Zurich, Salzburg and Vienna; Hustvedt, Cather, Bulgakov

This month’s reading has again been reduced by pressures of work, but also by travel. With Mrs TD I went to Vienna for a few days, stopping off en route (all by train – a great way to travel and see the snow-covered mountains close up) at Zurich and Salzburg for a few days each. Good to see memorials in these places to the artists who’d lived there: James Joyce in Zurich; in the same city The Cabaret Voltaire, where the founders of Dadaism used to meet, was empty and boarded up, unfortunately.

Salzburg was also where Stefan Zweig lived for some years; his villa sits high on a hill overlooking the city, and there’s a bronze bust of him nearby. I’ve posted here on two of his novels, both of which I enjoyed: The Post Office Girl and Beware of Pity. Mozart is of course associated with Salzburg, his birthplace, and Vienna, where he lived and worked.

There we managed only a few of the many museums and galleries – Klimt and the other artists of the early 20C were our prime targets, but we also made a point of going to the Sigmund Freud museum. This is where he and his family lived, and where he developed his theories of psychoanalysis on the basis of the clients he saw and treated (is that the right word?) there.

Now for the month’s reading:

Siri Hustvedt, What I Loved Sceptre, 2016; 20031

I nearly abandoned this during the first third, but then it picked up and I finished it. I can’t say I really liked it, though. A New York art critic (whose wife is a literary critic) and an avant garde artist (whose wife is a poet – you see the basis of my resistance to this novel) become friends. There are too many high-octane discussions involving art theory, literary theory, philosophy, and long descriptions of the artist’s work, and these tend to clog the narrative. Even when the plot picks up as their respective sons grow up and problems arise, I couldn’t summon much enthusiasm for the proceedings.

Willa Cather, My Ántonia VMC no.22, 1990; 19181

I got on with this one far better – at least, for its first third. Here we get the fascinating story of a young man’s journey west from Virginia to the vast empty plains of Nebraska, to live with his paternal grandparents after the death of his parents. On the journey he meets the Shimerda family, which includes Ántonia (the stress is on the first syllable). They’re from what Cather calls Bohemia, and only Ántonia speaks much English.

She and her family become the narrator Jim’s pioneer farming neighbours, and a firm friendship grows up between them. There are some great anecdotes along the way: Jim kills a huge snake, two Russian neighbours are said to have been involved in a gruesome sleigh journey beset by wolves…

The final two thirds dragged more. The central characters become adults and go their different ways. The lure of the town introduces tensions in the friendships of the various young women and men, and some of them struggle to maintain equilibrium. You’d expect the plot to involve a romance between the two central characters, but Cather avoids doing this. I’m not sure she pulls off what she does try to do with them. It’s a good read, though.

Mikhail Bulgakov, The Fatal Eggs Alma Classics, 2020; 19251. Translated by Roger Cockrell.

A satire on early Soviet Russian ineptitude and bureaucracy that taps into the sort of dystopian sci-fi of an author Bulgakov admired: HG Wells. The plot bears some resemblance to The Island of Dr Moreau (1896) and The Food of the Gods (1904). As in these two novels, the plot involves demonstrating the disasters that can ensue when scientists play god and dabble with the ways of nature. In that respect it also owes a debt to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. For my various posts on this seminal gothic novel there’s a link HERE.

Professor Persikov is an eminent zoologist who accidentally discovers a light ray that stimulates and accelerates fertility in the creatures on which he’s experimenting. When agents of the state hear about the remarkable results, they want to exploit the possibilities of his discovery by using his techniques to increase productivity of animals bred for food. Being inept and bureaucratic, they make blunders, and all sorts of mayhem follows.

The satire is fairly heavy-handed, but the narrative rattles along at a pleasing pace, and there’s some wry dark humour (and some gruesome retribution from the animal world – as in Frankenstein).  The novella is just over a hundred pages long, so can be enjoyed easily in a couple of sittings.

