The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

The Master and Margarita

TracyK of Bitter Tea and Mystery and I decided to read this book, it was on our Classics Club lists and it was a good way of making sure that I got around to reading it anyway. You can read her thoughts on the book here.
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov was first published in 1966. My copy was translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky in 1997.

This is a strange read and I can imagine that a lot of people might have given up on it, but I persevered as usual and thankfully ended up liking it.

It begins in Moscow where two men are sitting on a bench in Patriarch’s Ponds. One is a poet who has written a novel about Jesus and the other is an editor, soon they are joined by a foreigner, they can’t make up their minds whether he’s French – or maybe Polish. The foreigner tells one of the men how he will die. It seems so preposterous that they don’t take him seriously, but in no time the horrible prediction is fulfilled. The stranger was of course the Devil. He has red hair, as do lots of the characters in this book, and he has a large talking cat as a companion. They pose as a stage act in a Moscow theatre, supposedly illusionists and hypnotists, causing mayhem and becoming the talk of the city. There’s even a witch on a broomstick.

From time to time the book flips back to Judea – the poet’s novel. Pontius Pilate has been forced to condemn Jesus (Yeshua Ha-Nozri of Yershalaim ) to death because he was supposedly overheard complaining about the Romans. Pilate knows that the whole thing is just a way of getting rid of Yeshua who is seen as being a problem to some. It plays on his conscience. The author has never been able to get his novel published. He is The Master of the title and his married lover is Margarita. In despair he burns his manuscript.

Meanwhile there are lots of glimpses into how life is lived or endured in Russia. Neighbours denounce each other, with the death of one character so many people have their eyes on his flat, how can they get it for themselves? Communal kitchens are a way of life and you can’t get away from your neighbours.

As ever with translated books, and particularly when communist regimes are concerned, I have the feeling that I’m only getting the book on one level. I’m sure that for people who lived through those times there would be so many hidden allusions, and probably a lot of missed humour as humour seems to be the way people cope with adversity. It seems that despite communism, and with religion being frowned upon by the authorities, it didn’t stop people from knowing the bible well it would seem. This book even has four horsemen in it (as in the apocalypse?) – even though one is a woman.

I liked this one, despite the fact that for some reason Bulgakov gave all the ‘bad guys’ red hair – and there are an awful lot of them, so it was obviously not coincidence.

Apparently Bulgakov himself burned one of his manuscripts for fear of the consequences if it was found in his possession, though I believe there were copies elsewhere.

The White Guard by Mikhael Bulgakov Classics Club spin

The White Guard cover

I got The White Guard in the Classics Club Spin which was almost ideal really as I was reading it while on my way to Russia, except I was going to St Petersburg, not Kiev which is the setting of the book which first appeared in serial form in 1925 but wasn’t published in book form in Russia until 1966.

The setting is the city of Kiev in 1918 – the October Revolution. The Turbin family had been well off but they’ve just lost their beloved mother. It’s particularly poignant as her eldest son Alexei had just returned from the front after serving for years in a disastrous campaign in the Tsarist army. At last the whole family is together, but without their mother. There’s a younger brother, Nikolka and a sister Elena who is married to an army captain and also Anyuta the maid all living in the family apartment but it isn’t long before Talberg the husband abandons them, running away to save his own skin, the brothers had never trusted him anyway.

The city is chaotic with the German army roaming around and various other factions trying to grab the power.

The Bolshevik thugs are running around in the city, attacking anyone that they recognise as having been an officer in the Tsarist army, and it’s very easy for the officers to be pinpointed. Criminals are taking advantage of the chaos to blackmail people into giving up their valuables. The apartment becomes a refuge for others sheltering from the violence.

This is a really great read, conveying the atmosphere of danger, fear and panic as the normal rules of society have broken down and nobody has any idea of what the new future is going to hold for them.

Classics Club Spin # 20 – The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov

I’m going to be reading The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov for The Classics Club Spin # 20 as the number that came up in the spin is 19, and I have to read it by the 31st of May. I’m particularly pleased to get this one in the spin as the setting is Revolutionary Russia and amazingly I’m going to be in St Petersburg in May. Jack is insisting on calling it Leningrad as when he visited in the 1970s that was what it was called! I had been wondering which books I could take with me on my trip as it’s always good to read books that are set in places as you actually visit them, even if it’s now a historical book.

