satan

DOCTOR FAUSTUS BY THOMAS MANN

Excuse me if I begin this review by talking a little bit about myself. Although do not fret, for very soon I will turn my complete attention towards that great man – yes, great – who is no longer with us and yet whose influence is felt now and will be felt with even greater intensity as the years pass. My name is Rudolf Spenglebrauschnitlespritzer. I was born of Catholic parents or, more specifically, of one parent – my father was lapsed to such an extent that one would doubt he was ever anything but – in the industrial heartland of the north of England. I first met [P] during our schooling, despite my being older than he by 18 months. Please, forgive these preliminaries, but I have never written a review before and do not know how to proceed in the best manner, in such a way as to maximise reader enjoyment. I can proceed only as the mood takes me, as the events come to me.

Young [P] was, of course, despite being destined for the greatness that I have already made mention of, not immediately striking as a personality. He was reserved, rather than shy. Without wishing to contradict myself, I would say that this reserved nature was striking, or was – and this is perhaps more accurate – intriguing. One felt that he was not afraid to talk to you, or embarrassed, but that he did not want to. I can’t say, even though I knew him from childhood all the way up to his death, that he and I were ever close. He would, for example, call me Spenglebrauschnitlespritzer, never Rudolf. And yet this man, this standoffish, reserved man, chose to compose, and post, the most personal book reviews. How to account for that, that tension? I do not know. I know that he was good at it, though, that his talent was enormous.

Before his death he was working on a new review, and I can’t help but feel unsettled by it. Simply thinking about that final work, that dark work, the now forever incomplete work that would have elevated him to stratospheric heights of fame, even within his own time, makes my flesh crawl. That work was a review of Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann. And so we come to the crux of the matter, the reason for my review. When [P] passed away in mysterious circumstances I was surprised to find that he left me not only his incomplete work on Faustus but a manuscript; this manuscript is, to say the least, alarming, and I have thought long and hard about whether I ought to share it with the public. The two men featured in this manuscript are unrecognisable to me. In any case, I present it here, in full and with no amendments. Let it serve as a testament to my friend, and as a warning.

I woke abruptly, perhaps from an unwelcome dream, to find that I was not alone. I had taken to my bed alone, for sure, and I had slept for some time, alone. How now had I company? And not just company, but a partner, for the body that was with me was – I swear it is true – actually beside me. My back to the presence, I felt the breath on my neck, hot breath, like the heat from a candle flame. Slowly I turned around.

He: Hello, [P].

I: Who are you?

He: Why the surprise, why the glum face? Are you not accustomed to waking up to a strange body beside you in bed?

I: Never like this, no. I ask you again: who are you?

He: Oh, I think you know.

I: What is your name, then?

He: They have given me many names; some I like more than others. But, again, names have never been such an issue for you before, so why belabour the point? Call me P.B., if you must, although that one is your own creation. Others know me as Mammon, or Satan. Take your pick, son.

I: Satan?

He: Don’t give me that look. You knew this day would come.

I: I guess I did. What do you want?

He: To help you. Throw me an extra pillow, will you? Thanks. I want to help you, son. Tell me, have you read any good books lately?

I: Are you trying to chat me up?

He: Ha! Believe me, I could have you anytime I wanted. I wouldn’t need to creep into your room late at night. Books, boy?

I: Yes, Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann.

He: That’s a great book.

I: Yes.

He: Going to write a review of that one, my boy?

I: I should think so.

He: You wrinkle your nose when you lie. I am the king of lies; there’s no way of fooling me. You won’t review Doctor Faustus; you’ve tried already and you found it impossible.

I: That’s right. I don’t know why, but I can’t seem to compose a satisfactory review.

He: You were drunk, quite often, while reading it.

I: It’s not that. It’s so dense, so static, so abstract. There is so little narrative momentum. How do you review something like that?

He: I could tell you.

I: Please do.

He: And for me? What would I get in return?

I: I don’t know. What do you want?

He: Ah, that is why I am here. To make a bargain with you, to strike a deal.

I: You suggest that I have something you want, doesn’t that put me in a position of power?

He: You always were a clever bugger. Talk to me about the book; did it move you, son?

I: Yes. I was very surprised about that. I identified with Adrian very much. Not the genius part, I wouldn’t say that…

He: How modest of you!

I: …but he is an isolated figure, in many ways. Intentionally so; by which I mean that he isolates himself, is not isolated by others. I feel that way a lot of the time, as though there is a barrier between myself and other people, as though I talk to them from behind glass. I must confess that I am to blame for this situation, that I encourage it. Indeed, Adrian is aloof, which is something I’m accused of more often than anything else.

He: The book isn’t about you, boy.

I: I know that. Perhaps it is part of my self-obsession that I look for myself in all things, that I only truly enjoy something when I can link it to my experience of the world.

He: Adrian is mad though, don’t you agree?

I: He certainly descends into madness. Was he always mad? He was always strange, yes, always peculiar in relation to others. I have a condition…

He: I know all about that.

I: …and one of the consequences of this condition is obsessiveness, a kind of intellectual obsessiveness, whereby I can get easily trapped inside my head to the exclusion of everything, and everyone, else. I saw that in Adrian. I couldn’t say whether it was intentional, if Mann meant to present him as someone with that kind of condition or whether he merely saw it as a way of…

He: Describing the process of a creative genius?

I: No. You’re putting words in my mouth. One can be obsessed with creative endeavours without being a genius.

He: It is so. Yet wasn’t Mann, quite plainly, making that link between genius and madness?

I: Yes, I guess so. Adrian deliberately contracts syphilis, a disease linked to madness. He catches it by sleeping with a woman.

He: Bummer.

I: An act of love, perhaps? Is he saying: I’ll take you, I want you, despite the consequences, despite your illness? That would be out of character though, I must admit.

He: Don’t speak to me of love, it gives me migraines.

I: In any case, as the disease takes hold Adrian’s creativity increases. Do you know Nietzsche?

He: I know him very well. We play golf on Tuesdays.

I: Nietzsche is said to have died of syphilis. His later years were characterised by an almost excessive creativity. The French writer Alphonse Daudet is another who had the disease. Quite apart from specific symptoms, there is that cultural link between the illness and creative people. What Mann was trying to say about that, I don’t know. On one level you could argue that Adrian’s genius as a composer wasn’t ‘part of him,’ wasn’t a necessary part, in that he had to become mad in order to deliver it. Or you could argue that the madness was a door which allowed the genius to step through and be exposed.

He: Very good.

I: Then there is the war. The German question. What can you say about that?

He: I don’t know, son. I was rather busy during that time.

I: That the man writing Doctor Faustus, the narrator, is living through the second world war…what was Mann getting at? That art or culture is, in a practical sense, not possible in those circumstances? That clearly isn’t the case. There are many instances of great art being born in times of war. Is he trying to say something similar to what Adorno said about how art is morally impossible after Auschwitz? That to engage in art, to create, after such atrocities is barbaric? One could even say Satanic?

He: Steady on, old chap. You’ll give me a complex.

I: Oh, I just don’t know. This is why I cannot review Doctor Faustus.

He: Hush, child. You’re doing fine. But aren’t you forgetting something important?  

I: What?

He: Me, you cretin.

I: Ah, yes. You. What about you? You have the best tunes, they say, and you appear in the best books too. The Faust legend. The encounter with the horned-one. What do I have to say about that?

