MIKHAIL AND MARGARITA, p. 213 (Spoiler)

Because of the title, maybe you were expecting something written in the same antic spirit with which Mikhail Bulgakov wrote The Master and Margarita. Julie Lekstrom Himes’s novel, however, is a completely different animal. It’s straightforward realism: a searing look at how cruelly the Stalinist state treated its artists and writers (and gets really painful to read around p. 216)

Bulgakov is not the only victim of the state. No writer, it seems, escaped. The cruelest fates are reserved for Mayakovsky and Mandelstam. But there were many others.

p. 213, Margarita has disappeared, and Bulgakov goes to Lubyanka on a futile search for information.

Guard: I have no information available.

Bulgakov: Every week I hear the same thing — do you know if she is even in there?

Guard: Is she out there with you?

Bulgakov: Of course not.

Guard: Then she is here.

Meanwhile, inside Lubyanka, Margarita “was told her attitude did not help her. When she returned to her cell, a metal shutter had been screwed over the window. Where the clock had hung there were only wires.”

Since we know precisely how much sun passes through this window every day (16 minutes, Margarita could tell by the clock), the sudden withdrawal of this small comfort (the guards knew!) is particularly awful.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

MIKHAIL AND MARGARITA, pp. 138 – 139 mentions Gogol

Loving this book because of all the writerly mentions. In addition to Bulgakov (Must watch the movie with Charlotte Rampling), there are Osip Mandelstam, Mayakovsky, Anna Akhmatova . . .

All tortured, sent into exile, heartbreaking. But at least their words survived.

On p. 138, there’s a mention of Gogol (Self has to type on the floor, sitting on throw pillows; sitting at a desk gives her hand and wrist cramps. But the other day, she noticed spiders crawling over her legs and feet and she’s like constantly on the alert with Off! spray).

p. 138:

In his later years, Gogol had become convinced that God had abandoned him. Tortured, half-crazed, he burnt his remaining manuscripts only days before he died. As though the promise of man’s redemption must perish with him. He claimed the Devil had tricked him into doing so. He’d been only forty-one.

p. 139:

In 1931 when Gogol’s body was exhumed he was discovered to be facing downward. The writer had had a terrible fear of being buried alive, so much so that he’d willed his casket be fitted with a breathing tube as well as a rope by which to sound some external bell if needed.

As the grimness gathers around Bulgakov, the novel can only get more depressing. But so far, self has been able to persist.

This novel won the 2017 First Novel Prize from New York’s Center for Fiction, “the only literary center in the United States devoted to the art of fiction.”

Kudos to Ms. Himes.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

 

Quote of the Day: MIKHAIL AND MARGARITA, p. 129

Why a writer can think he will survive a Stalinist purge:

  • You believe if you can be strong, you can withstand them. You believe such strength is possible.

You believe you can outwit a madman. Which is in itself a form of madness.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

George Saunders! Such a Card!

There is something about reading George Saunders that makes self want to laugh in irrepressible delight (Sorry. There was a time when only self knew the two words: George Saunders. She decided he would be her secret indulgence, for the rest of her life. Then he became quote unquote famous. Now, when she shares her love for a George Saunders sentence, she sounds overly enthusiastic, like a groupie)

Nevertheless! Here she is reading Lincoln in the Bardo Page One:

On our wedding day I was forty-six, she was eighteen.

. . . .

I proposed that we should be . . .  friends. Should behave outwardly, in all things, as if we had consummated our arrangement.

(Har Har Har)

Page Two:

She is here, still here.

(Har Har Har again!)

I was not an inexperienced man — had been wild when young; had spent sufficient time (I am ashamed to say) in Marble Alley . . .

(Har to the nth!)

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

 

 

NEXT: Lincoln in the Bardo

First sentence: “On our wedding day I was forty-six, she was eighteen.”

Nostalgia: New York City

Self loves As Lie Is To Grin when the narrator simply describes what he sees as he moves about New York City:

I exited the station at West Eighth Street, heading north, and stood on a traffic island, watching small plane lights appear in the darkness behind One World Trade Center.

She would love to have this book as a walking guide when she is actually in New York City, a city that is dear to her heart because that is where her parents met: her father was a law student at Georgetown, and her mother was a classical pianist who had given concerts at Carnegie Hall and Avery Fisher. Painfully, that is also where her older sister died, so many years ago.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

Lynchings: AS LIE IS TO GRIN, p. 30

DSCN0035

Currently Reading

Very stream-of-consciousness, this novel is. Self likes it. It’s something like Francoise Sagan meets disaffected young black man in the University of Vermont.

It’s been a long time since she’s read about lynchings in a work of fiction. She certainly wasn’t prepared for the subject to be in the middle of a paragraph about the narrator trying to hook up with Delilah. But there it is. The young man’s personal pain conflates with his memory of a particular story in Jean Toomer’s Cane (A reader somewhere detests Marsalis and calls this entire book a pack of lies. Of course it is. It’s fiction)

  • There were little things that I did not know about her, which made me realize that I had not taken a serious interest in Delilah. I tried to remember more of what she had told me about herself, but was distracted by the thought of a story Jean Toomer had written in Cane, called Blood Burning Moon, about a black man (Tom) who killed a white man (Bob) over his continued dalliance with a young black woman (Louisa) whom Tom hoped to marry. It ended with Tom’s hanging by lynch mob. What gave the story life were the horrible questions that went unasked by the narrator. Why had Louisa chosen to continue seeing Bob, why wasn’t Tom given a fair trial, what did Tom truly desire?

