Category Archives: Russia

Lazy Sunday

Occasionally, it’s nice to wake up with nothing in particular planned for the day.  It doesn’t happen very often, but every once in a while, I have the luxury of not having to jump up out of bed the moment the alarm goes off and can instead laze under the duvet with a mug of coffee and a good book.

Lev Tolstoy in 1908

Lev Tolstoy in 1908

I recently decided to revisit War and Peace by Lev Tolstoy, which I first read when I was at university ie a fair few years ago!   It’s hard to imagine anyone publishing a novel of that length these days; I expect most modern editors would be itching to cut huge chunks out of the book.  There are whole chapters dedicated to relatively minor characters and pages and pages of Tolstoy’s philosophising about the nature of history and the role played by great men.   And yet taken together, all these things are an essential part of the whole.  They’re what make it feel real.

In the chapter I read last, Tolstoy describes how an officer, Prince Nezvitsky, is pinned up against the railings of a bridge as a whole company of soldiers swarm across it.   Although Nezvitsky is a completely minor character, Tolstoy nevertheless treats us to his thoughts about the river flowing around the piles of the bridge, snatches of conversation he half-hears, his feelings and anxieties about the battle ahead.

For a short while, the reader is plunged into Nezvitsky’s world, and can identify with him completely, so that we too are trapped on the bridge, can hear the water roaring below, mud spattering and shouts and sweat of the oncoming troops.  We too feel Nezvitsky’s relief when a fellow officer helps him break free.

This is what Tolstoy does so brilliantly – he creates an immersive world so full of the detail of actual lives that the reader cannot help but feel a part of it.   There’s something very visual, almost cinematic, about the way the whole panorama unfolds as before our eyes.

 War and Peace Film

What a novel allows, however, as film rarely can, is insight into the characters’ thoughts and feelings.   Tolstoy – by all accounts pig-headed and frequently insensitive in real life – nevertheless has an uncanny, almost magical knack for describing the deepest and darkest corners of the human heart.

He creates rich, complex, distinctive and very fallible characters, who cannot be other than the way they are.  Thus it makes perfect sense that Natasha Rostova, a younger member of a large boisterous family and the child of warmly generous, spendthrift parents, should be impetuous, passionate, unguarded and completely charming.   Or that Pierre Bezukhov, the illegitimate son of a fabulously rich but distant father, should be insecure, clumsy, earnest, and shy.    Or that Prince Andrei, the motherless son of a pedantic and exacting father, should be arrogant and ambitious.

Audrey Hepburn in the 1956 film of War and Peace

Audrey Hepburn in the 1956 film of War and Peace

No doubt, many people find the sheer length War and Peace off-putting, but it isn’t a difficult book to read; Tolstoy’s style is wonderfully clear and accessible.   And knowing you’ll be spending a good few hours in the company of his wonderful characters only makes it seem better.



Filed under Books, Russia, Screenwriting, Writing

Big Bang

Much praise has been heaped on the Kazimir Malevich exhibition at the Tate Modern in London, the first major retrospective of the artist’s work for 25 years, which runs until 26th October.  Malevich was born in Kiev in 1879 and his life coincided with an extraordinarily volatile and fertile period of Russian history. The paintings have been displayed in more or less chronological order, enabling visitors to track how Malevich’s thinking and art changed in response to the cataclysmic events he was living through.

Kasimir Malevich - a real revolutionary

Kasimir Malevich – a real revolutionary

The pivotal piece of the exhibition is Black Square, which Malevich created as the logical culmination of his ideas about an art divorced from the need to represent the natural world and thus completely free from the constraints and traditions of figurative painting.

The paint itself is quite textured, with brush strokes and faint gradations of colour clearly visible within the whitish border.  The black square itself has acquired further texture as a result of extensive cracking of the paint.   These days, original 1915 canvas is too fragile to be moved from its home in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, with the result that the version on display in London is one of three copies Malevich made in the years that followed.

Black Square

Black Square

For all its simplicity, the image presented is incredibly haunting, signifying as it does both an ending and a beginning. It’s impossible to view it without considering the historical context; a Russia on the brink of revolution, careening at full speed towards an abyss of orgiastic destruction.

What is in hindsight particularly heart-breaking is the overwhelming sense of new possibility, an unwavering confidence in an as yet unknown future.  It must have felt truly amazing to be an artist like Malevich, with both the skill and the licence to reimagine the world in every detail.

Viewed in this way, Black Square becomes a void pregnant with possibility.   What it made me feel was a  sense of the universe in the seconds before the big bang, pulsating with pent up energy at the very instant it explodes into life.

In the years following the creation of Black Square, Malevich initiated a movement known as Suprematism and produced a series of canvases featuring shapes of various colours, usually on a white background. These images convey a sense of dynamic fragmentation, as if a fist has been slammed onto the surface of a table and Malevich had somehow managed to capture the moment when all the objects on top of it have flown up into the air.  Later yet, he created a series of images dissolving at the edges and fading to white; what he called the end of art.

Black Trapezium and Red Square

Black Trapezium and Red Square

In the 1920s, Malevich abandoned painting and turned to teaching instead.  By this time, the pieces thrown up by the Russian revolution had come back to earth and resettled in a new reality.  Although by this time he was beginning to find a new audience abroad, Malevich found himself falling foul of the Stalinist regime and its retrograde ideas about art.  He was arrested for a short period in 1930 and died of cancer soon after.  The original Black Square, and the ground-breaking ideas it exemplified, disappeared from public view, not to re-emerge for more than quarter of a century.

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Filed under Art, Reviews, Russia