Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The Russians Are Coming

The most outstanding experience of my recent trip to Toronto was my visit to the Art Gallery of Ontario, despite most of it being closed for the major redevelopment of the showing space they have underway. I still managed to spend nearly a whole day in the Catherine the Great Exhibition, which was largely borrowings from the Hermitage - although I suspect there might have been the odd item from Catherine's Summer Palace, which is apparently well worth a visit and all.

There was a dual theme to the exhibition: the way in which Catherine co-opted art to make her Great, but also the way in which she pushed Russia to take its place in the international cultural scene by bringing in lots of foreign expertise. The former wasn't just acheived by having pictures painted of her which made her look in control of a nation. Oh no - take, for example, the picture she had painted of the firing and sinking of the entire Turkish navy. Unlike today, where they'd have embedded journalists capturing the entire event for instantaneous wordwide transmission, artists had to be available to make paintings of important scenes. In a cock-up on the artist front, no-one was actually present and painting to record this momentous event. So - she had them re-enact the whole thing. Then there was the Bronze Horseman - the statue of Peter the Great she had made (which involved moving a 4 million pound rock to form the plinth!) but cleverly captioned in order to make it appear she was his natural successor. She wasn't of course: she was plucked from obscurity, married well and when her husband ascended the throne, had him killed and took his place. Such events might make one wish to make it very clear that one belonged on the throne.

I've read enough Russian lit (starting with Dostoyevsky through to 20th century novels) to know that the French language has been something of an embarrassment to the Russians at times - it was a discomfiting sign of an elite when to be elite was deeply unfashionable as well as a suggestion that simply being Russian wasn't quite good enough. So, it was of particular interest to learn that Catherine had as much to do with importing French language and thought into Russia as anyone - in her effort to modernise the Russian state. This process involved her in becoming one of the biggest collectors of art of the time, in introducing a neo-classical style to Russian architecture, in adopting the theories of people like Voltaire in her governance. I think the thing that most astonished me about Catherine was that while she was busily trying to gain control of all of Europe, gathering in all this art, keeping up a longstanding affair with Potemkin and so on, she wrote and wrote and wrote - books, codes of conduct for her armed forces, an entire legal code...

One of these days, I really must overcome my hatred of mosquitoes and actually go to St Petersburg: its a plan that has been on the back burner ever since I started reading Dostoyevsky.

In the meantime, my book group has taken on a fairly major reading project for our summer hiatus - War and Peace. There have been a couple of influences conspiring to make it the right time for me to read it - I have been reading about the new translation put out by Penguin, particularly the complaint that Briggs has cast it in 21st century idiom and cut out all of Tolstoy's literary flourishes. According to my Joyce lecturer, Tolstoy was playing around with some of the same sorts of ideas that Joyce deployed in Ulysses, but from what I've been reading, the Penguin translation has simply ignored any such flourishes in the interests of just telling the story. And then there was a fairly savage attack on the Constance Garnett translation in a recent New Yorker article: hardly a new thing, as Nabokov made an industry out of attacking her translations. Still - all credit to her for managing to translate 70 volumes of Russian prose and almsot single-handedly bringing it to the attention of the American reading public.

But it leaves me in a quandary: the ideal would be a Pevear/Volokhonsky translation and, as I thought must be the case, they are indeed working one up: for publication in a year or so. In the meantime, I have succumbed and bought the Penguin version, to go alongside the Oxford World Classics version (translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude - approved of by both Tolstoy and the Guardian as being the most authentic). And it appears that one of my colleagues has a Russian made film of war and Peace, one which comes in at a whopping 24 hours. Nice.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home