After a while, the narrator’s silent ruminations make Delilah uncomfortable and she asks him to leave. “Why?” the narrator asks.

  • Delilah: You are acting weird.

Then Delilah goes to sleep.

Wow! What. A. Scene.

It’s like this fan fiction story self read, where Gendry sleeps with Sansa. After, she turns him out of her bed and he wanders into a very cold dawn.

Here, the narrator ends up welcoming the dawn “in the little amphitheater between Mills and Austin Halls, twenty yards from the footpath, and stared out at the Green Mountains of Vermont.” (Young men always seem to welcome the dawn after being turned out-of-doors by their paramours or ex-paramours, self notices. Welcoming the dawn = angst/unhappiness/disappointment/frustration)

Later, Marsalis delves further into the life of Jean Toomer and finds that he “looked white.” Is this an echo of the narrator, who is attending the University of Vermont while black? Self guesses there aren’t too many blacks in the University of Vermont. At least, that is the impression she gets (so far) from As Lie Is to Grin.

BTW, is it significant that son has kept his cell turned off for days? It doesn’t even finish one ring before it turns to voice mail. That means the cell is turned off. Right? She hasn’t heard son’s voice since Mother’s Day, and he placed that call in the evening. Self thinks a Mother’s Day call that doesn’t happen until the evening is not really a Mother’s Day call. Right? But it’s better than no call at all. Maybe.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

 

 

The Father in THE SUMMER BOOK

Self finds the utter lack of drama in everything the father in The Summer Book does so compelling. He reminds her a little of Will Parry in His Dark Materials: that combination of stoicism and steadfastness.

On p. 144, the little girl, Sophia, prays:

  • Dear God, let something happen. God, if you love me. I’m bored to death. Amen.

In answer to her prayers, a whopper of a storm hits the island.

  • “Wonderful,” the Grandmother said. “But the nets are out.”

Alone, the Father takes out his boat and heads to the point in high wind, to try and salvage their nets.

  • He did it to save his family.

He is literally the only person that his daughter and his mother have to depend on. And never once in this entire book (she’s almost to the end) does he utter a single line of dialogue. It is his stoic immovability, the sense of permanence he radiates, that adds yet another layer to this wonderful book!

This is the storm:

  • The seas breaking against the sheer outer side of the island had grown. One after the other, the waves rose up in their white immensity, to a tremendous height, and foam hissed against the rocks like the blows of a whip. Tall curtains of water flew across the island and sailed on west.

Self remembers how, a few pages ago, a boat came to the island. The father had gone off in a great hurry to meet it and never returned, even though the daughter waited up for him until the wee hours. When he does finally show up, he goes straight to bed. The whole next day, he has a headache and is unable to work. Self finds it so amusing that the girl calms only when her grandmother invents a story about how the father was kidnapped and given a sleeping potion (Does this story ring any bells? It sort of reminds self of Circe in The Odyssey)

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

 

 

The Third Character in THE SUMMER BOOK

The third character on the island, who mostly doesn’t make an appearance, not for many pages, is the little girl’s father. He represents a powerful mystery. Why doesn’t he accompany the little girl on her island explorations? Where is his wife?

This mysterious man gradually assumes shape and definition, first from the mention of his worn bathrobe. His relatives try to throw it away but it comes floating back to the island, smelling strongly of seaweed, and then he wears it everyday the rest of that summer.

There’s another section, when he leaves the island to get supplies, and there’s a storm. He is delayed, and the grandmother has to talk the little girl into believing that he’s in no danger, while her eyes constantly scan the horizon. The moment the grandmother catches sight of a rim of white surf on the horizon (which is the father in his boat, powering through the storm, and drenched through), there is such a powerful relief in the grandmother, and in self.

It was blowing hard, and the sun was setting. She was far-sighted and saw the boat half an hour before it reached the island — a moustache of white foam that would appear at irregular intervals and sometimes vanish entirely.

A few sections later, a mysterious boat pulls up and beaches on the island. The father “puts on his pants” and runs to the shore to greet the visitors. He never comes back that night. The girl hears music coming from the boat and wants to go check it out, but her grandmother says they have to wait for the father to come and get them. They wait and wait, but of course he never does come, and the little girl is furious.

Who is this man? This mysterious figure who is always stuck in the house (unless he is putting on his pants to run towards visiting boats) and does not roam the island as his daughter and mother do?

p. 134:

The guest room was cool and quiet, and Papa sat working at his desk on the other side of the wall.

“I like it when he’s working,” Sophia said. “I always know he’s there.”

Self is enjoying this book so much; she regrets that she’s gotten close to the end.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

THE SUMMER BOOK, p. 95

This book just keeps getting better and better. Self loves it.

p. 94: “Sophia’s father had a special bathrobe that he loved.”

Some of the relatives, arriving to give “the island a good cleaning,” decide that the bathrobe has outlived its usefulness and carry it down to the water to float away.

The robe, however, returns, borne by the waves and smelling of seaweed.

p. 95: “Papa wore virtually nothing else that whole summer. Then there was the spring when they discovered a family of mice had been living in the robe.”

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

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