He: Nothing?

I: Nothing of any note, sir. Adrian speaks to the Devil, makes a pact with him. The usual stuff: his soul for a reward, for the ability to compose something truly special. What is interesting is that Mann allows you to make up your own mind about whether the conversation, the pact, really happened. Adrian is crazy, and the Devil acknowledges that. Is it his madness that allows him to see the Devil? Or is it his madness that causes him to see the Devil?

He: What do you think?

I: What do I fucking know? I’m in bed with Satan right now! Clearly, I’m not qualified to make that call.

He: So what do you say, boy? I’ll give you a review, the best review ever written.

I: Y’know, I’d rather we had done this at a crossroads. Making deals in bed feels…kinda wrong.

He: But what do you say?

I: Ok. Sure. You can have my soul; it’s a pretty lousy thing anyway.

He: Marvellous. Ok, so this is how it works. Write up this conversation and leave it for your friend to post, that Rudolf Spenglebrauschnitlespritzer. The review will go…ayoop…through the roof, they’ll love it. Anything that has me in it is a winner. Of course, you won’t be around to enjoy the adulation. You’ll live for, oh, maybe a few more days. Yeah, you’re pretty much a dead man walking. I forgot to mention that? Small print is a bitch. Always read the small print, boy.

I: A few more days? Can’t you be more specific? I’ll be on tenterhooks.

He: Ok, so you’ll hear a song, I won’t say when but soon, perhaps when you’re in the supermarket, or on a bus or in the toilet. It’ll be ‘our song.’

I: Elton John?

He: What? That’s Your Song, you idiot.

I: Ok, so, what’s the song?

He: Boyz II Men ‘End of the Road.’

I: I love that song! Some people think it is cheesy, but fuck ’em. That spoken word bit at the end? ‘All those times you hurt me, and just ran out with that other fella…’ Fucking brilliant.

He: It’s a cracker. So, yeah, when you hear that song you have exactly 24 hours left. Make the most of them. If you want a tip I’d say hookers are a good place to start. Lots of expensive hookers.

I: Expensive hookers. Ok. Thanks.

The manuscript ends here. I don’t want to speculate about what [P] was going through that night, whether his visitor was real or imaginary. Clearly he was real for him. I can speak, however, about the accuracy of the prophesy, for [P] died of unknown causes within four days of the date at the top of the manuscript in my possession.

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THE SUFFERINGS OF PRINCE STERNENHOCH BY LADISLAV KLIMA

Only once have I been considered mad by the world at large. Yet it is, perversely, when I felt most sane. I sought advice from the doctor upon the urging of my intimates; and what did he say? Nothing! He cowered before my tears and my reason. I had stopped being able to laugh at life, to find absurd amusement in what Rene Daumal called ‘this monkey cage frenzy.’ My mind’s eye had been squeegeed clean. I saw clearly that a conventional existence was terrifying, painful…impossible. I could no longer continue in the hapless, mindless manner I had become accustomed to. Work, talk, fuck…and repeat. Impossible! The doctor gave me a prescription. I later found out that it was for the kind of drug they give to patients in mental institutions, the most unruly patients, who were, to quote, ‘literally climbing the walls.’ He wanted to sedate me, to dupe me into again accepting what I had renounced, what I felt as though I had transcended.

When looking back on myself during this period, I feel a sort of kinship with the Czech novelist and philosopher Ladislav Klíma. Certainly, no one could accuse the man of having lived conventionally. His personal philosophy, which naturally filtered into his work, manifested itself as a kind of non-conformism, in the rejection of societal norms, such that, for example, he spent his later years shining shoes, drinking heavily, and eating vermin. Moreover, Klíma is said to have destroyed a number of his manuscripts. One might speculate that he did so not because he doubted the quality of what he had produced but because writing and regularly publishing books could be considered a stable career, and therefore ought to be avoided. Yet some of his manuscripts did, of course, survive, including The Sufferings of Prince Sternenhoch, which is generally thought to be the most important, and best, of Klíma’s work.

“It is necessary to love – to love everything; even what is most revolting. Love is the cruellest, most difficult thing of all.”

The book begins with thirty-three year old Prince Helmut Sternenhoch, wealthy aristocrat, and confidante and favourite of Kaiser ‘Willy’ Wilhelm, taking an interest in Helga, a relatively poor seventeen year old girl. One’s initial impression of the Prince is emphatically a negative one. He calls Helga ‘downright ugly’, for example, and proceeds to enumerate her faults and physical failings: her movements are ‘sluggish’, her hair ‘bulky’, and so on. He was, he states, ‘absolutely ill’ when he first saw her. Indeed, so vicious is some of the criticism that I was concerned at this point that The Sufferings of Prince Sternenhoch was going to be unpleasantly misogynistic throughout. However, after a few pages one realises that Klíma is poking fun at Helmut, that one is meant to take against him, at least for the time being.

In the first half of the novel, Prince Sternenhoch is portrayed as arrogant and loathsome. He is a man who believes that he is superior by virtue of his position and his wealth, and that, regardless of his own behaviour, he is therefore deserving of the greatest respect. For example, he wishes to marry Helga in order to demonstrate his magnanimity, and, to a lesser extent, to shock and surprise [and amuse] others, including Willy. Making a young girl marry is for him a kind of game, a kind of self-flattery. He even threatens the girl’s father with jail when he does not show him due deference. Klíma further, and most obviously, lampoons the man when it is revealed that he is ‘only 150 centimetres tall’ and ‘toothless, hairless and whiskerless, also a little squint-eyed,’ upon which revelations he opines that ‘even the sun has spots.’

In spite of my initial concerns, Klíma’s novel is refreshingly critical of patriarchy and specifically the abusive treatment of women in relationships. To recap: the Prince is much older than Helga, he is ugly and conceited. Yet he appears to believe that the girl ought to be grateful to him for wanting to marry her. While it is true that he doesn’t himself force her, nor want to force her, there is still an underlying suggestion that Helga does not have any choice in the matter. She must, and she does, become his wife. Indeed, unsurprisingly, she is said to go to the alter ‘like a sacrificial lamb.’ Once married, it becomes clear that Helga finds her husband repulsive. She will not, for example, allow him to have sex with her, going so far as to flee to the stable when he enters her bedroom. This of course causes the Prince some consternation, for he, like many men of his [and perhaps our] time, believes that her body is his by rights of marriage.

If the book were more popular one images that Helga might be held up as a kind of feminist icon. Throughout, she is associated with, and surrounded by, powerful animals, by jaguars and lions and tigers, which of course symbolise her strength. She does not lay down, open her legs, and weakly submit to her husband, but rather she challenges him, ignores him, fights him, and calls him names. Indeed, she could be said to dominate him. Helmut may want to fuck, he may even want a loving relationship, but without her consent, without her approval, he can have neither. There is a chilling scene in the novel that I think best demonstrates the power balance in the relationship, which is when Helga murders the couple’s child [their only fornication took place on their wedding night, when she was still meek] because it looks like the Prince. The young Daemoness demands that the nanny take the blame, and Sternenhoch, who is terrified of her, agrees immediately.

