Fascinatin' Rhythm

April 23, 2011

Red-blooded woman

Filed under: Books,Resolution — Thurulingas @ 1:58 pm
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Book #2 in my resolution series, a classic novel per month for the year 2011, is Mikhail Bulgakov’s biting satire on Russian bureaucracy and the writing establishment, The Master and Margarita.  On one level a proto-fantasy about a man and the woman who loves him enough to strike a deal with the devil, on another a study on societal attitudes to authority and corruption, this was recommended to me by several friends well-aware of my love for the more modern forms of fantastic fiction, and I was looking forward to seeing what this relatively recent Russian master would offer.

Cover: The Master and Margarita

The edition I read was the Vintage edition, available here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Master-Margarita-Vintage-Classics/dp/0099540940/

Covers like this make me somewhat suspicious, as they suggest an artist being cleverer than is perhaps necessary.  Without reading the novel, who is to know what the symbolism is?  Whereas for me, a cover should entice a reader into wondering what is represented, this cover is so seemingly abstract that it is almost an in-joke, sniggering at the obtuse who don’t get the reference.  It also reminded me strongly of the old Gollancz series of classic SF novels with plain yellow covers.

Nonetheless, I took the plunge.  The novel is divided into two sections, the first dealing with the devil’s appearance in Moscow and introducing us to the main players in the farce.  The second part then introduces us to the eponymous heroine, unseen to this point, though referenced by her lover the Master from his cell in an asylum.

The first section is beautifully written.  The exchange between Berlioz, his young poet companion, and the devil, is pregnant with meaning and unmeant irony, and readers conversant with the conventions of fantasy will have winced along with me as Satan predicts various catastrophes and is poo-poohed by the admirably materialistic Berlioz — casting Satan in the unaccustomed role of Cassandra.  The various magical and fantastic happenings that then transpire are strongly reminiscent of some of the oldest works of fantasy, and I was reminded constantly of Lord Dunsany’s The King Of Elfland’s Daughter in the way characters act and react to the magic that is happening around them.

There’s something distinctly non-Western in the denoument of the second half.  Where we might expect a morality fable to go, instead we have deals with the Devil coming off, and Satan actually coming across as something of a soppy romantic.  The theological aspects of the relationship between Satan and Matthew (his seeming heavenly go-between) are rather dubious, though perhaps a more enlightened view of infernal punishment and those who do and do not deserve it than has been evinced by the Church in the real world.

I actually found that, despite their featuring in the title of the novel, it wasn’t the Master and Margarita’s story that I was most interested in, but that of Satan and the in-story novel about Pontius Pilate.  While it was satisfying to see a somewhat happy ending for our two ostensible protagonists, the true centre of the book was the literary creation of the Master and its treatment and eventual restoration.  Which is perhaps as Bulgakov intended in the novel’s theme of artistic integrity and how the accepted powers of the literary firmament can short-sightedly slight true artistic endeavour.  What other reason can there have been for Satan to visit Moscow at that particular time?

A truly enjoyable read, in any event.  Onwards!  The next novel I shall tackle in this series will be Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime And Punishment.

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April 22, 2011

Today is where your book begins

Filed under: Books,Resolution — Thurulingas @ 6:21 pm
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So, new blog post, and finally, the beginning of a resolution I’ve had in mind for a while: to read a classic novel every month this year.  Hopefully, this resolution will be so successful that I will just do it every year as a matter of course.

So, the first novel in this year’s series was loaned to me a long time ago by my brother (who never reads, so it came as something of a shock).  It took me a while to get around to it, and it was actually the genesis of this resolution, something of a spur to get on with it by creating an occasion around it.  And the novel in question is Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations.  I’ll confess to never having seen any of the many adaptations, though I knew the main character was Pip, and that it featured a Miss Havisham.  That was the extent of my knowledge.

Cover: Great Expectations

The edition I read was the Penguin Classics edition, available here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Expectations-Penguin-Classics-Charles-Dickens/dp/0141439564/

My brother had warned me that it would take some time to get into the Victorian style in which Dickens wrote, but actually I found the contrary: I was immediately immersed in the sense of time and place that is conjured with the opening paragraphs.  That wasn’t surprising to me, really, as Dickens was very much a writer of his own time, and his use of the local idiom to place the reader firmly in a geographical context as well as a chronological one was only to be expected.

What I hadn’t expected, though, was the sense of real jeopardy Pip is almost immediately placed in with his encounter in the marshes, which (as we come to realise) forms the central spur for all the action that follows thereafter.  The characters are extremely accessible, none moreso than Pip himself, and one really feels an attachment to him with the revelation of his persecution by his sister.  This early in the novel it’s clear that we are meant to identify with Pip, and cheer when his gradual betterment begins to occur.

It’s thus disappointing when Pip fails to live up to our expectations and treats Joe with such disdain as his station in life improves (though he has no idea why).  Now my sympathies switched almost entirely to Joe, and with Pip’s removal to London almost hoped that he would suffer some reversal that would bring home to him the changes in himself.  The latter part of the novel, with the revelations about Miss Havisham, Pip’s unknown benefactor, Estella, and Pip’s eventual return to Joe, was devoured rapidly, and the final scene was rather bleaker than I’d expected.  (I noted with interest that Dickens’s original ending was even bleaker than this, changed at the suggestion of one Edward Bulwer-Lytton, whose name has become such a byword for terrible beginnings.)

So, an excellent beginning to this series of classic novel reads.  Next up will be Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.

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