inspired "Sympathy for the Devil"
Finally getting to it now that Veronica is spending the summer learning Russian.
Ban the book; build the buzz.
Had it not been suppressed for forty years it wouldn't have become internationally famous. It's a bit of a mess. There's the love story of the Master, a writer, and Margarita. They're both inconveniently and unhappily married to other people, as apparently everyone was in the twenties. Don't worry, the useless-except-as-plot-devices spouses aren't in the book. The Master has written a moving novel about Pontius Pilate which no one will publish, a theme introduced early in the book: it is unacceptable to even consider that Jesus might have been a real person. This novel within the novel presents Pilate as being forced by law and politics to sentence Jesus to death, but far from washing his hands of the job, he strives to save him, to reduce his suffering, and to respect him after the crucifixion. I liked the Master's book and wouldn't have minded more of it.
Eventually the book settles down and concentrates on the suffering of the Master, but the first third of the book is devoted to satirizing Moscow's literary and theatrical (think vaudeville) world of the 20s. Not since Dante has a writer so indulged a desire to mock and punish. If these characters aren't real people I hope they're only thinly veiled ones, because otherwise they are too shallow to bother with. Their sins are mostly about getting a better apartment, which in an overcrowded urban environment is no sin at all.
Knowing that this was the inspiration for "Sympathy for the Devil" I had high hopes going in for that character. Jagged and Richards did more and did it better than Bulgakov. He doesn't get to do much, he's just a man who is too old for in unpleasant job, but too decent to leave the hard work to someone else. His staff are all less powerful and less competent, but they seem to derive some pleasure from the business of pointing out folly in humans. Not much fun, really, considering what one might do, but a bit in the end.
There is some real fun when we finally get to Margarita: girlfriend gives it all over to being a witch, but it turns out that being a witch is also not as much fun as you might think. Bulgakov 's damned are a parade even he finds to tedious to recount.
The book does have a happy ending, for some bleak Russian notion of "happy". No doubt it was fun to write, but the titular characters don't have much agency, and the structure deprives the book of any real momentum until half way through, so even though I did become familiar with Russian names, overall it wasn't very rewarding. I wanted to love it: it features an oversized talking black cat, but even those bits were joyless until the last sixty pages.
Maybe the Soviets only suppressed it for being slow, and dull, neither instructive nor entertaining. Or maybe I should quit trying to read Russian fiction, since I never end up liking it. Or both.
Edited to correct typo
Thank you, Mr. Towles. I adored this book, in no small part because I adore Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, the central character from whose point of view the book is told. He is, in the true sense of the word, a gentleman: well educated, well read, well spoken, witty, loyal, and kind, one who rejects ennui as the sign of a lazy mind, who adapts to changing circumstances with flexibility and sees humility as a virtue in no way at odds with dignity. A gentleman never complains. A gentleman understands good manners are intended to be used to put others at ease, never to embarrass.
The other important character is the Metropole Hotel of Moscow, where our Count remains under house arrest for decades. It becomes his world, and therefore the world of the reader, a backdrop to the disturbing events of Russia from the 1920s to the 1950s. This is not a dark book, although it is not without pain. No book of Russia could possibly be written without pain -- Russia IS pain, after all. But we are inside the heart and mind of the unflappable, intellectually supple and resilient Count, and therefore we understand we are as safe as the travel-weary traveler sitting down to dinner in the grand restaurant where eventually -- because everyone in the Soviet Union must work, comrade -- Count Rostov becomes head waiter.
The writing is luscious. The wit is laugh-out-loud funny, the characters charming and alive, and the ending completely satisfying.
My only regret is that the Count is not a real person I can invite to dinner.
Thanks to NetGalley and to Random House UK/Ebury Publishing for providing me with an ARC copy of this book that I voluntarily choose to review.
I’m a big fan of fairy tales and I’m always happy to discover new tales and stories that fit in that category, or that retell some old classics. And I love the stories based on old folktales that capture the beauty of old language, customs and the historical times and places long gone. The Bear and the Nightingale reminded me how much I like these stories and how the best of them are irresistible, at least for me.
Set in Russia (before it was Russia, as the author explains in her notes), the novel creates a great cast of characters, those “real” (princes and princesses, labourers, farmers, villagers, a landed family with food connections), others with a touch of the paranormal, like the protective spirits (of the house, the door, the stables, the forest, the lakes) that might turn nasty if not fed or treated kindly by human beings, the horrific ones (Death, The Bear, vampires), and animals, like the magical nightingale/horse of the title.
