The Flight of the Maidens recounts the summer of three young women, friends in a small town in Yorkshire, after each has received a generous and prest...moreThe Flight of the Maidens recounts the summer of three young women, friends in a small town in Yorkshire, after each has received a generous and prestigious scholarship to a different university. The basic theme of the book is the process of separation of daughters from their family. It is 1946, and Britain is just beginning to recover from the Second World War. Gardam provides each of her heroines with a different struggle. One, Hetty, is deeply enmeshed with her mother and suffers an attendant obsessive and painful separation process on both sides. Una has middling relation to her somewhat distant and eccentric mother and is progressing nicely. Lieselotte is a Kindertransporte child, that is her Jewish parents sent her from Germany to England for safety in 1939. Presumably, they have died, but at least at the beginning of the book they are absent even from Lieselotte's memory. She lives at first in a kind of stunned forgetfulness in a silent Quaker household.
The three girls and Hetty's mother and father are fully drawn, effective characters. Two of the threads are peopled by some exotic and eccentric figures who might have wandered in from Evelyn Waugh or even P. G. Wodehouse. They are viable in their context, which is idle wealth.
No fighting is described in this book, but both the First and Second World War lie with a chilly hand. Una's father, a doctor, has killed himself as a result of what we would now call posttraumatic stress syndrome. Hetty's father suffers from similar psychological war damage, more of him later.
Besides Lieselotte's terrible story, the aftereffects of the Second World War remain in ration books, ruined buildings, and memories of friends killed in bombing raids.
In the middle section, Lieselotte takes long, obsessive walks through the ruin-scape of bombed out London that recalled for me Martha Quests' similar walks in Lessing’s The Children of Violence Series. Another daughter trying to separate.
It is also a story of daughters with absent fathers. Lieselotte of course, but note that only her father is mentioned, her mother never appears even in her memory. Una's father is a suicide. Hetty's father is present but damaged. Although an Oxford graduate, the only other character within scenting distance of the university, he works as a gravedigger and wanders through the town rather aimlessly looking in from the outside. In that sense, he is absent. But he is also the one who gives straight answers to Hetty when she asks questions, a relief for her from her mother's responses are always distorted by her intense fantasies about her relation with her daughter.
In terms of style, the book falls into three parts. The first part, before the maidens leave their homes, begins like any realistic novel, except with wittier characters and writing and better descriptions than most. This is very sharp writing. Each character is witty in a way appropriate to her particular personality.
It shifts into a period when the maidens are away from home in which they have adventures that rather resemble fairy tales. The fairytale quality rings true because, particularly for young women, entering the world maybe like entering the dangerous land of the skriker. It returns to realism toward the end as problems pile up and are resolved.
The characters in this book are sufficiently complex and vividly draw that you think about them rather as you might think about people you know. How successfully will these young women progress as autonomous individuals in the rest of their lives? I'm dubious about Lieselotte and Hetty. I feel the terrible stress on Lieselotte about who she is will leave her forever tense about how other people see her. I feel Hetty's wrenching struggle with her mother will always grip her. It's to the book's credit that I think about such things. (less)
The plot keeps you wondering from one page to the next, but in the end it's hard to figure out what happened. The prose is competent but choppy and oc...moreThe plot keeps you wondering from one page to the next, but in the end it's hard to figure out what happened. The prose is competent but choppy and occasionally includes bright figures of speech. The characterization is based on vivid physical images, but the characters are not fully human. The dialogue tends to be more informative than interesting, but is carefully adapted fit each each character.
The setting is San Francisco of 90 years ago, which is vividly described in physical detail. You learn a lot about streets, restaurants, and the inside of certain hotels. (One of the restaurants, John's Grill, is still operating, based largely on its appearance in the novel, and mostly for tourists. It's pretty good.) If you don't know, the McGuffin is that an extremely valuable gilded and bejeweled bird was created in the Middle Ages. It has disappeared in the random passage of history, and a group of colorful characters now pursue it with greedy obsession and without conscience.
The main interest of the book lies in a dance of deception between two sociopaths. The heroine/villain, Bridgid O’Shaughnessy, never speaks a true word, and the detective, Sam Spade, is only occasionally honest, but talks less and often practices obfuscation merely by manipulating his facial expression.
