Dr Zhivago

Dr Zhivago

I never thought it would happen. I almost thought it was impossible. But, I have found the situation when the film was better than the book, and not by a small margin : Dr Zhivagio the film is much better than the book. Dr Zhivago is a classic of the film-makers art, the book, on the otherhand, is an overlong and maudlin saga.

I remember well when I saw David Lean’s “Dr Zhivago” as it made an immediate impact on me. The photography was spectacular, there was an epic tale of revolution and chaos, upon which was played a moving love story. The whole thing was bound together by the magical music particularly “Lara’s Theme“, by Maurice Jarre, the leitmotif that glued everything together. Even today I only have to hear a few bars of this, or the opening of “Somewhere my Love“, to be instantly back remembering this film. Although I enjoyed and regarded the film highly it was initially a difficult film for me.

When I first saw the film I was a youth, a teenager, and a firebrand for the left. I found it difficult that a film as powerful as this was not a paean to the great communist revolution, but rather a shocking indictment of the treatment of the individual at the hands of the state. Being obstinate and foolish, as a lad, I omitted to read the book as I had the habit then of only tending to read what confirmed the prejudices I already cultured. I was therefore delighted when our bookclub decided to do Dr Zhivago, it gave me the chance to rectify a wrong and I would read Dr Zhivago, the book.

I knew the history of the book, I knew it had won the Nobel Prize for Boris Pasternak, and I knew that it was an important text in revealing the problems of totalitarianism. I had mentally filled it alongside George Orwell’s “1984” and  Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch“, both of which I had re-read recently and found excellent. It was therefore with expectant optimism that I started “Dr Zhivago”.

The first couple of days were fine, but as time passed my spirits sagged and my reading slowed to a barely perceptible crawl. I found the text dense and difficult, there was far too much detail which failed to add to setting scenes or developing characters or relationships. The frequent use of multiple, different names for characters was occasionally confusing. The story was rather jumbled in its chronography and relied heavily on coincidences for plot development, many of which were very contrived. None of this was helped by the poorly drawn characters who failed to engage with me. In particular, our hero, Yuri Zhivago, is rather dislikable; arrogant, self-opinionated, a philanderer and user of women. He is a poor example of the individual in a book promoting the Tolsoyian ideals of the individual.

I have to confess that I could not continue reading after a third of the way through and I cheated. I switched to Audible and had Philip Madoc read the remaining two thirds of the book to me as I walked the dog, fleshed the sheepskins, or cooked the meals (It’s 18 and a half hours long on audible). But this was the only way I could have completed my task. I found it difficult to see why the book won the Nobel Prize for Literature as I agree with Vladimir Nabokov who found it “a sorry thing, clumsy, trite and melodramatic” and presume it won for its political impact rather then its literary merit. All in all a great disappointment but did reveal that my earlier prejudice that the book is always greater than the film was wrong.


P.S. Since then I have started to reconsider whether Christopher Isherwood’s “Goodbye to Berlin” is better than Bob Fosse’s “Cabaret“, this is a tight contest.

I blame Audrey Hepburn

I blame Audrey Hepburn

I blame Audrey Hepburn. Alright, she wasn’t actingBreakfast_at_Tiffanys on her own but had a number of accomplices. Alongside her winning looks and performance, Henry Mancini’s composition “Moon River” and Blake Edward’s direction make “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” one of the great films.  In fact in 2012 it was recognized as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry . I’d agree with praise lavished on the film as it is one of my favourites. However, due to the film’s success I thought I could accurately, anticipate what would be in the book and, as a consequence, I had never bothered to pick up Truman Capote’s novella and read it. Yesterday, in preparation for the book club later on, I got around to reading the original and was pleasantly shocked.

There are many times when the book and the film are closely related. For example I doubt anyone could find many important differences between the cinematic and literary versions of Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451“. Anyone having read, or seen, one could anticipate the other and there would be no surprises; one art form has held a mirror up to another, created its sibling,  and managed to double our pleasure. Sometimes films do take liberties with the content or intention of books and, while the result may be pleasing, they must be seen as two quite separate entities, related but separate, as the messages communicated are potentially very different. This film is so different to the book as to be almost unrelated. Perhaps it is a second cousin twice removed from the original book.

