The Master and Margarita

 

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By Mikhail Bulgakov

This was a re-read as I was travelling to Moscow and wanted to see the city with Bulgakov’s eye. Patriarch Pond was pleasant and I waited for Woland there but there was no stall selling warm apricot juice, and no malevolent cat nearby. A magnificent novel. I think I enjoyed it most on this, the third, read.

“With a groan Ivan looked ahead and saw the hated stranger. He had already reached the exit leading on to Patriarch’s Street and he was no longer alone. The weird choirmaster had managed to join him. But that was not all. The third member of the company was a cat the size of a pig, black as soot and with luxuriant cavalry officers’ whiskers. The threesome was walking towards Patriarch’s Street, the cat trotting along on its hind legs.”

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Cendrars Quatrain

By David J. MacKinnon.

 Quite enjoyable. A larger-than-life novel in the vein of Celine / Cendrars. I don’t know how much of Fingon is MacKinnon. Entertaining.

I will be a man fulfilled if, when my time comes,
I can disappear anonymously and without regret,
At the originating point of our world, the Sargasso Sea,
Where life first burst from the depths of the ocean floor towards the sun.

[Cendrars]

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The Letter Killers Club

By Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky.

This was an intense and intelligent read. I can’t help but wonder if Gombrowicz, with his obsession with form, read Krhizhanovsky even though this is unlikely as Krzhizhanovsky was largely unpublished. There are I believe many more novels and stories that are waiting in the wings to be translated. So many unusual images and great ideas, and imaginative ways of illustrating ideas and concepts are contained here. I also wonder about Krzhizhanovsky’s name as he was born to Polish parents in Kiev – and both his first name and surname have been made into a Russian derivation. Did he change these to fit into a Moscow society where being of Polish origin rendered you suspect? There are some great passages in this book. I enjoyed it much more than the previous collection I read – due mostly to the fact I prefer an immersive novel. Or,  there was a connection with his voice here for some reason or other.

 

 

 

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Very Woman (Sixtine)

By Remy de Gourmont.

This novel was enjoyable, but for a slightly different reason than usual. I took pleasure in the actual prose, the richness of it. Remy de Gourmont was a symbolist and a combination of these sensibilities and perhaps the older translation made this novel a luxurious read. The verbal tussles of Sixtine and Entragues were interesting, but I can’t say that I enjoyed the story as much as ‘A Night in the Luxembourg’. I think this was because there wasn’t enough going on. Sixtine and Entragues seemed to meet, and spar with each other, again and again with imperceptible change. Several characters were brought into the action that could have been developed – but these were one-off experiences. So, this novel was good, and quite poetic – but it didn’t enthrall me. I may dip into it again; the prose captures and preserves a decadent, symbolist atmosphere so perfectly.

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Travels in the Scriptorium

travels_in_the_scriptoriumBy Paul Auster.

I’m really not too sure about this book. I don’t think there were enough ideas and those that were there didn’t seem to be developed enough. It felt like half a book to meet the requisite book quota for a publishers contract.

Nothing about this interested me. Auster has written some wildly imaginative books which bristle with thoughts and images that stay with you. This novel is not one of those.

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The Slynx

slynxBy Tatyana Tolstaya.

What a fantastic novel. This is the best contemporary thing I have read for ages. I don’t usually go go in for dystopian fiction, though, I once tried to read a book by Marge Piercy and it was amateurish and awful. The Slynx was brilliant. The world is ridiculous but it is believable – if that makes  any sense. With other futuristic writers, phrases or ideas not being fully formed can give the game away and you lose that sense of being catapulted. Additionally, Tolstaya makes some very good points and analyses the authoritarian state, how it keeps control, the role of the workers, intelligentsia and literature. A review said it was ‘Pale Fire’ like but I am not convinced. There’s not as much of a metafiction element in the Slynx and the role of authority isn’t analysed as deeply in Pale Fire – at least to my reading.

Another point that I didn’t consider until finishing was that I don’t read many female writers. This is something I have thought about before but I try to just let the purchase and reading of books flow naturally with random elements determining the direction my reading goes. It seems a little prescriptive to say that I am now going to read female writers for the next six months and that is all; rather than reading that which I find randomly and which interests me. Over the last year out of fifty-two books I only read four by women writers. I know, it is not a good statistic (you can see other stats on the new ‘statistics’ tab). But I also read only one American writer. Does this mean I should read more American writers – should I attempt to be egalitarian with choice of books or should I let one novel point to another? An example of this is that Tolstaya quotes a lot from Pushkin – as a result I am now reading Eugene Onegin which I have owned for a while, but after reading the Slynx the time felt right and I started reading it naturally. Maybe I am placing too much store on randomness and letting the novels I read pose questions or a direction?

