Sunday, January 1, 2012

Mikhail Bulgakov

January, 2012: I loved Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, so was keen to borrow Heart Of A Dog (1925) when I saw it in my father's study.  It starts from the point of view of a mangy dog roaming Moscow in search of food.  A man gives him sausage and takes him to his luxurious apartment.  The dog is overwhelmed to discover such kindness and generosity in the world.  Of course, we know there is no such kindness in the world; the dog's new owner turns out to be a brilliant scientist, Phillip Phillipovich, who transplants the pituitary gland and testes of a dead criminal onto the dog.  The dog turns into an uncouth and ugly man, who refuses to remain under the control of the scientist.  The scientist and his household are almost driven mad by his creation.
In writing the above summary, I'm trying to decode the story.  I know it's about the danger of meddling with the natural order of things, and about everyone having an equal right to life - Sharikov, the man with the heart of a dog, is Phillipovich's inferior in every way, yet asserts his independence from his master, his right to get drunk, to have a girlfriend.  But because I don't understand what it was like to be in the Soviet Union, the real point of this strange story eludes me.  I enjoy it as a piece of crazy fun, but I don't learn much from it.  Most Russian writers are very moral.  I'm afraid Bulgakov would be disappointed by my literal and unsophisticated reading.  

Sometime later...After reflecting on my unilluminated take on Heart Of A Dog, I decided I was being lazy, so read a few bits and pieces of what other people have to say about it. Now I think the reason I feel something has eluded me is because satire is more effective the more you're familiar with what's being satirised.  At a reading in 1925 of Bulgakov's new novel, his audience received a certain passage about galoshes being stolen in the communal hallway with "deafening laughter" - this was reported by a secret informer to the Soviet police (and more recently by James Meek in an introduction of a new edition).  A reader who knows more about Bulgakov's world would undoubtedly recognise and laugh at detail all throughout the novel.  