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One might have noted the term Daemoness in the preceding paragraph, and it is necessary to explain its significance. For the Prince, Helga is not symbolically a demon, but rather a literal one. She has, it seems, supernatural powers, and they are not, let’s say, God-given. There is, in fact, much in the book that might lead one to describing it as a horror story. Yet, while I found all that a huge amount of fun, I am more interested in what it says about Sternenhoch and subsequently how it relates to one of Klíma’s principle themes, which is the nature of reality. It is clear as one makes one’s way through the book that the Prince is insane, and if it wasn’t then he openly declares it himself numerous times. Therefore, the behaviour of his wife, her demonic or devilish abilities, could be explained as simply a consequence of his madness, as a kind of hallucination.

What Klíma seems to be saying, and it is something that I have said myself many times prior to reading his novel, is that whatever you experience is your reality, that there is no concrete, objective reality, and that trying to convince yourself that there is such a thing is the surest, quickest road to madness. And so, if Sternenhoch sees his wife an an emissary of Satan, then that is what she is. It is no more unbelievable, no more insane, than any other version of ‘reality.’ On this, there is a fascinating discussion between the Prince and his wife, who believes that she is alive, yet dreaming, but who is, as far as he is concerned, quite dead [but haunting him]. Her life after her death is, she states, ‘only my dream, which I have probably been dreaming for only a short time in the forest, although it seems to be lasting an eternity.’ Moreover, to further complicate matters, the Prince wakes in his bed and wonders ‘what if this bed is in heaven? What if I am only dreaming that I have awoken? After all I must be dead, dead…’

There is so much more that I could discuss, specifically Klíma’s ideas about will, and ‘the self as God.’ In the novel, it is Helga – who considers herself all powerful, more powerful than God or the Devil in fact – who embodies this theory, which has much in common with Nietzsche’s Übermensch. As I understand it, the author believed that if you reject conventional moral, societal values, practices, etc, you become your own deity, and this is how he lived his life. However, there are passages in The Sufferings of Prince Sternenhoch that spell all this out, quite clearly, and, convinced that I really have nothing to add to what Klíma himself wrote, I will let you read about it for yourself rather than go over it in detail here.

What I do want to acknowledge before I conclude is just how readable, how relentlessly entertaining, I found all this to be. It is true that the book is somewhat repetitive, especially in the second half, when it revolves around the Prince’s meetings with the dead Helga, but I was never at any time bored or tempted to put the book down. Indeed, I flew through it at a breakneck, one might say mad, pace. Much of my enthusiasm could be put down to how genuinely funny it is. The Prince’s descent into insanity throws up some wonderful scenes, such as when he caresses his slipper in his lap, believing it to be a cat. My favourite, however, involves the gypsy, Esmerelda Carmen Kuhmist, who gives Sternenhoch a magical nut and convinces him that the best way to deal with his fear of his spooky tormentor is to shout ‘Ghost, jump up my ass!’ whenever he sees her. Which of course he does, repeatedly, hilariously. And so too will I, most likely, if I am ever again at the point of finding existence terrifying, painful….impossible. Life, jump up my ass!

THE DEVIL TO PAY IN THE BACKLANDS BY JOAO GUIMARAES ROSA

Do you believe, sir? In him, I mean. Not God, no; not God. The other one. The dark one. Prince of Darkness? Yes, I have heard him called that. And many other things. You’re a learned man, sir; I can tell…your clothes…you have money, of course, and no one makes money in this world without either education or spilling blood. Or both, perhaps. So you tell me, what should one call him? Or is it better not to call him, for in calling one might make him appear? No, I have never met him, but talk to people around here and you will hear all kinds of stories. If you were to believe them it would seem as though he has settled in these parts, like a vulture sitting in a pindaiba tree, its beady black eyes following the slow progress of an injured animal, waiting for the right time to swoop.

Yes, you’re an educated man…the way you speak, I can tell. So you must read, sir? A silly question; of course you read. There’s a book, maybe you have heard of it: Grande Sertão. A difficult book, they say. In English it is called The Devil to Pay in the Backlands. A better title, I agree. The devil, sir, raising his scaly head again. One cannot avoid him, it seems. And what about the backlands…the backlands of Brazil…the sertão…and the poor bastards who inhabit it? There is much to say about that, certainly. The sertão it is inside you, so says Riobaldo the jagunço. You don’t inhabit it, it inhabits you. The sertão cannot be subdued, it itself subdues. Do you understand me, sir? Wait, not me, no: Riobaldo, the white rattlesnake. I am not he, just as you, sir, are not the devil. Do you understand?

“All who ride high and handsome in the sertão hold the reigns for a short time only: they find they are riding a tiger.”

What is war, sir? Please forgive my boldness, but I want to know what you think. Is it a dirty business? The worst of the worst that man is capable of? The Devil to Pay in the Backlands begins with gunshots. I am telling this wrong, in the wrong order, even though I am starting at the beginning. Grande Sertão opens with gunshots, but it is not war, only Riobaldo, Tatarana, target-shooting down by the creek. What do you make of that? It’s important, sir, I believe. It suggests both war and peace; first one, then the other. It tells you something about the book, about its themes, and about Riobaldo, also. He does this everyday, he says. He enjoys it, unloading a gun.

The sertão? I haven’t forgotten. How could I forget? Bear with me, please. The book is full of fighting and violence. In the backlands…the sertão. I fired and saw the skull fly into pieces, says Riobaldo the jagunço, the bandit. He shoots to kill, they all shoot to kill…the jagunços, as they skip along the surface of the world. Do you understand, sir? This is it: Grande Sertão. The Devil to Pay in the Backlands. War in the backlands of Brazil! Jagunço against Jagunço! It troubled me., sir, I must admit. I had expected war, but thought that it would be jagunço against politico, outlaw against authority. Only, no, it wasn’t like that at all. Backlander against backlander. Poor man against poor man. And to what purpose? For what reason?

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To the untrained eye, Grand Sertao is really just an old fashioned western; it is a vengeance play. A great man is killed, and he must be avenged. Ok. What of it? This is not the point. Justice, sir, no, that is not the point. There is some talk, in the book, of civilising the backlands, of civilising the people, as though that is the reason for the war. Ok. But, no, this is not the point either. Are you following me? There are double-crosses. Chiefs change, people change sides. There is no order, no sense to it all, to life in the backlands. Lawlessness. Instability. One moment someone is your comrade, your ally, the next they are your enemy. And do you hate them? Did you love them before? Yes or no? Or does none of that really matter? Do you just do what you do, because you must do it, because what else is there, what hope of a better life? Ah, yes, I believe that this is the point, sir.

Yes, this is the life of the jagunço; this is what it means to be of the sertão. Wretched mindlessness. Mindless wretchedness. Or perhaps that is too harsh. Riobaldo tells the story of Pedro Pindo’s young son, Valtei, who was ‘mean and cruel as all get-out.’ A ‘little monster’ who liked to kill. His parents beat him to drive out the wickedness, to drive out the devil, you might say. Yet after a time they came to enjoy it, by which I mean the beatings, beating their child. What do you say to that, sir? What does that tell you about the people of the sertão? Or people in general? I am losing my way a little, being too specific. Examples are a dead-end. The sertão, Riobaldo says, is where the strong and the shrewd call the tune. Ok. But what of the lepers? The wretched? They are there too, ‘living in hopes of not dying.’  

