Thursday, 17 December 2009

Books of the decade

If the Guardian, the Times, and the Telegraph can get away with filling space with a book list, then surely I can too. Presenting:

10 pretty good books of the decade

They may or may not be the best books of the decade, but they're definitely the ones (a) I found most entertaining and (b) hadn't slipped my mind while compiling the list. In chronological order,
  • A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers (2000)
A serious memoir wrapped in multiple layers of flippancy. This could have been a very irritating formula, but it works. The truly heartbreaking story grounds the knowing humour perfectly (compare the witty-but-hollow feel of the much less serious McSweeney's website). His follow-up novel You Shall Know Our Velocity was a bit of a let down, but I've heard good things about his more recent work.
  • The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (2001)
The opening of The Corrections almost put me off reading it entirely. At the time I thought it was pretentious, but re-reading now I think it's just suffering from too many adjectives. Either way I'm glad I carried on, as the other 652 pages are superb. A grand American family saga that goes on to encompass the whole of the pre-9/11 world (or at least organised crime in Lithuania).
  • The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents by Terry Pratchett (2001)
Pratchett spent much of this decade expanding the Discworld into 'young adult' territory, which as far as I can tell involved not much more than adding chapter breaks. The Amazing Maurice is the first and finest of them. Has a similar style to his earlier non-Discworld Truckers trilogy, which is also top notch Pratchett.
  • Schott's Original Miscellany by Ben Schott (2002)
Not only a diverting collection of trivia, but a really beautifully laid-out book. Though maybe you have to share my graphic design nerd tendencies to care about that aspect. The countless inferior imitations that followed are testament to the original's appeal, not least as a stocking filler. Speaking of which, the following year's hit, Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynn Truss, only just missed out on the list, for performing the hitherto unimaginable feat of making punctuation rules fun.
  • Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre (2003)
Attentive readers of this blog (there must be one out there) won't be surprised by this choice, a very funny and rude satire on Texan/Mexican life. Think of the tastiest burrito you've ever eaten, then imagine it made out of words. (Can blogs get into Pseuds corner?)
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon (2003)
My book of the decade. Second, for the utterly believable portrayal of an autistic child. Third, for the story, full of suspense and moving by turns. Fifth, for its freshness and non-stop innovation. And seventh, for the very rare sight of maths in literary fiction (but you'll enjoy it whether or not you like maths, I promise). His next book, A Spot of Bother, is also worth a look, though it's a lot more conventional.
  • A Nice Cup of Tea and a Sit Down by Nicey and Wifey (2004)
The complex process of sitting down and having a nice cup of tea has long cried out for a rigorous analysis. This book does the job so well that any future study will inevitably live in its shadow. Naturally, the bulk of it deals with biscuit reviews. I didn't realise it was possible to write with such passion, wit and forensic detail about biscuits, but the authors' enthusiasm for the subject shines through on every page. Beware Nicey's controversial views on bourbons though. Go to their website for a taste.
  • The Ancestor's Tale by Richard Dawkins (2004)
It's a shame that Dawkins is now best known for his militant atheism, as it might put off some who would otherwise enjoy his popular science writing. Aside from a couple of unnecessary (and already dated) political jabs, this book is Dawkins at his purely scientific best. The conceit is to take a trip back in time to the dawn of life, stopping off along the way to hear the stories of all the lifeforms who have branched off from our line of descent. It's an inspired idea and very well executed. Notwithstanding my earlier comments, it's well worth getting the hardback version: the design and illustrations are a large part of what makes this so good.
  • Watching the English: the Hidden Rules of English Behaviour by Kate Fox (2004)
An insightful look at the English psyche from an anthropologist's perspective. If you've ever wondered why exactly it is that American adverts put you off the products they're advertising, or why you get annoyed with queues in continental Europe, or why your goodbyes always get stretched over half an hour, or why you have an instinctive dislike of Mercedes drivers, this book has all the answers. There's an "I do that!" moment on almost every page, though you can probably skip over the strange thesis-like conclusions to each chapter (once an academic...). If only every country had a book like this written about it, the world would be a much more understandable place.
  • The Harry Potter series by JK Rowling (1997-2007)
If you've managed to get to the end of the decade without reading these, you're obviously never going to. All I can say is it's your loss.

