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MIKHAIL LEVITIN

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Mikhail Levitin (b.1945), an internationally renowned stage director and prize-winning author was born in Odessa which he left after school to study at Moscow’s Academy of Theatre Arts. He subsequently worked in various theatres around the country. Since 1987 he has been Artistic Director of the famous Hermitage Theatre inMoscow. In 1982, Levitin’s production based on the works of Daniil Kharms: “Kharms! Charms! Shardam! Or the School for Clowns” brought him instant nationwide success. And in 1986, similar success came with the production based on the drafts of Yuri Olesha’s unwritten play “The Beggar or Zand’s Death”. In all, Levitin has some 70 theater productions to his name. Some of his productions are based on his own plays and stage adaptations of his literary works.
Since 1970 Levitin has been writing prose. He has written sixteen books to date which won him important literary prizes. He has repeatedly been nominated and short-listed for the Russian Booker Prize. In 2001, Levitin was awarded the title of People’s Artist of Russia.
Since 1970 Levitin has been writing prose. He has written sixteen books to date which won him important literary prizes. He has repeatedly been nominated and short-listed for the Russian Booker Prize. In 2001, Levitin was awarded the title of People’s Artist of Russia.

“As director of the Hermitage Theater in Moscow, Mikhail Levitin has a reputation as a Quixotic absurdist, a chaotic genius whose brilliant mess often transports his audiences. … His fiction, confessional and ironic in tone, evokes similar reactions. … In his fiction Levitin is always a good show.” – Russia beyond the Headlines
“His theatre has very often brought me to laughter or to tears and has, just as often, shocked, startled or amazed me by the originality of its productions. This to be sure is the hallmark of its protean director Michael Levitin, whom I first encountered not in his theatrical persona but in one of his other guises as a writer whose novel Total Impropriety had been short-listed for the Russian Booker Prize. Somehow even the name of the book gives a vision of its author, of his outrageous iconoclasm to which all responded with enthusiasm.” – Francis Greene
“I was lucky to have my play staged at the best theatre in Russia. What I saw was the work of a true master, a magical spectacle. Mikhail Levitin, the director, is a genius. His theater offers many more wonders – I saw his other productions too, which made a powerful impression on me.” – Kurt Vonnegut

Total Imropriety, a novel.
Synopsis + excerpt
Shortlisted for the Russian Booker.
Levitin's novel Total Impropriety is an unusually structured tribute to the 1920s left-wing theatre director lgor Terentiev, with three chapters focussing first on Terentiev's mistress Emilia, then on Terentiev himself, and finally on his long-suffering wife Natasha. It is a highly sympathetic attempt to imaginatively recreate an intimate portrait of Terentiev. Such major cultural figures as Mayakovsky and Lily Brik, Kruchenykh, Malevich, and Meyerhold appear fleetingly as the reader is immersed in the whirlwind of those turbulent times.
In the first chapter we encounter the curiously unreal reality of Terentiev's mistress Emilia whose past, supposedly spent in exalted circles in New York and Paris, appears in fact to have passed in the little town of Skadovsk near Odessa. Quite how she first met Terentiev is never clear, as we are offered two mutually exclusive fantasies, in no order of preference. At all events, she seems to enjoy a totally improper relationship with him, with the complaisance of her husband, Vladimir, who unreservedly admires Terentiev’s genius.
The second chapter is devoted to Terentiev himself, whom we meet when he has fled from the Bolsheviks to Constantinople, abandoning his wife and daughter in Tiflis in Georgia. He keeps meaning to move on to Paris, where his left-wing “41 Club” is said to have spawned a sub-branch and where he could be all the rage, but he never makes it. Instead he returns to Moscow, is reunited with his wife, meets Emilia, mounts a wildly unconventional (and disastrously unsuccessful) production of a Soviet play about the Pugachev peasant uprising, is to become the director of the Moscow Theatre of the Revolution (but his appointment is blocked by Meyerhold), returns to his native city of Yekaterinoslavl and mischievously applies for Party membership, giving his father's occupation as Colonel of the Tsarist Gendarmerie. He is arrested and almost shot, but reprieved at the last moment and exiled to forced labour on the White Sea Canal project. By 1934 he has been released but, apparently voluntarily, goes to work on the Volga-Don Canal, and there finally meets his end in circumstances which remain obscure. His left-wing experimentalism had appeared to coincide with the needs of the Soviet regime for a time, but the time soon passed.
In the third chapter we meet Terentyev’s wife Natasha, first introduced to him in 1914 in Tiflis. She is the daughter of the owner of a flour mill, generally rather conservative, very pretty, and totally devoted to him, if also excluded from what it is his theatre is all about. She actually has been to Paris when she was little, and is indeed thoroughly European and ill at ease in Russia.
Levitin's narrative weaves a complex pattern within its tripartite division, with the reader having to do a fair bit of work to unscramble the chronology. It evokes the irresponsibility and self-assuredness of the theatrical left, and their total separateness from the supposedly left-wing regime which, for a time, they were allowed to serve. Levitin often leaves the reader unsure of where reality ends and fantasy begins, but the novel conveys a striking sense of authenticity.

