The Halfway House by Guillermo Rosales

April 15, 2010

This short book was, in some sense, a welcome transition from Tournament of Books selections and coverage. First published in 1987, the novel won award for Spanish language novels but was not translated into English until 2009, after the novel had been rediscovered and heavily praised in Europe. This is a bold, original novel from a troubled author. Only two of his novels survived his suicide, this one and “El Juego de la Viola”. The others he destroyed.

The scant information I have about the author suggests that this novel is somewhat autobiographical. Guillermo Rosales was born and grew up in Cuba. He was, apparently, initially sympathetic to the revolution, but later grew disenchanted with it and fled the totalitarian state, ending up in Miami. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent a considerable part of the rest of his life in halfway houses.

Guillermo’s alter ego, William Figueras, narrates the story. William describes in brief simple terms his love of literature, his first novel, and the resulting repression by the Cuban government. The stress of failure drives him insane. The novel is bleakly comic such as when he describes his arrival in America:

There were some relatives waiting for me . . . They thought a future winner was coming, a future businessman, a future playboy, a future family man who would have a future house full of kids . . . The person who turned up was instead a crazy, nearly toothless, skinny, frightened guy who had to be admitted to a psychiatric ward that very day because he eyed everyone in the family with suspicion and, instead of hugging and kissing them, insulted them.

The relatives soon rid themselves of William, except for one aunt. She allows him to stay with her for three months:

[U]ntil the day when, at the advice of other friends and relatives, she decided to stick me in the halfway house: the house of human garbage.

“Because you’ll understand that nothing more can be done.”
I understand her.

This sense of hopelessness pervades the novel. William has little to which he can look forward. The halfway house is a terrible place. Jose Manuel Prieto, in the preface, aptly describes it as “Dantean”. There are retarded twins who fight, a man with pus oozing out of his empty eye socket, chronically clogged toilets, an opportunistic manager (Curbelo) who skims profits and skimps on services, and the manager’s predatory lieutenant Arsenio.

[Arsenio]’s square and sweaty torso is slashed through with a scar that goes from his chest to his navel. It’s from being stabbed in prison, five years ago, where he was doing time for stealing. Mr. Curbelo pays him seventy dollars a week. But Arsenio is happy. He has no family, no profession, no life ambitions, and here, in the halfway house, he’s a big fish. For the first time in his life, Arsenio feels fulfilled somewhere.

But the book does not slide into an easy indictment of Cuba or America, halfway houses, Curbelo, or Arsenio. He plumbs the depths of the human condition and pulls up the worst of it. His criticism of Cuba is not merely a stand against totalitarianism, but against how totalitarianism unmasks people for what they are. On one hand, there is the shadow that that follows survivors, a haunting that is reminiscent of Cynthia Ozick’s connected short stories in The Shawl. But William was not first a victim, but an enthusiastic supporter of Fidel’s regime. He bears the scars of complicity.

He shares that shame with a new arrival at the halfway house, Frances. Frances, like William, is not as far gone as the other residents. The two bond in ways reassuring and disconcerting. Like the other subjects of the book, William’s and Frances’s shared shame is no simple thing, but a layered affair. Though we know enough about William by this point to know he could have done something horrible, the first memory they share, besides the revolutionary anthem, is of benign (if not laudable) participation:

”I taught five peasants how to read,” she confesses.
“Oh yeah? Where?”

“In the Sierra Maestra,” she says. “In a place called El Roble.”

“I was around there,” I say. “I was teaching some other peasants in La Plata. Three mountains from there.”

As Trevor puts it over at The Mookse and The Gripes, the novel is “all the more poignant because of” the simple narrative style. In his own excellent review, though, Trevor points out the complexity of the ideas and structure of the novel. While fleshed out in plain prose, the book has a heft belied by the slim page count (which is 121 including a twelve page preface). I highly recommend checking out Trevor’s review (link above) and reading Prieto’s preface, whether prior to reading the novel or after. I do think I found myself more impressed by the examination of humanity itself, rather than the specifically Cuban focus. In other words, as I tried to express before, while the novel does illumine the evils of totalitarianism and the failures of America, the most powerful searchlight is shone on the human condition. The book is timeless and borderless; it is well worth reading.

Numbers in the Dark and Other Stories by Italo Calvino

December 19, 2009

Some writers earn my respect. Other writers I merely enjoy. There are writers with whom I become intimate over the course of a long relationship. Some I read and abandon forever. But there are some writers who grab me and promise me a lifetime of reading pleasure and I believe them.

