22 November 2007

The Master and Margarita

We spent last weekend staying in the fabulous Hunt Cottage in Tinui (near Castlepoint), which doesn’t have that much to do with writing or books except that, while there, I wrote a little and read a book.

The book I was reading (and still am reading) is The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Afanasievich Bulgakov, which several people have told me is their favourite book in the world, so I figured it was worth a look.

Despite being written during the Stalinist period, or perhaps because of that, it contains the typically Russian black sense of humour and absurdness, which I always enjoy. Russian writers seem to always be able to make even a tragedy funny - in a dark sort of way. A friend of mine suggested that the sense of the absurd may have come from Russia being such a large country, making bureaucratic absurdities inevitable.

I’m still in the middle of it, but I’m enjoying The Master and Margarita immensely. Possibly my favourite passage so far is this:

Ivan was so struck by the cat's behaviour that he froze motionless by the grocery store on the corner, and here he was struck for a second time, but much more strongly, by the conductress's behaviour. As soon as she saw the cat getting into the tram-car, she shouted with a malice that even made her shake:

'No cats allowed! Nobody with cats allowed! Scat! Get off, or I'll call the police!'

Neither the conductress nor the passengers were struck by the essence of the matter: not just that a cat was boarding a tram-car, which would have been good enough, but that he was going to pay!

The cat turned out to be not only a solvent but also a disciplined animal. At the very first shout from the conductress, he halted his advance, got off the footboard, and sat down at the stop, rubbing his whiskers with the ten-kopeck piece. But as soon as the conductress yanked the cord and the tram-car started moving off, the cat acted like anyone who has been expelled from a tram-car but still needs a ride. Letting all three cars go by, the cat jumped on to the rear coupling-pin of the last one, wrapped its paws around some hose sticking out of the side, and rode off, thus saving himself ten kopecks.

I read that passage out to Sean and kept him updated as I went along: ‘The cat hasn’t reappeared yet.’ ... A few pages later – ‘Oh, here’s the cat again. He’s drinking a glass of vodka.’


Tim Jones said...

Lovely to see someone else appreciating one of my favourite books! I have a hard time getting people to read it - as soon as they learn it's a Russian novel, they have visions of vast thickets of words, impenetrable fastnesses of gloom and cold - but it really is the most lovely, lyrical, fantastic book. Enjoy the rest of it!


Helen Rickerby said...

Gloomy? Pah! Carnivalesque more like! I'm nearly at the end, and then I think I'll need to read some books about it - it isn't a hard read, but it is very rich and I'm sure there's lots in it I'm not quite getting. Can you suggest any useful critical texts?

Tim Jones said...

Not really - there's a few studies listed in the Victoria University catalogue - I think I wrote an undergraduate Russian literature essay on it many years back, so I could dig that out if you're really interested!