Unfortunately (or possibly fortunately, depending on your experience) my high school curriculum did not include John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Now that the steamy Summer months have come full swing, the time felt ripe to crack open the author’s dust-laden novel of a working class family struggling to survive. The Grapes of Wrath follows the Joad family and their pursuit to persist in the Land of the Free.
Tom Joad, who has been holed up in the penitentiary for the last four years, returns to his family home in Oklahoma to find no one there. On his way up the driveway, the former inmate encounters Jim Casy, the preacher; who is now rip-roaring drunk. Out of work, out of food, out of a way to live, the family was forced to leave their home after the bank lays claim to their property, the denounced holy-man explains. When Tom eventually finds his family, who were hiding out at Uncle John’s place down the road, Pa Joad explains their intention to find work in California. “Got a flyer – says they want 500 workers to come pick peaches.” Within a few days, the large family packs up their truck and leaves Oklahoma for California – but not before watching their house get bulldozed to the ground.
Steinbeck pens a journalistic style with a passionate prose to structure The Grapes of Wrath; which resembles then contemporary, Ernest Hemmingway. Rather than weave personal thoughts and observations within the Joad’s story, the author oscillates between manifesto and story arc. While there is certainly a lack of confusion on the reader’s part, the decision leads to an exhaustingly obvious opinion, which proves quite detrimental to the novel:
“The moving, questing people were migrants now. These families who had lived on a little piece of land, who had lived and died on forty acres, had eaten or starved on the produce of forth acres, had now the whole West to rove in. And they scampered about, looking for work; and the ditch banks were lines of people. Behind them more were coming. The great highways streamed with moving people. There in the Middle-and-Southwest had lived a simple agrarian folk who had not changed with the industry, who had not farmed with machines or known the power and danger of machines in private hands. They had not grown up in the paradoxes of industry. Their senses were still sharp to the ridiculousness of the industrial life.”
Notoriety for Grapes of Wrath is derived from Steinbeck’s many characters. We count seventeen in this list, yet that number is inadequate to measure up the impact of each person in the novel. Utilizing the long, emotive passages associated with melodrama, the author breathes life into each name on the page, which allows an associated memory to develop. Steinbeck has the ability to show grace at forming a smaller image to illustrate the entire puzzle:
“The preacher nodded his head slowly. ‘Every kid got a turtle sometime or other. Nobody can’t keep a turtle though. They work at it and work at it, and at last one day they get out and away they go –off somewhere. It’s like me. I wouldn’t take the good ol’ gospel that was just layin’ there to my hand. I go to be pickin’ at it an’ workin at it until I got it all tore down. Here I got the sperit sometimes an’ nothin’ to preach about. I go the call to lead people, an’ no place to lead ‘em.”
Due to the massive success of Grapes of Wrath, the reader is forced to encounter the sad fate of culturally venerated works – unavoidable mimicry. The idea and popular image of relocating to the bountiful lands of California has been so copied – though not with some success - even the original reads like an imitation. “His most mellifluous, his most melodramatic, his angriest and most idyllic,” the back of my book cover reads, but besides Steinbeck’s expert coordination of characters, the novel is pure soap opera and – only just – filled with enough entertaining passages to keep reading:
“Casy said sadly, ‘I wisht they could see it. I wisht they could see the on’y way they can deepen’ on their meat- Oh the hell! Get tar’d sometimes. God awful tar’d. I knowed a fella. Brang ‘im in while I was in the jail house. Been tryin’ to start a union. Got one started. An’ then them vigilantes bust it up. An’ kno what? Them very folks he been tryin’ to help tossed him out. Wouldn’ have nothin’ to do with ‘im. Scared they’d get saw in his comp’ny. Sa, Git out. You’re a danger on us. Well, sir, it hurt his feelin’s purty bad. But then he says it ain’t so bad if you know. He says French Revolution – all them fellas that figgered her out got their heads chopped off. Always that way, he says. Jus’ as natural as rain. You didn’t do it for fun no way. Doin’ it cause you have to. Cause it’s you. Look a Washington, he says. Fit the Revolution, an after, them sons-a-bitches turned on him. An’ Lincoln the same. Same folks yellin’ to kill ‘em. Natural as rain.”
