Posts Tagged ‘The Master and Margarita’

On religion

December 30, 2016

It’s not a very easy subject for fiction, really: too many toes to tread on, too many people to offend. But anything should be open to a writer, and there are some that have tackled the subject, in a number of original and interesting novels.

I remember finding Somerset Maugham’s novel The Razor’s Edge very liberating as a teenager, when I was wrestling with religion myself, prior to giving it up and trying to leave it behind for twenty years or more… That is another story, but the novel was about a young man’s quest to find himself, and something to really believe in and bring some meaning to his life, and that struck a chord with me at the time. I suppose it introduced me to the idea of a personal spiritual journey, something that I’ve now realised I’ve been engaged in all my life and will only reach the end of at the end. The hero eventually makes his way to India – a place that loomed large in the consciousness of many in the late sixties and early seventies – and explores Eastern religions and beliefs.

Later I came across Hermann Hesse: Siddhartha is a short novel, enigmatic, imagining the life and spiritual development of the Buddha. When I first came across it, I didn’t really understand it; more recently I’ve listened to it a couple of times in an excellent librivox recording and it’s made me think much more deeply. As a student, though, it was Hesse’s Narziss and Goldmund that really moved me and had a powerful effect on me, through its exploration of the contrasting secular and spiritual journeys of its two protagonists and the ways in which they were so deeply interconnected.

Novelists who have encompassed Christianity in fiction are rather harder to recall. There was Nikos KazantzakisThe Last Temptation, which scandalised many when it was filmed, and the disturbing Knowledge of Angels by Jill Paton Walsh, which looks at the attitudes of inquisitors as they go about their work. I’ve come across – though can only vaguely recall – a couple of interesting science fiction stories which imagine God sending his Son Jesus to other worlds, to alien intelligences, and what might have happened to him on those planets: sacrilege to some, but legitimate speculation for others. I have yet to read Philip Pullman’s novel The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ; I don’t know why I have managed to avoid it for so many years.

Mikhail Bulgakov’s astonishing The Master and Margarita takes in the story of the trial, condemnation and execution of Christ, from the perspective of Pilate and his wife. It’s only one strand of the novel, but is skilfully woven in, and makes one think, as a good writer will.

A final mention, not of a novelist but of one of my all-time favourite travel writers, Ella Maillart, who, after years of travelling and exploring the East, was drawn to India and its religions on her own spiritual journey as she strove to make sense of a world which had descended into the Second World War; her account of some of her search can be found in her book Ti-Puss, which I really enjoyed: her years of motion and restlessness brought her to calm fixedness in India for a number of years, and seemingly allowed her to make some sense of her life in her later years.

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A Westerner tries to understand Russian literature

September 19, 2015

As I’ve grown older, I’ve developed the impression that Russia is so very different from anywhere I know and am familiar with. I’ve read its history and followed the ins and outs of communist politics for many years, and I’ve read a good deal of Russian literature, and explored a lot of the country as an armchair traveller, through many and varied travel writers. And the place seems vast and unknowable, the more I read and try to understand.

Partly this must be through the sheer size of the country, which defies the imagination. Many years ago, I was given a Soviet road atlas of the USSR. It’s a very slim volume, with very small-scale maps, and vast areas simply do not feature, not because the Russians had anything to hide, just because there are no roads. And the places where a single road goes on for five or six hundred kilometres, through a handful of small towns and then just stops…well. And then there’s the Russian idea of government: autocracy is as far as it seems to get – one all-powerful ruler, whether a tsar or a First Secretary of the CPSU or V Putin. It seems that only such a ruler can hold such a country together. Democracy they don’t do. When you get to religion, that is also alien to us in the West. Yes, it’s Christianity, but they think that theirs is the one and only true and original version, rather like the Church of Rome does. Which came first? Their services are obscure, in a mediaeval language, last for hours…

And yet I have been more than curiously fascinated by all this for many years; I am drawn to the unusual, the strange and inexplicable. Dostoevsky is hard work: The Idiot – what is it all about? and The Brothers Karamazov? at least Crime and Punishment is approachable, and frightening in its convincing psychology and paranoia. But I still find the ending, redemption through love and forced labour, hard to take, sentimental. It is a brilliant novel, though. Tolstoy is actually likeable, perhaps the closest a Russian gets to ‘the Western novel’ for me, even though they are vast tomes that make even Dickens look manageable… War and Peace I really like (I’ve read it three times so far) and am in awe of its vast scope, the sweep of its action, and the author’s direction of and dialogue with his readers. I like the ideas of Anna Kerenina and find the character of Levin fascinating, sometimes comprehensible and sometimes alien. Just as in France, the nineteenth century novel reached great heights in Russia.

Those writers had to grapple with the censorship and controls of Tsarist times; writers in the twentieth century didn’t have it anywhere near as easy, as the Soviets wanted to control everything, and literature was meant to serve the party and the revolution. I gather it produced a great deal of grim hack-work known as Socialist Realism, which I am sure was (badly) translated into English but probably never reached many bookshops here.

