The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov

Book #400
Reviewer: Tall, Short, Tiny & a Pickle

The Master and MargaritaThe Master and Margarita appears on numerous “must read” lists, and having recently inhaled it, I believe it is deserving of all the kudos. I had no prior knowledge of the story, and simply had the recommendation of a friend to go by; suffice to say I will be listening to any further book suggestions she makes!

The Master and Margarita is set mainly in Moscow, and begins with a meeting between two literary figures and a mysterious foreign gentleman – a professor of black magic. The conversation turns to one of the literary figures dismissing the idea of the existence of the devil; the foreign gent takes offense at this, and unfortunately for the former, things don’t turn out for the best. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that the foreign gentleman is none other than Satan himself, calling to wreak havoc upon the predominantly-atheist, bureaucratic, materialistic society. He has brought with him a handful of weird and wonderful servants, who are essentially his go-betweens.

There is a host of interesting characters, with numerous crossing-of-paths moments. A few of the characters end up in an asylum, and as the story goes on, the reader wonders who else might be admitted. One such character is known as The Master; he has admitted himself to the asylum following a devastating review of his first literary piece, leaving behind a devastated lover by the name of Margarita, who has an interesting meeting with the Devil in the second part of the story.

It did get a little confusing at times, with Russian naming conventions and the use of diminutives as well as full names, and some of the characters had similar names. However, Bulgakov always added in a small descriptor which made it easier to track who was who.

This was an exciting, intriguing, beguiling read. I read at every opportunity, staying up way past my bedtime on numerous occasions, simply because I couldn’t put the book down. It was beautifully written; evocative and fascinating in both subject matter and style, poetic and sumptuous in characterisation and location.

Frozen to the spot in terror, Margarita somehow made all this out in the treacherous shadows from the candles. Her gaze was drawn to the bed, on which sat the one whom poor Ivan had been trying to convince, still very recently at Patriach’s, that the Devil did not exist. It was this non-existent one that sat on the bed.

The subject matter was intriguing, and the telling of the story was magical and quirky. At times, it was quite dark, but there was always an undercurrent of humour. I enjoyed the way the story continued to build impossible layer on top of impossible layer, adding to the element of sheer frivolity. I also liked that many of the characters spoke lines such as,

“He’ll get up to the devil knows what…” and “…it’s time to let everything go to the devil…”

The Master and Margarita was a surprising treat and I won’t hesitate to recommend it to you all.

The Name of the Rose – Umberto Eco

Book #293
Reviewer: Tall, Short, Tiny & a Pickle

The Name of the RoseThe Name of the Rose tells the story of William, a Franciscan monk who travels to a monastery in Northern Italy with his apprentince, Adso, to attend a theological conference of sorts. Just before their arrival, it appears that one of the monks has either been murdered or committed suicide. As the story continues, a number of other monks mysteriously die, and William is asked by the abbey to use his superior skills of observation and curiousity to investigate the deaths.

Sounds exciting, right? Well, let me start by telling you that this review almost never eventuated. I stopped reading The Name of the Rose twice, and it almost didn’t make it back off my bookshelf. However, I was determined to finish it for a personal reading goal, and when I realised it was on the 1001 Books list…well, that made me even more determined to get to the end.

It will come as no surprise that I didn’t like this book at all; in fact, I found it incredibly boring and have nicknamed it The Book of Snore. To be fair, I imagine Eco didn’t have a sleep-deprived mother in mind when he wrote his novel, but I still think I wouldn’t have enjoyed it if I was getting a solid eight hours sleep each night. His method of telling a story within a story did nothing to endear me to his style of writing.

The length of the sentences, paragraphs and chapters was excessive; in some stories, this style works, but here, it simply didn’t. I waited for the pace to pick up…and I waited, and waited, and waited. It simply took too long to read; I wasn’t expecting instant gratification, but I was expecting to be entertained in some way, and I wasn’t.

The narrator was an insipid character, and his insights didn’t add anything to the story. Eco’s descriptive passages also missed the mark for me, which is saying a lot when I’m a big fan of Dickensian over-descriptions. I was disappointed, too, because the cover of my copy was so pretty and held such promise which the contents really didn’t deliver!