Grapes of Wrath was part of Steinbeck’s “Califoria novels,” which included In Dubious Battle, Of Mice and Men, and East of Eden. Though very successful, the socially charged work was forced to endure a harsh, sometimes threatening reaction from readers. ”I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this Great Depression,” Steinbeck wrote while preparing the novel. The author received a multitude of threats and the book was banned in “numerous places, including Kern county, Calfornia“ - where the Joads ended their migration.
After the death of friend Ed Ricketts, Steinbeck’s literary and seemingly altruistic fervor would lose momentum, “except for Eden.” An eschewed sense of leftist patriotism would take over the author, which caused “hearing no evil of Democrat presidents,” and “completely believing as much as Lyndon Johnson” in support of the Vietnam war. While the Nobel prize win is admirable – though the “best of a bad lot” – the Steinbeck who penned Grapes of Wrath could hardly be seen after World War II.
In conclusion, The Grapes of Wrath stands a novel so engrained in the American literary conscious that a cultural knee-jerk is produced, but one that only lasts a moment.
When one reads a novel concerning the land of their upbringing, the critical eye is always searching. Main Street, the 1920 novel from Sinclair Lewis, centers around the small town of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota. Located somewhere in the middle of the state, the narrative follows the ambitious Carol Kennicot (nee Milford) as she hopes to change her dreary provincial town into a bustling metropolis full of “Georgian houses and Japanese bungalows”. Though unbeknownst to Carol, and true to Midwestern sentiment, the inhabitants of Gopher Prairie are none too excited about the young lady’s municipal revolution.
Originally from the Twin Cities, young librarian Carol Milford is mesmerized by the books that surround her. Not only has she seemingly read the entire collection – including Shaw, Tennyson, and Wilde – they have influenced an impetus to change the world. Though as she grows in age, Carol grows weary looking for romantic accompaniment. That is, until Will Kennicot strolls along.
Rugged and rural, Will Kennicot is the antithesis of Carol’s preference in a suitor. He cares little for literature and even less for scrupulous decency of city folk. A county doctor, most of Will’s time is spent attending to “husky” Dutch, German, and Norwegian immigrants farming the land of the Minnesota Plaines. Though feeling time is against her, and the earnest efforts of this new admirer, Carol settles for persistent bravado over beauty. The two are quickly married and off towards Will’s hometown, Gopher Prairie.
“-Of course I may be prejudiced, but I’ve seen an awful lot of towns – one time I went to Atlantic City for the American Medical Association meeting, and I spent practically a week in New York! But I never saw a town that had such up-and-coming people as Gopher Praire.”
Convinced Gopher Prairie is ripe for changing, Carol begins to make her new home. For the first week, she is dazzled by the quaint shops, genial people, and homey life of the small town. At every corner, the former lady of the city sees a storefront, home, or street ready for a cultural transformation. Anxious for new friends – as a stepping stone for her future plans – Carol is invited to the Ladies’ Bridge club. There, it is soon discernable that the town is not so willing as the newcomer hopes it would be – in fact, the people stand against it.
What’s obvious from the offset is Lewis’ home-grown observations. Born in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, of which Gopher Prairie is a fictionalized version, the author remembers well interactions from his upbringing. What proves Carol Kennicot a memorable character is the chatter and calumny surrounding her. Lewis proves that the small town world works on two planes: public appearance and private gossip:
“She perceived that Vida Sherwin had told the truth. Whether she entered a store, or swept the back porch, or stood at the bay-window in the living room, the village peeped at her. Once she had swung along the street triumphant in making a home. Now she glanced at each house, and felt, when she was safely home, that she had won past a thousand enemies armed with ridicule. She told herself that her sensitiveness was preposterous, but daily she was thrown into panic. She saw curtains slide back into innocent smoothness. Old women who had been entering their houses slipped out again to stare at her – in the wintry quiet she could hear them tiptoeing on their porches. When she had for a blessed hour forgotten the searchlight, when through a chill dusk, happy in yellow windows against gray night, her heart checked as she realized that a head covered with a shawl was thrust up over a snow-tipped bush to watch her.”