D'Arcy Niland, Alice Munro, Kasey Chambers and W. Somerset Maugham

January, 2012: The books banked up at the end of last year - too much reading, not enough writing my 'Book of the Moment' commentary!  I was writing the last draft of my novel, tentatively called Dust, and had very little writing-energy left over. So, draft all but finished, and a new year unrolling before me, I'm going to clean up last year in one fell swoop.  The books of last year that will pass barely commented-upon are: 
D'Arcy Niland's The Big Smoke, a collection of short stories published in the 1950s.  I can't give the exact date because I wasn't very impressed with the book and passed it on to Vinnies.  [I am lazy when it comes to checking facts on the Google, but I rallied myself and found it was published in 1959.]  Most of the stories are set in Sydney, and it's always interesting to read of your familiar old city in an earlier, exotic incarnation.  Reading history enables you to spot the bits that still linger on, bits that you might otherwise just pass by.  But Niland's brushstrokes are very careless and hasty, his colours squeezed straight from the standard-issue tubes; in the short story format, this equals cartoons and caricatures.  In The Shiralee, Niland's broad brushstrokes worked because we had a whole novel to see this archetypical character, Macauley, in various different scenarios.  Subtleties - truths - gradually accumulated, almost despite him.  That's the beauty of the novel - the gradual accumulation adding up to something that is expressible in no way other than several hundred pages.
Dance Of The Happy Shades (1968), Alice Munro. One of my flatmates recommended this collection of short stories.  Tony had seen Jonathan Franzen give a talk in which he had championed Alice Munro and Christina Stead.  Stead is the most sophisticated novelist I've ever read; the reason her work has not been given the laurels it deserves is because it's too hard for most people to read.  I'm not being snobby about this - I'm a well-practised and determined novel-reader, with the added advantage of a naturally long concentration span, and, moreover, it's my trade to read novels; someone who reads novels purely for pleasure would quickly get bogged down in Stead.  I'd read Dance Of The Happy Shades when I was younger (and didn't bother to remember things, except which dress I'd worn when I last saw such-and-such boyfriend), so, on hearing of Munro being held up beside Stead, was curious to read these short stories again.  
When I was partway through the collection, Tony asked, "What do you think?"  I said, "The writing is very feminine."  It was a notable contrast, going from D'Arcy Niland's stories to Munro's.  I have no preference between feminine and masculine writing - I just like good writing.  And of course, some writers aren't particularly one or the other.  Then I had to figure out what I meant by "feminine writing".  Munro's main characters were frequently women leading confined, conventional, domestic lives, and privately thinking seditious thoughts.  Her characters lacked the confidence, or the wherewithal, to act, to change the world they live in - the key is that these stories are the act, the author makes herself into the protagonist.  So the poor women left behind in their stories, where their interesting thoughts are smothered by their repressive neighbours, their dull husbands, the demands of their children, are given a glorious escape simply by a reader opening the pages of the book.  
It's not only the domestic settings, and the small scale of the drama (e.g. woman plucks up courage to tell her husband that she is renting a room to write in, but by the end of the story is hounded out of it by bothersome landlord), but also the subtle truths, the fine detail and observation, that make these stories (to me) 'feminine'.  Jane Austen, the self-described miniaturist - her stories written on "two inches of ivory" with "a fine brush" - is the obvious example of a 'feminine writer'.  I think Austen was throwing us a decoy (which we have all eagerly latched onto) when she said that about herself; she was probably trying to make her occupation and success more acceptable, less threateningly revolutionary, to her milieu; for the surprising thing about Austen is that, just like other famous writers of her time, her novels are rollickingly plot-driven.  Munro's writing fits Austen's description better; these stories have the feel of a private correspondence, or beautifully-crafted entries from a diary.  I don't mean to belittle them by saying that - what's wrong with 'little'?  This collection was her first; I'm curious to know whether the characters in her later work have the same timidity and voicelessness, and whether there is still the theme of trying to pluck up the courage to bring the inner self to the outer.
Little Bird (2011) Kasey Chambers.  I'm a Kasey Chambers fan, but my wallet always seems to get hopelessly lost in my bag when it comes to proving my fandom at the merch table.  Not so my friend and fellow-fan, Sophie.  When we saw Kasey launch her memoir in Leichhardt, Sophie bought a copy, and I borrowed it soon after.  It was a feel-good breakfast-time read for a week or two, with lots of photos and colourful anecdotes; the welcoming openness that is the signature tone of a Kasey show transfers perfectly to the page.  Of course, it's a piece of marketing, and she's too young to be writing her memoirs, and she's rather recklessly robbing her stage-banter of its freshness by putting it down in print - she's going to start telling the story of her and Worm kissing at a party, and the audience is going to say, "Yeah, yeah, we know that one, we've read the book."  But what's really worthwhile about the book is its moral content, and Kasey's depiction of how she and her extended family (including divorced parents, step-parents, half-siblings, children to two different men, an ex-husband, a new husband, the ex-husband's new wife etc.) find their way through their network of relationships.  She has probably idealised it for publication, and there are undoubtedly tensions and problems that are too private even for Kasey to discuss, but I don't care - I think our world needs new standards, and new ideals for dealing with complex families.  She is a great role-model for inclusivity.  
I gave the book back to Sophie, so I can't quote from it verbatim, but at one point Kasey wrote that when her parents broke up after about twenty years of marriage, at first things were a bit acrimonious.  I thought, "Oh, the usual sorry situation."  Then she went on, "So it was really great to see them become friends again after a few months."  A few months!  I was impressed.  Acrimony between people who once loved each other enough to have children should be frowned upon, or maybe pitied - it shouldn't be accepted as the decent and proper reaction to a relationship coming to an end.

The World Over Vol II (1952) W. Somerset Maugham.  Somerset Maugham has, it seemed, combed the world to find people in unexpected places tangled up in unexpected relationships.  His short stories have the feel of anecdotes polished up over a few dinner parties before being written down - what an invaluable guest he would have been!  Many good writers are first and foremost good conversationalists.  I read Somerset Maugham for his warm and interesting company, rather than to worship at the altar of his craftsmanship.
Here's a passage I dog-eared.  The dialogue is between a Somerset Maugham-type character and a man, Featherstone, he met in Malaya.  Featherstone borrows The Life of Byron from W.S.M., and returns it the next morning, saying:
"What do you think is the real truth of that story about him and his sister?"
"Augusta Leigh?  I don't know very much about it.  I've never read Astarte."
"Do you suppose they were really in love with each other?"
"I suppose so.  Isn't it generally believed that  she was the only woman he ever genuinely loved?"
"Can you understand it?
"I can't really.  It doesn't particularly shock me.  It just seems to me very unnatural.  Perhaps 'unnatural' isn't the right word.  It's incomprehensible to me.  I can't throw myself into the state of feeling where such a thing seems possible.  You know, that's how a writer gets to know the people he writes about, by standing himself in their shoes and feeling with their hearts."
I knew I did not make myself very clear, but I was trying to describe a sensation, an action of the subconscious, which from experience was perfectly familiar to me, but which no words I knew could precisely indicate.
Not only do I like this simple description of what a writer does, and the modest qualification that follows, but this excerpt also shows his willingness to attempt to comprehend anything, even romantic love between a brother and sister.  He knows that comprehension of human life comes by gathering up the fine details, the specifics, which is what he presents to his readers.