Italo Calvino is that last sort of writer. As soon as I started his collection of short stories, months and months ago, I believed his promises. I still do.

I like reading collections of short stories slowly. Generally, I read no more than a story a day, sometimes only a story a week. This both prolongs the experience, if it is good, and gives me time to digest a story before moving to the next. Of course, at first, I gulped this one. The first stories are so short. Not until the fourth does a story need more than one page, front and back, to finish.

These short shorts are grippingly original. The first section is subtitled “Fables and Stories, 1943-1958” and the stories do read as fables. The very first story is “The Man Who Shouted Teresa“:

I stepped off the pavement, walked backwards a few paces looking up, and, from the middle of the street, broght my hands to my mouth to make a megaphone and shouted towards the top stories of the block: “Teresa!”

My shadow took fright at the moon and huddled between my feet.

Someone walked by. Again I shouted: “Teresa!” The man came up to me and said: “if you don’t shout louder she won’t hear you. Let’s both try. So: count to three, on three we shout together.” And he said: “One, two, three.” And we both yelled, “Tereeeesaaa!”

Before long, there is a large crowd helping the narrator, the man who shouted Teresa. They organize, squabble, and are “beginning to get it right” before someone finally starts asking why they are shouting. The narrator explains he doesn’t even know who lives in the apartment to which they are shouting:

“As far as I’m concerned,” I said, “we can call another name, or try somewhere else. It’s no big deal.”

The others were a bit annoyed.

But everyone is too embarrassed to be angry or to simply go away. They decide to call one last time and then leave.

So we did it again. “One two three Teresa!” but it didn’t come out very well. Then people headed off home, some one way, some the other.

I’d already turned into the square, when I thought I heard a voice still calling: “Tee-reee-sa!”

Someone must have stayed on to shout. Someone stubborn.

I found the story hilarious. I was hooked. In the next story, the narrator has a moment when he understands nothing, the next is about a town where everything was forbidden. They are too short to be tedious, too well written to be dismissed. Most of these early works are apolitical.

The stories become slightly less fantastical and more political deeper into the book. At first, their target is primarily the military, such as in “The Lost Regiment” where “[a] regiment in a powerful army was supposed to be parading through the city streets” but gets lost and in “The General in the Library” involving a general sent to examine the books in a library after “a suspicion crpet into the minds of top officials: that books contained opinions hostile to military prestige.” But soon Calvino’s flirtation with communism and socialism become quite evident.

Like Dos Passos, Calvino has a fascination with and compassion for working people. His more political stories are often concerned with issues of class and power. In fact, it was the abuse of power, the Soviet invasion of Hungary, that ended Calvino’s association with communism. Many of his stories lampoon the bureacracies and resulting oppressions that spring up under communism and socialism. In other words, Calvino’s primary concern is with respect for the average human, not with an explicitly political goal. In this way, even his explicitly political stories maintain some vitality, though politics have largely passed them by.

The second half of the book is subtitled “Tales and Dialogues 1968-84”. Some of these stories are sci-fi in nature, such as “World Memory” in which every fact in the world is being fed into a computer. This is not a humorous story, but a suspenseful one with an excellent payoff. “Beheading the Heads” is quite political and, perhaps, reveals the anarchism to which Calvino was exposed as a child in addition to his frustrations with political systems generally.

The preface to the book provides some interesting background. For instance, “The Burning of the Abominable House”, a murder mystery in short form, was written in response to “a somewhat vague request from IBM: how far was it possible to write a story using the computer?” The 1973 story is excellent and reveals Calvino’s logical and mathematical rigor.

Finally, late in the collection, Calvino’s fascination with physics and science comes to the fore. Calvino’s parents were scientists and Calvino himself studied the ideas of Einstein, Heisenberg, and Planck. The final two stories are each inspired by scientific articles. One about black holes and the other about the beginning of the universe. These stories both manage to relate abstruse scientific concepts to intensely personal struggles. “Implosion” is concerned with time and everyone’s inability to truly escape its ravages. Even implosion, the narrator finds, does not provide a sanctuary. “Nothing and Not Much” examines the void and dealing with the void. The story was inspired by a Washington Post article discussing a scientists calculations which “suggest[ed] that the universe was created literally from nothing”. It is a very existential piece.

