Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Kreutzer Sonata: Penguin Great Love Series

The Penguin Great Love Series, as I have remarked earlier, is a brilliant collection, exploring some famous and intriguing writings on the subject of love. (My previous posts on books from the series can be found here, here and here.) I recently read another work from the collection: the controversial short novel from Tolstoy,The Kreutzer Sonata, which completely denounces the notion of love and much more.
Kreutzer Sonata is very artificially structured - the narrator meets the protagonist on a train, where the protagonist recounts his entire story. It is a story that begins in his youth of debauchery, leading to a ritualistic marriage. The marriage is far from smooth, as the couple alternates between ugly altercations and passionate love-making. They sail through this time with the ritual of child-births, until the wife decides to shift her focus from her children to herself. Her beauty attracts attention from men, among them a musician. Both of them pursue music together, while the husband is inflamed with jealousy. One day, upon finding them together in his house in the middle of the night, he murders his wife in a fit of rage.

On the face of it, it is a story of envy and possessiveness, which is a very common tale. However, more than the plot, what is remarkable about the work is the observations of the husband, Pozdnyshev. He believes that what led to the murder of his wife was not jealousy so much as it was his own physical relationship with her. That it was the destructive forces of sex , which consumed their relationship and her life. These observations are a reflection on Tolstoy's own ideas about chastity and physical intimacy at the time of writing this book, and were widely condemned for obvious reasons.

It is interesting how Tolstoy falsified the whole notion of marriage, holding it no higher than a state and family accepted prostitution. He claimed that an unselfish love does not expect physical gratification, but at the same time he ruled out the possibility of this love in a marriage, as marriages are based on the animal principles of lust. His views are strong - he denounces the physical need for sex as exalted by doctors. He believes that art, which is considered a higher and sacred virtue, is often the breeding ground for this unholy passion. The title of the story is meant to be an allusion to this idea.
The novel, as in the time of publication as now, brings to forefront some relevant questions. It highlights the struggle between superego and id, and it is clear that though Tolstoy is a champion of the former, he is unable to free himself from the latter and is constantly guilty on that account. This is a caricature reflection of the guilt felt everyday, by almost everyone - the desire to follow collective conscious and morality against the compelling greed which detracts from doing so, leading to a constant feeling of remorse. The book also questions the role and perception of women, criticizing their use as property, though in the end, it delivers them exactly that role. However, the criticism is genuine and strongly put across (like most other emotions expressed). Lastly, it also criticizes doctors and their manipulation of individuals and societies by advertising notions like sex is necessary for well-being or that there are specific rules that are critical for bringing up children in a healthy manner. I completely agree with this sentiment - the health industry for its sustenance has made life too managed - mandating several things which perhaps never even entered the minds of previous generations. Most food is off-limits, so is anything which is pleasing to the senses. The frenzy of new parents to give the best to their child is akin to a paranoia, and it is disgusting to hear them go on and on about what they can and cannot do as long as their little chickens have not become independent birds.

After his book met with severe criticism, Tolstoy published an epilogue to the story explaining his views. The views are mostly of a religious color, but are interesting to read.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The edge of Heaven (Faith Akin)

From the director of Head-on, this is another perceptive interplay of lives, emotions, generations and geographies. Threading together lives of six people, Faith Akin has created a beautiful, if a slightly morbid drama of relationships and penance. His characters are drawn together by diverse relations - filial, carnal, romantic and human, each a little strained.

The film is presented in three sections, Death of Yeter, Death of Lotte and the Edge of Heaven. Each of the two deaths is sudden and unexpected, even when you already know the title of the section. At the center of all these stories is Nejat, a second generation Turk in Germany, a professor of German. Nejat's father Ali, one day brings home Yeter, a middle-aged Turkish prostitute, with the intention of living with her. Though disapproving at first, Nejat accepts Yeter - the two form a kind bond which is looked upon suspiciously by Ali. In a fit of anger, Ali hits Yeter which leads to her death.
Nejat flies to Turkey to attend the funeral and sets out to look for Yeter's missing daughter Ayten. On an impulse, he decides to buy a German bookstore in Istanbul, settles there and continues his search. Meanwhile, we meet Ayten, who is involved in an armed rebellion against the government and escapes police to seek refuge in Germany. She meets a fiery, idealistic girl called Lotte, the two embark on a passionate relationship which is frowned upon by Lotte's mother Sussane. Ayten is eventually caught by the police, which leads to series of tragic events. But these events also bring together these unconnected people in an unusual companionship and inter-dependence, which even though highly co-incidental, appears natural and perfectly believable.
The story deals with many things - the alienation between generations is at the center, where each generation explores its independent life that it wants to hide and protect from the other. Each of them is angry at and disapproving of the other. Even a mild mannered Nejat is offended by his father's arrangement and is deeply resentful of the accidental murder committed by him. Susanne tries to restrain Lotte, and aware of the hippy life that Susanne once led, Lotte resents the restraint. Ayten and Yeter are never shown together in one scene (except a crossing once), live in different countries and have no idea of each other.
The movie also explores the relationship between Germany and Turkey, which is based on political correctness and a sense of guilt. Turkey itself is shown distracted with its conflict between its tilt towards tyranny and its desire to be seen as a modern and tolerant nation that is fit to join the EU. However, the slightly angelic message that Akin delivers through his narrative is that we can overcome all these divisions with a little bit of tolerance, forgiving and penance. But with prejudices and reservations, we stay a step away from this victory.
The movie is introspective, in contrast to Head-on which was violent and extreme. The whole contrast is embodied in the differences between Cahit, who was deeply dissatisfied and unhappy , and Nejat who is more or less is at peace with his life, but still feels a vague emptiness. Even Ayten's political discontent is muted in comparison with Sibel's sexual discontent.
On the other finer aspects of the movie, the performances by each character are extremely good. The camera has explored both countries with a familiar intimacy, exposing them in the weight of their ages. The music is beautiful.

Monday, October 13, 2008


After much deliberation, I have finally invested in a digital SLR - a Sony Alpha 300. It seems appropriate for my amateur attempts. Up to this point, I had quite enjoyed my Point and shoot, Sony DSC P100, which has been by my side for four long and faithful years. It has traveled with me to many places and captured many of my memories. But there are a few things which can be best filmed with only a DSLR (the vegetal photography for instance, which has suddenly become my favorite subject).
My P100, unfortunately, is not taking the new arrival very well and has been throwing tantrums. It initially flared into a rage, flickering its screen profusely , and has now restored to a sulky blurred image. Needless to say, these tantrums are causing me much grief as I cannot always carry around the bulk of the garangutan Alpha, and quite miss the compactness and efficiency of my long-standing friend. I hope it comes back to its senses soon - very soon.