Archive for December, 2013

Mikhail Bulgakov: The Master and Margarita

December 26, 2013

311e7ey5wJL._AA160_I’ve now finished re-reading this amazing Russian novel – completed at the end of the 1930s but completely impossible for any of it to have been published at the time, and it only saw the light of day after the author’s death and after the Khrushchev thaw. It was better than I’d remembered it, although it’s twenty years since I last read it, so it may well be my memory that’s at fault… there’s plenty to think about and try and make sense of.

Three plots are interwoven: the devil and his entourage arrive in contemporary Moscow and cause various kinds of mayhem, exposing various sorts of people in different ways; a rewriting of the encounter between Jesus and Pontius Pilate at his pre-crucifixion trial in Jerusalem, which is part of a novel written by the ‘master’ of the title (you can imagine how that might have gone down with Stalin’s censor), and what must be called a love story between the master and Margarita which is eventually brought to a supernatural, happy conclusion. Interspersed are scenes in an asylum which recall the ending of the film The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari.

I found myself attentive to the political implications of the novel, thinking about what Bulgakov might be saying about the Soviet Union of his own time: there is no getting the better of the devil (who he?) who betrays everyone and ruins any and everyone at the slightest whim; the tangled web which can and does enmesh everyone; people disappearing suddenly never to be seen again; human folly and greed trying to take advantage of chaotic situations…and how stories (and/or the truth) can be twisted and distorted in so many ways.

It’s not a heavy read; on the contrary, it’s lively and quite fast-paced, with magical plot and events whirling you along rapidly as the author skilfully manipulates your response: you like the devil and his associates, especially Behemoth the cat, you sympathise with Pontius Pilate, you see a different Jesus, one who also makes you reflect on his message.

A powerful and very enjoyable read, it moves up quite a few places on my list of all-time favourites.

The Joys of re-reading…

December 24, 2013

I know some people who never re-read a book, but many more who do. I’ve always enjoyed re-visiting books I’ve read before, often after quite a number of years, and this post is provoked by my going back to The Master & Margarita; it’s my fourth read, but after a gap of twenty years. I’ll write about the book itself later.

The book I’ve re-read most times is Harper Lee‘s To Kill A Mockingbird, but that’s not really a fair one, because, even though it’s a wonderful book, I’ve only read it so many times from having to teach it as a GCSE examination text – and I always ensured that we did read it through from cover to cover in class, not a word omitted. However, that experience often led me to reflect on what I get from revisiting a much-loved text.

For starters, obviously the first time one reads a book, one’s progress is largely plot-driven, as in we want to know how the story will end, and much detail may well be missed. So, second and further times around, we can concentrate more on the details, the delineation of character, subtleties we may have missed, the writer’s use of language, her/his message to the reader… anything, really. And my enjoyment is certainly enriched. Because I’m a different person twenty years on, my take on a book can be completely different next time around.

Of course, there are many books that I wouldn’t waste eyeball time on a second time. But what do I re-read? Surprisingly, perhaps, it’s quite often old favourites like Sherlock Holmes and other detective stories… time allows me to forget just enough of the plot to allow enough mystery in the next re-read. I often come back to classics like Jane Austen, and deliberately set out to focus on a certain aspect of the writing or the plot that I have become curious about, often due to something else I’ve read in the interim.

What makes a book worth re-reading? It has to have made some kind of deeper impression, I think, either through plot, character or ideas that the writer is playing with; it’s really hard to pin down and surely operates at a gut or emotional rather than a rational level: a book has spoken strongly to my condition in some way or other.

When do I re-read? When I’m bored, often picking up an old favourite wakes me up again; when I’m indecisive – there are so many unread books on the pile all calling to be picked up that I cannot choose and take refuge in one I’ve read before; when I’m on holiday if I’m only taking one book with me and I don’t want the risk of being disappointed by something new.

Often I’m reading something and it will suddenly – through an association perhaps – make me realise that I need to re-read X next, and so I do. And it does often feel like renewing an old acquaintance, or meeting up with an old friend.

Umberto Eco: The Book of Legendary Lands

December 23, 2013

513WwIWE0qL._AA160_This was a pre-Christmas treat from me to me – and what a gorgeous book! It’s beautifully produced and matches the other three on my shelf, On Beauty, On Ugliness and The Infinity of Lists. And it’s utterly fascinating, and I read it from cover to cover.

Eco is a mediaevalist, and, as I thought about this, I realised that it was possible for someone of his age to know pretty much everything there was to know from those times, given that knowledge, learning and resources then were rather more limited that nowadays. His encyclopaedic knowledge of literature, history, culture, theology and art really shows. A couple of years ago I read about someone trying to work out how long ago in the past it would have been when someone could have known everything there was to know – perhaps four or five centuries ago, perhaps. And that took me back to Isidore of Seville (now officially patron saint of the internet), who wrote his Etymologies in the seventh century, attempting to codify everything that was known about everything for certain at that time.