While Numbers in the Dark and Other Stories is only one short story collection, and not Italo Calvino’s most highly regarded, I am infatuated. I want more. I am going to read a novel next, probably If on a winter’s night a traveler. I highly recommend this collection. I cannot say whether it is the best entry point to Calvino’s work, but it was, for me, a thoroughly seductive introduction.

*To dip before jumping in, you can find links to Italo Calvino stories available on the web and other information about the writer at the Italo Calvino website.

The Stranger Next Door by Amelie Nothomb (Tr. Carol Volk)

December 3, 2009

Tony of Tony’s Book World said Amelie Nothomb is a “Must Read Author”. He said: “If you start to read her books, you will continue to read her books.” Apparently, The Complete Review gave him the scoop. Well, Tony is right.

This book warrants every point of the B that The Complete Review gives it. I think it just missed out on a B+. But, her other grades being what they were, Amelie threatened to be a one-woman grade-inflation-machine. The Complete Review got this one right which makes me eager for her higher scoring submissions.

The Stranger Next Door is a very odd book, though the premise is simple. A retired school teacher and his wife decide to move out to the country for the peace and solitude. They find their dream house, “the House”, and settle into their golden years. Their life is ideal.
Emile Hazel narrates his and Juliette’s experiences that first year in the country.

After one week in the House, we were convinced we had never lived anywhere else.

One morning, we took the car to the village to buy groceries. The store in Mauves was a delight to us: it didn’t sell much, and this absence of choice made us inexplicably joyful.

This is not a novel about planning a dinner party or a story about strolling through Kew Gardens, however. The same afternoon they return from the charming grocer, their neighbor comes to visit:

[A]t about four o’clock, someone knocked on the door.

I went to open it. It was a fat man who seemed older than I was.

“I’m Mr. Bernardin. Your neighbor.”

What could be more normal than a neighbor coming to make the acquaintance of new arrivals, particularly in a clearing consisting of two houses? His face, moreover, could not have been more ordinary. I remember, nonetheless, standing there frozen, confused, like Robinson upon his first encounter with Friday.

Emile is onto something. This is not just a neighbor, this is a stranger. Mr. Bernardin’s opening salvo is longer than any of his other utterances on that first visit, or the second, which occurs at precisely four o’clock the following day. The pattern is set.

The stranger, only made more strange by their knowing his name, continues his routine of arriving at four every afternoon. Emile and Juliette soon realize that he intends to continue visiting at that hour daily in perpetuity. This would not seem to be a major problem, only Mr. Bernardin rarely speaks and, when he does, is very concise. Emile and Juliette find this disconcerting, plus, they have no desire to be held captive to the punctual stranger next door.

Their first attempts to dissuade Mr. Bernardin’s neighborliness consist of attempted murder by kindness. When Mr. Bernardin perseveres, they try mocking him. Nothing seems to work and they cannot decide whether he is an imbecile or diabolical.

The question becomes more urgent and more difficult to answer when they finally meet Mrs. Bernardin. Mrs. Berardin and her situation become the impetus that sets in motion a series of startling plot developments, all of which serve Amelie Nothomb’s philosophical and moral purposes.

This novella is packed with delights which are humorous, grotesque, philosophical, and moral. Despite being so slight, the book is not an easy read. The prose is crisp, but the mood is unsettling for everyone, including the reader. Emile and Juliette and the reader have time to consider whether lack of choice really is “inexplicably joyful”, and the answer is driven home with the force and speed of thumb screws. The payoff is worth the wait, however, when deeper questions regarding manners and morals begin to demand answers.

Emile and Juliette are reactive characters, but circumstances eventually force them to choose. Husband and wife each answer in their own way, with serious consequences for both of them and for the Bernardins.

While this is not one of my favorite reads of the year, the originality of the story, the sprinkling throughout of literary, philosophical, and mythological references, the prose, the humor, and the weight all guarantee that I will try others of Ms. Nothomb’s works. If this is her worst, I am in for some treats.

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

July 20, 2009

I was debating whether to post my thoughts on this book, which I was glad I read but which I did not like very much. After reading the “Fired from the Canon” piece, I thought I may as well. I agree that ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE can safely be jettisoned from “the canon” or, at least, not be foisted upon unsuspecting readers.