The backlands are cruel, sir, that much is clear. With poverty, and without hope, comes immense suffering. Yes, that much is clear. But the sertão, it is unclear. What, really, is it? It is not, I think, so literal, so that one can measure it, from here to here, from boundary to boundary. It is boundless. That is the impression Riobaldo gave me, that the sertão is as much in the mind as under one’s feet. In fact, doesn’t he say: the sertão is everywhere? It is endless. And it is cruel, yes, but beautiful too. This we learn from Diodorim. A river falling down, all eagerness, foaming and boiling; the bright fog over Serra dos Confins; hoarfrost collecting on the backs of cattle; a hot gust of wind passing through the fronds of a palm tree. I could go on, sir? The jaguars, the parrots, the croaking frogs. Wretchedness and loveliness; war and peace; devilishness and Godliness. Isn’t this life, sir?

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The coin always has two faces. The Devil to Pay in the Backlands is a story of war and brutality on one side, and love on the other. Ah, Diodorim! Otacilia too, but let’s forget her, sir. Diodorim…Reinaldo…that man ‘like a soft haze’ who Riobaldo, Urutu-Branco, loves ‘more than is fitting for a friend.’ Have you ever felt that way for another man, sir? Riobaldo, a jagunço, a bandit, an outlaw, the most manliest of occupations…and he, what, a homosexual? No, bisexual, for he also loves Otacilia and sleeps with numerous whores. And what of Diodorim? He too? Both men, and both jagunços. Well, sir, I found that most surprising. Let’s be honest, in the hands of a lesser writer it might have been ridiculous…too hard to swallow. To pull it off requires skill.

But let me tell you, you believe it, sir. You believe in it. In their love, a love never consummated. Moreover, it adds further depth, to Riobaldo. Diodorim, no, he is fairly one dimensional throughout, but Riobaldo…what a character. A man wracked with doubts, not only about his sexuality, but about his courage, his abilities too. A man who is engaged in the constant questioning of himself, his life, his actions and his place in the world. The coin with two faces; a man has two faces….this man. The intelligent bandit, the fearless coward, the womanising homosexual. But one thing troubled me, sir, for there is a lot of talk in the book about God and about the devil, about how certain inclinations, certain actions, are the responsibility of one or the other. Two faces. So was João Guimarães Rosa suggesting that homosexual desires are the work of Satan? I hope not, sir, but that did cross my mind. More likely the point is that this is how Riobaldo would see it, would understand his desires, for he too, in spite of all his intelligence, is part of the sertão. Reason and superstition. Two faces.

“Doesn’t everyone sell his soul? I tell you, sir: the devil does not exist, there is no devil, yet I sold him my soul. That is what I am afraid of. To whom did I sell it? That is what I am afraid of, my dear sir: we sell our souls, only there is no buyer.”

What does it mean to be a good man? I keep asking you questions, sir. I apologise, but I must continue in this way. A man cannot always answer himself, his own questions. Riobaldo’s narration takes place after these events, of course, after the war, and how does he feel about it all? About all the killing and wretchedness? What does he feel? Not regret, no, but guilt. He is a man with a guilty conscience. In that he is different from the other jagunços. Maybe that is progress, sir? Intellectual, emotional progress. Is that how the sertão will change and prosper, when each man suffers at the hands of his conscience for the evil that he commits? Perhaps. So all that talk about the devil and about God, it makes sense. Who is your master, who is driving the cart? God…or the other one?

Riobaldo is in turmoil, for he doesn’t know who has his hands on the reigns. He is, as I said, for all his intelligence, still of the sertão, he has only dragged himself halfway out of the swamp…and so he sees signs in everything, sees the devil’s work in the world. The big question, the book’s ultimate question, is this: does he exist. Does the devil exist, sir? That is what Riobaldo, Tatarana, repeats, over and over. Does he exist? And, more importantly, can he take responsibility for some of my actions? Ah. Yes, that is it. Can I blame him! Isn’t that what Riobaldo wants? He wants to save his soul, he wants to not go to Hell, of course, but, really, truly, what he wants is for someone to shoulder the blame for the deaths, the blood that flowed.

To his credit João Guimarães Rosa leaves the question unanswered. The question, sir, of whether he exists, the devil, I mean. There is a point in the narrative, when Riobaldo ascends to power and takes on the name: Urutu-Branco. The white rattlesnake. That is surely a symbol, sir, of….for him. The Cursed One. And there are other hints and suggestions, that…Has Riobaldo sold his soul? Did he, that night at the crossroads….ah, once again, so brilliantly Joao handles this scene, for there is no sulphur, no goat-legs, no contract…there is nothing but one man, Riobaldo, alone. Isn’t that the truth, sir? Tell me, please. Isn’t that the truth of the world? That he doesn’t exist, that really it is just you, alone? You, miserable human, with all your flaws. Who is responsible, sir? That is my final question, that is the reason I came to these crossroads tonight myself, to ask you this, and once and for all hear the answer: who is driving the cart?

MASTER OF THE DAY OF JUDGMENT BY LEO PERUTZ

Life, I told someone the other day, has been getting in the way of my reading. Which is, I guess, a good thing. After the recent breakdown of a relationship, a relationship characterised by a familiar resistance to engaging meaningfully with the world around me, I vowed to change. Too late, of course, to hold onto the person that meant so much to me. One of the more distressing aspects of human existence is that often the one who inspired a change or growth in a man, the one who waited so patiently for it, will never benefit from it; no, that benefit will be for someone else, someone who did not have to work with the earlier, shoddier model, and who is therefore not even aware of the improvement; someone who, with blissful ignorance, accepts that this is who you are and have always been.

With this change my engagement with books has slowed to a pace consistent with that of a sane human being, one who is, indeed, not much of a reader at all. It has been two months since I completed Roland Topor’s The Tenant, a period of time, which, when I try to imagine it, strikes me as vast and extraordinary, like the surface of a previously unknown planet. I have picked up a number of novels during those two months, but unenthusiastically, reading only a page or two here and there; none of these books aggressively appealed to me, none of them turned me on in the way that they would once have done, when they would have breathed hotly into my ear and rested a hand on my cock. Metaphorically speaking, of course. Ironically, just as my relationship with my partner soured, so has my relationship with books, such that they now strike me as something like a wife I no longer desire.

I must admit that I was starting to panic, about this, about my blog and the prospect of never again updating it, and that panic became motivating. Was I to give it up? Does having a life outside of books involve becoming like the people I once criticised, the ones who told me they didn’t have time for serious reading, and certainly not for reflecting on what they had read? You have the same amount of time as everyone else, I would say, with predictable arrogance. So, this is, in truth, why we are here, why this review exists. It is pure panic, rather than excitement or stimulation. But this does not, of course, tell you anything about Leo Perutz or Master of the Day of Judgement.

In order to rectify this let me state that Perutz was born in Prague, but spent much of his life in Vienna. I do not know of what interest this is. He wrote, I think I am right in saying, for this is the only work of his I have any real knowledge of, literary thrillers, or ‘page-turners’ [although every book is a page-turner to someone]. One commentator described Master of the Day of Judgement, as critics are wont to do, as the marrying of Kafka and Agatha Christie. Which is nonsense, of course. You can guarantee that any author or novel compared to Kafka bears no significant resemblance at all to the great man’s writings. There is, however, something in the Christie comparison, although I have come to this conclusion from a position of almost total ignorance.