And those times also produced great writers and great literature. Stalin’s purges and the Great Patriotic War provide the background for Vassily Grossman‘s epic Life and Fate, and Anatoly Rybakov‘s astonishing Arbat trilogy. Grossman’s work has finally begun to achieve some of the recognition it merits – it really is a twentieth-century War and Peace – but Rybakov attracted a brief, post-Soviet flurry of interest with his first volume and then no further notice, which is a great pity. One can read historical accounts of the madness and paranoia that was the 1930s in the Soviet Union, but you can only begin to feel what it could have been like through a cast of convincing characters living through those times.

I still fail to understand how Mikhail Bulgakov survived, having written The Master and Margarita, but I have read that he was perhaps protected by Stalin. The devil appears in Moscow and creates scenes of utter mayhem; Pontius Pilate and his wife attempt to make sense of Jesus and his message; magic and anarchy reign. It’s a marvellous novel, a tour-de-force, but Socialist Realism it ain’t…

I’ve waxed lyrical about the Czech writer Jaroslav Hasek‘s hero Svejk, an anarchic anti-hero who creates chaos in the Austro-Hungarian war effort wherever he goes; he has his Soviet era equal in Ivan Chonkin, in a couple of novels by Vladimir Voinovich, where Soviet bureaucracy and managerial ineptitude are satirised quite mercilessly.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn‘s earlier works made a great impression on me at school. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch is a powerful read (the film is utterly unmemorable) as a political prisoner in the gulag shares his work, thoughts, hopes and fears, knowing that it’s back to the start every night for twenty years; Cancer Ward explores (as I recall) the vulnerabilities of the powerful and the weak, reduced to the same equality by the dread disease, its treatment and consequences, and The First Circle, which I think is probably the best, explores Stalin’s paranoid world, urge to spy on and control people through the eyes of prisoners and ‘free’ men involved in a research project that will allow the regime to identify people from recorded voices alone. Solzhenitsyn, like other Soviet era writers, tries hard to create Stalin as a fictional character, and thereby come to some understanding of his psychology and power.

I have yet to read anything written since the fall of the Soviet Union that is worth the eyeball time.

Nikos Kazantzakis: The Last Temptation

August 13, 2014

41gbnhkP74L._AA160_There’s a single, interesting idea to this novel. If Jesus Christ was the son of God and born as a man, how, exactly, did he grow up and into the role? How might he have wrestled with the gradual realisation that there were other expectations of him that just normal human life? Might he have resisted, not wanted this role which was being urged on him? If a man, presumably he enjoyed ‘free will’ and had the right, therefore, to say ‘no’ to his dual role?

This is a question not dealt with by any gospel narrative, which starts from the fait accompli – he does what was expected of him, according to prophecy/ myth/ whatever you choose to call it. Kazantzakis explores the man who would like a quiet life, with a home, wife and family in Nazareth where he was born, but isn’t allowed to have this, in the apocalyptic times in which he lives, and with a voice constantly buzzing in his head to tell him that he has a special role to fulfil… and if it’s God who’s that voice, then guess who is going to win.

In the closing chapter of the novel, as he fulfils his destiny at the crucifixion – and Kazantzakis also explores the role of Judas’ betrayal as both necessary and understood and willingly undertaken – Jesus is faced with a final temptation where he is rescued from death and goes on to live the life he wished for: a peaceful life, wives, children and home. As the Romans destroy Jerusalem in 79CE his past catches up with him, he resists the temptation and the fantasised account of Matthew‘s gospel – which the author also incorporates – takes over.

It’s all a dream, a fantasy; Kazantzakis was a believing Christian, and yet his book caused a great stir when first published, and again when it was filmed. If one is a traditional Christian, I can imagine one might be enraged or offended, one might find it blasphemous, though heretical goes a bit far, as it’s only a novel. But one does not have to read it. One can also step back from it, and accept it as just another piece of speculative fiction, an alternative imagining of a time in the past. Other writers have engaged with the same material: Dorothy L Sayers in the celebrated radio drama of the 1940s, The Man Born To Be King, Mikhail Bulgakov from Pilate‘s point of view in The Master and Margarita, for example. And one can say that it’s ultimately irrelevant, I suppose: Jesus Christ was/ has been a very influential thinker and teacher whose ideas, like those of Buddha, Muhammad (peace be unto him), Confucius and others, have survived for centuries and influenced humans, who have done both good and evil in his name.

An interesting read, but I won’t be going back to it.

Soviet Literature

July 8, 2014

Or maybe I actually mean anti-Soviet literature… literature written during Soviet times, anyway. I’m continuing some of the ideas I developed in an earlier post here.

If you read the history of Soviet times, you quickly realise that the first few years were, in many ways, a time of revolution and bold experimentation, especially in the world of the arts and literature; eventually, as the 1920s develop, the lid closes, the dead hand of Stalinism closes things down. There’s a further crackdown in the 1950s, a brief liberalisation at the end of the 60s/ in the early 70s and then it’s crackdown time again. Authority was clearly afraid; authority in the West is often afraid too, but has different and rather less obvious ways of crushing dissent and opposition.