So, why don’t I read as much female literature? Well, firstly I don’t really think about literature as ‘male’ or ‘female’ they are just books and I read those that interest  me. Secondly, I don’t read much contemporary stuff. A lot of modern novels seem to try a little too hard and because of the increased commercialisation and control of the publishing by big companies much of modern fiction is just too bland, obvious and it is created simply to be sold. It just doesn’t interest me. There are still fantastic  new novels as The Slynx proves, but because of the mass of publishing out there it is difficult to find what is good. Because women really didn’t have the same opportunities as men there are not as many older female writers. I have read Murasaki, Shonagen, Woolf, Austin, Mansfield, Nin, McCullers and others that I can’t remember off the top of my head – Sagan, Sarraute, de Beauvoir too. But there are not as many women who wrote and were published in the time periods I read compared to men. And, I don’t like many modern writers generally – never mind the sex of the writer.

Coming back to The Slynx… it was very powerful and Tostaya’s voice strong, assured and believable. I will read her collection of short stories at some stage. Very pleased I read this – it gives me hope – there are still great and interesting works of fiction being created.

**UPDATE

Actually, when I compare the contemporary writers I like, 50% of them are female.

Sountrack: Enio Morricone – Rivoluzione.

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Pale Fire

paleBy Vladimir Nabokov

Absolutely amazing. This book must rank up there with one of the master-works of twentieth century fiction. It is so intricate, deft, humourous, and almost without parallel as far as I can see. Completely different from Lolita and I can’t wait to read more Nabokov to experience more of this overwhelming intellect. Admittedly, the structure is metafiction which I don’t have a great affinity with but this time I really don’t care (unlike Muriel Spark’s the Comforters which was far too full of writerly artifice). The trick here is that along with the metafiction is a great story and a story that interests the reader and reveals itself – it’s not about craft or structure OVER ideas. This is packed full of stuff and as a reader all of it interests you. For once the hype around a famous author is quite justified. Why doesn’t Sting write a litany for his lute to draw attention to this novel? Oh – that’s right – it’s not as sensational as Lolita and won’t help him sell records.

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The Last Supper

huelleBy Pawel Huelle

I think writing this novel was very ambitious and for the most part it succeeds. Great central idea and there are many wayward threads which are tied together loosely. This isn’t a strand of predictability in any part of this novel which is refreshing. There is interesting comment on many spheres of human existence here. Some of the discussions of conceptual art are excellent along with religion, sexuality, politics and all of these are couched in an amusing way with scenes and dialogue from the main characters. So, why would I not give this novel full marks? Something about it is a little too forced – maybe the meta-fictional aspects. A couple of the characters are not quite rounded enough – they are more caricatures than characters. This may be intentional as the central premise of the novel is the Last Supper and a modern reproduction of the original so maybe all the characters in the novel can only be are caricatures. The other problem is that some of the dialogue is a little too modern. This may not be intentional and could actually be a translation issue. Though the review by the Guardian on the cover states that Huelle writes in an engaging ‘chatty’ style. This is a good thing apparently. Gosh, we wouldn’t want people to actually feel like they were reading a book instead of having a ‘chat’ with the author. So the combined weight of both these issues means that I won’t be using superlatives in the way that I did recently with Fado by Stasiuk. However the many good things about this book mean that I will read more by Huelle. Not in the next while however. I have read too much contemporary literature recently and really need something substantial to read. So, Tolstoy next.

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The Mighty Angel

pilchBy Jerzy Pilch

Absolutely brilliant. There’s an intelligence here that rivals Gombrowicz. Pilch is pretty much unknown outside Poland with only one other novel translated (which I am sure I will be reading soon). What makes this so good are the twists and turns of the alcoholic’s mind and the penetrating insight that accompanies it. He reminds me of Erofeev or Bukowski but with more depth. There is a meta-fictional aspect of it that leaps out and surprises you: it isn’t laboured though and instead of meta-fiction it would be better to call it meta-alcoholism. I can’t recommend this book enough. The end was a little unexpected too, which is definitely a good thing. Highly entertaining, imaginative and thought provoking; there’s not much more to be said except that I felt sated at the end – the literary palate was delighted with this little book.

Soundtrack: ‘Burning Alcohol’ by The Stereo Bus.

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