As Carol’s chagrin grows in Main Street with each failed attempt, readers will notice a kinship with a fellow lonely housewife married to a country doctor: Madame Bovary. Lewis, who was certainly aware of the largess of Flaubert’s reputation, does little to differ Carol Kennicot from her imitation, which she most certainly is. While Hugh Mahoney believes it “off-base” to compare the two novels, one withstanding question is asked in his essay on Main Street: is this a novel or a textbook on American culture? Lewis not only admonishes the inhabitants of Gopher Prairie for their lack of literary comprehension, but later making it the subject of his speech after winning the Noble Prize for Literature. This begs the question of who Main Street is chastising:
He shone at her like a dim blue March moon, and sigh, ‘No but I do love the movies. I’m a real fan. One trouble with books is that they’re not so thoroughly safeguarded by intelligent censors as the movies are, and when you drop into the library and take out a book you never know what you’re wasting your time on. What I like about books is wholesome, really improving story, and sometimes – - Why, once I started a novel by this fellow Balzac that you read about, and it told how a lady wasn’t living with her husband, I mean she wasn’t his wife. It went into details, disgustingly! And the English was real poor. I spoke to the library about it, and they took it off the shelves. I’m not narrow, but I must say I don’t see any use in this deliberately dragging in morality! Life itself is so full of temptations that in literature one wants only that which is pure and uplifting.
Lewis sets a lofty goal for protagonist Carol Kennicot in Main Street: urbanize a conservative, sleepy town in middle-of-nowhere Minnesota. After becoming acquainted with the conspiratorial and gossip inhabitants, the goal is seemingly noble, but problems arise in the author’s execution. Lewis attempts to display the hypocrisy of small-town in abstract episodes rife with non sequiturs. Published only a year after Sherwood Anderson’s popular Winesburg, Ohio, the American reading public was fascinated by the “directionless” world that existed outside major city limits. To this allure, Main Street owes it’s immense success. In fact, biographer Mark Schorer called Main Street, “The most sensational event in 20th-century publishing” and novelist Ludwig Lewisohn believed, “perhaps no novel since Uncle Tom’s Cabin so deep over so wide a surface of national life.”
While it is true Lewis pens an accurate novel of the Midwest, we must ask at what cost? Main Street is a tease of the most tedious nature. Not only does the author leads readers by the minutest strands of a narrative – the wills and wont of Carol’s idea of culture – but they rarely produce emotive or intriguing results. Much like the chase of a temperamental lover, Lewis begs us to follow him through the bleak, drab landscape of Gopher Praire only to disappear mid scene, making earnest pursuers of the novel to feel ashamed of presumed faith. Putting down a read before completing the final chapter is nothing to revel in, but forgetting the amount of moments an author has questioned your patience in shameful.
Main Street was originally awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1921, but conservative president of Columbia University Nicholas Murray Butler overturned his two colleagues decision and awarded the prize to Edith Wharton for The Age of Innocence. Butler went so far as to change the wording stipulated by Pulitzer from the novel that represented “the whole of American life” to “wholesome”. The author would again be snubbed with his even more successful novel Babbit in favor of Willa Cather’s One of Ours. When Lewis was actually awarded the Pulitzer in 1926 for the novel Arrowsmith, he declined, believing his novel did not best represent “wholesome American life.”