Characterization is a sort of Reductio ad absurdum of the doctrine that became popular decades later in many creative writing classes, "show, don't tell.” There are only occasional brief references to mental processes, mainly of the obese brid-seaker, Mr. Guttmann. Guttmann’s fat face is several times described in grotesque, Dickensian detail. It is not clear if these descriptions are intended to be comic or not. The tightly hobbled expression of inner life forces Hammett to provide lengthy self-descriptions by Bridget O'Shaughnessy, which amount a series of mutually contradictory soliloquies, and to obsessive description of facial expressions, gestures, and body language. Sometimes these prose mimes are asked to carry more meaning than they can credibly bear, particularly eyes:
"He stood beside the fireplace and looked at her with eyes that studied, weighed, judged, her without pretense that they were not studying, weighing, judging her. She flushed slightly under the frankness of his scrutiny, but she seemed more sure of herself than before, though a becoming shyness had not left her eyes."
Someone's eyes are described on almost every page of the book.
The detective is described many times as having yellow eyes and a V-shaped mouth. I've never seen a human being with such features, which suggests he may be a space alien, but I doubt that's what Hammett intended.
Considering that, is as far as we know, the heroine is a total self-fabrication, can it be a coincidence that Hammett's main squeeze was Lillian Hellman, of whom Mary McCarthy famously quipped, "Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'".
Many people's memories confound the book with the 1941 movie. In plot, the movie follows the book pretty closely, with a few cuts and simplifications, but in subtle but important ways it is quite different. In particular, Humphrey Bogart plays the detective. The detective of the book is an unusually large and physically intimidating man. Bogart was five foot nine and couldn’t play it that way. Moreover, Bogart is engaging and likable, whereas the detective of the book is harsh and cold. More generally, a movie loaded with good actors has the great advantage that actors can portray facial expression and body language much more richly and subtly than the printed page, so that they make up for the handicap of “show, don't tell.” The movie also softens the mindless viciousness of the characters in some secondary ways.
I give away nothing that you don't learn in the first few pages in reporting that the detective's partner is soon bumped off and that the detective has been sleeping with his partner's wife. I wistfully imagine a different novel that begins with the detective's thoughts about his relationship with the wife, whatever it may be, and hence how he feels about his partner, and hence what caring about people in general means to him. Then, when we learn the partner has been murdered, it would mean something to us.(less)
This is a charming, witty, wry book. It is made of 15 short stories. It is not deep, but it sparkles with edgy brightness. The stories are mostly abou...moreThis is a charming, witty, wry book. It is made of 15 short stories. It is not deep, but it sparkles with edgy brightness. The stories are mostly about men who have satirically rigid expectations about what kind of women they seek to involve themselves with (A tall man who likes short women, a man who wants more intellectual women, another who wants less intellectual....) Two of the stories are, however, about robots and bring sly, flexible, and novel insight to the problems of robots living among their human employers.
Here is an example of the general inventiveness: We open with a guy in a bar scene who is talking to a chemist friend. The friend claims to have solved the problem of cold fusion. The protagonist recalls the previous failures of cold fusion, but the chemist persists, saying he can make it work in most liquids, cocktails are particularly good substrates. Out of his pocket, he pulls and anode and cathode attached by wires to a reclusive battery. Soon the protagonist's drink begins to fizz and bubble. The protagonist excuses himself and soon ends up talking to a woman who explains that she is a psychic, but she does not give advice or predict the future, she recovers lost computer files. Everyone has had the experience of loosing work to a computer crash, she asserts, and in her readings, she has been able to recover whole paragraphs.
In another story, the protagonist is conversing with a feminist woman who is pressing him on his sensitivity to gender roles. The author summarizes part of their conversation
He told her he deserved to be treated as an individual, that, though he had been raised "as a man" (except during a brief disorienting period when his parents told him he was a crustacean) he was gentler than most.
It is off-the-wall touches like the parenthetical crustacean that make these stories special.
The characterization is not thick and it assumes at least vague familiarity with marginally techie 20 & 30 somethings. The plots are shifty and sometimes surprising. The prose is crisp and witty, but not thrilling.
The characterization of the robots is in a way the most interesting. We watch them stumble over the attitudes that have been programed into them. It makes me wonder how humans stumble over the attitudes that are programmed into us. (less)
**spoiler alert** This novel follows the adventures of three English people who have come out recently to join the ruling class in India in the early...more**spoiler alert** This novel follows the adventures of three English people who have come out recently to join the ruling class in India in the early part of the 20th century and of an Indian who becomes involved with them. The prose is effective but not exciting. Characterization is subtle and intimate. Plot is like life; events have consequences, but there is never a sense of the author shaping reality to the needs of drama. Narration is third person, omniscient author, and the author is free to make comments on the characters, events, and life.