It's slightly perturbing to see that almost all of my selections come from the first half of the decade. Maybe it's because I spent most of the second half in Germany, and all the good books passed me by. Or maybe 2003 was genuinely a high water mark. Anyway, if you're desperate for some late noughties literature, two that just missed the cut are The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid (2007) and A Fraction of the Whole.

And 5 disappointments...
I'm sure these aren't the worst books published this decade, but for various reasons they didn't live up to my expectations.

  • Life of Pi by Yann Martel (2001)
Starts off an entertaining yarn but I started to lose faith by the time they arrived at the island of meerkats. The real kicker, however, is the ending. Not for the way it pulls the rug out from beneath the reader, but for the chance this gives the author to deliver a wholly unconvincing sermon about the necessity of having a fairy-tale worldview.
  • The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown (2003)
Let's be clear: I'm no Dan Brown hater. I think Mark Lawson's spiteful judgement says far more about him than it does about Brown. I get the appeal of the book, both the puzzle-solving against the clock and the inspired weaving of historical fact and fiction. Nevertheless, it's difficult to defend the writing. Part of the problem for me was that I had already seen the film, so there was only the paper-thin characterisation, tin-eared dialogue and just-plain-weird narration left to enjoy. Best just to watch the film really. Audrey Tatou's in it.
  • The Timewaster Letters by Robin Cooper (2004)
Robin Cooper, aka Robert Popper, was half of those responsible for Look Around You, a spot-on parody of old educational TV science programmes. I was therefore expecting great things of The Timewaster Letters, but it wasn't to be. Writing hoax letters is a fun idea but Henry Root did it much more productively back in the 80's.
  • Saturday by Ian McEwan (2005)
This is the only McEwan novel I've read, and unless someone can persuade me that it's atypical I'm not likely to try another soon. The individual sentences are well-written, but after a few pages of medical matters you realise that you're reading his undigested research notes, and the spell wears off. Also, I don't care what disease the villain has, the ending is still ludicrous. On the plus side, it does a reasonable job of explaining why the morality of toppling Saddam is not as clear as the average Guardian editorial would have you believe.
  • Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner (2005)
Not because of their contrarian views, but because the fascinating - and at least superficially plausible - theories in the first couple of chapters quickly give way to pure filler. The last chapter, concerning children's names, is particularly brazen. It's clearly an economic experiment designed to find out how little you can write and still call a book.

That's all from me. What are your picks of the decade?

Monday, 23 November 2009

Unseen Academicals and the meaning of sport

There's nothing like a hardback book to make you wonder: "what's the point of hardback books?". They're more awkward to use and less portable than paperbacks, they take up more than their fair share of space, and they're expensive. They're grandiose relics, like stately homes in a world designed for suburban semis, except you don't even get a nice cup of tea and a slice of cake when you stump up for a hardback book.

They'd be harmless, though, if it wasn't for the hardback-exclusivity of new books. This actually depresses total book sales, at least from me, because the media review books as soon as they come out, but if a review actually convinces me to buy, I then have to wait up to a year for it to come out in paperback, by which time I've forgotten all about it. And unless it makes the Waterstones 3-for-2, I'm unlikely to chance across it again. Nice work, publishers!

The one advantage to hardbacks is that they are impressive. They have a pleasing heft, and like that other refugee from the past, the vinyl record, they display their covers as nature intended. This is what will ensure their survival, long after cheap paperbacks have been crushed by the coming onslaught of the e-reader. Even after all everyday reading goes electronic, hardbacks will still be needed to grace coffee tables, to be given as Christmas gifts, or to be artfully arranged on the newly-liberated bookshelves. They have a bright future as an ornament, just like old-fashioned ploughing equipment still hangs on the walls of country pubs.