Lewis would continue to pen satires with controversial subjects until his final days. Kingsblood Royal published in 1947, acted as forerunner in Civil Rights literature, so much so that Paul Robeson’s wife “wrote” praise to the author. It Can’t Happen Here describes the election of a Fascist government in America. The novel gave birth to the maxim: “When Fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross”; though there is “no evidence” such a quote exists. Due to an unwillingness to stop drinking that turned to addiction, Lewis died in Rome in 1951.
While it is of my opinion Main Street is the least favorite of the books from Time’s Top 100 Novels, readers must form their own opinion. Here, from author William Shirer, may be the reason why:
“It has become rather commonplace for so-called literary critics to write off Sinclair Lewis as a novelist. Compared to…Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Dos Passos, and Faulkner…Lewis lacked style. Yet his impact on American life…was greater than all four writers put together.”
Our third selection in the ‘Upcoming Penguin Releases’ series is Erin Kelly’s The Burning Air. A psychological thriller set in Devon, a region southwest of London, the novel follows a dark secret that follows the Macbride family. Every year, the family departs from their homes in the city to Far Barn, a rural farm where they grew up. The area is quaint, quiet, and desolate – perfect for a crime and clean get away. While the family meetings are usually joyous, this year everyone is marred by sadness due to the passing of the family matriarch, Lydia Macbride. Sophie, Tara, and Felix, the children of the family, their spouses, as well as Rowan, their father, can not help but feel the chagrin in the air. Although this does not stop Felix from bringing his new girlfriend, Kerry, to Old Barn. Strange, but stunning, the new woman in their youngest brother’s life throws Sophie and Tara for a loop, especially since she does not seem to speak a word after arriving.
Despite the uneasiness, the Macbrides do their best to get along with the newcomer. Though after Lydia Macbride’s sweaters – a keepsake the family wanted to keep – end up burning in the family bonfire, Kerry is blamed by Sophia. Distraught but level-headed, the rest of the family cannot believe Kerry would do such a heartless act, thus her guilt is not put into question and the incident is deemed an accident. In an effort to get their sister out of the house, the family convinces Sophie to attend the county festival, and leave her baby daughter with Kerry. Little did she know the baby and Kerry would be missing when they returned.
What makes The Burning Air so seductively suspenseful is the vivid prose from the author. Kelly is keenly aware of the importance of setting, as shown by the frightfully descriptive passages in each location. This is most discernable in the author’s choice of switching character perspective, which, even in landscapes the narrative has encountered prior, seem like new encounters thanks to portrayal. While some of these passages may seem overwrought with detail, readers are not required to stretch their imagination for the scene:
“The road thinned to a one-track lane as they began the descent into the valley and dipped so steeply the children’s ears popped. As they came within a mile of the barn, the hedgerows themselves seemed to sequeeze their oversized car along the road like a clot through a vein. Branches jabbed witchy fingers through the windows, making the boys scream with something between terror and laughter and Edie echo their sounds. The signpost for Far Barn, white paint on a black wooden plaque, had faded into illegibility but new visitors were rare. Will made the right turn into the rutted track that connected their land to the rest of the world.”