In any case, there are certainly familiar murder-mystery dynamics on display here. A group of people, many of whom are harbouring secrets or are connected to each other in ways that may arouse suspicion should someone lose their life, are gathered together in a house. Before too long a shot [or two shots] rings out, and the body of Eugen Bischoff, a once celebrated actor who has recently run into money troubles, is discovered. Are any of the people present responsible for his death, which, on the surface, appears to be suicide? Indeed, the room in which Eugen’s body was found was locked, and so the possibility of an outsider being involved seems remote, if not impossible. As expected, from this point onwards, although the novel lacks the traditional detective leading man or woman, one is led in stages through an investigation into the ‘crime.’

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[The Last Judgement by Hieronymus Bosch]

While Master of the Day of Judgement moves at a particularly brisk pace, and there is the always intriguing whodunnit element, if this is all it had to offer I would likely not have finished it [especially as the prose is rather workmanlike]. What gives the book its depth is that some of the Prague strangeness, that is so familiar to me, both in terms of literature and my own experiences of the city, filters into the work. First of all, the story is told in the first person, by Baron von Yosch, and because he is the prime suspect one is invited to doubt his version of events. Indeed, he makes no secret of his unreliability. Yes, he declares in the opening pages that he has ‘omitted nothing’, yet soon admits to getting important dates muddled. Moreover, he actually stops himself at one point in his narration to call himself a liar and, more significantly, later confesses to the crime, only to explain it away as a false memory.

There are also a number of allusions as to the [doubtful] quality of von Yosch’s character. In one scene he overhears two people talking about him, and one of them states that he believes the man to be capable of ‘ruthlessness and murder’ [if not dishonourable action]. Waldemar Solgrub, who is one of the book’s main players, tells the Baron that others talk about him with a kind of ‘respectful hatred.’ Therefore, although the focus shifts away from von Yosch as a suspect as the novel progresses, or certainly in the minds of the other characters, as the reader one is given multiple hints that one ought not to be so eager to dismiss him.

“The rhythm of life and death was a banal dance tune. Thus we come and thus we go. What shatters us and casts us down utterly turns out to be an ironic smile on the face of the world spirit, to whom suffering and grief and death are continually recurring phenomena familiar since the beginning of time.”

Yet for me the most engaging aspect of Master of the Day of Judgement, and what provides a legitimate stylistic link to a well-known Prague inhabitant [Gustav Meyrink, not Kafka], are the gothic overtones. von Yosch, in his foreword, describes the events as a ‘tragic and sinister business’ and the investigation as a search for ‘a culprit not flesh and blood,’ and this sets the tone for the majority of the work. There is a suicide note that contains a single word, ‘dreadful’; there are references to monsters and ‘phantoms’; and words such as ‘terror’ and ‘nightmare’ appear frequently. And what of the title? What is the day of judgement? It has, of course, a biblical connotation; it is, our narrator says, the last day, when ‘Satan triumphs over the sinful soul.’ Indeed, one is led to believe that it may in fact be the cloven-hoofed one who is the elusive Master, whom Solgrub and von Yosch are on the trail of. And that is, surely, enough to recommend any book.

THE OTHER SIDE BY ALFRED KUBIN

For years I had been toying with a story about a social experiment, in which a scientist, or psychologist, sets up a dream community. The idea was that a group of volunteers would be given the opportunity to live, for a time, in an environment resembling the world of dreams, where, to be specific, the normal, or comprehensible, coexists with the strange and inexplicable. Initially, this environment would be strongly regulated and controlled, with the help of dream-actors. However, the philosophical heart of the story was that the inhabitants would, after a period of acclimatisation, act out themselves, which means that they would, once they realised that they essentially have the freedom, without consequences, to do as they please [because their world is a dream], turn the dream community into a nightmare.

I thought this story of mine was really quite clever, until, as is often the way with one’s best ideas, I found out that someone had already written something very similar, which is to say that my enthusiasm was considerably dampened by the discovery of Alfred Kubin’s The Other Side, a novel, published in 1908, in which a man establishes a Dream Realm. The man in question is the mysterious, and exceedingly rich, Claus Patera, who was once the childhood friend of the narrator. The novel’s action is set in motion when a representative of Patera’s arrives at the narrator’s residence with a near-unbelievable tale and an invitation.

The invitation is, of course, to join Pearl, a place described as catering for those who are unhappy with modern civilisation, and where the aim is to give life ‘the deepest possible spiritual dimension.’ It is, therefore, a kind of sanctuary; but more intriguing than that is the suggestion that it is for those with an aversion to progress or with a passion for the past. Indeed, we are told that physically the place is made up of imported old buildings, various antiquities, classic artworks, even such things as ‘a broken old chair.’ There is, moreover, a large wall surrounding the community, in order to keep the outside [modern] world away. At this stage one is not sure how exactly this situation, this way of life, relates to the concept of dreams. Does it mean simply that Pearl is ideal for its inhabitants or is there actually something dream-like about it?

This question is soon answered when the narrator and his wife arrive in the Dream Realm, and the novel veers away from popular adventure story dynamics and becomes strange and sinister. Immediately, the narrator notes how ‘conditions there were most bizarre.’ One way of understanding this is in relation to the inhabitants. The community was recruited from ‘creatures of excessive sensibility’, those whose manias had ‘not yet got out of hand,’ and numerous hysterics, drunkards, criminals, spiritualists, and so on. They are all, then, not only what you might call abnormal, but also clearly vulnerable in some way.

In any case, the point is that if you gather together thousands of people with various manias, people who are socially or mentally abnormal, or unstable, what you are likely to find is that living among them will be something like being in a dream, in that their behaviour will be unpredictable. One instance of this is when a man addresses an audience that is not there. Furthermore, you will likely find that ordinary social arrangements, such as buying and selling, will break down or change in character; and this is what happens, so that, for example, the narrator sometimes pays a lot for very little, or nothing for an item that would, in the outside world, have been expensive. I thought that all this was fascinating.

Yet there are also elements of the inexplicable or [potentially] supernatural. The sky, we are told, was permanently dull, ‘the sun never shone,’ and the moon and stars could not be seen at night. This, of course, has nothing to do with the mental aberrations of the community’s inhabitants. However, one might argue that the narrator and his wife are themselves mad or go mad, in a kind of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest confrontation with the madness of others. Indeed, it is worth pointing that the narrator, towards the beginning of the book, describes himself as someone who is emotionally unstable, who is prone to ‘abrupt changes of mood.’ Therefore, even some of the more alarming aspects of life in Pearl – such as the housekeeper who appears to change into different people, the blind white horse, and so on – could be explained in this way.

Regardless, there is a large, gripping section of the novel that is simply great, pure horror writing. The narrator’s wife, for example, makes a pronouncement about how she feels, as they approach the Dream Realm, that they will never leave. There is also the constant wailing and moaning; and the hissing and knocking coming from the well; there are numerous references to hauntings and ghosts; there are doppelgängers and horrific deaths; there is a relentless atmosphere of terror, paranoia, and unease. It is wonderful, creepy stuff, and was perhaps influenced by the work of Edgar Allen Poe, which Kubin had previously illustrated.

