’s Moscow?
What interests me, however, is the script. One of the problems of adapting Bulgakov’s novel is that there are, in fact, two novels in one. Of course, Bad Education by Pedro Almodovar comes to mind, where the real-time events intertwine with memory flashbacks and a film directed after the script of a long-dead character. From this point of view, there should be no problem adapting the biblical and Moscow chapters in Master and Margarita. But then precisely how, and to what extent, should they be adapted? Even the 6-hours long adaptation of Quiet Flows the Don by Sergei Gerasimov naturally has a plenty of cuts from the original text which comprises 4 volumes. My view has long been that, in order to successfully adapt this novel to screen (or even to stage), it is important to study Bulgakov’s own adaptations of his texts to stage.