Time for a Russian novel

There are times when you need a Russian novel. It has to be Russian: nothing less will do. You need an artistic vision that is effortlessly epic; and you need a writer who will, without any embarrassment or circumlocution or even preamble, address with a disconcerting directness all the big themes of life: God, morality, the immortality of the soul – you know, all that sort of thing. So, I started on Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. I last read it many years ago, and, although it impressed me at the time, my memories of it are surprisingly vague. So it’s definitely time for a re-read.

Of course, the very mention of Doctor Zhivago brings to mind that mushy David Lean film that has given the novel the rather unfair reputation as a sort of standard-bearer of that popular middlebrow subgenre “Love-Story-Set-In-Turbulent-Times”. And it is difficult separating the book from the film: despite the many inadequacies of the latter (not the least of which are the extraordinarily wooden performances from the two romantic leads), the film is, in visual terms, perhaps the most stunningly beautiful I think I have seen, and it is hard to keep those startlingly vivid images from one’s mind as one reads. And while cinematographer Freddie Young deserves the highest praise for this, some of the credit must go to Lean as well: after all, Young has been cinematographer on many other films as well, and while he has never been less than superb, none of these others is as visually stunning as the ones he made with Lean. If only the rest of Lean’s film version of Doctor Zhivago had been on a par with the cinematography!

But back to the novel. It starts: “On they went, singing Eternal Memory.” And immediately, I know I am reading a Russian novel. I think I’m going to enjoy this!


4 responses to this post.

  1. Freddie Young was the hero of the movie, wasn’t he? Still, I think he topped his work there in the next Davie Lean movie – Ryan’s Daughter. An imperfect movie, certainly, but each frame oozes gorgeousness. The light in that movie is so dreamlike.

    Still, the movie with the best visuals I’ve ever seen is Bertolucci’s Novecento: I’m strongly convinced Vittorio Storaro is the best cinematographer that ever lived, and the peak of his art is that movie. The framing, the colors, the camera movements, it’s so ostentatious, splendorous, magnificent. Say may say it’s too much, it’s distracting, but for me it’s film heaven!


    • Hello Miguel, I didn’t much care for Bertolucci’s Novecento as a film, but i can’t disagree with you abut vittorio Straro’s cinematigraohy: it was wonderful.

      here are other contenders as well, of course – Sven Nykvist’s work on the ingmar Bergman films, say, or Greg Toland’s work on Citizen Kane, or, even more remarkably, I think, on John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath. I do particularly like good black and white cinematography, and among teh most remarkable examples of that is, I think, Freddie Francis’ work on The Innocents.


      • Sorry to know you don’t like Novecento, it’s not a personal favourite but I think it’s a very good movie, with a strong storyline and lot of heart. Do you like Bertolucci’s other movies? The Conformist (that’s a favourite, and it also has great cinematography, or The Last Emperor of China, which isn’t that good but has a lovely Peter O’Toole performance?

        I like Sven Nykvist’s work too, even if I think Gunnar Fischer was Bergman’s best cinematographer; he made a shot of waves breaking against rocks portentous. But Nykvist, especially in black and white, is very good – The Hour of the Wolf, The Virgin Spring come to mind, and the color movie Cries and Whispers, that had a great use of saturated reds.

        There’s a French cinematographer I love, Sacha Vierny; he worked on many movies for Alain Resnais – Hiroshima, My Love, Last Year in Marienbad – and Belle de Jour for Buñuel, and the haunting dreamlike movie Three Crowns of the Sailor for Raul Ruiz. Very underrated but sublime.

      • I liked The Conformist, and I was perhaps a bit harsh on Novecento, but I must admit that, apart from The Conformist, I have not been a great fan of Bertolucci. But then again, it’s been many, many years since my film-going days: I used to be an avid film-goer in my student days, but, for various reasons, i have got out o fteh habit, and I really don’t know what I’d make these days of the various films I last saw some 30 or so years ago.

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