I didn’t like the use of Latin phrases when there were no translations or footnotes. It was frustrating to feel as thought I may have missed something important because of this; indeed, when I’d finished, I actually did wonder if I’d missed something and that’s why I didn’t “get” it? Because it bored and frustrated me so, I found that I didn’t retain a lot of what I read from one evening to the next, but wasn’t inclined to go back and refresh my memory. I am aware that this linguistic ambiguity is a special technique, but it’s not one I enjoyed reading.

There’s obviously a reason The Name of the Rose earned a place on the list, but I am at a loss to figure it out. If someone can convince me otherwise, I am eager to hear your glowing reviews of this book.

Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

BOOK #649
Reviewer: Tall, Short, Tiny & a Pickle

Brave New WorldBrave New World joins 1984 (George Orwell) and We (Yevgeny Zamyatin) on this list as three of the most influential dystopian (or, anti-utopian) novels of the twentieth century. I haven’t read We, but of the other two, Brave New World is easily my favourite.

Set in A.F 632, ‘this year of stability’ is 632 years after the advent of car king Henry Ford. Huxley has cleverly chosen Ford as his “deity”; the Model T was the first car to be manufactured using mass-production methods and specialised labour. In Brave New World, the World State is maintained through biological engineering and excessive conditioning; its citizens have been “hatched” to fill pre-destined social roles, and throughout infancy, they are taught (through hypnotism and sleep-teaching) the “virtues” of passive obedience, promiscuity and mindless materialism. As adults, they are encouraged to take (and freely given) a government-approved drug (similar to marijuana), and to engage in orgies, all to further instil the virtues of Community, Identity, and Stability.

Every member of society in the World State seems to be happy with their life, except for Bernard Marx. Bernard alone seems to find the situation unbearable, and longs to escape from the brainwashed idealism. He visits a Savage Reservation, where there are people living the old way; by the end of the novel, he is resigned to the way of life in the World State and has accepted his role in this world.

I really enjoyed this book, with its moments of pure comic gold (hopefully intentional!) interwoven with seemingly prophetic passages. I think Huxley was trying to make the point that at some stage, humanity is going to lose some of its spontaneity, individualism and uniqueness in its quest for a society where everything is seemingly perfect. The idea that possessions will soon become more important than people is something not far off the way of the world now (and just before Christmas, it might be quite timely that I’m thinking this way?!).

I liked Huxley’s style, and his characterisations – they were still human, and still real in their “created” personalities, and their interactions were quite normal. Obviously, some of the ideas and reactions were rather different, but they were believable.

The other big plus for me was that this was an easy, quick read; I didn’t struggle to get through it the way I did with 1984 (which I still enjoyed; it just took me a while), and I didn’t find it depressing as I did with Orwell’s dystopia.

Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens

Book #918
Reviewer: Tall, Short, Tiny & a Pickle

Oliver TwistReading Oliver Twist was my first foray into the novels of Charles Dickens. I have vivid memories of lying in the sun at my parents’ house, reading the copy my mother had read when she was at school. It is fair to say that Oliver Twist was an excellent introduction to to the Dickensian world, and I have been a huge fan ever since.

If you haven’t yet read Oliver Twist, you will no doubt be familiar with it in its screen and stage adaptations. That famous scene where Oliver dares to ask for more gruel is etched in many memories as a poignant moment in a tragic tale.

In brief, Oliver Twist is a young orphan who finds himself journeying towards London. Along the way, he meets a young pickpocket (Jack Dawkins, aka The Artful Dodger) who tells of a place where he can get free board with a group of “gentlemen”. Oliver is an innocent, naive, good-hearted boy who often doesn’t see the true nature of people, and agrees to join Dawkins in London, where he finds himself surrounded by a host of delightfully-unsavoury characters. The leader of this group, Fagin, is a criminal with a devilish nature; he tricks and corrupts young men, and is often portrayed as shying from daylight, prayer and anything of a decent nature. Ultimately, the decency of Oliver’s character wins out, and we have a happy ending where good triumphs evil, but Dickens tells a very interesting story along the way.