So, what was there to be feared? Truth, in the end: there was much violence as the Soviet Union was built, collectivisation, repression of the kulaks, famine in Ukraine, political purges, show trials, people turned into unpersons, the gulag; religion was off-limits, as was any admiration of the West. If you take all these aspects of life, apparent to most people who had their eyes open, then there wasn’t much to write about, and it’s the writers who pushed the system to its limits and challenged it, often at great risk, that are still read and remembered, not the creators of the wooden socialist realism that was the official literature. What did Bulgakov mean, by having the devil rampage through Moscow in The Master and Margarita, with its sympathetic portrayal of both Christ and Pilate? And why did the KGB tell Vassily Grossman that his astonishing epic Life and Fate could not possibly be published for at least two centuries? Anatoly Rybakov‘s Arbat Trilogy, which explored the darkest times of the Stalinist purges and show trials, only saw the light of day with perestroika. Solzhenitsyn explored dark times, and exposed some of the truths about the gulag, and ended up persecuted and then exiled; Varlam Shalamov‘s Kolyma Tales is even more shocking. Vladimir Voinovich got into trouble for humour and satire, and The Private Life of Ivan Chonkin is as funny (and biting) as Hasek‘s Svejk any day.

These are some of the best books of the last century in my opinion, created at the authors’ peril, mirrors of the sad failure of the experiment that came off the rails so quickly. The writers have real questions: how can one be free, how can one tell the truth, how can one resist oppression? Sometimes they wrote ‘for the bottom drawer’ ie, put their manuscript away, knowing it could not be published, sometimes they took the risk – as did Solzhenitsyn – of samizdat (self) publication, typescript copies circulated in secret, sometimes smuggled to the West for publication.

And yet, culture in the Soviet Union was for all and readily accessible. Books (officially approved) were published in vast editions at giveaway prices, cinema and theatre cost next to nothing to attend; I wish that were the case over here, in the free West… not everything said, written or done in the Soviet Union was evil, yet I would not have wanted to live there.

Recommended Reading?

February 28, 2014

I’ve been thinking about where I get my ideas from, about what to read: who shapes/ has shaped my choices over the years? I’m particularly thinking about fiction, since it’s more straight-forward with non-fiction: when new interests develop, then wider reading ensues…

Obviously, studying English and French literature at university all those years ago gave me a lot of different starting points, and I was inevitably going to branch out along some of the tracks I’d studied.

In my earlier years, I used to browse bookshops a lot, especially independent and radical bookshops, of which there were far more then. I could not begin to count the number of books I bought after spending hours in the wonderful Atticus Bookshop in Liverpool, with its vast array of contemporary English and America fiction as well as an amazing selection of works in translation. Nowadays I find bookshops frustrating, and rarely come across anything new or exciting. But I do scour bookshops when I’m in France, because so many more interesting novels from all over the world are translated into French than into English. New discoveries still come to light – the novels of Amin Maalouf, for example, or the full range of Ismail Kadare.

When I come across a new writer whom I enjoy, there’s the temptation to seek out all they’ve written; this can be rewarding, as in the case of Josef Skvorecky, or it can be somewhat disappointing, if a writer has basically written only one decent novel, or the same one several times over.

Book reviews can be a great help. I trust reviews in newspapers such as The Guardian and The Observer; reviewers like Nicholas Lezard or the critic James Wood have often introduced me to a new writer. Good also are the London, and the New York Review of Books. (To this last, I’m very grateful for introducing me to the writings and analysis of Timothy Snyder on the incredibly complex history of eastern Europe’s borderlands.) For non-English fiction, the reviews in Le Monde Diplomatique have pointed me in interesting directions. It’s great to come across someone totally new and unexpected, such as Ben Marcus, author of the weirdest book ever, The Age of Wire and String.

Sometimes a brilliant TV adaptation makes me turn to the book. Some may remember the BBC black and white serialisation of Sartre‘s Roads to Freedom trilogy in the early 1970s (lost for ever, I fear) which led me to the novels, or the superb version of Anthony Powell‘s Dance to the Music of Time, which led me to read the twelve novels.

Personal recommendations are usually the best. I inevitably find myself staring at the bookshelves when I visit someone, and ask about anything that excites my curiosity. That’s how I came across Umberto Eco – and I can’t imagine a reading life without his books. A teaching colleague many years ago raved about Bulgakov‘s Master and Margarita, and now I do too; my daughter turned me on to Philip Pullman‘s Northern Lights trilogy when I was ill once; the school librarian introduced me to Philip Reeve‘s books (and ultimately to the author himself)… and  one of my students introduced me to the poetry of e e cummings, which I never expected to like, but really did.

But mostly, I guess, I’m self-taught: I follow my nose, usually successfully, and add another book to the groaning shelves, or the to read pile by the bed. There have been wrong choices, and books and authors I’ve totally failed with, but that’s the subject of another post…

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.

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