Saturday, May 26, 2012

Enjoy with red wine

In Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, the editor of a highbrow literary magazine and a poet are meeting on a park bench in Moscow when they are approached by a mysterious foreigner who predicts their demise and tells them a story about Pontius Pilate, whom he says he knew. Within a short time, the editor is decapitated by a freak road accident and the poet is in a lunatic asylum.

Thus starts a novel which depicts a world full of magical happenings, deceit, punishment, banishment and madness, a capricious world where nothing is certain and fear is everywhere. It was written in Stalinist Russia in 1938; its author died in 1940, and the novel didn't appear in full till 1973.

It would be to oversimplify it to say that it is about the battle of good and evil, between the forces of repression and freedom. It is, like all good novels, about us, the human animal, with all our flaws and ambiguities. And though it's obviously a satire on Russian society (as relevant now, as then, I would say, from what little I know about Putin's Russia), like all great literature it transcends country and culture and speaks to us all.

I'm writing about it now even though I haven't finished it yet, and this post isn't really a review of the book. I've been thinking lately how books are mass produced and yet each one, over time weathers (as it were) into individuality. I think this is why I will never read e books. I like the physicality of the book too much.

The copy I have is a library copy (Lismore City Library), almost new (the Vintage Classics edition, shown above), and covered in plastic.

This is a pity, as I like to run my hands over the cover of a book from time to time while I think about what I've been reading, and the plastic spoils the cover feel. But what is nice about this almost new copy is that someone has spilled what I think must be red wine over the corner of the final 30 pages of the book.

See how the wine has bled to a curious yellow colour at the edges?

I have a feeling of affinity with the red wine spiller, as I've been enjoying this book in the evenings before dinner. It's dark outside and the wood stove is on and dinner is simmering on it, and I can't resist a wee glass while I'm reading.

What is so pleasurable about this book, in which, believe me, few of us come off well, is the sheer well-doneness of it. There is no sloppy writing here, and everything to be savoured.

To wit:

The poet had wasted his night while others had spent it enjoying themselves and now he realised it was lost forever. He had only to lift his head up from the lamp and look at the sky to see that the night had gone beyond return. Waiters were hurriedly jerking the cloths off the tables. The cats pacing the verandah had a morning look about them. Day broke inexorably over the poet.

Cats with a morning look  about them. Day breaking inexorably.

Best sipped in small appreciative doses. With red wine.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Katherine and Virginia

Sunday 13 may: The Channon Craft Market:

We're there selling pots (you know pots: the things you eat and drink out of). 'Are they keramic?' asks a bearded man from Leichardt, Sydney, using a hard k. Yes, keramic, we assure him. Saw him a few moments later at the bread board stall next door (asking if they were made of wood, perhaps?)

It can be wearying at the market. A bright spot - Trev's Books was there.

Trev has good taste in books, and his stall is like going to a good second hand bookshop. Bought from Trev over the years: Riders in the Chariot, by Patrick White, Novel on Yellow Paper, by Stevie Smith, Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott ...

On Sunday I saw a book by moi there (A Charm of Powerful Trouble). It's funny how distant I feel from it. And how I don't feel like a writer. Oh, I wrote that, I think idly, and pass by.

Bought from Trev for $5 on Sunday: Virginia Woolf :Women and Writing, (The Women's Press 1979), which is a collection of various of her essays and reviews on that subject.  It's nice to dip into Virginia, oblivious of the people wandering into the stall. I take a leaf from our friend Jean, also a potter, and read and ignore them. If they want something they'll let you know.

From a review of The Journal of Katherine Mansfield, 1914-1922, which appeared in the New York Herald Tribune on 18 September 1927:

Virginia quotes Katherine:

There is so much to do and I do so little. Life would be almost perfect here if only when I was pretending to work I always was working. Look at the stories that wait and wait just at the threshold ... Next day. Yet take this morning, for instance. I don't want to write anything. It's gray; it's heavy and dull. And short stories seem unreal and not worth doing. I don't want to write. I want to live.

For me, it was like that thing you can do with a favourite book: open a page at random, put your finger on a passage, and it says something relevant to your life.

And yet, as Woolf comments, "No one felt more seriously the importance of writing than she did."

Friday, May 4, 2012

And it's into the attic with you, Franz!

Snail mail: you have to love it. Especially when it brings Franz Kafka

who was 'all alone in the bargain bin of the co-op bookshop at Newcastle Uni' (perhaps too gloomy for them there?)

Anyway, here he is,  dropping in on the likes of Djuana Barnes, Stevie Smith, Gertrude Stein and Eve Langley. I think they'll all rub along all right.

He's a writer I'm unsure I've read. But I'm all for a bit of metamorphosis. And I like it that most of his work was published after he was dead - I'm sure that pleased him.

But I have read Kafka on the Shore, by Haruki Murakami. That counts, doesn't it?

He bore a quotation: "I have the true feeling of myself only when I am unbearably unhappy."

As a card-carrying melancholic, I can only agree.