Still, for now buying new is the only reason to go hardback. If there's one author that deserves this extravagance, it's Terry Pratchett. If you're a Pratchett fan, you'll probably know where the title of this blog was stolen from, so it won't come as any surprise that I'm a fan too. If you're not a Pratchett fan yet, I'll let Wikipedia fill you in. Be sure to come back here in 36 books' time (I recommend starting with Mort).

For all the publisher-bashing above, I'm very grateful to them for consistently bringing out new Discworld novels just in time for my birthday. The latest is Unseen Academicals, in which football comes to the city of Ankh-Morpork. Except it's not really new. As of this book there's always been a traditional form of the game played called "foot-the-ball", and it's now extremely popular to the point where the crowds are getting out of control. To my knowledge there's never been any reference to a sporting culture in the city before, so it's a jarring revelation. This is an occupational hazard in any long-running series, but I think it could have been handled more sensitively, perhaps by making foot-the-ball an annual event, as medieval football games often were in our world.

The action centres on the Unseen University. For the first time we get a feel for how it functions behind the scenes, with rich detail provided in the form of candle dribblers and the Night Kitchen. In these fields work Trev, Glenda, Juliet and Mr Nutt, who go on to play the central roles in the story. All four are interesting characters and increasingly so as they get involved in the game and, not unrelatedly, the fashion industry. Mr Nutt in particular is fascinating. One of the major appeals of the Discworld setting is the opportunity it gives to explore human prejudice much more thoroughly than could be achieved in a wholly realistic novel. Mr Nutt's development is a brilliant example of this.

The wizards of UU play a large part too. In recent times the faculty has approached a comfortable steady state, much like some of the other long-running character groups (the City Watch and the witches). Things are shaken up in Unseen Academicals. The Dean has left for a rival university and Dr Hix, an entertainingly rule-bound version of the dark wizard archetype, has joined. The rivalry with the former Dean synchronises with themes of competition running through the book and gives Archchancellor Ridcully a much-needed enemy to thwart.

The stakes, however, never seem high enough to give the game's preparations sufficient urgency. The social and financial worries that drive the story are minor compared to other books, especially the very early ones where planetary destruction was regularly threatened. It's great that modern day Ankh-Morpork is a complex, subtle environment, but this time around I did long for an incursion from the Dungeon Dimensions.

The handling of the new version of football is also a little off-putting. Too often it descends into explicit parody, harking back to the "Discworld Does X" style last seen in Moving Pictures and Soul Music. Unlike those, however, the philosophical depth typical of the later books is present again, and many aspects of the human condition are brilliantly illuminated through the lens of the game. Pratchett also presents an eloquent defence of football itself, both the visceral thrill of watching it in a crowd and the tactical intricacies of playing it. Some passages are clearly aimed at the stereotypical sport-averse fantasy reader, such as when the obvious similarities to board games are pointed out explicitly.

Whether Unseen Academicals convinces the sport-phobic is an open question. But it should at least put to rest the doddery old argument that sport is meaningless, that football is just 22 people kicking a ball around in field. By that token life is meaningless too: it's just 10^79 atoms bumping into each other in a universe, after all. We have to invest meaning in things ourselves, and it's no less real a concept for that. The hardback format gives Pratchett a chance to point this out, prominently, on the back cover:

The thing about football - the important thing about football - is that it is not just about football.

PS: I was lucky enough to visit Portland, Oregon while I was reading Unseen Academicals. If you're ever there, keep a look out for a wall featuring Pratchett's autograph:

More on this place in the next post.

Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett
First published 2009

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

The Card

After the feast, the wafer-thin mint. Arnold Bennett's The Card is just as funny as A Fraction of the Whole and its mood is refreshingly upbeat.

I picked up The Card on a visit to Didsbury with Mrs Tomsk at the start of summer. We stopped off at a tearoom that not only did a mean sausage sandwich, but transitioned seamlessly to a second-hand bookshop at the back. This is what heaven must be like, presuming God is a tea-loving bookworm.

