Tuesday 11 February 2014

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

“Everything will turn out right, the world is built on that.” 

I'm not sure how the other translations differ but my version was the Penguin edition by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. 

After reading many glowing reviews of The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, which all seemed in general agreement that it stands as a brilliant satire and one of the great Russian novels of the 20th century, I approached it with fairly high expectations only to be severely disappointed. Perhaps it's best to not have any preconceived notions before reading a novel but it was difficult to ignore all of the immense praise. It's impossible not to read this novel within a historical context in which it was written: 1930's Russia at the height of Stalinism. Although the author should be applauded for taking a brave stand against the oppression of communist Russia and censorship, the novel itself is a tedious and desultory narrative that never seems to end. As a social/political satire, religious parable and philosophical discourse in morality, it failed to have any resonance with me at all. Don't get me wrong, the fact that Bulgakov was writing in Russia at a time when you could be killed for expressing yourself against the government is remarkable and his depiction of Christ's crucifixion from the perspective of Pontius Pilate is vividly realized but my main criticism is the writing itself: Bulgakov prose is excessively verbose making it a real chore to get through. Additionally, the use of surrealism is too ridiculous and drawn-out which impedes the narrative flow and weakens the satire.

The premise is intriguing enough: Satan and his underlings arrive in Moscow to wreck havoc on its citizens. Sounds like a really cool idea for a story right? Unfortunately, Bulgakov is unable to capitalize on this idea or make it the least bit compelling. I kept forcing myself to continue reading with the hope that the story was leading towards something significant or perhaps some great revelation would finally be revealed but alas, nothing substantial ever materialized. It was pure vanity that I managed to finish the novel at all--never a positive indication of a novel's success with me.

The first chapter starts off with great potential with Satan showing up in a park to discuss the existence of God with two writers sitting on a bench but the story quickly descends into nonsensical tomfoolery. Satan and his henchmen specifically target the arts community in which several high officials are murdered, disappear or are driven to madness (Bulgakov attack on government censorship is made quite explicit). A laborious assortment of hijinks ensue, including Satan's performance on stage at a 'Variety' show where women in the audience are given expensive clothing for free only to have it disappear later, in which they end up in pure hysterics, running naked in the street. Then one of the patients locked up in the mental institution is introduced who only goes by the name of "The Master" and his love affair with a woman named Margarita is slowly revealed. Obviously, he is meant to represent Bulgakov--a writer whose work has also been destroyed by the state. His relationship with Margarita is not exactly sexual but rather spiritual, a connection of the minds. She wants to save him from incarceration and to restore his manuscript but this only becomes possible by a random encounter with one of Satan's henchmen who shows up out of the blue and is willing to help her. She must perform certain tasks to get closer to Satan in order to earn his trust and eventually becomes a witch. She even attends Satan's ball where the guests arrive as undead murderers and other sinners of the past. Much to her chagrin, s
he is obligated to stand there and greet them individually. 

Later on in the novel, Margarita uses her new supernatural powers to influence Satan and help her free 'The Master' from wrongful imprisonment. With Satan's retinue, they all fly away on horses from Moscow forever. These are not spoilers since plot is irrelevant here. I understand that Bulgakov is working within the realm of 'magical realism' but  some kind of narrative cohesion should still exist. This is not the case here. The author bombards the reader with protracted subplots that are so bizarre, confusing and make very little sense. By the end of the novel, is the author suggesting that the only way to achieve freedom from communist dictatorship is to leave the country or to escape into the imagination? Also, what is he trying to say about the nature of good vs. evil if Satan is not portrayed as a nefarious villain but rather as a likeable trickster who actually helps the two heroes as opposed to deterring their goals? I honestly don't know. In fact, my aversion to the novel makes it difficult to really care about answering these kind of questions. I am just relieved to have finished it (a testament to my perseverance or stupidity in not abandoning it sooner?) and can now look forward to reading something else that will hopefully be a more rewarding reading experience. 

This novel is part of my Classics Club Challenge.

Monday 10 February 2014

And the Classics Spin #5 Winner is...

Yay? I can't say that my enthusiasm for Tess of the D'Urbervilles is particular high since I tend to be apprehensive about 19th century novels but on a more positive note, at least Middlemarch was avoided this round. Nonetheless, this also seems like the perfect opportunity to finally read something by Thomas Hardy, one of those highly praised Victorian realist authors with a reputation for writing some very grim and depressing stories. Sounds right up my alley!

For those who have read this novel, what are your thoughts on it? I would appreciate any feedback and it would be helpful to know what to expect with this one.