I’ve posted on several of the titles in this Alma Classics set of Bulgakov’s fiction:

The Master and Margarita

 The White Guard

 A Young Doctor’s Notebook

Another satire on unethical scientists, A Dog’s Heart

 

 

Williams, Mantel, Bulgakov: buffalo, sad cases and chimeras

More recent reading.

John Williams, Butcher’s Crossing (Vintage, 2014; 19601) A very different, more brutal and elemental novel from the author of Stoner. Young Will Andrews travels west to Kansas, to the prairie buffalo-hunters’ town (aptly) named in the title, after three years at Harvard, to escape the urbane conformity of eastern civilisation in search of his ‘unalterable self’ in the wilderness. His Ahab-like quest also becomes a sort of Heart of Darkness trip: Miller, a seasoned, gritty hunter-trapper who knows this wild territory better than anyone, takes him and two other troubled men deep into the unmapped country in search of a legendary secret valley in the Colorado Rockies where, ten years earlier, he’d stumbled upon a huge herd of buffalo.

These animals had been hunted almost to extinction everywhere else. The railroad is rumoured to be coming to Butcher’s Crossing, and the old ways of life are doomed. What follows is a harrowing account of hardship and bloodshed. The group of hunters is pushed to the limits of endurance by the land and the elements. Will’s life, he realises, has been changed irrevocably. As in reading Moby-Dick, it’s apparent something allegorical is going on. I’m not quite sure what, but it’s perhaps something to do with our species pretensions, humanity’s obsession with cynical, destructive domination of the eco-system, and the thinness of our veneer of sophistication compared with the wild things we exterminate. We are, after all, poor, bare, forked animals ourselves.

It’s a beautifully written novel, but the hunting scenes are not for the squeamish.

Hilary Mantel, A Change of Climate (Penguin, 1995; 19941) The settings in placid, rural Norfolk and violent apartheid-era South Africa and Bechuanaland underpin this moving family drama. Ralph Eldred runs a charitable homeless refuge in London, and his family take social outcasts (‘sad cases’ or ‘good souls’) into their own home. But an oppressive paternal back story and a tragic event when he and his wife when first married were missionaries in Africa haunts him and, indirectly, his growing family back in East Anglia in 1980. Beneath the benign surface of this loving, caring ménage there is hopelessness, betrayal, passion and suffering. The novel is a bit short on events in the English-set sections, but it’s a gripping, sensitively constructed portrait of a damaged family who try to do good, to find fulfilment, perhaps love, but the dark secrets keep obtruding.

I’ve posted on two other Mantel novels here at the Days: Beyond Black and An Experiment in Love, both with modern settings (link HERE) – very different from her now more famous historical trilogy. Her range and artistry are impressive. She’ll be much missed.

Mikhail Bulgakov, A Dog’s Heart (Alma Classics) I’m slowly working my way through this bargain set from Alma books of the Ukrainian doctor and author (1891-1940). This novella was first published in 1925, but was confiscated by the Soviet government and banned for its anti-revolutionary satire (like most of his other writings). A cultured scientist-surgeon coaxes a stray street mutt, Sharik (= Fido) back to his home, an apartment larger than most of his fellow Muscovites’, using tasty sausage as the bait. His motives are not entirely charitable. What follows is a kind of spin on the Frankenstein story. It’s not giving too much away to reveal that he’s experimenting with human-animal chimera surgery. Poor, streetwise Sharik becomes a wisecracking, boorish man-monster. Although he displays some of the traits of a civilised person, his dog nature can’t be suppressed, and he behaves very badly. Local cats and the professor’s maid are particularly vulnerable. When he starts spouting anti-bourgeois clichés it’s easy to see why the regime banned this novella. (This was the turbulent period of the ‘new economic policy’, instigated by Lenin and continued in 1924 by Stalin to try to revive the failing post-revolution economy by relaxing laws forbidding private enterprise, and promoting a kind of diluted state-sanctioned capitalism. Maybe our recent and not lamented disaster of a Prime Minister, Liz Truss, was inspired by this book…)

My brief summary perhaps indicates that it’s not the most subtle of satires – but it still has some bite.