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As we reach this point in this very long review you are perhaps wondering what exactly the book’s themes are, especially in view of its reputation as an allegory or sophisticated satire. Well, part of me is reluctant to get into all that. I have written before about my dissatisfaction with readers and critics who insist on there being, in certain kinds of novels, a single, consistent idea behind the surface action that explains the work, that magically transforms what you are reading into something else entirely. Take The Plague by Albert Camus, which, for me, is not only more impressive when taken on face value, but is frequently subject to interpretations of a tenuous nature. Kafka, of course, suffers the same fate. Indeed, it seems as though the stranger the work is, the more we, perhaps understandably, strive to find the normal, which is to say the comprehensible, in it.

I am not, of course, suggesting that allegory does not exist, or that it isn’t a genuine literary technique, but that it is important, first of all, to ensure that the work itself supports the theory. Secondly, some books can, maybe should, be enjoyed as they are; confusion is ok, weird is ok; there does not always have to be an explanation, a broader significance, a single underlying target. Bearing this in mind, it is my advice to read The Other Side without worrying too much about figuring out what the real story is. Some would tell you it is about German idealism, or religion, or capitalism, or anarchy, or numerous other things, all of which certainly play a part in the text, but really none of these interpretations stand up to scrutiny if one is looking for a coherent and unifying authorial statement.

There is, for example, no doubt that Kubin sets up Patera, who is frequently called ‘Lord’, as a God figure, and Hercules Bell, an American who creates The Lucifer Club, as Satan. One could see the Dream Realm, which is created by Patera, as representative of the earth, or even the Garden of Eden, over which these two figures fight; or at least one might say that Bell, as the Devil, attempts to wrest control of it. Indeed, at one point the narrator references that famous argument for the fallibility, or even non-existence, of God when he asks why, as Bell brings anarchy to the realm, Patera does not seek to intervene; he must not, he muses, be powerful enough. However, Pearl is, prior to Bell’s arrival, far too odd, damaging and unstable to be an Eden, and it seems rather pointless to create a surreal dream realm as a stand in for earth, when one could simply have set the novel in an ordinary community, if one’s intention was to write a religious allegory about the battle between good and evil.

As for capitalism, Bell is certainly a capitalist, a millionaire who believes in the power of money. But he doesn’t stride into Pearl and ruin it, for it wasn’t a utopia to begin with. In terms of German idealism, I don’t know enough about the subject, but, once again, wouldn’t it be a more powerful statement to begin with a utopia before showing it being destroyed? Perhaps the point was to argue that a utopia is impossible? Well, yes, but then what is the purpose of Bell? Isn’t his role, his impact, diluted by the fact that Pearl was never a competently functioning society?

“His eyes were like two empty mirrors reflecting infinity. The thought crossed my mind that Patera was not alive at all. If the dead could look, that is what their gaze would be like.”

If there is anything in all this it is as a warning against the dangers of Demi-Gods or false Gods. Both Patera and Bell are powerful figures, who attract followers; they are authority figures, to whom the general population of Pearl look for guidance, or by whom they are influenced. Indeed, the narrator spends much of the novel in pursuit of Patera, in the belief that he will help him or at least be able to provide answers to his questions. Yet the great man is always out of reach, he, although he extended the invitation to live in Pearl, provides no support. So, one has two main players, one who does nothing, who is absent, and one who is all-action, but brings chaos in his wake, and neither is worthy of faith. If The Other Side deserves to be called prescient, which it sometimes is, it would be in relation to this, to characters such as Hitler or Stalin, who wanted to be viewed as God-like, and who appeared to promise new worlds or new, better ways of living, but who ultimately turned out to be psychopaths, human and dangerously flawed.

One final thing before I finish. For me, the key to Kubin’s novel, to understanding it, or appreciating it, is not in relation to allegory or satire; its strength is not in politics or social science but in imagination. One must remember that the narrator is an artist, as is the author, and it is partly what motivates him to go to Pearl. The artist, one might argue, strives for new experiences, is drawn to the unusual, but it is more than that. The realm of dreams, isn’t that the artist’s realm? The world of the imagination, where anything is possible…this is where the narrator goes to live, and this is where Alfred Kubin himself lived. Now, if you will excuse me, I am off to work on my new story idea about a man who wakes up one day to find himself arrested for a crime he hasn’t committed. I’m thinking of calling it The Trial.

LES CHANTS DE MALDOROR BY THE COMTE DE LAUTREAMONT

If you have been following my reviews for any length of time you will be aware that there are many things of which I am afraid. Spiders! Fatherhood! Demonic possession! Death! Yet it is increasingly the shark that haunts my mind like he haunts the sea, silently slicing through the darkness until he is upon me, intent on ripping out my throat! He is a ghoul, shaped like a knife-blade. He is swift and agile madness, with the skin of an elephant and teeth like the sharpest shards of glass. How feeble, how ungainly man seems when compared to this creature, how unlike a God.

Given its awesome, horrifying appearance, and its savage power, it is no surprise that Maldoror – the sinister creation of the Comte de Lautréamont, who was himself the alter ego of Isidore-Lucien Ducasse – is an admirer of, and sees himself in, the shark. Indeed, he wishes that he were the son of one and, in Les Chants most [in]famous passage, he actually couples with a female, inspiring the most eyebrow-raising title of any article I’ve ever come across: Shark-shagger. Yet his admiration isn’t limited to these beasts; Maldoror [or the Comte] sings the praises of the louse, the tiger, the ocean, mathematics[!]…anything, it seems, that isn’t human.

Maldoror was, we’re told, once a happy, ’upright’ child, indicating that something [or a combination of things] happened to effect a change in his personality or character. Yet it is also claimed that he felt as though he was ‘born wicked’, and had tried his best to disguise his nature. In any case, one is led to believe – due to the sheer number of rants dedicated to the subject, if nothing else – that an ever intensifying disgust for humanity was at least partly responsible for his subsequent ‘career of evil’. Throughout, Maldoror rails against human weakness of character, hypocrisy, hunger for fame and money, etc.

However, while all that might be enjoyable [especially if, like me, you agree with the sentiments expressed], such misanthropy isn’t unique or even unusual in works of literature. What sets Les Chants apart, what makes them a still thrilling, shocking, and amusing experience, is that Maldoror doesn’t simply hate humanity, he wants to make it suffer, in imaginative, creative ways. My favourite example of this is when he breeds a pit of vicious lice, which he then lets loose upon the unsuspecting public. Moreover, he openly enjoys these activities, so that the book reads like an ode to cruelty and sadism. Children, one assumes because they are representative of innocence and purity, are paid special attention, with Maldoror extolling the pleasures of abusing and then freeing them, so that one is seen as both their torturer and their saviour. He also gleefully admits to wanting to slice off their rosy cheeks with a razor.

“One should let one’s nails grow for a fortnight. O, how sweet it is to drag brutally from his bed a child with no hair on his upper lip and with wide open eyes, make as if to touch his forehead gently with one’s hand and run one’s fingers through his beautiful hair. Then suddenly, when he is least expecting it, to dig one’s long nails into his soft breast, making sure, though, that one does not kill him; for if he died, one would not later be able to contemplate his agonies.”

Before continuing it is necessary to return to that comment, that assertion that Les Chants is funny, especially as a lot of the book’s content is, without question, unpleasant [sadism is, in fact, something that I find particularly abhorrent]. The reason I find Les Chants entertaining, rather than unbearable, is that they are, for the most part, [intentionally] over-the-top, bizarre and vaudeville; and they feature a main character so thoroughly dastardly, such that even the nastiest bits are absurd or almost farcical. The best example of this is when Maldoror is watching a ship sink and delights in the forthcoming annihilation of the crew and passengers. At this stage, the story is engaging, but not necessarily funny. It is when the hero decides to shoot a survivor as he swims towards the shore that the scene is taken into the realm of comedy [although you may argue that what it provokes is the uncomfortable laughter of disbelief].