The character at the centre of the story, Vasilisa (Vasya), is the youngest child of her mother, Marina, who wanted to have a girl who would be like her. Marina had the ability to see things others couldn’t (the spirits of the forest, of the house, and she could also talk to animals) and she wants to pass her ability on. She dies when her daughter is born, and young Vasya grows among a family who loves her but doesn’t fully understand her. She can talk to horses, they teach her how to ride, and she can talk to the spirits others believe in but can’t see. She loves the old fairy tales and later realises they’re not only fantasy and old-wives tales. As is still the case, people fear what they can’t understand, and a newcomer, a priest, tries to change things by getting rid of old beliefs and putting the fear of God into people’s hearts. This can only lead to disaster.
The descriptions of the landscapes, the houses, the creatures, the atmosphere and the weather are beautifully achieved, in a style reminiscent of classical fairy-tales. The characters are also fascinating and we get a good understanding of their psychological make-up and of what moves them. Particularly interesting are the priest and Vasya’s stepmother, who try as they might, can’t reconcile their wishes with what is expected of them, but Dunya, the housemaid and ersatz mother to Vasya is a touching character, the family relations are heart-warming and even the animals have their own personalities. The author explains that she has tried to adapt the Russian names to make them easier for English-speaking audiences, and in my opinions she succeeds in both, maintaining the particular characteristics of Russian names, whilst not making it confusing or disorienting. The poetry of the language is another great success and I found the book impossible to put down.
There are many moments of sadness, scary moments, and also moments of the story that will make us think (Vasya is different and misunderstood, accused of being a witch despite her efforts to save her village and her people, the weight of custom and the role of men and women in traditional societies are also subject to discussion, family ties and religious thoughts…), but it is a magical story that will make us remember the child we once were. A word of warning, this is not a story for young children, and although some of the imagery is familiar as is the case with many of the classics, there are cruel and terrifying moments as well.
As an example of the writing, I wanted to share some of the passages I highlighted:
At last, they saw the city itself (Moscow), lusty and squalid, like a fair woman with feet caked in filth.
“In Moscow, priests are in love with their standing and think overmuch of the gold in their churches. They eat fat meat and preach poverty to the miserable.” (This is Sasha, one of Vasya’s brothers, who later becomes a monk).
Here, Vasya complaining of her lot in life:
“I am foolish. I was born for a cage, after all: convent of house, what else is there?”
“All of my life,” she said, “I have been told ‘go’ and ‘come’. I am told how I will live, and I am told how I must die. I must be a man’s servant and a mare for his pleasure, or I must hide myself behind walls and surrender my flesh to a cold, silent god. I would walk into the jaws of hell itself, if it were a path of my own choosing. I would rather die tomorrow in the forest than live a hundred years of the life appointed me….”
Just in case I didn’t make myself clear, I love this book, and although I know it’s not the type of book that everybody will like, I’d recommend that you check a sample or the read inside feature and see what you think. You might be rewarded with a magical reading.
Oh dear. Where to start.
Reading this book, I got the impression that the original manuscript Fleming turned in to his publisher was deemed too short, and subsequently Fleming was required to pad the word count with what is now erroneously referred to as “Part One: The Plan” (a more apt name would be “Part One: The Villain Monologues”). This theory might also explain why Fleming felt compelled to expand – mid-dialogue, in brackets – on the context of the sly digs the Russian officials were dishing out to each other during their interminable who-should-we-kill-to-flex-our-international-muscles meeting which could have been summed up in a single paragraph (and which bore a striking resemblance to an actual love letter to the British Secret Service, which is apparently the bestest on the whole planet because all the other countries except maybe Sweden are stupid, but Sweden doesn’t care about spy scandals. You really are Great, dear Britain. Sincerely, Russia xoxo).
Once we wade through the life story of a nameless masseuse and the minute physical description of her client, followed by the life story of said client, followed by the life story of the different branches of Russian Intelligence and their conference room, followed by that interminable meeting which includes the life stories of the department heads, followed by a chess game, followed by more meetings, followed by the life story of this book’s Bond Girl, we FINALLY get to Part Two, which starts off with a bang, and by “bang” I mean a description of Bond’s current state of ennui that’s nearly as interminable as this sentence.
And THEN the real story starts. Slowly. Nearly halfway through the book.
Someone forgot to put the thrill in this spy thriller.
Unless you’re thrilled by 1950s-style racism, misogyny, homophobia, and British nationalism, in which case you may find this a most thrilling work of fiction.
I know I've seen the movie, but I honestly can't remember much about it. After reading the novel, I suspect that may be due to a subconscious act of mental self-defense.