OneHundredYearsThis go at Marquez’s masterpiece was my second attempt. The first time, I quit after having lost track of whether Jose Arcadio Buendia, Auereliano Buendia, Jose Arcadio, Aureliano Jose, Arcadio, Aureliano Segundo, Jose Arcadio Segundo, the other Jose Arcadio, or one of the other two Aurelianos…what was I saying? Anyway, these are the main male cast members. There is a little more variety among the principal women: three named Remedios (Moscote, the Beauty, Renata), an Amaranta, an Ursala, an Amaranta Ursala, a Rebecca, a Pilar, and a Sofia. The key is to sort them by generation and jiggle the handle.

So, Marquez pulled off the delightful feat of naming all his characters while only using a total of about five names. This does wonders for the environment, but it is extremely annoying. Combined with the rampant familial love, and I mean that in the unfortunate biblical sense rather than the “Little House on the Prairie” sense, I suppose it is some sort of political commentary. I get it, but it still is wearingly tiresome remembering which Jose Arcadio (or was it one of the Aureliano boys?) touched the ice. The redundant naming goes in the list of things that do not work for me. I will remember the device, but not fondly.

Nomenclature aside, I had already, before cracking this book, unfairly predetermined that magical realism is not my bag. Why even read this book then? The author won a Nobel, the book is considered a masterpiece…by people, I once thought I “should” read it. All I can say is that you ought to have better reasons than I did.

There are a few. This book does create its own world. I am not knowledgeable enough to say whether South America feels like this or to get all the inside South American references that I am sure were tucked in there, but the world inside ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE is a fully realized, if magical, world. Marquez made legendary the moment he came upon the voice for the novel. The voice incorporates his grandmother’s storytelling technique which, he explained, was to relate even the most fantastic and unbelievable events the same way she related facts. The book is fairly unique among my reading experiences. When a book can do that for you, it has achieved something.

There are also some gems in the book that I enjoyed. At one point, gypsies have come to Macondo and are putting on a circus. Jose Arca….A father has taken his children to see the wonders the gypsies have brought. His children coax him to pay their entrance into a tent where a giant guards a pirate chest. The contents of the pirate chest are the attraction:

When it was opened by the giant, the chest gave off a glacial exhalation. Inside there was only an enormous, transparent block with infinite internal needles in which the light of the sunset was broken up into colored stars. Disconcerted, knowing that the children were waiting for an immediate explanation, Jose Arcadio Buendia ventured a murmur:

“It’s the largest diamond in the world.”

“No,” the gypsy countered. “It’s ice.”

Jose Arcadio Buendia, without understanding, stretched out his hand toward the cake, but the giant moved it away. “Five reales more to touch it,” he said. Jose Arcadio paid them and put his hand on the ice and held it there for several minutes as his heart filled with fear and jubilation at the contact with mystery. Without knowing what to say, he paid ten reales more so that his sons could have that prodigious experience. Little Jose Arcadio refused to touch it. Aureliano, on the other hand, took a step forward and put his hand on it, withdrawing it immediately. “It’s boiling,” he exclaimed, startled. But his father paid no attention to him…[The father] paid another five reales and with his hand on the cake, as if giving testimony on the holy scriptures, he exclaimed:

“This is the great invention of our time.”

It’s a good scene. Apparently, it is largely autobiographical. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s father took him to a traveling circus where the little Gabriel saw and touched ice for the first time. I would have liked more of these. Of course, even here, Marquez puts in a little of the ridiculous. Here the ridiculous is kind of funny. Vonnegut and Heller did great things with the ridiculous. Marquez’s ridiculous is more often merely ridiculous rather than ridiculously funny. Or maybe it is my sense of humor. Such things are very much matters of personal taste.

Some of the more magical scenes work too. There is a strike at a local factory, many people are shot and killed, the whole thing is completely covered up, and only one of our Jose Arcadio Aureliano Buendia/Segundo characters seems to know it ever happened. At least, no one else will acknowledge it or believe him when he tells the story. The magic works because many people were “disappeared” in South America, though rarely en masse. The magical works to enhance in some sense the realism. The ability of politically and economically powerful to disappear so many was (is) almost magical, particularly when their power also enabled them to rewrite history as if the disappeared never existed in the first place, and for those with firsthand knowledge to acquiesce to the re-written history. Perhaps, only magical realism can get at this particular political history or, if not the history, then certain truths within that history.