One thing the holy high street would not stand for, however, is political posturing. The bookshop side was at first glance unthreatening, even welcoming. But the European election campaign had begun, and the proprietor was not discreet in his affection for the UK Independence Party. Posters and leaflets were everywhere, all inevitably featuring the 1953 winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. I wonder if he would appreciate his presence in a bookshop being reduced to flicking V-signs for the greater glory of UKIP.

The proprietor, of course, can dress his shop however he likes. But it struck me as out of place. Books, after all, are the symbol of reason, the opposite of braying election propaganda. And more to the point, why did he have to go and support a party I disagree with profoundly? I didn't want to get into an argument, so the only avenue for retaliation was to find a purchase that clearly demonstrated how much I opposed him. Perhaps a biography of Jacques Delors. But the search was fruitless, and I left with an unprovocative mix of Mark Twain treasury and The Card.

Would Arnold Bennett have been pro-European? Would he have looked at Britain's role in the world, its alternatives of becoming a strong voice in Europe or America's poodle, and chosen Europe? Would he have delighted in the ratification of the Lisbon treaty? It's difficult to say. He's been dead for a while. But he did live in Paris once, and was apparently keen on French writing. So let's put him down as a "maybe". That's considerably more evidence than we have for Churchill being a UKIP supporter.

I'd encountered Bennett before as a non-fiction writer, and he struck me then as sharp and witty. I'm happy to say that his made-up stuff is just as good. Much of it concerns the "Five Towns", a fictionalised Stoke-on-Trent, and The Card is also set there. It tells the story of the entrepreneur Denry Machin as he rises through Five Towns society as if attached to a helium balloon. His adventures along the way are enjoyably far-fetched, from a runaway pantechnicon (I had to look it up too) to inadvertent burglaries, newspaper wars and the conquering of Llandudno's summer season.

My fear with any book written in the olden days is that it will conform to the stereotypical Victorian format of long-winded descriptive passages occasionally interrupted by a bit of story. Thankfully, things seem to have loosened up by Edwardian times and The Card is very snappy indeed. When description is needed (as in the Countess's stately home), description is provided, but it's always just enough to illustrate and never enough to bore. Whole scenes are ruthlessly cut short (as at the church) when they no longer serve a purpose. The effect is comparable to watching His Girl Friday for the first time and realising that the modern world doesn't have a monopoly on ultrafast comedy.

The most obvious comparison is to P.G. Wodehouse, and there were moments when I half-expected a cow creamer to show up. The main difference between The Card and the average Wodehouse novel is that the latter is clearly set in a make-believe world, whereas The Card is grounded in the reality of Staffordshire life. It often reads like a work of social history, as when it describes the swagger of early car owners, the status of Llandudno as a must-visit destination, the onset of women smokers and the class structure of transatlantic sea journeys, among many other topics.

Bennett is better known for his serious novels, but on the evidence of this book he is also a very fine comic writer. And the last two lines of The Card are the best defence of comedy I have ever read. I won't spoil them here, but you can find them at the link below. I recommend you read the rest of the book first.

The Card by Arnold Bennett
First published 1911
Available as a free e-book from Project Gutenberg

Monday, 26 October 2009

A Fraction of the Whole

Has any prize done more damage to the medium it celebrates than the Booker Prize? Somehow, somewhen, it gave birth to the cliché of the unreadable "Booker book", a po-faced account of a middle-aged widowed playwright, say, who ventures into the mountains to discover that the secret of life is to renounce plot and spend your days in aimless introspection. In short, boring.

Much of the fault lies with the rules. Each publisher is allowed to submit no more than two books, which keeps the numbers manageable but also forces the publishers to second guess the judges. The obvious strategy is to submit the most portentous books they have - the Booker books. So the cliché feeds itself. And for as long as these monsters win the gongs, they send a clear message to would-be booklovers: literature isn't for the likes of you.