The Burning Air is a mystery without being mysterious. As mentioned above, the prose leaves readers with a clear idea of the setting; yet the quick summery of character history is also a welcome attribute. Dealing with a large cast – The Macbrides, their spouses, the villian, and memorable supporting players – individual history must be concise and to the point. While some characters do take time to develop, as dictated necessary by the narrative, others are wonderfully consolidated. Such stylistic choice can hamper characters by making them typical, but Kelly proves the device sets a tone as well as give reason for character action:
“‘I think it might be starting again, Mum,’ Sophie said to the urn, almost laughing because if talking to a pot of carbon dust didn’t signify that all was not well, what did? ‘What should I do? What would you do?’ The answer was as clear as if Lydia had spoken: she would have turned to her husband, as she always did. Sophie saw with piercing clarity that if she was going to survive this, if it was happening again and she was not going to be consumed by it, she needed Will on her side. They might not have the unassailable marriage of her parents, but neither was it irretrievably broken, not yet. The children were already aware of the frost between their parents, and Toby and Leo were old enough to remember what Sophie had been like last time. She could not do this to them again. Perhaps the real purpose of this weekend was not to heal the family that had made her but to save the one she had created. “
The Burning Air relies on four different perspectives to tell the story. Much like the tetrad of character books in Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, Kelly packs a similar idea in just over 300 pages. Though the structure has been utilized before, the novel breaths fresh air. The author exhibits her ability to pull the strings of the narrative, tempting readers to the edge of their seat only to suddenly switch character. In these chapters, there is an obvious amount of information about the current narrator, but the peripheral characters share equal importance.:
“I can’t remember precisely when it became clear that the pupil had surpassed the teachers, that my education had stalled. My mother was straining at the limits of her stored knowledge. We had exhausted the literature and history she knew: before she could teach me further she had to crib it herself. Kenneth’s lessons too had been repetitive for years and we were now reduced to the study of the algorithm he was working on to predict the numbers under the latex coating on lottery scratch cards. I could not suppress the unfaithful thought that one reason Mother had been so anxious for me to gain entry to the Cath was not my advancement in the world but an awareness of the limitations of my little tutor-family.”
Be it from the voice of a madman or not, there are worthy witticisms in The Burning Air. A guaranteed way to ensnare audience, Kelly proves her personal beliefs are much more than dime-store philosophy. The anecdotes and tid-bits only court our trust in the author – giving readers the impulse to purchase other novels with their name on it. Whether the mouthpiece is vile or not, the maxims are worth considering:
The Burning Air is a smart and, most importantly, a satisfying suspense novel. Kelly proves to be an interesting author throughout the pages. As a journalist, the author has written for such publications as The Sunday Times & The Daily Mail and magazines like Marie Clair & Elle. Also a new mother – which, consequently enough, coincided with her first publication – Kelly continues to write on women’s issues and parenting. With her previous two novels centering on familial ties like The Burning Air, the author derives less from personal experience and more from interactions:
“I’ve always been fascinated by that kind of fractured bohemian family. Until I went to university, I didn’t meet anyone who was middleclass, solid. We didn’t really know writers or artists growing up, so I was always fascinated by the kind of warped confidence those kids seemed to have.”
These fractured characters are certainly within the novel, as none of them live the idyllically. Each cast member reads fleshed out in reality. Though only an observer of middle class Kelly finds so interesting, it is obvious through the characters, prose, and vivid detail her perception is not mistaken.
Now that New York’s long winter season has (hopefully) turned toward warmer weather, the impetus to write a review for Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago has returned. Published in 1957, the novel follows doctor and part-time poet Yuri Zhivago as he bears witness to the Russian Revolution through the Second World War. Starting as staunch supporter of the Communist cause sweeping the nation, our acutely observant character questions if history is heading down the correct path as the movement progresses.
Doctor Zhivago opens on a somber note with the death of Yuri’s parents. Soon after his Mother’s funeral, his father, Andrei Zhivago, commits suicide by jumping from a train (possibly from the influence of his conniving lawyer Komarovsky). Now an orphan, young Yuri is sent off to live on the Duplyanka estate with his Uncle’s family. Returning to Moscow after medical school, Yuri puts practice into action when he and his friend, fellow medical practioner Misha Gordon, are called to the bedside of Amalia Guichard, a widower intent on committing suicide over fears of her daughter’s marriage. Lara, the daughter in question, has been romantically linked (begrudgingly) to Komorovsky – who was also courting her mother. The men save Amalia, but not without Yuri getting his first glance at Lara, who would play a larger role in his life than the doctor could have known.
Soon after, Yuri marries Tonya, the daughter of his recently passed foster mother, Anna. With the changing of the guard in Moscow, and throughout Russia, the economically endowed Zhivagos feel it would be best to escape from the contempt to the wealthier classes brewing in the capital. The family, including Yuri’s foster father, return to the estate where the couple grew up. There, Tonya soon gives birth to a boy, Sasha. Although the happy family is not able to stay together for long.