Otherwise, I had a lovely Easter Sunday, it was a gorgeous day here in Scotland, we were on the north east coast of Fife, so basically on the edge of the North Sea – not that I dipped any part of me in there, I left that to others. I did see a pod of four dolphins in the distance though. I took photos but I suspect that a magnifying glass will be required to see anything resembling a dolphin.

If you are doing the CC spin – are you happy with the book you got?

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

 Anna Karenina cover

I’ve had Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy on my Classics Club reading list for years now and I’ve been put off reading it for a couple of reasons – namely the 800 odd pages and also the fact that I knew how it ended as I’ve seen it on TV (hasn’t everyone?). But I really enjoyed reading it. Just about everyone knows the story so I’m going to ramble a bit just about things that struck me about it, others probably won’t agree.

It’s fashionable (and possibly a feminist thing) to see Anna as a victim but she was a spoiled fool more than anything. Having made her young son the centre of her life she had no time for her husband Alexei Karenin who was what John Galsworthy would have described as being a bit of a cold fish – like Soames Forsyth. Anthony Trollope’s disastrous marriage between Lady Glencora and Plantagenet Palliser comes to mind too. These undemonstrative men are a common type in reality and their ‘buttoned up’ characters aren’t a problem for any intelligent woman of the low maintenance and level headed type.

Anna wasn’t astute enough to see that her husband was really very much in love with her. Possibly the fact that Anna’s mother had shamelessly implied that Karenin had compromised Anna’s reputation when he was courting her – so determined was she to get her daughter off her hands and married to a wealthy man – had left Anna feeling somewhat insecure.

I really wish that Tolstoy had written a prequel based around the upbringing of Anna (nee Princess Oblonsky) and her brother Prince Stepan Arkadyich Oblonsky. These two cause mayhem within their families, their own needs being the most important thing to them – and to hell with everyone else.

Compare Anna’s mother with Kitty’s family. Vronsky has courted Kitty for ages and everyone expects him to propose to her, but Vronsky is a ladies man and a bit of a flibbertijibbet so when a new face appears in the shape of the beautiful Anna he drops poor Kitty fast. Kitty is damaged goods now as far as society is concerned, her parents had relied on Vronsky being a gentleman and wouldn’t have considered twisting his arm to get him to marry Kitty, but Vronsky was far from being a gentleman. He’s soon sleeping with Anna which is something that Anna was evidently not doing with her husband otherwise she would have had a family as large as her brother’s (Prince Stepan) whose poor wife Dolly seems to be having a child a year despite the fact that she knows he is a serial adulterer. Anna persuades Dolly to stay in her abusive marriage despite the fact that Anna would never put up with being treated so badly.

Those people who are brought up with a feeling of entitlement are a blight on society but when for some reason they aren’t able to get their own way for once then the result is often a disaster, they don’t have the strength of character to take the blows that they’ve happily dealt out to other people.

The book swings between high society in St Petersburg to the country estate of Konstantin Levin. He is a friend of Kitty’s family and has been in love with Kitty for years. After he’s told that they expect Vronsky to propose to Kitty, Levin takes himself and his broken heart off to his estate, throwing himself into the work of improving the land. He’s a decent man who gets his hands dirty and I suppose he stands for the Russian people whereas the aristocrats of St Petersburg are the degenerate French speaking leeches.

When the relationship between Anna and Vronsky becomes fraught Anna falls apart very quickly and of course she ends up under a train. I must say that I think that part was really well written. I suspect that Anna’s last seconds are typical for people in that situation – they didn’t really mean it, but it’s too late to go back in time.

Life goes on for everyone else of course. At first I thought that maybe the book should just have finished with Anna’s death but – I was wrong.

I loved War and Peace but it’s a while since I read that one and I’m not sure which book is my favourite. Have you read them both, if so which one do you like the most?

The Classics Club Spin – Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov

I’ve had Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov sitting on a shelf for over 20 years (maybe even 30) and when I bought it I hadn’t even heard of the book before. I freely admit I was drawn to the book by its binding, so I was pleased to read fairly recently that Oblomov is a book that is well thought of by others, so I was quite chuffed when I got it in this spin.

Lovely Book Cover

I can’t say I absolutely adored it but I did really like the book.