The dialogue is crisp, realistic, and on occasion very witty. Speech tags are seriously lacking. I read the book aloud, and frequently had to interpolate the attribution of a bit of dialogue, and sometimes had to stop to figure it out.
The book has three main concerns: The relations between the English rulers and professional class Indians; Friendship; and the experience of an individual relating to the nature of the universe, which is seen here from something like a Hindu perspective.
The first three quarters of the book are set in an area of India that is described as in Bihar, but seems like West Bengal. That is, an area dominated politically and culturally by Muslim landowners, with a shadowy mass of poor Hindus who are mostly agricultural laborers. The last quarter of the novel moves to a Hindu native state.
The English characters who have been serving in India for some time are described as rigid and priggish. They treat Indians as nonpersons and retreat into a shell as anyone might do if surrounded by nonpersons. Early in the book an Indian comments something to the effect that any Englishman who comes to India goes bad in a year, and a woman in six months. Treatment of the wives of the administrators is particularly scathing. Perhaps it is because the men at least have to work with Indians, whereas the women are closeted in their homes and the English-only club. The main English characters are our hero, Fielding, who is been in India perhaps only a few months and is a caring, skeptical, person who maintains his ties with anyone he happens to like, and two women: a young woman who has come out to decide whether to marry an administrator, and the frail and sensitive mother of the administrator, who accompanies her.
The novel is pessimistic on this score: the implication is that it will never be possible for the English and the Indians to have consistently human relations.
The main Indian character is a mercurial, poetic, engaging, sentimental Muslim doctor who works for the British. He becomes friendly first with the mother when she and he have a meeting of the minds as she sympathetically visits a mosque and does not act like an overlord. Through her, he becomes a close friend of Fielding. It is his friendship for the mother, the mother's friendship for the possible fiancé, and most of all the off-and-on friendship between Fielding and the Indian doctor that hold he book together. Off-and-on because of the events that unfold.
The plot turns on something that happens to the fiancée when she visits one of a group of caves. In these dark caves, she confronts the absence of structure. The caves have the property that reflection from the curved, glassy walls transforms any light, say a match stirking, into a sort of writhing squiggle, and, more important, any sound – any sound, a footfall, your name, the rustle of a crowd, – transforms into a single low roar. This phenomenon is the objective correlative of the absence of structure. I'm no expert on Hindu metaphysics, but I understand that for an intellectual Hindu the ultimate reality is something formless that includes nonbeing as well as being. Confronted with this phenomenon, the English girl, fragile because of insecurity about her emotional life and her future, panics terribly, and eventually accuses the Indian doctor, who was in fact absent, of sexual assault.
In a broader and less intense way, from time to time, Forster writes in his own voice about the relation between the individual and the nature of reality.
The English community circles its wagons and puts the doctor on trial. It becomes a political trial and the object of mass demonstrations. In the witness box, the fiancée somehow gets a grip on what happened and retracts the charge -; the doctor is acquitted. Her retraction is an example of Forster's realism, which is rooted in the mysterious quality of life as both random and inevitable, rather than in any kind of theory. It is both surprising and convincing.
The lives of the characters in the setting where they originally appeared are now shattered and they scatter. The last quarter of the book is about when the sane Englishmen, Fielding, and the doctor meet again a few years later in a Hindu native state where the latter has taken a job and Fielding is making an inspection tour. Though they have a deep and convivial feeling for one another, in the end, Fielding has been at least partially sucked into the English attitude, and the trial has forced the doctor to become a militant Indian nationalist, so their friendship cannot endure.
Stereotyping is important in this book, and Forster explores it and its consequences in detail. With the exception of Fielding and the two women, the English overlords stereotype the Indians as nonhuman. Indians stereotype the English as arrogant and capricious. The Muslims show casual contempt for the Hindus. The attitude of the Hindus towards Muslims is never really explored. But Forster also is guilty of stereotyping, seeing the Indians as casual about veracity and commitment, and making some generalizations about "Orientals" as if the Orient contained no Chinese, Japanese, Indonesians etc.