I posted on Bulgakov’s best-known novel, The Master and Margarita, HERE, and The White Guard HERE.

In another of these recent reading roundups I posted briefly on A Young Doctor’s Notebook (link HERE).

Great and terrible year: Bulgakov, The White Guard

Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940) The White Guard (Alma Classics, 2016)

I bought a half-price bundle of Bulgakov novels from Alma as I’d never read his work before, and thought I’d show some solidarity with war-scarred Ukraine. I started with the surreal-satirical The Master and Margarita (posted about last month HERE).

The White Guard is an early, largely autobiographical novel begun in the early 1920s. It took Bulgakov years to complete, and went through many redactions. A final version in Russian proofread by Bulgakov was published in Paris in 1929 – there was a substantial émigré Russian population there. It wasn’t published in a complete version in Soviet Russia until 1966. Again it’s highly relevant to the terrible situation in Ukraine today.

It’s set in Kyiv in the harsh winter of 1918-19, a ‘great and terrible’ year, as the novel’s opening words describe it, when the city was shelled and besieged by right-wing nationalist forces exploiting the departure of the German troops who’d defended it until their defeat in November in WWI. There’s a scattered, ineffective defence by raw cadets and a few officers – most of whom had deserted. They’re under-equipped, disorganised and overwhelmed by superior opposition forces – similar in many ways to the tragic events that are taking place in Ukraine now.

Everyday life in Ukraine’s capital has become terrifyingly dangerous. Then, as now, its citizens hear the awful sounds of artillery shells bursting ever nearer the centre of the city. Their attackers show no discrimination in their assault: then as now the tactic is to annihilate the fabric of the cities attacked, and to drive out the inhabitants or kill them if they remain. Arbitrary acts of anti-Semitism and cold-blooded murder are frequent.

The plot centres upon the Turbins, a cultured bourgeois White (pro-Tsar, with allegiance to pre-revolutionary Russia) family and their close circle of friends. Alexei, a young military doctor (as Bulgakov was) is wounded in the conflict and narrowly escapes death (possibly after a mystical intervention by the Virgin Mary). His sister Yelena’s husband, an officer in the Ukrainian forces supposedly defending them, has (like most of his peers) deserted his city and his wife.

It’s a stirring, gripping account of ordinary city folk enduring terrible hardship at the hands of a cruel and murderous enemy – the nationalists are about to be succeeded in their onslaught by the Bolsheviks (Reds). This is perhaps why Bulgakov’s stage play based on this novel was said to be Stalin’s favourite, and why the author was not sent to a gulag or executed, rather than just censored: he portrays the invincible, crushing might of the Bolshevik revolution, against which the Chekhovian bourgeois-liberal ignorance and dreaminess of the likes of the Turbin family and their friends are inevitably doomed to be eliminated.

The style has a modernist, fragmented approach (songs, poems, dreams) and tone that reminded me of Döblin’s Alexanderplatz, among others (maybe Dos Passos, too, with its random snippets of newspaper stories and unattributed dialogue). Eisenstein’s montage technique in film also comes to mind – especially in a parade/religious service scene near the end when the nationalist forces are celebrating victory.

Amid all the savagery Bulgakov shows love and hope in this family and their friends. There are some apocalyptic and literary allusions (especially to War and Peace and more generally to the fiction of Dostoevsky), strange symbols and magical/surreal moments, as in The Master and Margarita – see the link above to my post. Some of these contribute to the sense that none of the factions in this terrible war is perfect; the focus on the White Turbin family presents them with all their illusions, prejudices and flaws, while the nationalists and Reds who are about to crush their lives and culture are portrayed more as ruthless ideologues rather than the romanticised saviours that Stalin would normally have preferred in such representations. It’s all, as Stephen Blackpool says with characteristic stoical bafflement in Hard Times, a muddle.