With Only Sandals on his Feet, a short novel
The story follows the adventures of the 15-year-old Victor Kuza. A precocious teenager with a passion for theatre, Kuza discovers a book about the mysterious Chamber Theatre in a secondhand bookshop and makes it his mission to find out more about it. During the course of his quest he briefly acquires an enigmatic mentor, locks horns with the school’s illustrious theatre director, gets beaten up and loses his best friend. But he also discovers the strength in other friendships and meets the owner of a magical voice, who is able to provide him with some of the answers he’s looking for.
Levitin’s eccentric writing – branded as ‘ego-realism’ by critics – is distinguished by its strong element of the absurd, in the spirit of the absurdist writers of the 1920s. For him the absurd is a view of life from its seamier side, where so-called normal people appear insane and eccentricity is a way of preserving one’s sanity and saving the world’s beauty. Levitin's language is invariably metaphorical and aphoristic.

A Jewish God in Paris, a short novel (published by Glas).
In A Jewish God in Paris the protagonist, suffering from a guilty conscience after his latest love affair, takes his wife and children to Paris in a final attempt to save his marriage: “Paris was my last hope.” But his beautiful wife resists his ingenious peace-making efforts with silence and “unrelenting hatred.” He has been unfaithful to her once too often and the situation has gone beyond the point of forgiveness. In fact he appears to be incapable of limiting himself to a one-woman relationship viewing his infidelities as a way to embrace the wide variety of the world. He is essentially a free spirit who refuses to grow up or to accept responsibility for his actions. Nevertheless he is sincere in his soul-searching, mercilessly examining the darkest corners of his soul and apparently inadvertently allowing the reader to witness his torment.

TAIROV, a fictionalized biography. Illustrated
The name of Alexander Tairov (1885 – 1950) is well known to all those who are at all familiar with the history of the Russian theater. This outstanding stage director was an opponent of both the life-likeness of the realist theater of Stanislavsky and the abstractedness of Meyerhold’s symbolic approach. His was a “synthetic theater” which combined dialogue, music, dancing, and circus. Tairov creatively realized his ideas in the Chamber Theater, founded on his initiative, extolling the beauty of the human body and spirit in a wide range of styles: from the tragedy to buffoonery. Tairov’s creative and personal union with the great actress Alisa Koonen gave birth to some brilliant production at the Chamber Theater. However, there was much opposition to his highly individual productions. Tairov was reproached for estheticism, western-mindedness, and arrogance towards his audiences. In 1949 Chamber Theater was closed down by the authorities. Tairov took it very much to heart, he fell ill and soon passed away.
This book is the first biography of the great director. Its genre could be called a “documentary novel” written by a colleague who is himself an outstanding experimental director, head of the celebrated Hermitage Theater in Moscow. The book follows the principle used by Mikhail Bulgakov in The Life of Monsieur de Moliere which Levitin took as his model. Levitin loves his hero and is occasionally biased. He traces Tairov’s dramatic life and career and reconstructs certain events where information is missing. A wide range of cultural figures of the 1920s and 30s make their appearance in the book. Levitin shows how much Tairov’s creative heritage influenced contemporary theater, including Mikhail Levitin himself.