As World War I develops in the East, the Russian Army drafts Yuri as a medical doctor. Meanwhile Lara, who has since married the vehement Bolshevik, Pasha Antipov, finds herself in a similar situation as Tonya – with a child and a husband conscripted to the service. When Pasha is declared missing in action, Lara volunteers as a nurse to search for her husband. Unbeknownst to Yuri or Lara, the two find themselves working in the same region, in the same town, and in the same hospital, where Zhivago decides to stay on as a doctor, even after recovery from his battle wound.
While this synopsis is clearly focused on the love story in Doctor Zhivago, the novel fails to fit within such margins. Pasternak, who was no stranger to controversy after the publication of his autobiography Safe Conduct and a “reserved” embrace of socialism in Second Birth, utilizes Yuri as a surrogate mouthpiece to explain the many stages of the Russian Revolution. Despite his contemporaries drive to consider “suicide” after strict censorship on press and religion was applied, the author felt art should persist even if spirituality did not. To excercise such hope during despair, Pasternak dabbles in polemics, letting the characters debate the changing of the tides:
“But what kind of business can there be, these days?”
“Anything you please. Old unfinished deals, business operations, breaches of contract. I’m up to my ears in it.”
“But haven’t all such activities been abolished?”
“Of course they have, nominally. But in practice people are asked to do all sorts of things, sometimes mutually exclusive. There’s the nationalization of all enterprises, but the municipal soviet needs fuel, and the Provincial Economic Council wants transportation. And everyone wants to live. There is a transitional period, when there is still a gap between theory and practice. At a time like this you need shrewed, resourceful people like myself. Blessed is the man who doesn’t see too much. Also an occasional punch on the jaw doesn’t come amiss, as my father used to say. Half the province depends on me for its livelihood. I’ll be droppoing in at Varykino about timber one of these days…
“Do you know why we are going there, what we want to do?”
“MOre or less. I have an idea. Man’s eternal longing to go back to the land. The dream of living by the sweat of your brow.”
“What’s wrong with it? You sound disapproving.”
“It’s naive and idyllic, but why not? Good luck to you. ONly I don’t believe in it. It’s utopian. Arts and craftsy!”
“How do you think Mikulitsyn will receive us?”
“He won’t let you in, he’ll drive you out with a brookstick, and he’ll be quite right. He’s in a fine pickle as it is. Idle factories, workers gone, no means of livelihood, no food, and then you turn up. If he murders you, I won’t blame him!”
“There you are. You are a Bolshevik, and yet you yourself don’t deny that what’s going on isn’t life -it’s madness, an absurd nightmare.”
“Of course it is. But it’s historically inevitable. It has to be gone through.”
To accommodate such hearty exchanges in Zhivago, Pasternak divides each chapter into sections. The novel reads like a journal, with each entry confessing, chronicling, or observing, the state of the nation and/or the protagonist’s relevance within it. Such structure allows the author to utilize his poetic background and, as John Bayley states in the Introduction, “the full panorama of Soviet life”:
“The light, sunny room with its white painted walls was filled with the creamy light of the golden autumn days that follow the feast of Assumption, when the mornings begin to be frosty and titmice and magpies dart into the bright-leaved, thinning woods. ON such days the sky is incredibly high, and there moves an icy, dark-blue radiance coming from the north. Everything in the world becomes more visible and more audible. Distant sounds reach us in a state of frozen resonance, separately and clearly. The horizons open, as if to show the whole of life for years ahead. This rarefied light would be unbearable if it were not so short-lived, coming at the end of the brief autumn day just before the early dusk. “
Furthermore, this structural decision grants Pasternak the space to focus on his belief in the Tolstoyian movement: a strict study of the gospel of Jesus without belonging to a specific church. This trait would be inherited thanks to a close relationship between Pasternak’s father and Tolstoy. While Pasternak was surely influenced by his predecessor’s use of history to exhibit progression, Zhivago reads more like “dismantling” of such forces:
“Central though trains may be for the plot and sense of poignancy in the novel, Pasternak carries a thorough dismantling of the train as symbol of history. Although the train is pervasive here as a symbol of time and fate, it is remarkable how infrequently trains work!”