I want to add a note about the movie directed by David Lean. On its own terms, I think it's a good movie, but it departs from the meaning of the book in two important respects. In the movie the reason for the fiancée's panic is sexual anxiety, provoked in part by a bicycle trip through jungley erotic sculptures, which is not in the novel. The absence of form can invoke feelings related to undisciplined sexuality, but the novel is not centered on sex. Second, in the end Fielding and the Indian doctor are separated by circumstances, rather than Forster's vision of the impossibility of rulers being friends with the ruled.(less)
I listened to this novel in the excellent recording by Sean Barrett of the English translation by Philip Gabriel. Kafka on the Shore is a Bildungsroma...moreI listened to this novel in the excellent recording by Sean Barrett of the English translation by Philip Gabriel. Kafka on the Shore is a Bildungsroman. On his 15th birthday our hero, who has renamed himself Kafka after the Check writer (Kafka means 'crow' in Check), runs away from home where he has been living in estrangement from his father and in the absence of his mother, who ran away years before. Is there an instance in Murakami of a father and son who get on? He is one of those Murakami young men who make a virtue for the reader of not knowing what to do with themselves. He is also running from Œdipus’ curse delivered as extended by his father: that he would sleep with his mother, sleep with his sister, and kill his father. It is difficult to write about this novel without injecting spoilers, but I think I can say that whether Kafka fulfills or avoids his curse depends on what it means to say something really happens.
This novel is not speculative fiction like Science Fiction, nor does it create a coherent alternate world like fantasy, but there are unworldly departures from the commonplace.
It includes at least two touching love stories, and a violent murder by a reluctant murderer.
This is a long novel with several fully developed secondary characters. The most important is a man who as a child was traumatized in a strange event during the second world war, which is recounted in full, and involves something that suggest American bombing of Japan and as well the sexual fantasies of his grade school teacher. The victim grows up in a sense retarded, but able to converse with cats (Who can name a Murakami novel without a cat?) and his special powers enable him to effect the denouement. Another important character is a transsexual librarian who is a bit of an authority on everything and a mentor to the hero. Another is an uneducated truck driver who befriends the cat whisperer, learns to like Beethoven, and is treated for his good works to a hot prostitute who explains Hegel to him. His physical strength contributes to the denouement. So you see, there are many threads and arrangements blended carefully into the conclusion.
A secondary personage who has important role in the plot manifests as Colonel Sanders. He explains that he is neither a god nor a Buddha nor a person. Really, he is a sort of plot device, but utterly credible in another way, and teaches us something about the issue of character-driven plots and vice versa.
During the course of many trials and temptations, the hero spends some time in a distant forest that suggests purgatory but also suggests the Western Paradise of Pure Land Buddhism.
The hero has some remarkable erections in unworldly circumstances. Can anyone name a Murakami novel without remarkable erections?
I feel I am failing utterly to give the tone of this novel. It must sound chaotic and self-conscious. It is not. It is orderly and full of surprising but inevitable plot maneuvers. It is serious, entertaining, and moving.
For me the key to apprehending reality in unreality lay in the character and action of lady Rokujo in TheTale of Geji, which the worldly-wise librarian is at pains to explain to the questing hero. Lady Rokujo is one of Genji’s many lovers. The Buddhist psychology that underlines Lady Murasaki’s characterization requires that each person have a ruling aspect, and allows people to have spiritual extensions of themselves, like ghosts. But these extensions may manifest while the person is alive. Lady Rokujo's ruling aspect is jealousy, and, without the corporeal Lady Rokujo even knowing it, her spiritual extensions slowly kills a competing lover.
It is in a world that includes such kinds of reality that Kafka undergoes trials and temptations and learns to be a person through many adventures both realistic and remarkable. (less)
This novel provides the usual pleasures of reading Jane Austen: Elegant and incisive prose. I took particular pleasure in her long sentences, often wi...moreThis novel provides the usual pleasures of reading Jane Austen: Elegant and incisive prose. I took particular pleasure in her long sentences, often with more than one dependent clause, and even dependent clauses within dependent clauses, which remain lucid and thus articulate the relationship between ideas. A plot that is the usual question of finding a husband for the heroine and for other important female characters, threaded among complex circles character conflict and family and class relationships. Leading characters that are thoroughly realized human beings. Jane Austen tends to keep her distance from her characters –; she presents them a little bit as if they were in a painting we all admire. This distance is more striking in this novel than in, say, Pride and Prejudice. Austin does not like all these people she has created, and freely spends the sharpness of her wit upon them.