Other times, the magical overwhelms the realism. Perhaps the intended audience is more susceptible to magical thinking or is more imaginative than I am, but with magic, like, say, a name, too much of it can suffocate a story.

This is a political book. His targets are often capitalists and despots and career generals. He has good points. South America has had, if not its share, then more than enough dictators, corrupt leaders, and exploitation of the many by the few. Marquez explores this rich history and, I think, has something to say about it. Something important. Wars are fought for money, for power, and, importantly, sometimes only for the sake of warring because the combatants know little else. Opposition becomes opposition for the sake of opposition. The people fighting continue to fight because they are good at it and they are somebody while warring. End of war, end of stature. Marquez does address big topics and, more, does capture the tiresomeness of continual fighting, particularly to the commoners who have no say and generally suffer the most.

OneHundredYears2In addition to the big issues, the book also delves into one family’s life in one, small, backwater town, Macondo. I had trouble becoming engaged in the characters’ lives. Some were chained to trees for many years. Others lived in a single room for many years. Sure, they did not have pigs’ tails, but disbelief can only be suspended so far. I simply tired of the whole thing.

My complaint is not about characters who are not likeable, it is about characters to whom it is difficult to relate. They do not act believably. They do the impossible. Not always, but often enough that the story loses pull, my interest in the outcomes of their dilemmas flagged.

The same goes for the town. Most of the events were simply too outrageous to have much interest for me. The town felt more like a manufactured setting than a town. As a manufactured setting, it does have some value as allegorical/metaphorical device, but Marquez tried to have his allegory do too much. Or, perhaps, it was simply too much for me. That’s always possible.

I think this book is important. Perhaps not for what it is, but for what it has become. It has obviously influenced a number of other important writers and, for that reason alone, undoubtedly has a place in literary history. Whether it is great, I am undecided. I know I am very unlikely to ever re-read it. Of course, I am allergic to magical realism.

Having said that, I did enjoy Bulgakov’s THE MASTER AND MARGARITA with its own magic. I may have been more open to it because I had already fallen for Bulgakov and his WHITE GUARD. But too, Bulgakov’s magical masterpiece works in a way that ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE did not. Bulgakov’s magic is not simply a gee-whiz device, but truly serves to irradiate a dark and deep subject. Perhaps there is more to ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE, but I am unashamed to say I missed it.

I am glad I read it, but I did not enjoy it. Your result may vary. For those who have not read it yet, do not blame me if you choose to give it a try. I am with The Second Pass on this: Fire it from the canon.

The Immoralist by Andre Gide

July 9, 2009

I have been going through old classics on my shelves recently. A couple months ago, I re-read Albert Camus’ THE STRANGER and THE FALL. My own view is that THE FALL (published in 1957) is a more mature and a deeper work than THE STRANGER (published in 1946). However, reading them back-to-back enriched the effect of both. Camus was obviously influenced by his good friends Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. He was also influenced by the literature of Andre Gide. I decided to ride the theme and re-read THE IMMORALIST.

TheImmoralistTHE IMMORALIST (written in 1902) precedes Camus’ works both chronologically and in the philosophical sense. Gide posed questions with which Camus later grappled. I probably should have read Gide before Camus, to follow the historical progression, but reading Gide out of order probably gives me greater appreciation of Gide. Gide’s work is outstanding.

He wrote in the preface: “One may without too much conceit, I think, prefer the risk of failing to interest the moment by what is genuinely interesting — to beguiling momentarily a public fond of trash.” Whether conceited or not, Gide did tackle the genuinely interesting. I am very glad he did.

Most of the novel is told in the first person from the perspective of Michel. However, Michel’s narrative is related to us secondhand through one of his friends. The novel begins with a letter from one friend of Michel’s to a government official. The short letter poses an opening question: “Can we accommodate so much intelligence, so much strength–or must we refuse them any place among us?”

While the question is posed in the context of a letter examining whether Michel could be of use to the state, I think this is the question Gide is really asking the reader about such supermen and society. (Nietzsche’s WILL TO POWER was written one year later.) Gide does not answer the question. He explained: “I wanted to write this book neither as an indictment of Michel nor as an apology, and I have taken care not to pass judgment.”

The text of the letter is followed by a purportedly verbatim account by Michel of his recent life. Michel’s account begins with his marriage to Marceline, a woman he did not love; unless “love means tenderness, a kind of pity, as well as a good deal of respect.” Prior to the marriage, Michel was single-mindedly bookish. He tells his friend that his “excessively sedentary life…weakened and protected [him] at the same time.” His wife, in contrast, was physically strong and healthy.

