The occasional observations of Carolyn Kephart, writer

Friday, July 04, 2008

Russia With Relish

5:07 PM PDT, July 4, 2008

While browsing about in the local Blockbuster last week in search of surprises, I chanced upon Russian Ark, set entirely in the Winter Palace of Catherine the Great, now the Hermitage Museum of St. Petersburg, and "filmed using a single 90-minute Steadicam sequence shot," according to Wikipedia, which I consulted immediately after viewing. The camera meanders and gyrates far too quickly through many splendid chambers and several periods of expensively costumed history, guided by an oft-flummoxed and frequently exasperating old man dressed in circa 1830s garb. Thanks to Wiki, I learned that the gentleman was the Marquis de Custine, and that Russian Ark had portrayed him with an injustice that, now that I'm better informed, seems almost criminal.

You can find anything on the Internet, and I soon located Astolphe de Custine's two-volume travel journal, La Russie en 1839. Since I've visited St. Petersburg and the Hermitage, love most things French and relish well-told anecdotes, I found de Custine unputdownable. Far from being the clueless buffoon of Russian Ark, the Marquis comes across as a man of great cultivation, discretion and ironic charm. Many of his observations struck me as having particular relevance for our own time, like this one that describes France during the Revolution, yet seems only too well suited to the current state of arts and letters:

"La lutte entre le bien et le mal soutient l'intérêt du drame de la vie; mais quand le triomphe du crime est assuré, la monotonie rend l'existence accablante, et l'ennui ouvre la porte de l'enfer."

("The battle between good and evil sustains interest in the drama of life; but when the triumph of crime is assured, monotony renders existence unbearable, and boredom opens the gates of Hell.")