While they have taken the name and the beauty indexof the Holly Golightly character they have cleaned her up and washed away all the complex and untidy aspects of her nature. They have changed the era in which the story takes place. The novella occurs in wartime – a time of austerity, a time of death and uncertainty and it has the wise-cracking dialogue of the time. The book occurs in the post-war period – a period of optimism and growth and abundance. Holly in the book is a very complicated character, lively and enticing as in the film, but much more free in her spirits, partially a libertine and partially a lost soul. She uses her looks and youth to survive though it is clear that she is a character who has many other strings to he bow – she can act, she can sing and speak other languages – but she can not face being tied down or  to live in the mundane world.

“I’ll never get used to anything. Anybody that does, they might as well be dead”

Both the book and the film convey Holly’s beauty indexand attractions. It is difficult to imaging the character Holly Golightly without imagining Audrey in her sunglasses, elbow length gloves and cigarette holder. In the film the sunglasses carry the glamour of Jackie Onassis and the mystery of the mask. In the book we know that masks do help to hide ourselves  but that also the sunglasses can hide the effects, or black eye, from the night before.

She misses all her opportunities for contentment,  as to be content is inadequate for her. This leads her to a life possibly overful which makes her question her own, and society’s morals, and wonders if she is a prostitute by living off her appearance and favours :-

“Really, though, I toted up the other night, and I’ve only had eleven lovers — not counting anything that happened before I was thirteen because, after all, that just doesn’t count. Eleven. Does that make me a whore? ”

“Of course I haven’t anything against whores. Except this: some of them may have an honest tongue but they all have dishonest hearts. I mean, you can’t bang the guy and cash his checks and at least not try to believe you love him. I never have. Even Benny Shacklett and all those rodents. I sort of hypnotized myself into thinking their sheer rattiness had a certain allure”

She recognizes that love is more important than sex and it is clear that other characters, who have no libidinous interest in her, do indeed love her and, over a generation ago, she suggested that all love should be considered valuable.

“I’d settle for Garbo any day. Why not? A person ought to be able to marry men or women or — listen, if you came to me and said you wanted to hitch up with Man o’ War, I’d respect your feeling. No, I’m serious. Love should be allowed. I’m all for it”

However, her fears of restraint  or curtailment hamper any attempts at forming deeper relationships. We always know this is going to be a picaresque tale and unlike the film there is to be no happy ending. In the book we know that she will be an ever fading beauty who will slide from view as her looks and allure weaken. It is in this area that the book and film differ most markedly. Both are romances but the film is a romance of fairy tales and dreams coming true, while the book is a tale of loosing your heart to someone while you try and live your dream

 

 

‘Karoo’ by Steve Tesich

The idea of the ‘Great Amercan Novel’ imagessuggest that each epoch has its own novel. A piece of work so good that it both captures the times and stands as a great work of literature in its own right. The “Grapes of Wrath’ in the 30’s, “Catcher in the Rye” in the 50’s, “To Kill a Mockingbird” in the 60’s; each time seems to have revealed its memoire. I’d suggest we have found our own in “Karoo” by  Steve Tesich.

I am ashamed to say that although this book was published in 1998 I had never heard of it, nor considered it, until a week ago. During a long drive between Wales and Scotland it was discussed on the BBC radio book programme. The enthusiasm of the reviewers was so great that, the minute I got home. I purchased a copy on the kindle. A few days later I had finished it and was awed by the skill of the writer.

A term like “tragi-comedy” might be employed to define it and certainly it manages the rare trick of being at times hilariously funny while at others being heartrendingly sad. The main character, Saul Karoo, is our anti-hero through the book and is our present day version of Sinclair Lewis’s ‘Babbit’ or Updike’s ‘Rabbit’. A man who seems to be able to fail at almost anything and has the reverse Midas touch, and able to destroy just through casual acquaintance. However, sometimes by looking at the grotesque we are able to see out own flaws more clearly. Seeing someone fail on this epic scale it is easier to consider our own, much smaller, foibles and failings.

Steve Tesich was a script writer and this is evident in this book. The reader can visualise every scene in Karoo’s monologue and some of the visual humour will make you laugh outloud (His mother’s shovel dance for example). It is difficult to review this book without giving away and  plot surprises. It would be unfair to do so, as there is great pleasure in the book waiting and anticipating the catastrophy you know is around the corner. If you have not found this book then I’d suggest you start looking.