The pater familias of this novel is Sir Thomas Bertram, baronet. His wife, Lady Bertram, is a woman so indolent as to be almost inanimate. Her younger sister had married below her class and had several children by a drunken sailor. The baronet takes one of these daughters into his household at age 8, the protagonist, Fanny Price. Lady Bertram has another sister who is part of the household by virtue of being married to the clergyman annexed to the baronet’s estate, Mrs. Norris. Aunt Norris is not exactly a villainess, but she is so self-centered, self-deceiving, and power-hungry that she harms the lives of everyone around her especially Fanny. She never lets Fanny forget she is a poor relation although, or because, Mrs. Norris is in a similar position.
Two issues interested me in this rereading of the novel: the limitations of Fanny as a heroine, and telling rather than showing.
Fanny is no Elizabeth Bennett. Though she is smart and eventually grows up pretty, Fanny is a problematic because she is a boring little prig. I have heard her compared to the treacle-sweet heroine of Bleak House. There is considerable tension in this novel between what we might see as moderate sexual license versus an attitude of intense and fearful defense of an appearance of chastity and fidelity. All this in an society where the threat of scandal could quickly ruin a woman's life. For example, while the baronet is away tending to his estates in Antigua, the young people stage a somewhat flirtatious and suggestive theatrical. Fanny is stubbornly opposed to such goings-on, which earns her points with a clergyman cousin who is a potential suitor and with her uncle when he returns. But does it earn points with the author or the reader?
To put this in context, note that Jane Austen's family frequently put on theatricals, usually restoration comedies, when she was growing up in which she almost certainly performed. Bear in mind also the recent republication of Austin's early novel Lady Susan, in which the heroine is a sexual predator, and that Jane Austen's aunt almost certainly derived what little financial security she enjoyed from being the mistress of Warren Hastings.
Fanny has integrity, intelligence, and stubbornness and sticks to her guns when various family members put pressure on her to marry a man whom she perceives to be wrong for her. She also passingly brings up the morality of the slave trade with her uncle, albeit inconclusively. As far as I know that is the only mention of the slavery, a live issue at the time, in Austin's work.
In creative writing classes and stereotyped advice to writers you often hear the formula, "show don't tell.” I note with interest that the final three chapters of Mansfield Park, which very successfully tie up numerous plot lines and consummate or foresee various marriages, are entirely told. Of course, we know all the characters pretty well by then so we don't need "showing" as an exposition of character. But still, it is a resounding example contrary to the "show don't tell" formula. (less)
**spoiler alert** Reading this book you're closely following the thoughts and feelings of the main character and the principal secondary character. Th...more**spoiler alert** Reading this book you're closely following the thoughts and feelings of the main character and the principal secondary character. The main character a Vietnam vet, in 1974, is deeply burdened by memories of physically and morally horrendous incidents in the war. The secondary main character is a novitiate at a farm that is a Catholic nunnery who is trying to make up her mind to take her vows. Each character is seeking equanimity. While this book focuses on the course their individual experiences, their experience is always involved in a set of binding relationships, mostly with his large family, to which the novitiate is a friend. These friends and relatives have serious problems of their own, which is part of their closeness. These characters sometimes feel lonely because of their struggle, but the reader always knows that they are not alone.
The critic Ivor Winters once described the poetry of Wallace Stevens as, somewhere "the thought takes place in the images.” Chessman brings this technique to narrating the thoughts and feelings of her characters with remarkable felicity. Often their conversations are rather tacit, but you know what they think and what their thoughts mean to them because of her lucid descriptions of the world as it exists at the moment they're speaking or when, later, their feelings are evolving. Each scene is a metaphor for what people are feeling there. This may seem like the much-disparaged pathetic fallacy (“It was a dark and stormy night….”) but she executes it with such grace and care that it is very seldom uncomfortable. Here is an example:
[After a disturbing revelation] “Back at home, I sat out on my second-floor porch for a while, trying to calm down. One of my neighbors, an old, old Polish man, came tottering out of his house with a watering can. I watched him filling the cam, walking it over to the little patch of garden where he planted what books like tomatoes, lettuce, basil, zucchini, and a whole bunch of weeds. Maybe the old guy had a landlord like mine who almost never came around to repair faucets or mow, much less help with the weeding. The old man wore a canvas hat to protect his wispy haired head from the sun.”
Related to this, the vet is a lapsed photographer who resumes his craft during the course of the story, and it is no coincidence that he is capturing and delivering images, as images have captured and delivered him for the reader.