It comes as quite a surprise, then, to find that many Booker prizewinners are actually genuinely good books. And they can even be (whisper it) enjoyable to read. I first found this out when I picked up the 1996 winner, Last Orders, but the big revelation was with 2003's Vernon God Little. How could such a crazily brilliant story win? It felt like an overthrow of the establishment, the literary equivalent of getting H'Angus the Monkey elected mayor of Hartlepool.

The truth is less revolutionary. All depends on the judges. The class of 2003 were obviously an unstuffy lot, and voted accordingly. Looking back through the list of winners, it seems that this attitude is gradually becoming the rule rather than the exception. Merely glancing at the Wikipedia synopses of the 1970s winners is enough to induce a coma, whereas many of the more recent ones at least sound like they have the potential to be interesting. That's not to say they will all be God Littles; I didn't care much for the 2002 winner Life of Pi, for example, but at least it was a breezy read.

The secret I think is to choose carefully. Judge the Booker book by its cover. Read the blurb. Put your ear to the ground and listen to the drumming of the reviews. Good words to hear: hilarious, provocative, playful. Bad words: lyrical, meditative, demanding. Ugly words: flocculent, cinereal, velutinous.

A Fraction of the Whole is firmly on the side of good. Glancing down the 2008 shortlist, it leapt out at me like an attention-demanding youngest child. It's Steve Toltz's debut and it shows, but not in a bad way. It manifests itself as a palpable enthusiasm for the story, both in the plotting and his use of language.

First the plot. Judging by the reviews quoted in the inside covers, I'm duty bound to report that A Fraction of the Whole is over 700 pages long. That requires a lot of plot, and Toltz has an inexhaustible supply. Over the course of the book the focus shifts from Terry Dean, the would-be sporting star turned vengeful criminal, to his brother Martin, whose creative but loopy schemes for improving society always seem to backfire, to Martin's son Jasper, who has to cope with the fallout. If this was a Booker book, they'd probably spend the whole story moping around their home town, "the least desirable place to live in New South Wales". But it's better than that, so the town collapses under the tyranny of a suggestion box by the end of chapter one. Similar calamities befall the Dean family in Paris, Australia again, and Thailand. It's episodic, but the episodes are very cleverly developed and linked together.

I was planning to describe Toltz's prose style as an unending series of wisecracks, and demonstrate it by choosing a random page and pulling out a couple. But 15 random pages later I realise this doesn't work. It is very funny, but it's not a gag-reel, even if it might seem that way while reading it. The humour isn't grafted on either; it permeates the story thoroughly, and is continually surprising.

It's just as well there's so much humour, though, because the story would be seriously depressing without it. Martin's tale in particular is one of unending woe. But the misery and the humour combine to form a very satisfying whole, like a good Smiths song.

The only slight disappointment I can report concerns the narration. The story is alternately told by Martin and Jasper, as a lively mixture of anecdote, diary and autobiography. Their voices are both engaging but also very similar and I occasionally forgot who was doing the telling. Maybe it's excusable, as both are worried that the son is the reincarnation of the father, but it's a missed opportunity to present their differing traits through overtly different storytelling styles.

A Fraction of the Whole is a true epic, with space for philosophy and explosions and occasional dabs of the paranormal. I have no idea if it deserved to win in 2008 (I haven't read the other shortlisted books), but if this is any indication of the judges' taste, it might be worth finding out.

A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz
First published 2008

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

If Chins Could Kill

The first year at university is a rite of passage in many ways, and never more so than when the unsuspecting fresher enters the strange, liminal world of Cult Films. I vaguely remember that one night we watched The Evil Dead (or was it Evil Dead 2?). Not just a cult film, but a cult horror film, which is about as culty as you can get. I'd like to say that it changed the way I viewed cinema forever and left me hero-worshipping the star, Bruce Campbell. But this would be unfair to the truth: I hated it. And I hated him by association (whoever he was).

It wasn't Campbell's fault though. I hate horror films as a genre. I get squeamish at the sight of blood, and more squeamish at the sight of severed limbs with motive power of their own. Nowadays I'm desensitized compared to back then, but I still tend to avoid them if I can. Sorry, horror fans. It's my loss, I'm sure.

