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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The Spectre of Alexander Wolf

By Gaito Gazdanov.

Thoroughly enjoyable. I was going to say that nothing else has been translated – but there do seem to be more novels recently translated and some scheduled for release. They will be read.

“You are beginning to live. Taking part in what is called the struggle for life lies ahead of you. Roughly speaking, there are three types: the struggle for victory, the struggle for annihilation, and the struggle for consensus. You are all young and full of vigour, and so, naturally, you are drawn to the first type. But always remember that the most humane and most advantageous is the struggle for consensus. If you make of this a principle throughout your life, it will mean that the culture we have tried to bestow on you will not have been for nothing, that you have become true citizens of the world, and, consequently, we shall not have lived in this world in vain. Because, if it be otherwise, it will mean that we have merely wasted our time. We are old, we have no more strength to build a new life. We have one hope left, and that is you.”

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King Candaules AND The Mummy’s Foot

By Théophile Gautier.

Two surreal and magical short pieces – perfect to break up some of the non-fiction I have read recently. Gautier is a more decadent and fantastical Balzac – and maybe not as much of a polymath. Having read Gautier years back I am tempted to read his travels in Egypt – he did write a fair bit – I saw a 22 volume set of his works online recently. So, worth some continued investigation. These were both excellent.

 

 

 

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Gargantua and Pantagruel – Book Three

By François Rabelais.

I seem to have enjoyed each succeeding book slightly less. Book III seems to me too wordy and philosophical and not enough about the actions of the characters. The re-invention of Panurge with a different persona is interesting but I would have liked to see Panurge put more into practice his dodgy precepts and justifications in a ribald rambunctious quest. Still, this is good stuff. I have dipped into Book IV and it seems more to my taste. Each of them though, has a distinct character. Some fantastic passages in Book III though:

‘It is true that I can just about make out one sign in me suggestive of old age – I mean a green old age. Don’t tell anyone. It’ll remain a secret between the two of us. I do find good wine more delightful to my taste than I used to: and more than I once did, I fear encounters with poor wine. Note that that does somehow suggest the westering sun and signify that noon-day is past.’

and this:

‘Next time you stick your nose up my bum,’ said Panurge, ‘remember to take off your glasses!’

and finally:

‘A famished belly hath no ears! By God, I’m roaring mad with hunger.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Russian Fairy Tales

By Ivan Bilibin and Alexandr Afanasev.

Great fairy tales with fantastic illustrations by Bilibin. Digitally, only a couple of pounds from iBooks or Amazon. I did see this on eBay for £400. Tempting. Some of these tales I have read before and very interesting are those which are variations.

 

 

 

 

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Gargantua and Pantagruel – Book One

By François Rabelais.

This first book is quite cohesive. I guess Rabelais didn’t know himself  if he would write another and the impetus seems to be his own amusement and that of his friends. This was a very enjoyable experience and  as a result I took my time reading Book One. I like the way the episodes aren’t really connected they just sort of flit about and are not as linear as most novels.

Pantagruel makes you laugh, consider things philosophically and stimulates the imagination: it doesn’t get much better than this. I can now see where many of the writers I love got a great deal of their inspiration. There were free translations I could have found for the kindle but I decided that if I was going to make the effort to read all five books then it should be with the best translation – by most accounts Professor Screech’s translation is the best. There are many footnotes – but they don’t get in the way as the book is the kind that stimulates you in bursts as it is all angles and the footnotes don’t interfere but add to the richness of the text. The rest are coming up shortly.

 

 

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Mary

By Vladimir Nabokov.

Definitely not a work of genius but still good – it was a début novel. Some themes can be found here that occur in his other novels: notably dream and its relationship to the larger-than-life reality Nabokov creates. Also, the unreality of the traditional romantic ideal. Memories and reminiscences punctuate the narrative – this is the strongest connection with his other novels. Memories play such an important role for Nabokov whether they are true to life or imagined. I think this is one of the reasons I like him so much. The only thing missing is humour but this starts later. It will be interesting to find the novel in his oeuvre where humour starts to make more of an appearance.

 

 

 

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Happy Moscow

By Andrey Platonov.

It is the second time I have read Happy Moscow; though, this is a new translation. The novel really does have the most unique and unusual atmosphere – in the same vein as ‘Soul’. This was  unfinished and so it is likely that there would have been a substantial amount of changes.

Platonov moves his prose about as though it is a socialist realist movie camera. He follows minor characters for a while, who often never reappear, and then latches on to another character as they come in contact. I really wonder where the novel would have ended up had it been finished.

Reading this book made want to learn Russian. I want to see how exactly how the strange atmosphere is invoked and compare this to Pushkin with his French sentence structure, and Lermontov. The linear way the novel moves from one character to another is similar to reading habits: one writer leads to another and you follow them for a while until you catch another, sometimes they lead back to the original author but you were changed by the writers you followed in-between – and then you follow another. ‘Soul’ remains my favourite Platonov followed by the stories in ‘The Return’. I have a new translation of ‘The Foundation Pit’ and so will re-read that in the next while.

I really need to understand exactly how Platonov creates such an atmosphere in his strange world. In the mean-time here is a picture by Malevich which is a window into Platonov’s ‘Soul’ novel.

 

 

 

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Dark Domain

By Stefan Grabinski.

Grabinski is definitely a little-known Polish writer; several erudite Polish people I polled had never heard of him. These stories were great: full of supernatural tension with a good dose of introspection and the surreal. Well worth reading. I was captivated all the way through and there is a well-formed psychological base to the stories. Three of them also use train travel to great effect, a drama being played out while outside everything is movement is a good idea and it works brilliantly. Grabinski was an outsider and his lead characters are as well. Many of the endings are ambiguous and could be used as entry into a longer story, possibly. To try and write this could be an interesting exercise.

It doesn’t look like any novels have been translated into English and the foreword is a little dismissive of them as it seems Grabinski moved into more mystical material. I wouldn’t mind reading some more.

 

 

 

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Pushkin’s Fairy Tales

By Alexander Pushkin.

There are some great stories here. In 1833 Pushkin took a break from busy city life and retired to his estate where he wrote these tales. Even though many of these are known folk stories, which were originally told to him by his childhood nurse, Pushkin imbues them with his personality. I particularly like the fact that he directly announces his presence in these tales. He finished two by saying:

“And I was there, drinking beer and mead, and hardly wet my moustache.”

Very amusing.

This edition has wonderful illustrations by the Australian artist Arthur Boyd. It is really nice to have a book like this as a physical object with a good translation. The favourite story for me is ‘The Story Of A Priest And His Servant Balda’. It finishes with the statement: ‘It isn’t wise to try to take a man’s labour for nothing!’ This might not sound like much; but in the political ferment of the time, and with Pushkin’s position of influence, this maxim is provocative and gives a clear indication of where his sympathies still lie.

A few very pleasant evenings were spent dipping in and out of these stories. I recommend them, and this edition, to you.

Soundtrack: Cake – Commissioning a Symphony in C.

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