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[Sedlec Ossuary or bone church, Czech Republic]

There are an abundance of religious references in Les Chants, and God, in particular, is routinely mocked and criticised and doubted. Lautréamont says that God, although powerful, is untrustworthy, and suggests that the creation of heaven, or the bestowing of any kind of eternal reward, is inconsistent with a Being who causes suffering, or is prepared to allow his people to be miserable or wretched, on earth; in one of the most memorable and amusing passages, he imagines God as a kind of blood-thirsty tyrant, sitting on a throne of gold and excrement, wrapped in unclean hospital sheets. Of course, for anyone who wants to offend, who wants to position themselves as anti-establishment, religion is an obvious, necessary target. An author intent on writing filth and getting up people’s noses isn’t really doing his job if he doesn’t blaspheme.

Some critics would have you believe that Maldoror is the Devil, which isn’t the strangest claim, considering how grotesque and seemingly immoral he is. Certainly, there is something of Milton’s charismatic Satan about him; and he does harbour ambitions of overthrowing God and taking his place, indicating that he is no mere mortal. Moreover, there is one quite chilling scene in which he endeavors to tempt a young boy into murdering someone who has wronged him. Yet I prefer not to think of Maldoror as the Devil, as something so easy to digest. To label him thus is almost a kind of comfort. We may not like the Devil, but we do understand him. It is, therefore, far more frightening to think of Maldoror as an ordinary man, although I don’t believe he is that either.

“I am filthy. I am riddled with lice. Hogs, when they look at me, vomit. My skin is encrusted with the scabs and scales of leprosy, and covered with yellow pus.[…] A family of toads has taken up residence in my left armpit and, when one of them moves, it tickles. Mind one of them does not escape and come and scratch the inside of your ear with its mouth; for it would then be able to enter your brain.”

So, what, then, is he? For me, he is a bogyman, a nightmare; he is Nosferatu’s shadow climbing up the wall. One might also call him an outcast, although I’m not sure myself how accurate that is [for you have to want to be part of something to be cast out from it]. He does, however, identify with outcasts, with prostitutes [with whom he claims to have made a pact to ruin families] and hermaphrodites. In any case, what most struck me while I read Les Chants is that Maldoror is essentially a kind of Mr. Hyde, he is the bad in every one of us, the dark side. Indeed, it is said in the text that evil thoughts exist in all men. This theory is given extra weight when you consider that it isn’t always clear who is narrating the book, that while it begins in the manner of someone [the Comte] describing, in the third person, the outrageous acts and character of another man, the majority of it is written as though the one committing these acts is the narrator, almost as though Maldoror has seized control, of the text and of Lautréamont himself.

THE MASTER AND MARGARITA BY MIKHAIL BULGAKOV

I’ve written before about how I often lament the fact that I can no longer read with an open heart, without judging and analysing every aspect of what I am reading. I’ve become ultra-sensitive, overly-critical, and, I worry, perhaps somewhat joyless. I wish, sometimes, that I could somehow go back to being sixteen years old, when I enjoyed pretty much any book I picked up on its own terms, without thinking too much about why and certainly without mercilessly probing the text for weaknesses. However, after rereading The Master and Margarita  – Mikhail Bulgakov’s famous novel about Satan’s visit to Moscow – I have been reminded that being an older [relatively speaking] and more experienced reader can have its benefits too.

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[One of the sketches for an unrealised animated feature based on Bulgakov’s novel by Sergei Alimov]

The first time I read this novel I liked it, but I did not get as much from it as I did on this occasion. That is, of course, on me. More specifically, it is due to the age I was and, consequently, how unsophisticated my reading was at that point in my life. I’ve always loved Russian literature, but my knowledge of Russian culture and history, particularly the period during which Joseph Stalin was in power, is much more comprehensive these days. And so there are things in the text that, yes, as a teenager I may have simply taken on face value, but which, due to my ignorance, may therefore have struck me as frivolous or meaningless. However, what I found as I came to reread the book is that, with more experience and with more knowledge, the things that I would have smiled gormlessly at before I am now able to properly appreciate.

For example, The Master and Margarita begins with two men, two literary types, at Patriarch’s Ponds. While having a conversation about the non-existence of Jesus, they are approached by a peculiar gentleman [Woland-Satan] whom they take to be ‘a foreigner’ and perhaps a ‘spy.’ This isn’t, of course, mere silliness, but is a sardonic wink at Soviet paranoia and the very real fear that one might, by talking to someone one shouldn’t, end up being arrested. Likewise, the conversation about Jesus, the pride the two men take in their atheism, is a reference to Communism’s drive to discredit religious belief [the rationale, I imagine, being that one cannot have something  – a belief in a divinity – that in a sense supersedes the authority of the dictator].

If you are at all interested in Communism and Stalin, one will be aware of what were the consequences of not toeing the Party line, or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or saying what could be construed as the wrong thing i.e. you were arrested, interrogated, maybe killed, or shipped off to Siberia. In relation to this, it was apparent to me this time that The Master and Margarita, especially in the early chapters, is full of denunciations and sudden disappearances [it is worth noting that when someone suddenly disappears we often say that it was ‘as if by magic,’ while the disappearances in the text are, of course, literally the result of magic].

“And it was two years ago that inexplicable things started happening in the apartment: people started disappearing without a trace.”

The book is, then, very obviously a political satire, one that trades in often complex allegory. Perhaps the most well developed example is the second chapter dealing with Jesus and Pontius Pilate. Bulgakov’s Jesus is also arrested for saying the wrong thing[s], is, in effect, denounced by various people, and therefore ends up being interrogated and executed. Likewise, in the opening chapter, Berlioz wants to inform on Woland; and another character, Styopa, is essentially exiled to Yalta.

Of course, fear and paranoia, exile and denunciation, were only part of the Soviet experience during the period that Bulgakov was working on the novel [1928-1940]. Throughout, he touches on a variety of other subjects [the housing crisis, being one], and attacks various types, or sections of society, that he considered to be avaricious or corrupt.

“Everyone knows how hard it is to acquire money; obstacles to that can always be found. But not once in his thirty years of experience had the bookkeeper ever found anyone, whether an official or a private citizen, who had difficulty accepting money.”

However, he seems to reserve a special kind of antipathy for artists or those involved in the artistic industry. For instance, poets, editors, and writers are routinely mocked, and, at the hands of Woland and his retinue, suffer the worst fates. One might wonder just what it was about this apparently harmless group that ground Bulgakov’s gears. If one was being uncharitable one could put it down to a kind of professional jealousy, but it would be extraordinarily petty to compose a whole novel in that frame of mind. If I had to guess at the main source of Bulgakov’s ire I would say that he disliked them for what he saw as their complicity. Consider how to be an artist in Russia at that time it was probably in your interests to self-censor, but that it was almost impossible to create something that could not be deemed controversial, and so one was always likely to face rejection or condemnation from cowardly editors and publishers and theatre managers etc. Moreover, some artists went even further and willingly produced or backed State propaganda, this despite knowing that it was, well, not only not in the public’s interest [because they deserved the truth] but that it was also bad art [it’s telling that Bezdomny admits that his poems are terrible]. Of course, you can’t ask everyone to openly and aggressively fight against the machine, some are just not up to it, but, on the other hand, one doesn’t have to oil its wheels either.