Oblomov is a likeable character, in fact there isn’t a bad boen in his body. As a young man who got a position in a government office when he left his home in the country he had the usual ambitions of hoping that it would lead to better things, but he quickly became disillusioned by the work and more or less took to his bed. He has classic signs of depression and even after he inherits the family country estate he just can’t get up the energy required to sort out the problems of running it. He has great intentions of building roads and bridges there, repairing houses and building a school for his peasants’ children. He lies in bed day dreaming of everything he will do there, but when it comes to it he can’t get up the energy required to get up and get dressed.

When Oblomov falls in love with a beautiful young girl he can hardly believe that she is interested in him, she rouses him out of his langour, he must get out and about to meet her. Despite being besotted by her Oblomov worries that he isn’t cut out for marriage, passion means expending energy and he has his doubts that he can manage much of that.

Oblomov is a kind and easy-going soul and he puts up with people that others wouldn’t give the time of day. This leads to him being targetted by a ghastly sponger who goes to Oblomov’s apartment to eat his food and drink his wine, even ‘borrowing’ his clothes and money, neither of which are ever seen again of course. Money from his estate is sent to Oblomov but he is so feckless that it disappears in no time, either given away or pilfered by servants.

His kind nature ends up in him being abused financially which leads to him having to move to a poor area of the city where he becomes the lodger of relatives of the sponger and they set about bleeding him dry of money.

Meanwhile Sophie has come to realise that Oblomov is never going to shake himself out of his torpor for long enough to be a decent husband and part of Oblomov is relieved as he prefers to spend his time just sleeping and eating anyway. His landlady is a wonderful cook and as we all know – the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, so he had been getting very attached to her.

Things take a turn for the worse when his landlady’s brother blackmails Oblomov, saying he has damaged his sister’s reputation and this ends up with the brother and the sponger being in control of Oblomov’s estate.

The cavalry rides in in the shape of Oblomov’s German childhood friend who realises what has been going on and sorts the whole mess out.

Classics Club Spin – it’s number 8

Well the Classics Club Spin number is 8 and for me that means Oblomov by Goncharov. I admit that I bought this books years ago, just because it’s a lovely edition, a red leather-ish cover with silver design on it, it also has stylish endpapers. It’s from a series that Heron Books published – The Greatest Masterpieces of Russian Literature.

As to the actual contents I’m completely clueless, apart from it being 515 pages long. It could be horrible and if so it serves me right for being swayed by looks!

Dead Souls by Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol

Dead Souls by Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol was first published in 1842. In the author’s preface he says that he wrote the book to show commonplace types of Russian people and the vices, weaknesses and shortcomings within Russian society.

The main character Paul Ivanovitch Chichikov is a middle aged bachelor, he’s not at all wealthy but aspires to change that situation and has hit upon an idea to improve his finances. Chichikov arrives in a small town and goes on a charm offensive, buttering up all the government officials and landowners in the area. At the time the book is set in there are infrequent censuses and as landowners have to pay what amounts to a poll tax for every serf that they own it means that they end up paying tax for people who are dead. The dead serfs aren’t removed from the tax system until the next census comes around.

Chichikov plans to buy up the dead serfs or souls as they are known, at a cheap price and the landowners are only to eager to sell their tax burdens on to him, although they have no idea why he would want to do them this favour.

Chichikov realises that if he goes to a bank and tells them that he owns a large number of serfs they will advance a huge amount of money to him, basically using the serfs as collateral, which means he could buy an estate of his own, or just pocket the money.

The townspeople are naturally suspicious of a person who wants to buy up dead serfs and all sorts of rumours go around about Chichikov and eventually he has to leave the area and travels to a different part of Russia where he tries the same scam again.

In fact it seems to me that Chichikov is never going to learn anything from his mistakes, he’s just going to repeat them all again, with his lying and cheating getting worse each time. Gogol wanted to highlight the greed and corruption within middle class Russian society and government officials. He certainly managed to do that and there are parts of the book which are daftly amusing. The third part of the book was burnt by the author and so the book is unfinished, in fact it ends mid sentence, which I found very annoying. I didn’t love this book but as with many classics, I’m glad that I read it as now I feel that I’ve added to my knowledge of Russian literature.

What strikes me about the whole thing though is that at the time that Dead Souls was written Gogol was obviously happy to write this book which slags off government officials, for the enjoyment of the readers. So the Imperial Russia of 1842s was a very much easier place to write about the shortcomings of society, compared with Russia of 100 years later, as in 1942 if anyone had denigrated the Communist officials like that they would have been quickly marched off to a labour camp, if not shot.