So what was I doing reading Campbell's autobiography? It's another selection from the library of Mrs Tomsk, this time courtesy of Senior Spielbergo. It's doing the rounds because early on it describes, in loving and occasionally terrifying detail, the excitement of making amateur films. This book was apparently the inspiration for our own occasional filmmaking efforts, so for that reason alone it deserved to be read.

Plus, I actually liked Bubba Ho-Tep. See how far I've come?

If Chins Could Kill is sold as the life of an ordinary jobbing actor. Not for Campbell the A-list movie, the mansion-sized trailer and more muffins than you can shake a contractual demand at. Instead, he gets tied to a cast-iron cross on the end of a crane arm and rotated until the shot looks just right.

This abuse is inflicted by the director Sam Raimi, who Campbell has known since childhood. Their banter and the suffering they inflict upon each other forms the heart of the book and provides most of the funniest moments. Many of these involve "the classic", Raimi's car, which does stunt service on countless occasions.

Raimi is very much an A-list director now, with three Spiderman films to his name. And Campbell hasn't done too badly out of the movie business either. The marketing line is therefore false modesty, but it's an understandable attempt to carve out a niche on the bookshelves. The real story is much more interesting, as Campbell vividly contrasts the making of the early films, with no money but complete control, to the later ones with plenty of money but no control. Despite his light-hearted tone the early years must have been quite a struggle, but he still yearns for them. Like most people on the creative side of the film business he has a hate-hate relationship with Hollywood, and greatly enjoys his time in New Zealand because it's so far away from the 'spores'.

It's the rollercoaster variety of Campbell's experiences that make this an entertaining book. He even makes it big in TV, first with The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr (never heard of it) then with Hercules (never heard of it either, much to Mrs Tomsk's disgust). In the 2002 version he goes as far as a celebrity book signing tour, which is somewhat at odds with the ideals of the first edition.

Campbell is certainly not an A-list writer, and at times the anecdotes ramble and become disjointed. The abrupt changes between narrative and dialogue also take a while to get used to. But the conversational tone suits his story, and you're left with the impression that he's a very pleasant guy, which is quite a contrast to many of the other actors he describes.

As for amateur films - well, I can see why the book is inspirational. But I nominate someone else to be attached to the crane arm.

If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor
by Bruce Campbell
First published 2001

Further reading: Chemie's review

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Miss Tschörmänie

If you're a theoretical chemist with a passable command of German and a secret lust for power, this is the book for you. Miss Tschörmänie (pronounced "Miss Germany") is a comic strip depiction of the life and times of Angela Merkel, the current German chancellor.

The story starts with her early years as a scientist in the East, but really gets going after reunification, when her political career began. She soon signs up with the centre-right CDU party and by 2000 has taken charge. Five years later she has eliminated all other pretenders and become the first female chancellor of Germany. The aim of the book is to show you how she did it.

The story sticks closely to the facts, though there is some room for the authors to speculate about private conversations and thoughts. It's also very respectful to Merkel, who is shown time and again outsmarting her political enemies, both outside the party and within. The only really biting comments come from Gerhard Schröder (her predecessor as chancellor) and Edmund Stoiber (her rival from the allied CSU party), who frame the story while sat in a bar on the day of the 2009 election. They behave like the two old hecklers in the Muppet Show, but even they are left wondering how she pulled a fast one on them.

The illustrations are quite crudely sketched, but the likenesses of the politicians are good - at least I had no trouble recognising the few I'd heard of. Some of their expressions are priceless, usually when they realise they've been outmanoeuvred by Merkel once again. The sparing use of fanciful imagery is also effective, such as when Merkel's speech bubble conjures up a demonic pact between the centre-left SPD and ex-communist PDS, or skyscrapers topple to illustrate the credit crunch.