On one level, the book is a kind of revenge fantasy. If you know anything about the author’s life you will be aware that he had a personal bone to pick with many of his targets. A number of Bulgakov’s works were banned, and he struggled in vain to get this novel into print, and so having the Devil descend upon Moscow to wreak havoc and cause chaos amongst the kind of people who rejected him must have been incredibly satisfying. Indeed, an important storyline in the novel is about a failed writer, the Master, who too cannot get his manuscript published, who is denounced [there’s that word again] in the press, and who ultimately burns the script [which is also something that Bulgakov himself did with an earlier draft]. For me, one of the major themes in The Master and Margarita is freedom, both personal and creative. In this way, perhaps the most moving scene in the whole novel is Margarita’s flight through Moscow on a broomstick; there she is, naked, high above the city, absolutely free, and having the fucking time of her life.

05

One of the surprises for me this time was that I found the book much funnier. Everyone always comments on the humour, and I must admit that previously it had almost completely passed me by. Again, I think some of that has to do with increased knowledge. For example, Berlioz wanting to inform on Satan is not really funny unless you understand something about the climate of the time; likewise, with the immediate designation of Woland as a foreigner, and all the suspicion that this entails, and the experience of Berlioz’s uncle when he tries to appropriate the deceased’s apartment. However, there are also some scenes that don’t rely on a political subtext to amuse. My favourites were the dancing sparrow in the doctor’s office and Ivan turning up at the Greboyedov restaurant in his underwear and Behemoth gilding his whiskers. Yet, having said all that, I must admit that some of the comedy is a little tiresome. There are passages, or episodes, in the text that I felt were sloppy, or lazy, or certainly unsophisticated, where I got the impression that Bulgakov thought that the mere presence of Satan and his retinue was enough to hold your attention and provide laughs, because, let’s face it, any set-up, or situation, becomes more engrossing and amusing if you plonk the Devil or a walking and talking cat into it. A walking cat! And, uh, y’know, that’s surprising…look at how surprised that character is…his eyes all popping out of his head…and, yes, I’d smirk and keep turning the pages, but it was a guilty kind of smirk, such as one might produce if one sees someone fall over.

This also leads me onto a more serious criticism, which is that the novel, at least in the first part, is repetitive; it is pretty much the same thing over and over again. Satan or one of his retinue will befuddle some dude, who, as a result, starts to question his sanity, before disappearing or ending up in the insane asylum. It struck me that this is why I remembered so little of the book after first reading it. You will, I’m sure, have your own tolerance level where this kind of thing is concerned. Mine is pretty high; I’ve read the similarly episodic, and much longer, Don Quixote twice; but unlike Don Quixote, or Tom Jones, The Master and Margarita does not really have a central character upon which to hang these episodes, and so it does at times seem unfocussed and even more rambling. It is worth remembering, however, that Bulgakov did not finish his novel; and so, as with Kafka’s work, these criticisms seem a little mean-spirited. Besides, what saves the book, even during the longueurs, is the author’s compassion and sensitivity and way with a memorable epigram; you’ll be reading a chapter and thinking ‘Christ, this is a drag’ and then he’ll hit you with a line like:

“Punch a man on the nose, kick an old man downstairs, shoot somebody or any old thing like that, that’s my job. But argue with women in love—no thank you!”

And you’ll immediately repent. Ah, I didn’t mean it, Mikhail, you’re a wonderful fucker!

Before I finish I want to say something about translation. I have it on good authority, from a number of Russian speakers/readers, that The Master and Margarita has never been successfully rendered into English. Recently an acquaintance of mine called it, in Russian, profound, and, well, I was quite shocked by that. Profound? As much as I have enjoyed the book that, profound, was one of the words furthest from my mind while I turned the pages. Now, I certainly am not scoffing at this description of the novel; in fact, I cannot even challenge it. Regardless of how we speak about translated literature – i.e. we instinctively want to say that we have read Proust, or Mann or whoever – the reality is that, unless we have access to it in its original form, we have only ever read someone’s idea of a writer or a book, and this someone is, in most cases, not a talented writer themselves.

That I am in no position to accurately judge Bulgakov, or any other foreign writer, is a source of extreme frustration to me. This frustration is made even greater by the possibility, the likelihood even, that I am missing out on something amazing, or, well, yes, profound; but, what, other than learning Russian, can you do about it? Sweet f.a., I’m afraid. Yet one has to wonder why is it not possible to capture that profundity in English, at least to some extent? One of the problems is that it is difficult to translate humour or satire, especially puns, plays on words, or words that have a double meaning, so that the richer, the more layered a work is the more likely it is that it will seem flat in English. Just consider how Ulysses might read in, say, French and how much would necessarily be lost and how, once stripped of certain layers, it might strike a French reader as no more than a tedious trawl around Dublin in the company of an ordinary bloke.

You might wonder where I am going with all this. To be honest, I’m starting to wonder myself. Am I saying that you should not read The Master and Margarita except in Russian? No, of course not; why deny yourself what is a tremendous work of fiction. I guess, more than anything, I am saying that choosing the best translation is vital, that one should always put some effort into it, because while one cannot access the real thing, or have the full experience, one should endeavour to get as close to it as possible. So which translation should you read? Ah, even this question is a tough one. Those best able to answer it will be those who have read the original and several translations. However, as this is my review I’m going to go ahead and give my opinion anyway. It is well-known by now, I imagine, that I have reservations, to say the least, about modern translations in general and the cult of the super-celebrity translator[s] in particular. This group of super-celebrity translators, which includes Michael Hofmann and Pevear and Volokhonsky, in my opinion, allow their ego to dictate how they render a work, by which I mean that each one of their translations will bear their own particular stamp, so that you, or I anyway, would be able to recognise their hand in something even without knowing who translated it. On this basis, I have never, and would never, read P&V’s version of The Master and Margarita. There are, however, numerous other versions, including the much criticised Michael Glenny, the acclaimed Mirra Ginsberg, and Burgin and O’Connor.

I first time I read the book I went for Burgin and O’Connor. My choice, at that time, was dictated by numerous reviews labelling their version the most satisfying. These days, in light of the critical success of P&V, I won’t blindly accept the prevailing opinion. For my re-read, I considered Glenny, who is thought to be the least accurate of all the translators to tackle the book, but whose version, for me, flows best in English; but he was not working from the complete text. I was drawn to the Ginsberg translation, but found, when comparing it to Burgin and O’Connor, that the differences were superficial, so, bearing in mind that Ginsberg was also working from an incomplete text, I decided to stick with my original choice. As with my first read, I found the style somewhat flat and laboured, which I am assured is not the case in Russian. In their introduction the duo claim that they tried to preserve the original word order and the length of Bulgakov’s sentences; and this, I think, explains a lot. If you try to be too literal what you end up with is inelegant, sometimes confusing English, because no two languages follow the same rules, of course. In my humble opinion, rather than pat themselves on the back for sticking so closely to the original, some translators would do better to concern themselves with the soul of the sentences. In conclusion then, the most I can say about Burgin and O’Connor’s version is that it is workman-like and readable and probably, if you want the complete text at least, the best we have at the moment.