Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Photograph by Penelope Lively

Penelope Lively is the most precise writer since Henry James. Where he carries the reader to the heart of his observation in a closing spiral of phrases set off by commas, Lively offers carefully-spun details, the particulars of work and relationships. And where James offers a Pointillist view of his subject, those dots of deliberately expressed color coalescing at a distance into an image, Lively weaves in tapestry fashion - these threads, these shadings - from which patterns emerge, become vivid; yet, a few more passes of the shuttle subtly change what we see. And when she is finished, Ah. We know she's done, every thread has been incorporated, nothing remains to say, the picture is complete.

Lively's novel The Photograph begins straightforwardly enough: Glyn, a landscape historian rummaging through old papers in his closet, discovers an envelope he's never seen. The photo inside is of a group of people: his wife Kath, her sister, her sister's husband, a woman friend and her man friend. And his wife and her brother-in-law are holding hands in an intimate clasp, unseen except by the camera. Kath has been dead some years - how can this revelation make a difference now? And yet, as Glyn confronts those in the photo with its evidence, one person after another finds life shaken from its moorings. This sylph with her vital glow revisits them all, undoing their certainties, reasserting the mystery that surrounded her.

Lively uses her found-object catalyst to examine people's relations to work, to family, to friendship, to the entire range of emotions from dissatisfaction and jealousy to the full storm of love.

This slight novel, 231 pages, pulls no punches, employs no gimmicks, promises nothing it does not deliver. We are in the hands of a master. There is no bombast, only the struggles and escapes familiar to us all, directed and pointed to illuminate a life. If you appreciate clear simple language which lays bare the hidden heart in all its complexity, you should read this fine book.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Master and Margarita

Mikhail Bulgakov's novel The Master and Margarita, begun in the 1920's and still in some draft version when he died in 1940, is nevertheless a masterpiece.

Four stories entwine in the narrative: the devil visits Moscow with his retinue, predicting to the editor of a literary journal the improbable circumstances of his death. Satan's presence soon leads to overcrowding in the mental hospital as people babble about impossible occurrences. The second story, a novel rejected by Soviet publishers, recounts Pontius Pilate's days during and immediately following the crucifixion of Yeshua Ha-Nozri. The novelist, despairing of a life of fruitless endeavor, throws the manuscript into his stove, but as the devil remarks, "manuscripts are not so easily destroyed." We're given a taste of life in Moscow, among theater-goers and at a large restaurant frequented by writers and poets. And the author of Pilate's story, the Master, is the lover of Margarita, a woman of strong will and courage who makes a pact with the demons in order to bring peace to the man she loves.

In the satiric vein of Gogol, whose comic novella The Nose ridicules bureaucratic self-importance, Bulgakov's devil plays with people's greed and vanity. Booked for a magic show at the city's largest theater, the devil materializes a boutique and invites women to come try on - and keep - the lovely gowns and shoes. They hurry in, shedding their own clothes, dressing in finery. He flings money at the audience, who scramble to collect the notes. After the performance's abrupt end the crowd leaves the theater, only to find their new clothes vanished and the money worthless. A thousand women in the streets in their underwear must of course attract attention, but since the truth - that magic has been practiced - is impossible, officials deny the reports. They ascribe the sight to mass hypnosis, just one of the author's digs at the lockstep mentality of Stalin's time.

Bulgakov fought obscurity and the censors, and he portrays officialdom as selfish, incompetent and short-sighted. Likewise, the literati ignore the poet who witnessed the editor's bizarre death; from his room in the mental hospital he struggles to convince anyone of what he's seen. 
Something strange happened to [the poet] Ivan Nikolayevitch. His will seemed to crack, and he felt weak and in need of advice. 
"But what is to be done?" he asked timidly.
This is the famous question posed by Lenin during the Revolution, and coming from this poet who mistrusts his own senses, it strikes an absurd and pitiful note in contrast to the thundering challenge issued by Soviet Russia's hero. Small wonder the novel didn't see publication until 1966.

The chaos sown by the devil and his henchmen is wild and fantastical. Scoundrels inflict their bombast and corruption on other scoundrels, and bureaucrats scurry to gather evidence they refuse to believe, while credulous men populate the mental hospital - the perpetrators do not strike us as evil. Rather, they have come to torment the pompous and reveal the idiocy of fools - we could wish for such powers!