Michel describes the transformation of his life by marriage:

I had lived for myself or at least on my own terms till then; I had married without imagining my wife as anything but a comrade, without really supposing that, by our union, my life might be transformed. I had just understood at last that the monologue was ending now.

Michel’s wife seems more engaged in the marriage. When Michel contracts tuberculosis in a small desert town, Marceline dutiful nurses him. Michel is sure “that her devoted care, that her love and nothing else, saved [him].” The disaparity in their affection for each other persists throughout the novel. Marceline seems always to be trying to win Michel’s affection while Michel more often sees the marriage as an obligation. The view presented of marriage is rather bleak. But then, Gide’s own marriage ended unhappily when he eloped with the sixteen year-old son of his best man. While Gide warned against confusing Michel with Gide, Gide was at least writing what he knew.

Michel’s illness awakens him, he believes, to life.

What matters is that merely being alive became quite amazing for me, and that the daylight acquired an unhoped-for radiance. Till now, I would think, I never realized that I was alive. Now I would make the thrilling discovery of life.

Michel’s recovery is slow, if sure. In his recovery, he determined that he must redefine “Good” and “Right” to mean “whatever was healthy for [him].” This is an important turning point. However, despite his earlier assurance that only Marceline’s “devoted care” saved him, he soon sees her as, if not an impediment to recovery, then a irritant. He discovers that Marceline has been become acquainted with a group of local boys and rejects Marceline’s company in favor of the company of the boys. The boys are, after all, vigorously alive and youthful.

Michel spends the rest of the novel exploring the world and his newfound philosophy of life. For Michel, “sensation was becoming as powerful as thoughts.” Gide magnificently manages Michel’s transformation from a dependable, bookish man of means to a rather self-centered, erratic, pleasure-seeker. But Michel’s pleasure-seeking is not simple hedonism, he is trying to navigate between living in the past (as in his previous vocation as scholar of history) and living only for the future.

A man Michel meets, Menalque, encourages him in his new life. Menalque explains his own philosophy:

I create each hour’s newness by forgetting yesterday completely. Having been happy is never enough for me. I don’t believe in dead things. What’s the difference between no longer being and never having been?

The conflict between Michel’s “will to power” and his obligations, including those to Marceline, provides the tension for the remainder of the novel. Marceline becomes ill and it is Michel’s handling of her illness that poses the most serious question to the reader. Michel is bent on living the remainder of his life in the present, yet he cannot quite abandon Marceline, at least not completely.

For long stretches he is preoccupied with new friendships, all of which are interesting and illuminating. His obligations as a landlord constrict him and social obligations oppress. But the central pull, preventing Michel from living entirely as he would, is Marceline and her illness. By the end of the book, Michel feels he has liberated himself, but that: “This useless freedom tortures me.”

As one would expect from a writer who inspired Sartre, Camus, and many others, Gide has written a book with the power to be life changing. At the least, THE IMMORALIST raises profound questions that are difficult to ignore.

I am already partial to the absurdists and the existentialists. Gide is a necessary part of that group. If you do not have a similar bent, you may not get quite the same enjoyment from THE IMMORALIST, but it is almost certain to be intellectually stimulating. While I would not go so far as to say that I consider THE IMMORALIST to be an essential novel like Camus’ THE FALL, I do think it is one of those novels than can enrich one’s worldview and, certainly, enrich one’s appreciation of Camus’ absurdism and Sartre’s existentialism.

The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov

July 7, 2009

A Kiev museum dedicated to Mikhail Bulgakov lies just off of St. Andrew’s Descent, a cobblestone street passing from St. Sophia’s cathedral down to the Dneiper, in House Number 13. Bulgakov and his family lived in House Number 13 during the Ukrainian civil war and Boleshevik Revolution. The novel is set in that time and revolves around the lives of the Turbin family in the midst of this upheaval. While THE WHITE GUARD is not as widely known as THE MASTER AND MARGARITA (which Salman Rushdie drew upon heavily for MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN), it is an excellent entry point into Bulgakov’s work.