Similarities and contrasts reminded me of some of the work of Robert Stone, another writer I greatly admire. Stone also frequently deals intimately with desperate people hostage to inward horrors, and as well with good nuns. But, while in Stone equanimity is in short supply and self-destruction usually triumphs, often in scenes of histrionic violence, in Chessman similar characters evolve toward quiescence. Stone's tortured characters are typically tortured by nature; Chessman’s are ordinary people suffering from the blows of life.
When I first read the last chapters of this book I shook my head in disappointment, thinking to myself, this is too nicey-nicey, this is to easy. The novice filled with exultations and beset by doubts quietly becomes a nun offstage and seems satisfied and indeed delighted with her life. The vet returns to his art, and through his art, through his friendship with the nun, and through his feeling for his family seems set on a successful, and tranquil life. Do I believe that in the real world such outcomes are possible? Absolutely, but they are somehow unsatisfactory in literary terms. They do not provide what Aristotle called a catharsis of pity and fear. . Chessman provides soothing like an evolution away from pity and fear. My discomfort raises questions about what ‘realism’ means in fiction. I mean, if we take, say, Balzac, as realism, it partly means his characters’ motives are base and their periods of happiness brief. But, really, people’s motives are sometimes noble, or at least not base, and lives are sometimes happy. I think Chessman would not mind my discomfort. She is noting that resolution lies in ordinary things.
Note the remarkable range of Chessman’s subject matter. Her first novel, Ohio Angels, which I have not read, is set in the midwestern city she grew up in. Her second novel, Lidia Cassatt Reading the Morning Newspaper, which I consider a masterpiece, is set in late 19th-century Paris among the sort of people your meet in James’ The Ambassadors. Her third novel, Someone Not Really Her Mother, recounts the story of a family dealing with the Alzheimer's of their matriarch. The family is in New England and the Jewish matriarch escaped from the Nazi’s in France and lived in England, though her memories are fleeting away. Then this novel set among Catholics of Irish origin in New England. The three I know offer real characters with full verisimilitude. They each involve certain preoccupations: family, the drama of non-drama, the importance of things unspoken, death, and the importance of inner life.
Quite a level of accomplishment in the way of an author putting yourself in different worlds and people. (less)
The bulk of this novel is descriptions of pranks played by Satan’s retinue on bureaucrats and other citizens of soviet-era Moscow. It is a little like...moreThe bulk of this novel is descriptions of pranks played by Satan’s retinue on bureaucrats and other citizens of soviet-era Moscow. It is a little like Terry Southern's The Magic Christian. The pranks fit in a tradition associated with the Faust legend; there are lots in Marlowe's Faust, Goethe’s Faust, and Boito's, Mephistopheles, for example. The book has a reputation as a satire of Soviet bureaucracy in the tradition of Gogol or of Dostoyevsky’s The Double, but, while you get a sense of what it was like to be a member of one of the all-important writers organizations, to live in their quarters, to face living in overcrowded apartments, and to live in fear of institutionalization in psychiatric hospitals, it is not a satire in the sense that sharply delineates a perspective on his victims. There are a lot of yucks in this book, but the jokes could be on the pretentious and greedy of any nation. The prose style is inconsistent. Part of the book is taken up by several chapters of a conventional historical novel about Pontius Pilate' role in Jesus' crucifixion. Toward the endof the novel, the prose grows more lush and romantic. There is a witch's Sabbath, and the final ride into the darkness of eternity by Satan, his retinue, and a couple of the recently dead, has a Gothic, elegiac quality. There are surprising hits of feminism in Margarita's enthusiastic response to becoming a witch. Characterization is imaginative rather than deep. There are six major characters, Satan, his retinue , and the titular master and Margarita, who by the way, don't appear until about a third of the way through the novel. There are dozens of minor characters, amusing little caricatures of Soviet types. The plot is hard to follow. The book's strengths are imagination, the wealth of secondary characters, and ingenuity of the jokes played by the retinue.
It is little hard to understand why Pontius Pilot is so prominent in this work. Pilate embodies the conflict in early Christianity about whether Christ was killed by the Romans (a version of history preferred by early Christians who were a Jewish sect) or by the Jews (a version preferred by the Church after it become the Roman state religion) and embodies the problems inherent in the concept of predestination, that is — was Pilate personally guilty of ordering Christ's execution, or was he merely playing a necessary part in a predestined sacred drama. But it is not clear how either conflict fits into the book as a whole. Pilate may represent a darker version of the Soviet bureaucracy.