Friday 7 February 2014

The Classics Spin #5

I missed the last four Spin events hosted by the Classics Club so its time to finally participate in one of them. The challenge this time around is to list 20 books left to read from the Classics Club Challenge, which will then become my Classics Spin list. A random number (between 1-20) will be selected on Monday by members running the event and then it is up to participants to read the book corresponding with the chosen number by April 2. Sounds like a hoot! Or it could totally backfire and I have to end up reading one of those intimidating novels on my list like Middlemarch by George Eliot, Swann's Way by Proust or The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoeyevsky. Ok, here we go:
  1. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  2. Persuasion by Jane Austen
  3. Swann's Way by Proust
  4. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
  5. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  6. East of Eden by John Steinbeck
  7. A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf
  8. Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin
  9. Native Son by Richard Wright
  10. The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoeyevsky
  11. Notes from the Underground by Dostoeyevsky
  12. Jacob's Room by Virginia Woolf
  13. Orlando by Virginia Woolf
  14. Stoner by John Edward Williams
  15. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez 
  16. Sula by Toni Morrison
  17. The Awakening and Other Stories by Kate Chopin
  18. Middlemarch by George Eliot
  19. North and South by Mary Barton
  20. Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
The top 5 most anticipated:
  1. Stoner by John Edward Williams
  2. Orlando by Virginia Woolf
  3. Sula by Toni Morrison
  4. Jacob's Room by Virginia Woolf 
  5. Notes from the Underground by Dostoeyevsky 
Happy reading and good luck to everyone participating in the Spin!

Wednesday 5 February 2014

Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf

 “Love. Hate. Peace. Three emotions made the ply of human life.”

A deep sense of foreboding and anxiety underlies Virginia Woolf's Between the Actsher last novel published a few months after her suicide. Stylistically, it falls somewhere between her early ‘traditional novels’ and experimental phase but as the swan song of her literary career, I believe it falls short of an artistic success. Surely, it can be argued that Woolf did not have the opportunity to properly revise the final draft for publication, which therefore contributed to unevenness or unfinished composition. A certain level of narrative cohesion does exist but viewed within the larger context of the novel’s thematic framework, there seems to be lacking a sense of complete harmony that connects all of its disparate elements and ideological concerns together. A counter-argument could be that this fragmented approach is intentional—that is to say, Woolf is attempting to present a civilization on the brink of total ruin with the onset of WWII, the instability of social order along with the disappearance of traditional class hierarchies. One of the recurring statements throughout the novel is “Dispersed are we” and serves as an extended metaphor underlying much of the text: English social hierarchy is breaking down, permanence is fleeting and as Woolf writes, “scraps, orts and fragments” will be all that remains (221). As a conservative, she believes strongly in upholding traditional values, fearing that the aftermath of WWII will bring a disruption to social order and ultimately, chaos. Perhaps it is presumptuous to speculate that this dread accompanying such drastic social change had an effect on her decision to take her own life but it is entirely possible.

The novel takes place over the course of one day in 1939 at Pointz Hall, a large country estate in England where the villagers put on a pageant to raise money for the local church. Thus, the title takes on several meanings, since it not only refers to the commotion and conversations amongst various characters during the intermissions but rather ostensibly, it represents the novel’s preoccupation with the dichotomy between private feelings of a psychological nature (a familiar subject for Woolf) and the action or non-action as a result of that particular impulse. Similar to her other novels, she places a great deal of emphasis on inner-consciousness, inner voice vs. outer voice, self-reflection and repressed feelings. The exploration of art and artistic expression takes on a very important and complex role in the works of Virginia Woolf but in this particular novel, it functions profoundly in contradistinction to the assessment of English history—the precocious fragility of social order with the threat of fascism. Woolf is suggesting here that art can be a lens to view the world; a way to interpret meaning (she makes this explicitly clear in Act IV of the pageant when the players hold up mirrors so the audience members can see their reflection to represent “the present time: ourselves”). For example, here is one of the famous lines in the novel: “Books are the mirrors to the soul” (22). She also goes on to write: “For I hear music, they were saying. Music wakes up. Music makes us see the hidden, join the broken. Look and listen” (143).  Art cannot escape life; possessing the power to influence personal beliefs and ideologies; it can produce compassion to take action but can also be a way to connect people together. Additionally, the lines between art and reality become blurred.

I have barely glossed the surface and there are so many layers of subtext to analyze. Other interesting aspects to consider might include: Nature vs. civilization, nature vs. art, sexual desire vs. savagery, past vs. present, alienation, the paradox/dialectical framework, fish and water imagery, the play within the play or the pattern of cycles. It is not uncommon for Woolf to be oblique and often frustrating to read in her sophisticated approach to narrative but I have always admired her aesthetics—she is inimitable, her words flow with such beauty, passion and pathos; a perfect blend of prose and poetry. Between the Acts is no exception and contains her trademark writing style that she is famous for and this saves it from being a total waste of time. My dissatisfaction stems mostly from the inability to comprehend the overwhelming perplexities and implications raised by the novel. Essentially, it left me feeling quite indifferent and I lack the patience to produce a thorough close-reading of the text. It seems to reason that those of a more intellectual persuasion, Woolf aficionados or literary scholars are bound to appreciate the complex intricacies with a much higher level of enjoyment than I could ever muster. 

 This novel is part of my Classics Club Challenge.