My family's ethnic identity is German on my father's side, and mostly English (little bit of French, little bit Cherokee) on my mother's side. Yet for some reason, even as a youngish child, I became fascinated and fixated with various aspects of Russian culture. I think it all started with the PBS production of "War and Peace", which I remember held me spellbound in the early 70's for the several months that it took to run its course. Anthony Hopkins just sizzled in his break-out role as Pierre, the bumbling idealistic aristocrat rebel-without-a-cause. (He was the first of several of these types I was drawn to.) My bff Monica and I soon were re-enacting various plot lines from this long soap opera with our little dollhouse villages and reciting bits of dialogue while avoiding strenuous activity in the hideous p e classes we shared, which we likened to working in the Gulag or Napoleon's March home from Moscow in the bitter winter snow. (One of hubster's fave anecdotes in the field of metallurgy concerns the buttons on the French army's uniforms....) The tv mini series of "War and Peace" inspired me to read Tolstoy's novel at age 12, and I found that it was not (as it is often jokingly referred to) a particularly Herculean task. No longer than Twilight, Gone With the Wind, an Anne Rice or Steven King novel or any other dense tome that people love to bury themselves in, the only tricky thing is keeping track of the 30+ main characters with long Russian 3 or 4 part names. I simply give them nicknames, and skim through the long passages substituting the nicknames for the 3 or 4 part-ers when I read. I enjoyed War and Peace so much that I frequently re-read it, along with other Tolstoy works , and soon became immersed in other Russian authors such as Chekhov, Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Gorky and Solzhenitsyn.
I also loved the movie "Dr Zhivago" as a child, and was inspired to read Pasternak's novel from which the movie drew its inspiration. If you ever undertake this task yourself, you will quickly realize that the plot of the film comprises only about half of the novel, and that the author's chief allegory of the literary work (each woman Zhivago gets involved with represents a different stage of the Revolution) is completely lost, as the final third of the novel (and final lover of Zhivago) is entirely omitted in the film. The love story between Zhivago and Lara is blown out of proportion and the author's point is completely obliterated in the sappiness of their movie romance. That happens, sometimes, when a novel is turned in to a film.
I wasn't one of those little girls who grew up taking ballet lessons ( lord knows why, my mother dragged me to art lessons and sewing lessons and many other kinds of lessons) but I wanted to be. I never got to experience the thrill of partaking in a student performance of "The Nutcracker" ballet until a little friend of my younger son was coerced into playing all the boy roles, because his sister was one of those little girls who studied ballet, and as each year passed, she rose through the ranks of her particular academe, starting out playing flowers or snowflakes and eventually working her way up to major roles in our small town production. So it became a kind of holiday tradition to show support and go watch my son's friend sullenly be one of the boys at the party, or Clara's brother, a dancing Chinaman, etc, as he danced alongside his sister, willingly or not. Who knows? Perhaps some of the great male ballerinas got their start in similar fashion. I couldn't help but think of this as I recently watched the San Francisco Ballet's "Nutcracker" production on tv one night. What a fresh new vision (costumes, set, staging) for this (sometimes stale, yet beloved) holiday classic. I haven't been this entranced since seeing Baryshnikov perform it....truly magical. The music never ceases to enchant; I love even Disney's version from "Fantasia". (It must be noted, I am a true curmudgeon, and many Disney films.......dare I say it ? Grate on my nerves. Too many singing __________! (fill in the blank: mice, butterflies, candlesticks, sea creatures, frogs, whatever.) Yet I can watch "Fantasia" endlessly and never grow irritable. The music is that wonderful.
Those of you who know me have heard the many bizarre stories about my mother-in-law, especially in the realm (that's another blog entry!) of gift giving. Yet a few years back, she gave me a truly wonderful present for Christmas, why I have no idea, and I have treasured it above all others. It seems she had recently visited St Petersberg, which I really want to do, esp after reading my book club's selection The Madonnas of Leningrad awhile back, a beautiful little book and not long or difficult to read. It is the story of the Siege of Leningrad, and how the citizens, esp the employees of the Hermitage, survive. As they are slowly starving to death, they play a game of remembering ALL the artwork - which has been hidden away for safety, and all they have to look at are bare walls - and where it hung, what it looked like, the artist, its provenance. Along the way, reality and fantasy begin to blur....... If you love art history or WWII, you will love this book! Anyways, my m-in-law had been to St P, and for some quixotic reason, bought me a beautiful enameled jewelry box painted with a scene from "The Firebird" on it. It charmed me immediately, and ( almost) made me forget all the tense moments we have had, previously.