I read Dead Souls as part of the Classics Club, another one ticked off my list. I was also reading it along with Judith, Reader in the Wilderness, and she should be blogging about her thoughts on it soon.

The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Alexei Ivanovich is a young man who is tutor to the children of a Russian general. He has sworn an oath of undying love for Polina, a young relative of the general and they are all on holiday in a German town which has a casino. The general is deeply in debt and in danger of losing his estate.

The whole family is waiting for the general’s mother to die and leave them her money and when they hear that she is seriously ill they send lots of telegrams to ask how she is. Hoping to get news of her death. So when the elderly Madame de Cominge recovers her health and sees all the telegrams she isn’t exactly pleased and she takes herself off to the same hotel to tell her son the general that he won’t be getting any of her money.

The old lady takes to Alexei and asks him to take her to the casino. She has to be pushed everywhere in a chair and people are fascinated by the spectacle. At first she’s disgusted by the stupidity of the roulette players but it isn’t long before she’s hooked on it herself.

This is a quick read and another of the books on my 2011 reading list which I’ve had in the house waiting to be read for years. It’s quite enjoyable and it’s comical at times but mostly it shows you how easily people can become addicted to gambling which apparently is something which Dostoevsky had first hand experience of.

Going by this book – Dostoevsky had a very low opinion of Poles! Maybe all Russians were like that. This book was first published in 1867.

Selected Stories by Anton Chekov

I bought this wee paperback book from a local second-hand bookshop which has sadly closed down now – such is the way of the world. I used to love browsing in it and almost always found at least one treasure to take home.

Anton Chekov had quite a short life, being only 44 when he died and he had no idea that people would still be reading his work over 100 years after his death. He thought his work would be read for only seven years after his death, how wrong he was! Obviously he’s better known for his plays but this book of his early short stories is well worth reading. It’s sad to think that he was already ill with the tuberculosis which eventually killed him when he was writing them.

The stories are:

The Confession
He Understood
At Sea – A Sailor’s Story
A Nincompoop
Ninochka – A Love Story
A Cure for Drinking
The Jailer Jailed
The Dance Pianist
The Milksop
Marriage in Ten or Fifteen Years
In Spring
The Kiss
The Father
In Exile
Three Years
The House with the Mansard
The Darling

Some of the stories are very short indeed, just four pages or so whilst the one called Three Years is very long, I would call it a novella really as it’s ninety pages long.

Anton Chekov wrote about the lives of the peasants of Russia, the grim reality, which didn’t always go down well with those in authority but I’m glad that he gave us this peek into the lives of ordinary Russians, although it can be a bit grim, but life was grim for all ordinary people in the 1880s which is when these stories were written.

Once again, I have to say that it’s thanks to The Classics Circuit that I read this book. Until its Russian literature tour I had only read modern Russian literature, and not much of that either.

Poor Folk by Fyodor Dostoevsky

This is one of the books which was inherited by us many moons ago and I added it to my 2011 Reading List to make sure that I got around to reading it this year, at last.

It’s a series of letters between a tchinovnik (a minor civil servant) called Makar Dievushkin and a distant relative of his, Barbara Dobroselova. Despite the fact that they both live in rooms in tenements which are just across the road from each other and they can actually see each other’s windows, they rarely meet for fear that people will talk about them.

As the story progresses the letters become more and more loving and really I could have rattled the two of them and clunked their heads together. For some reason Makar feels that he is responsible for Barbara and he spends money on her which he doesn’t have. Civil servants seem to have received their salary quarterly or even bi-annually and Makar’s money has run out so he ends up in debt. Poor Makar turns to drink which of course just makes things worse.

He still buys shawls, dresses and sweets for Barbara at a time when his shoes are so worn through that he is almost walking on the pavement. Barbara puts up a small half-hearted protest about him spending money on her but she wants the finer things in life and it seems that she is waiting for a man with money to come along and solve her problems.

Makar is a bit of a ‘Mr Bean’ type of character so there is quite a bit of humour in the book but it is all a bit sad and depressing. (Well it is Russian.) A man whom Barbara despises proposes to her and she accepts as she believes she has no other choice and she is enticed by the thought of the clothes and the status which Bwikow says she will have as his wife. It’s obviously going to be disastrous for Barbara as Bwikow has already taken control of her movements before they even get married.

It’s worth reading even although it has a couple of characters that you feel like screaming at!