He paints a very dramatic, miserable picture of poverty, unusual for a time when many writers glossed over the plight of the poor. The novel reflects on the effects of industrialism on the working classes of England, and states that many resorted to theft and crime in order simply to survive. However, Oliver’s character is different – he remains innocent and decent throughout the novel, regardless of the situations he finds himself in, and never resorts to the life of crime presented to him. He speaks properly, compared to the rest of the poor, and from the outset, I found myself hoping that better things would be in store for him.

I am a fan of Dickens’ writing style, and as I said earlier, this was the novel that cemented my love for his work. I enjoy his descriptive passages, the realism of his characters and their plights, and the interactions between them. He describes his characters so well, down to the last tic, that when I saw a local stage production of this a number of years ago, I was pleased to see the actor playing Fagin had adopted his mannerisms perfectly.

Passages such as:

The sun, – the bright sun, that brings back, not light alone, but new life, and hope, and freshness to man – burst upon the crowded city in clear and radiant glory. Through costly-coloured glass and paper-mended window, through cathedral dome and rotten crevice, it shed its equal ray.

serve to create a powerful image as you read, and the novel is filled with such eloquent descriptions. There are, in true Dickens-fashion, moments of comedy, which serve to cut through the inherently sombre nature of the story:

“Bless their dear little hearts!” said Mrs. Mann with emotion, “they’re as well as can be, the dears! Of course, except the two that died last week.”

If you’ve never ventured to read anything by Charles Dickens, this would be my recommendation as the place to start. An incredibly good read, with a happy ending that sees good triumph over evil in that ultimate of symbolic and moral battles.

A well-deserved 5 out of 5 stars from me.

A Room With A View – E.M Forster

Book #761

Reviewer: Tall, Short, Tiny & a Pickle

A Room With A ViewWhen I was 16-years-old, a friend and I became obsessed with the novels of E.M Forster. We thought we were incredibly sophisticated and open-minded, and went so far as to write our own stories using similar language and ideas.

One of my favourites was A Room With A View; it was amusing in its portrayal of pretentious Victorian manners, and the dialogue was brilliant. In flicking back through the novel for the purposes of this review, I found myself again smiling at a few exchanges.

“Am I to conclude,” said Miss Bartlett, “that he is a Socialist?”
Mr Beebe accepted the convenient word, no without a slight twitching of the lips.
“And presumably he has brought up his son to be a Socialist, too?”
“I hardly know George, for he hasn’t learned to talk yet. He seems a nice creature, and I think he has brains. Of course, he has all his father’s mannerisms, and it is quite possible that he, too, may be a Socialist.”

A Room With A View is set in Italy and England. In Florence, Italy, young Lucy Honeychurch and her cousin Charlotte meet a Mr Emerson and his son George; they are staying at the same hotel and when the gentlemen offer to switch rooms with the young women, they are offended by their lack of “manners”. Charlotte forms an instant dislike of the Emersons and convinces Lucy to feel the same; Lucy falls for young George, but upon her return to England, accepts the proposal of someone else. The novel ends back in Florence, with Lucy having eloped with one of her suitors…you’ll have to read it to find out who!

Like many writers of the time, Forster had a tendency to comment on sexuality, religion and class. A Room With A View is a definite commentary on these, with a focus on the repression of women and feminine sexuality at the time. There is an obvious struggle in Lucy between the old-fashioned values she has been raised by, and the more liberal values she believes in. This is made more prominent for her after her stay in Italy, where the gap between the classes is much less than in England, and she realises how much ridiculous value is placed on class and society back home. Most importantly, A Room With A View is a novel about following your heart, despite what society thinks or tells you to do.

The notes at the back of my copy of the novel explain the symbolism of the title of the book, which is rather handy, because I know 16-year-old me wouldn’t have picked up on this: the “rooms” refer those characters and places that are considered conservative, like England, Lucy’s mother, and her pretentious fiancé, while the “views” refer to those that are considered liberal and open-minded, like Italy, the Emersons and Lucy herself.

I enjoyed A Room With A View immensely as a young adult, and the passages I re-read now brought that enjoyment flooding back. A recommended read if you like amusing Victorian-era novels that allude to society’s failings before their time.