TheWhiteGuard Rushdie’s reference to Bulgakov should be acknowledgement enough of Bulgakov’s relevance and importance. If you have not already heard of Bulgakov, or if you have but have not yet read his work, I would point out that he is considered by many to be the greatest Soviet writer of the 20th century. I say Soviet, because he is not truly Russian, though he did spend many years in Moscow. He was first a Ukrainian, a fact in which Ukrainians take great pride. The fight over who may properly claim him as their own is further verification of his stature.

Bulgakov’s standing is well-deserved:

For many years before her death, in the house at No. 13 St. Alexei’s Hill, little Elena, Alexei the eldest and baby Nikolka had grown up in the warmth of the tiled stove that burned in the dining-room. How often they had followed the story of Peter the Great in Holland, ‘The Shipwright of Saardam’, portrayed on its glowing hot dutch tiles; how often the clock had played its gavotte; and always towards the end of December there had been a smell of pine-needles and candles burning on evergreen branches..…But clocks are fortunately quite immortal, as immortal as the Shipwright of Saardam, and however bad the times might be, the tiled Dutch stove, like a rock of wisdom, was always there to radiate life and warmth.

The tiled stove is nearly a character in its own right. The life it gives is not only comfort, but humor too:

Then printed [on the stove] in capitals, in Nikolka’s hand:
I herby forbid the scribbling of nonsense on this stove. Any comrade found guilty of doing so will be shot and deprived of civil rights. Signed: Abraham Goldblatt,
Ladies, Gentlemen’s and Women’s Tailor.
Commissar, Podol District Committee.
30th January 1918.

Bulgakov is a master of these slices of life. The intimacy Bulgakov achieves powers this work. There are many vivid scenes of life in House No. 13. The family is so deftly drawn by Bulgakov that they feel like one’s own neighbors by the end of the book. But the book is not limited to the home life of its characters, it has action too.

Major world events are taking place in the streets outside. Characters are shot, they are robbed; characters love, betray, and die. The politics of the time provide a roiling backdrop, though politics are not the point. The intersection of politics and daily life, particularly when political turmoil has brought war, is a fascinating topic and one that Bulgakov explores, but never in a heavy-handed manner. The political is always secondary to the personal.

In one scene, a character is injured, possibly mortally, during a skirmish in the city. Elena is distraught with worry. Bulgakov captures the essence of these moments of powerlessness beautifully:

The professor took her by the arm and whispered:
“‘Go now, Elena Vasilievna, we’ll do all there is to do.’
“Elena obeyed and went out. But the professor did not do anything more.”

In one short scene (of which I have excerpted only a portion to avoid spoilers), Bulgakov captures the desperate love Elena has for the wounded character, the difficulty of the situation, and the professor’s warm practicality.

Bulgakov brilliantly sketches even minor characters. Outside of house No. 13, a war is raging. Several family members are involved and, in this way, the reader is provided a view of the wider world and the characters that inhabit it. Perhaps my favorite is a troubling scene in which a janitor, drafted into service as coroner, is helping one of the Turbins find the body of a fallen comrade-in-arms among piles of dead. The floor is slippery with blood. The janitor, Fyodor, has to move the body of “a flat-chested, broad-hipped woman” off the corpse of the comrade.

“There was a cheap little comb in the hair at the back of her neck, glittering dully, like a fragment of glass. Without stopping what he was doing Fyodor deftly pulled it out, dropped it into the pocket of his apron and gripped [the comrade] under the armpits. As it was pulled out of the pile his head lolled back, his sharp, unshaven chin pointed upwards and one arm slipped from the janitor’s grasp.”

The novel is filled with efficient scenes like this that perfectly capture a moment in time, yet keep the narrative moving. This is that rare book that I would recommend to almost anyone.

THE WHITE GUARD is realist, unlike the much more fanciful THE MASTER AND MARGARITA. Bulgakov does, however, add a touch of the supernatural. And while the book was suppressed by Stalin, explicitly political questions are never really raised by the author, though the characters necessarily discuss the political situation. The questions Bulgakov poses pertain to the individual and, more so, to a family trying to survive a civil war. The primary loyalties are personal. In fact, the book reflects an ambivalence toward political loyalties that is borne of having lived through a revolution. The author, as surely as the characters, must have had little enthusiasm for revolutionary politics.

In the end, perhaps the highest praise I can give is that it would be difficult to read THE WHITE GUARD without becoming attached to the Turbin family. Perhaps, this, more than any overt politics, is why the novel was banned in the Stalinist Soviet Union.