Though merely a sentence, Pasternak’s ability to concentrate on the train as a metaphor is powerful:
“In the train it had seemed to Zhivago that only the train was moving but that time stood still and it was not later than noon.”
Doctor Zhivago succeeds as a harsh indictment and embrace of beauty. When Pasternak finished the novel in 1956, the literary magazine Novy Mir, (the only approved Soviet publication), refused to print on grounds it did not fit into the policy-enforced style of Socialist Realism. At that time, Soviet Writers were instructed by the Kremlin that published works must glorify the Soviet state. In a daring act of insubordination, the author gave a copy of Zhivago to Sergio d’Angelo, an agent of the left-leaning (and soon notorious) Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, which soon beget international demand.
“You are hereby invited to watch me face the firing squard”, Pasternak quipped after handing over the manuscript.
A year later, admist protest from the USSR, who mocked the novel as “literary trash”, the author would be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Despite the acclaim, the long-arm of Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev still forbid the novel to be published in Russia and threatened Pasternak with exile if he accepted the award. In dedication to his country, Pasternak would not accept the award, nor would he see the first accepted Russian publication of Doctor Zhivago in 1988.
In 1960, Pasternk would succumb to lung cancer. Notices for the author’s funeral were “posted” throughout the subway system in Moscow to avoid publicity. Despite the clandestine arrangements, travelers throughout the country attended the burial. At the culmination of the service, one speaker shouted out:
“God marks the path of the elect with thorns, and Pasternak was picked out and marked by God. He believed in eternity and he will belong to it… We excommunicated Tolstoy, we disowned Dostoyevsky, and now we disown Pasternak. Everything that brings us glory we try to banish to the West… But we cannot allow this. We love Pasternak and we revere him as a poet… Glory to Pasternak!”
While Doctor Zhivago may not be the most relevant work of fiction, it stands as an important piece of literature.
Unwelcome, but necessary post-script.
It is never pleasent to end on a sour note, but Pasternak’s belief - which became more devout in later years – of the Christian-heavy Tolstoyanism produced an eschewed form of anti-semantism. After the international publication of Doctor Zhivago, the State of Israel decried ”assimionlist” views featured in the novel. Jewish himself, Pasternak produced a number of the passages in his novel before Israeli liberation; yet, it is difficult to ignore the ferocity in which the author wrote such passages:
“We also talked about mediocre publicist who have nothing to say to life and the world as a whole, of petty second-raters who are only too happy when some nation, preferably a small and wretched one, is constantly discussed – this gives them a chance to show off their competence and cleverness, and to thrive on their compassion for the persecuted. Well now, what more perfect example can you have of the victims of this mentality than the Jews? their national idea has forced them, century after century, to be a nation and nothing but a nation – and they have been chained to this deadening task all through the centuries when all the rest of the world was being delivered from it by a new force (Christianity) which had come out of their own midst! Isn’t that extraordinary? How can you account for it? Just think! This glorious holiday, this liberation from the curse of mediocrity, this soaring flight above the dullness of a humdrum existence, was first achieved in their land, proclaimed in their language, and belonged to their race! And they actually saw and heard it and let it go! How could they allow a spirit of such overwhelming power and beauty to leave them, how could they think that after it triumphed and established its reign, they would remain as the empty husk of that miracle they had repudiated? What use is it to anyone, this voluntary martyrdom? Whom does it profit? For what purpose are these innocent old men and women and children, all these subtle, kind, humane, people, mocked and beaten up throughout the centuries? And why is it that all these literary friends of ‘the people’ of all nations are always so untalented? WHy didn’t the intellectual leaders of the Jewish people ever go beyond facile Weltschmerz and ironical wisdom? WHy have they not – even if at the risk of bursting like boilers with the pressure of their duty – disbanded this army which keeps on fighting and being massacred nobody know for what? Why don’t they say to them: ‘Come to your senses, stop. Don’t hold on to your identity. Don’t stick together, disperse. Be with all the rest. You are the first and best Christians in the world. You are the very thing against which you have been turned by the worst and weakest among you.”