The novel bares an epigraph from Goethe's Faust where Mephistopheles says, "I am part of that power which eternally wills evil and eternally works good.” This observation made a little more sense out of various parts of the book including role of Pilate.
The book was written in fits and starts over many years during which Bulgakov suffered the alternation of favor with dangerous disfavor many artists suffered in Stalin's time and suffered also upheavals in his personal life. Perhaps if we understood these misfortunes better we would understand the book better. But would that make it better?(less)
This novel is about the effect of the fame of a well-know actor on the people around him. He is a very well-established Hollywood...moreThe flatness of fame
This novel is about the effect of the fame of a well-know actor on the people around him. He is a very well-established Hollywood figure, on a level with Clint Eastwood or Paul Newman. The effects are reported in separate chapters from the points of view of his children, girlfriend, his ex wives, and a couple of background characters, some narrated in first person, some in omniscient third person. The chapters are arranged sequentially in story time so that the reader is engaged in questions of outcome, mostly about the fate of romantic relationships, but most poignantly between the actor and his son. Thus there are two tropes doing the work of a plot in a more standard novel, the reader’s engagement with the outcome of these relationships, and a gradual accretion of information and feeling about that effect of fame, like a movie of the process of a painting filling up with images. The prose is graceful, clear, not flashy, but sometimes borders on the prose of romance novels. I read this book aloud and I note that from time to time I spontaneously left out phrases that seemed to me redundant. I did not need them to complete my listener’s understanding. (Parenthetically, I report that the protagonist's name is Renn (short for Renaldo). I was half way through the book when my listener asked me if his name were spelled “Wren”). Many fine novels have ben written in approximately this way. The first that comes to mind is Faulkner’s masterpiece As I Lay Dying, and they resemble epistolary novels that pay telling attention to the diversity of their character's style and emotions like another masterpiece, Les Liaisons Dangereuse.
But there is something flat about these characters. I thought at first it was because novels that set out to show how trivial the world of their characters is often become trivial themselves, like, dare I say it, The Great Gatsby. But this book does not trivialize the characters; it merely did not quite make me care who they are. Of course there are many novels about Hollywood, often by outsiders and who try to trivialize it, like The Loved One or The Deer Park. They tend to be lesser efforts of their authors. As I was reading about Renn, I recalled an interview with Marylyn Monroe that went something like this: Someone asked her a question like, 'What do you want to be when you grow up?' She answered she didn’t want to be anything in particular; she just wanted to be ‘wonderful’. I thought to myself, no wonder she killed herself. You can’t just be wonderful; that is empty; you have to be wonderful at something. Maybe I am the wrong kind of person to read this novel. The generally favorable review in the New York Times begins by the reviewer boasting that he can name the children in order of a Hollywood couple, although he does not particularly go to their movies. I had vaguely heard their names, but did not know they were married let alone had children. The effect of the protagonist’s fame on one character is not fully portrayed, and that is on the protagonist himself. He works hard, very hard, has a social conscience, has grown pampered and egocentric, and is generally a good guy, but thoughtless about the consequences other people of his acts for, particularly choice of lovers. The novel implies it is his fame that makes women want to go to bed with him, but I certainly know people of all genders who have on the surface not much to recommend them, but encounter no trouble finding lovers of problematic consequence. All this about Renn, but I never felt what acting meant to him. One of the Hollywood novels by outsiders is Robert Stone's The Children of Light. Stone pokes some fun, but does not trivialize Hollywood; Stone’s characters suffer too much to be trivialized. The main character is an actress who depends on psychoactive medication to stave off madness. At one point she is discussing a difficult role she has undertaken with the protagonist, who is her confidant. Refereeing to her meds she says, “You should try acting behind those things”. She is willing to risk madness, whose horrors she knows well, to fulfill her calling. And, in fact, she does stop taking her meds, loses it, leading to one of Stone's typical bang-up endings. There is more bite in her one little question than all we leaner of what acting or fame matters to the protagonist of Little Known Facts. I wrote above of an accretion. Perhaps that is the problem. It is accretion, not peeling away; it is not like Peer Gynt’s onion. It seems to me that if we really understood what the protagonist meant to himself, the author would necessarily have written the effects of his life differently and would have had to etch each character deeper.
Let me add that Sneed has written some very fine short stories; I know she can do better. (less)