People used to believe all sorts of strange things about the parts of the world they had no knowledge of, and it’s when he writes about these imagined lands that Eco is at his most captivating: Atlantis, the unknown southern continent, the lands of Prester John… and their bizarre inhabitants, both animal and ‘human’.  Again, I found myself realising how differently people looked at and thought about their world; in the West, all was considered through the looking glass of religious faith and revelation, giving a view of the world that we find hard to get our minds around today, but then we see the world through scientific and materialist glasses today, and I think I’d argue that that was just as limiting to us today in our exploration of ourselves and out world, as the Christian glasses of the mediaeval epoch.

You can see where much of the inspiration for his fiction has come from, too; I have re-read Baudolino several times (and it’s coming up for another re-read) and still marvel at how Eco has drawn his reader into the world, beliefs and mind-set of his mediaeval characters, who end up seeing all the fantastic creatures that they have been brought to believe in…

Eco also demolishes the Rennes-le-Chateau story, and Dan Brown’s awful novel, in a thorough and masterly way. The whole thing was a fraud from start to finish.

The illustrations in the book are a joy, too. Lots of them, some vaguely familiar, and others totally new to me; strange maps, weird creatures and visions, and I was bought up short again by the question of perspective, or lack of it, in mediaeval art: I cannot believe painters in those times could not see how weird their pictures looked, and cannot see why they couldn’t do perspective properly… which is a limit to my imagination, I suppose.

Anyway, this book was a real joy and I know I shall enjoy it many times more.


December 19, 2013

I’ve posted a couple of lists as new pages on the blog: suggestions for reading linked to the First World War, with the up-coming anniversary in mind, and also some ‘my best’ lists if anyone is interested in my all-time greats.

Catriona Kelly: Russian Literature

December 18, 2013

You may have noted from earlier posts that I belong to a Russian literature reading group. So far, I’ve had a very scattergun approach to what I’ve read, but I’ve now been motivated to try and develop my knowledge and understanding a bit more systematically, and to do some background reading on the subject. Our group leader recommended Catriona Kelly‘s book, in the ‘Brief Insight’ series, among some others.

I had never really realised how relatively recently literature as we know it had developed in Russia – from about the eighteenth century onwards – or how much Pushkin, who wrote in the early nineteenth, is their equivalent of our Shakespeare, in terms of veneration, at least. It had occurred to me that there was very little writing by women, at least that I’d come across in my personal reading. Then I thought about the fact that American literature is also very ‘new’ compared to ours, where we can go back to the fourteenth century in terms of what is recognisable to the lay reader as English, and much earlier in the realms of Anglo-Saxon literature.

It had certainly become clear to me over the years that Russians wrote and thought quite  differently from the English; this is surely explained, among other things, by the vastness of the land, the extremes of the climate and the fact that they have no democratic experience compared with many Western nations. And that’s without the mental gymnastics intellectuals had to engage in during the Soviet era. Russians’ experiences and society seemed to me to be much more communal/ collective compared with our greater development of individualism. Their writers were inclined to explore and wrestle with big ideas, and spiritual (for want of a better word) themes. This contrast is particularly clear if you look at the kind of things Russian and English authors were writing in the nineteenth century. I haven’t come across the English equivalent of War & Peace or Crime & Punishment, for instance, or the Russian equivalent of Persuasion or Villette.

Kelly’s book is a curious kettle of fish, really: if you know a little about the subject already, then you will make some sense of it, but if you were new to Russian literature, then I’m not so sure. She adopts a thematic approach, which makes sense, but links everything to Pushkin and changing approaches to him over time, which I’m less convinced by. There are plenty of illustrations and examples, but I was frustrated by the lack of detail in the end; a book on Russian literature, even an introductory one, which doesn’t really say very much about War & Peace? Anna Kerenina? most of Dostoevsky’s novels? I ended up feeling a little wiser, but not much, really I could have saved the eyeball time and the money and stuck to the reference books I had already…

However, I am glad to be re-discovering Russian classics that I’d read years ago and almost forgotten, and some that I haven’t met before.

Dervla Murphy: Through Siberia by Accident

December 17, 2013

517ezngL10L._AA160_Turns out I read the books (this one and the previous post) in the wrong chronological order, but it didn’t really matter. This one was as good, if not better. She certainly lives adventurously: getting on in years, not speaking a word of Russian, travelling on her own by public transport… and she meets lots of ordinary Russians in all sorts of situations and experiences much hospitality and friendship.