Far be it for a contemporary review to deny a masterpiece it’s due, but such work is not above criticism.
“If I’m not mistaken, you were saying that Jesus never existed, were you not?”
Once every year the Devil and a cadre of lesser imps, demons and witches come to earth to visit a chosen city for their annual springtime ball of the full moon; also known as the Ball of a Hundred Kings. For all manner of damned murderers, rapists, traitors and fiends it is the social event of the year and it is taking place in the most unlikely of cities: Soviet Moscow.
We come upon the prince of darkness himself in the guise of a 7ft tall foreign professor of black magic, Monsieur Woland, discussing the nature of the universe with two steadfast atheists, Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz and Ivan Nikolayich Bezdomny, of the prestigious MASOLIT literary club.
“Astounding! Forgive me for being so rude, but am I right in thinking that you do not believe in God either? I swear not to tell anyone!”
The two literary men are perturbed by this peculiar yet amicable visitor not only for his overly familiar candor but his seemingly mad ravings. The strange professor asserts quite confidently that Jesus indeed lived to be crucified by Pontius Pilate and what’s more, that he was there to witness it. Professor Woland goes on to quite accurately predict the impending death of one these men (Berlioz) which is to take place in a matter of minutes. Berlioz indeed loses his life which sets off the outrageous chain of events to come, including the institutionalization of Bezdomny to the psychiatric hospital.
Try as he may, Bezdomny is doomed to appear a raving lunatic warning the city of these bizarre characters (including a large, black, talking cat) though the damage is already done. Professor Woland and his crew proceed to systematically turn the city on its head, terrorizing everyone from police officials to theatre administrators.
Amid the chaos of the present, Bezdomny finds an unlikely ally in the mental ward who calls himself ‘the Master’. The Master has written a novel about Pontius Pilate which was ridiculed by the fascist editors and literary critics of Moscow so much he was thrown into a nervous breakdown. He burned his precious manuscript and turned his back on his great love, Margarita.
Margarita has gone the past several months believing her Master was all but disappeared into thin air when she is approached by an eccentric, fiery-haired man with a single protruding fang and an unbelievable offer. Now, if she agrees to cast off her humanity and make a deal with the devil she may have her love returned to her. The Ball of a Hundred Kings needs a hostess and Margarita needs a miracle.
How do the two lovers, the downfall of a city, and Pontius Pilate come together in this seemingly frenzied yet highly accessible story? Bulgakov paints an absurd picture which at first glance appears wrought with senseless cruelty but as it progresses we find a city in need of a little anarchy. The people of the city have grown so secure in their rationality, their fear of the state, their greed and distrust of one another Moscow has become a true source of evil in itself. In the end, Moscow could do well by a little fear of the almighty and those punished are the ones most deserving.
The story can be called absurdist satire but I saw an adventure novel with a message of love and forgiveness at its core. I felt like a kid again paging through the endless antics of Satan and his minions. It’s grotesque and fantastical and utterly hilarious. Bulgakov blurs the lines between good and evil in a society that refuses to acknowledge their existence and the result is uplifting.
You are free! Free! He is waiting for you!
This is considered one of the greatest pieces of Russian literature ever produced and it is well-deserved. Bulgakov reflects the sentiment of Soviet Moscow expertly yet the story stretches far beyond a single piece of social commentary. The message is profound and universal; the prose is simple and exciting. I highly recommend this as a must-read classic.