I read it while suffering from a heavy cold, which added to the sense of weirdness in the narrative. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the dreadful news from Ukraine that fills our airwaves daily, then you might prefer to give this novel a miss. On the other hand, it provides vivid historical context to these events, a salutary reminder that Soviet-sympathetic Russia has always had designs on Ukraine’s territory and people, and is convinced that it has an imperialist (if not divine) right to sovereignty over a nation whose separate, independent and autonomous existence it refuses to recognise or respect.

 

Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita

Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita. Translated from the Russian by Michael Glenny (Everyman’s Library, 1992)

I thought I’d show some solidarity with besieged, invaded Ukraine by reading this novel by Kiev-born Bulgakov (1891-1940). He began work on it in 1928, and worked on various drafts until just before his death. It was first published in censored form in Russia 1966-67 and in smuggled-out versions in Paris and Frankfurt over the next couple of years. The first complete Russian edition appeared in 1973. It was dangerous and futile to try to publish anything under Stalin’s murderous regime that showed even the slightest hint of anti-Soviet thinking. As a large part of this novel pokes gleeful fun at the corrupt ways of Muscovites in that era, its fate was always going to be troubled.

Bulgakov Master and Margarita cover It’s a coruscating novel teeming with surreal incident and characters in multiple storylines. At its heart is a passionate love story between the two in the title. Margarita, who doesn’t appear in person until Book 2, ch. 19, is unhappily married when she meets and falls in love with the unnamed master. His novel based on the story of Pontius Pilate’s crisis of conscience after sentencing Jesus to death has troubled him so much he burnt the manuscript. This reflexive part of the plot mirrors the struggles Bulgakov had with this novel. ‘Manuscripts don’t burn’, says the devil to the master when his MS miraculously reappears, intact. It could serve as the moral of this novel – censorship can only partially silence truth.

Margarita gets caught up in the small retinue attending on Satan on his visit to Moscow, where he causes mayhem with his trickster’s black magic and mischievous sending up of the venality and greed of its citizens. She acts as sexy hostess to his spring ball, a macabre event attended by the undead. There’s witchcraft and poison, decapitation and shape-shifting.

Interspersed is the story of Pontius Pilate and the crucifixion, then the master’s version. So it’s a novel, among other things, about writing novels: the blurred boundaries between supposed real life and fiction. No matter how fantastic and supernatural the story becomes, the narrative is always conveyed with conviction.

Just what it all means is difficult to pin down. It’s easy to see a satire on Stalin’s soviet regime – but it’s never overt or heavy-handedly done. There’s a lot of fun poked at the literary world in particular: the writers’ club members enjoy a hedonistic life while promoting artistic mediocrity, and critics attack the works of honest writers striving to say something worthwhile and original, like the master.

It seems also to show how a totalitarian regime imposes its own version of ‘truth’ on its people. What we now call fake news. It’s about morality and its opposite, or absence, good v. evil – among other things. If the state decrees you’re all atheists, what do you do when the devil shows up? If there’s no God, then how can you believe in the devil?

There’s a lot of dark humour. Particular satisfying are Satan’s attendants. Foremost among these is Behemoth, the wise-cracking, talking cat who rides the tram (and dutifully pays his fare), shows off his pistol-shooting skills (though these aren’t as good as he boasts), and relishes making fools of the police when they try to arrest him.

The humour and surrealism have a Gogolian/fantastic edge, maybe even a whiff of Lewis Carroll (though I have no idea if Bulgakov knew his work), but this is tempered by the lyrical historical-realist style of the Pilate passages.

This might all sound a bit of a dog’s dinner, but Bulgakov manipulates his material with such panache that it just about works. I did find some of the satanic antics sections went on just a little too long at times, but the overall zest of the narrative kept me turning the pages.

I gave up trying to figure out what the ultimate message might be, and just enjoyed the whole Walpurgis-night broomstick ride.

The bottom bar told me at the end of that last sentence that this post contained 666 words. I couldn’t leave it like that…