I won't pretend to judge how funny the book is, as I'm sure there are many jokes that went over my head. But the bits I did understand seemed well written and (gently) satirical. I can only assume the easy ride they give Merkel is due to her continued popularity as leader: her modest, pragmatic style has so far proved appealing to the electorate and doesn't offer a lot to satirise.

The book ends as the exit polls of last week's election are about to come in. In the event, of course, Merkel won. The CDU/CSU are now able to form a coalition with the free-market liberal FDP, marking a decisive shift to the right for the German government. Why this has happened in the depths of the greatest crisis of capitalism for 80 years is puzzling. Much of the blame must lie with the SPD, the other partner in the 'grand coalition' government of the last four years. As the book notes, they managed to take the blame for everything that went wrong during this time, and handed Merkel the credit for everything that went right. The financial crisis has also done them no favours. Much like Britain's Labour party, they embraced free-market ideology in the boom years, so they cannot now attack the ideologues without looking like hypocrites.

I picked up Miss Tschörmänie on a visit to Erlangen while the election campaign was in full swing. You can tell an election is on in Germany by the charmingly simple posters that cover every square metre of public space. All follow the same format: a big smiling face, a name and a slogan along the lines of 'I'm trustworthy'. They've always seemed a little risky to me given the very high incidence of graffiti in Germany. But it's a sign of the respect Merkel commands that I never once saw her picture defaced with a comedy set of glasses and twirly moustache.

Miss Tschörmänie: Wie aus Angie unsere Kanzlerin wurde
by Miriam Hollstein (text) and Heiko Sakurai (drawings)
First published 2009

Saturday, 26 September 2009

The Master and Margarita

A visit to Murmansk, the grimly fascinating Soviet-era port, leaves you marked in two ways. First, with a healthy radioactive glow. Second, with a desire to read Russian literature. Actually, the second is not strictly true. What I really wanted to read was a thrilling Arctic adventure featuring submarines and derring-do, something like an early Tom Clancy, minus the American triumphalism. And I still do. Suggestions please.

Unfortunately, our local library was understocked with Soviet naval thrillers, so I raided Mrs Tomsk's library instead, and came up with The Master and Margarita. While it may not tell you how to break through the GIUK gap, it does illuminate the everyday nightmare of life under Stalin. It does this through a mixture of comedy, satire, religion and fantasy, a concoction so subversive that the introduction focuses mainly on how amazing it was that it ever got published, even if it did have to wait 26 years for the privilege.

The most arresting characters in the story are the Devil and his retinue, whose actions, alternately funny and frightening, make such a mockery of the Soviet system that you can almost hear Bulgakov yelling 'Take THAT! And THAT!'. The black magic show in particular is a highlight of the book.

Unfortunately, the title characters were a lot less entertaining. I've long thought that the greatest crime an author can commit is to make their protagonist a novelist. I suppose it's 'writing what you know', but that's no excuse for such a lack of imagination. And it's inevitably accompanied by long and tedious homilies about the vital importance of books to the fabric of the universe. It was therefore doubly distressing to find that the Master was not only a novelist, but that whole chapters are devoted to extracts from his novel.

But every rule has an exception, and in this case the author just about gets away with it. Perhaps this is because the book takes in the whole of literary society, rather than a single novelist, and this raises broader and more interesting issues of censorship and free speech. Of course these are particularly acute for a novel written and set in Stalin's time. Many of the author's choices only make sense in this historical context. For example, the retelling of Jesus's last days seems both jarringly pedestrian and superfluous compared to the main plot, until you remember that the mere assertion of this story was a highly politically incorrect act at the time.

The purpose of Margarita was less obvious to me. She's certainly necessary to the plot, and brings a lot of energy to the beginning of book two. But I never really cared about her relationship with the Master, and their carefully weighted fate left me unmoved.

Should a story be judged solely on its own merits, or get special consideration for challenging the dogmas of its time? There are plenty of moments in The Master and Margarita that make it worth reading, but it never really grabbed me as a story. It's only when viewed as a political artefact that it can be called a masterpiece.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
First published 1966-7
Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, 1997