She’s very well-read, and researches thoroughly, too, so whatever place or historical event she is referring to is fully and clearly explained, and her travels are easy to follow with the map in th book and an atlas, if you’re so inclined (I am). She clearly thinks that not everything about the old Soviet Union was a mistake/pure evil/insanity, and is clear about the ravages wrought by the translation to capitalism on top of the ravages of the old system, and the new corruption on top of the old. She relates many interesting conversations with a wide variety of Russians and other nationalities, and what I particularly liked about both of these books is that she asks the questions I’d have wanted to ask, and rarely flinches from the awkward questions, either. What did occur to me, though, as I neared the end of the book, is whether she would have been able to have such conversations, or met with such frankness, if her travels had taken place in Soviet times. Hearts and minds have the freedom, now: the freedom to be exploited, ripped off, monetised; capitalism doesn’t give a monkey’s as long as it can continue making money out of you, and it has far more subtle means of controlling your mind than any KGB or Stalinist thought-police…

Murphy is a true traveller: she is exploring and writing about places and times that have not yet been documented, even though there are no actual blank spaces on the maps of the regions she visited; she engages her readers and leaves them with plenty to think about – what more do you want?

Dervla Murphy: Silverland

December 15, 2013

41cnQwDQlkL._SL160_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-dp,TopRight,12,-18_SH30_OU02_AA160_My mother and I both enjoy travel writing, and often swap books we’ve read. She has been urging me for a long time to read some Dervla Murphy, and, seduced by the prospect of reading some more about Siberia (of which I never tire), I finally gave in.

Murphy is another solo female traveller, in the vein of Ella Maillart, of whom I’ve written before. Murphy is now rather older, and also a more recent traveller, so there is rather less unexplored territory to visit, but she does make real efforts to leave the beaten track, sometimes to her cost. She is genuinely interested in the places she visits and the people she encounters, and inclues plenty of background information to help the reader orient her/himself. She’s also very political, which is rather unusual in travel writers, at least those I’ve read. Nothing escapes her sharp, questioning mind, and she will digress for several pages on the political and social implications of something she has come across. Only very occasionally is this tiresome; usually it further enlightens her travels and writing.

She travels on slow trains – not the tourists’ Transsiberian railway, but the later BAM (Baikal-Amur Magistral, if you wanted to know), sections of which run parallel to, but further north than, the more well-known and older Transsib. She appreciates the beauty of much of Siberia, especially Lake Baikal, but she is also saddened by the waste and environmental degradation which has gone on for decades, under the Soviets to whom economic and industrial progress (?) was the most important thing, and even more so in the present, capitalist (?) times, where profit, and the fast buck are everything.

She can see the superficial attractiveness of the new, Western freedoms(?) to Russians whose lives were limited for so many years under state socialism, and she can see beyond this to the catastrophic effect this is having on the country and its peoples; it’s clearly a stage the country has to go through before its people may perhaps see that there are other things that are more important… the more one looks, the more one is conscious of the difference between freedom from and freedom to, and how we are all manipulated by capitalist and Western hegemony.

I wouldn’t want anyone to feel that she writes political polemic: she doesn’t, but she’s aware of the complexity of everything; she loves the places and the people and describes them sympathetically, and enables us to have a window onto places we can probably never visit, and lives that are very different from ours. A real traveller, then, and no tourist.

Umberto Eco

December 9, 2013

9780631205104I don’t really have heroes, but if I did, I think Umberto Eco would probably be one of them; he’s the kind of person I admire, knowledgeable, catholic in his interests, writing and exploring intelligently and communicating clearly in a wide range of genres – a polymath, I suppose. Ever since I came across The Name of the Rose many years ago, I’ve read and enjoyed, and learnt from, many of his books.

I’ve re-read The Search for the Perfect Language; not an easy read, but a fascinating one, and it has helped clear up for me what I think is Eco’s particular genius as it appeals to me. Everything I’ve read of his seems to show his fascination with how the human mind has changed over time, in the way it thinks and looks at and attempts to make sense of the world. So, for example, his novels in a mediaeval setting, such as The Name of the Rose and Baudolino, as well as being entertaining stories, recognise and demonstrate that the people of that time saw the world through very different spectacles from those of our time, and that helps illuminate why we are the way we are now. His works on art, such as On Beauty and On Ugliness show how those concepts have changed and developed over time: what the Romans found beautiful, for instance, is not the same as what a twenty-first century observer might judge beautiful. And in the book I’ve been reading, he looks at language over time: how the understanding of the workings of language, and the science of etymology, has developed through the ages.

So, we are no longer preoccupied with such questions as ‘What language did God use when he said “Let there be light!”?’, or the language he used to talk with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, or how Adam managed to name all the creatures that God brought to him to name (and how did he manage with the fish?) – questions which preoccupied earlier minds as they strove to rediscover the original language, which must have been perfect, of course, and have existed before the Tower of Babel…

These questions led learned men into horrendously complex attempts to codify language and speech and develop codes that, while they might have been perfect languages, would have been of almost no real use to the world, and unexpectedly led them towards structured approaches to translation, that actually overlap with how computer translation works nowadays…

Eco demonstrates how people went around in circles chasing something that was not practical or achievable, and then stopped as they gradually realised that language was constantly evolving and changing in everyday use, which implied that perfection could not be attained… I think. As I said, it was complicated. But I enjoyed it, and it got me thinking.

And… why is the alphabet in the order that it actually is?

Pete Brown: Shakespeare’s Local

December 6, 2013

9781447236801A curious hotch-potch, this book. I was half-way through it before we got anywhere near Shakespeare, and that was very briefly; basically it’s a popular history book that explores quite deeply and thoroughly the complex, symbiotic relationship between London north of the Thames and Southwark and Bankside, south of it, the place where anything went, as it were, thus including theatres, which were often disapproved of, and thereby providing the tenuous link to the book’s title. From Roman times, Southwark, Bankside and the Borough were the gateway to London from the south and the continent, for travellers and trade, and thus of great importance throughout history. All this is linked with the great importance of inns, alehouses and other hostelries to trade and the economy of the city and therefore the country, and so the central focus and title of the book focuses on a single, still-extant inn, the George in Southwark, whose history goes back centuries, and is merely one of what used to be dozens in the area, close to the site of the Globe Theatre and therefore, conceivably, a place where our greatest dramatist may have supped.

The writer loves his subject, has researched thoroughly and writes entertainingly, bringing the subject to life: I learnt lots which fitted into the much vaguer notions I had of the places and times. It got a tad dull as it moved towards the present day and got embroiled in the world of Dickens, which I do not have a lot of time for, I’m afraid.

Dostoevsky: Crime & Punishment

December 3, 2013

My copy tells me it’s a little over twenty years since I last read this; I’ve been re-reading it ready for my Russian literature group meeting. It’s as brilliant a novel as it was before, possibly the best nineteenth century one for me, just a little bit ahead of War & Peace, or Anna Kerenina.

The translation, by the Pevear and Volokhonsky duo, is excellent, helping the pace of the story along effortlessly most of the time, apart from a couple of infelicities when American slang and colloquialisms jar a little… The more I read of literature in other languages, the more I find myself thinking about the difficulties of translation, and the importance a good translation has in making or breaking one’s enjoyment of a text. There’s a certain amount of controversy about Pevear and Volokhonsky’s work and methods, but I feel that they have brought greater accessibility to Russian classics for non-Russian readers, replacing some of the rather clunky and dated translations that are getting on for a century old.

So, what’s so wonderful about the novel? Dostoevsky‘s portrayal of the dark and seamy side of Petersburg life, and the dire poverty, is really effective and convincing: he knows the places and takes the reader there. His characters are fully created and developed: Raskolnikov obviously, but his friend Razumikhin shines through, and the sinister and mysterious Svidrigailov too. They seem psychologically plausible and convincing. The central idea behind Raskolnikov’s crime, which Dostoevsky is exploring throughout, is fascinating: the idea that there is a certain type of person, a Napoleon type, who can transcend normal laws and restraints and commit any kind of act or crime, who is permitted to do so by the force of their personality, who maybe even has to do so because of who they are. Raskolnikov dares to imagine that he is one such, and the entire novel is his discovery that he is not, and attempting to come to terms with the belated consequences of that discovery.

Dostoevsky is masterful in the way he takes us inside the mind of a killer: we follow thoughts, feelings, rational and irrational; we sense his paranoia, we see his attempts at self-delusion. And this is compounded by the relationship, the interplay between Raskolnikov and the detective/ interrogator who is on his tail, who plays mind games with him: does he know the truth or not? And he waits for the killer’s mental state to reach the point where he must confess, suffer and accept the consequences of his Napoleonic strivings…

We come to like the killer, we want him to be saved, we want him to begin a new life with the woman who has saved him, and who will wait for him, and Dostoevsky creates this strong desire in the reader before he creates it in the mind of Raskolnikov himself…

When I reflect on the time Dostoevsky was writing – mid 1860s – a time when psychology was in its infancy as a science, when Freud’s precursors were making their discoveries and writing up their research, what he succeeds in doing with his characters and their interactions seems nothing short of astonishing: he seems years ahead of other writers who eventually came to explore the inner and darker recesses of the human mind.

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