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Booking Through Wintry Books

btt buttonNo, no … this isn’t the question you’re probably expecting, that asks about your winter reading habits.

What I want to know today is … what are the most “wintery” books you can think of? The ones that almost embody Winter?

I thought there won’t be Booking Through Thursday this week but am glad to find otherwise. The advocate of Russian literature in me compels me to pick the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky. I read his short story, The Heavenly Christmas Tree last night in lieu of having set up a Christmas tree, which I’m afraid my dog will maraud before Christmas Eve even comes around. It’s an extremely short story, easily read in ten minutes, probably five. It begins with a poor boy, “six years old or even younger,” whose mother has passed away during a cold night. With nobody to care for him, the boy wanders about the city, seeing others revel in the Christmas season. Alas, none of the city’s celebration is for him.

Dostoevsky’s White Nights is told in first person by a nameless narrator who lives alone in a city and suffers from loneliness. The short story is divided into six sections. The title, “White Nights,” refers to the fact that St. Petersburg is so far north that there are short seasons in which it never gets totally dark at night; these are seen as magical, romantic times, and this romanticism is masterfully conveyed in Dostoevsky’s prose. Finally, A Christmas Tree and a Wedding is narrated by an awkward outcast attending a Christmas party. The man, although invited, knows only the host and talks to no one. He observes the party’s guest of honor and takes special interest in one of the children.

[159] The Birds Fall Down – Rebecca West

“He (God) may care for each individual, but for the destruction of one system by another, this is part of his plan. There is such war between nations, between empires. And take heed of what this little war, the woodcock shoot, really is. Men who are threatened with a thousand perils go out with guns against birds who enjoy almost complete safety in the forest.” [72]

The Birds Fall Down is an ambitious novel whose force is towards demonstrating the inevitability of the upheaval in Russian society that came in 1917. It’s based on a true story that Rebecca West first heard when she was very young from Ford Madox Ford, whose sister married a Russian refugee. As befit to spy fiction, the opening paragraph, which Francine Prose deems as the model that both catches readers’ attention and affords informative nuances, is beautifully written and poised in the flow. It doesn’t ease one’s forebodings. It sets the probing tone for the rest of the book in a heavily charged atmosphere: There are secrets everywhere from the very first pages.

“Presently she heard the click of the french window which opened on the entrance, and she set down her embroidery and prepared to eavesdrop. For the last year or so everybody in the house had been eavesdropping whenever they had a chance.” [1]

One summer during the turn of the century, 18-years-old Laura Rowan is about to accompany her mother Tania, who is Russian, to visit her mother’s father, Count Nikolai Nikolaievitch Diakonov, who lives with his sick wife in exile in Paris. Laura’s father, one Edward Rowan, Member of the Parliament, a philanderer disguised in propriety (secret again), is opposed to the trip. About 18 months ago the Count has been unfairly banished by the Tsar on suspicion of treachery. The charge is obviously ungrounded because he has been subjected to a conspiracy. To better tender her grandmother’s sickness, of which the gravity is a secret to the old Count, Laura is deputed to take her grandfather to the seaside resort.

Count Diakonov’s ruminations on why he was exiled, in what ways the French are decadent, how to hunt the mountain cock are just mere overture compared to the conversation in tandem. On the train to the rural in northern France, the girl and the old man are joined by Chubinov, an old friend but now a terrorist, who warns him of his danger. Hence begins a monstrous conversation, uttered rather than spoken, that spans over 100 pages as the Count and Chubinov revile each other one minute only to reminisce together fondly in the next. This exchange of diatribes becomes so hypnotic but persistence of which would be rewarding to understand the novel, because all vital shifts and revelations—what domestic clutters has forayed into an insidious plot—take place during this conversation.

Before the train journey is over, it becomes evident that the virtuoso terrorist, whose charm Chubinov has attracted to, and the amicable oddball of a police spy, who has been the mainstay of the Count’s old age, are one. The person is a double agent whose ingenious justification of his position is that he’s performing both an act and its negation to achieve a Hegelian* union of opposites. The two organizations involved in this novel—Tsardom and reactionary—will begin to perish in their self-doubt.

The strength of The Birds Fall Down, despite its density and inaccessibility, lies in the fact that West understands treachery every bit as fully as she understands loyalty. She perceives reality as being shifting and endless treacherous shoals, like a moving train on which the key confrontation of the book takes place.

_________________________

*Hegelian dialectic, usually presented a threefold manner, was stated by Heinrich Moritz Chalybäus as comprising three dialectical stages of development: a thesis, giving rise to its reaction, an antithesis which contradicts or negates the thesis, and the tension between the two being resolved by means of a synthesis. This model is named after Hegel but he himself never used such a formulation and denounced such ways of thinking. Rather it is due to Fichte. Hegel himself preferred the term Aufhebung, variously translated into English as “sublation” or “overcoming,” to conceive of the working of the dialectic. Roughly, the term indicates preserving the useful portion of an idea, thing, society, etc., while moving beyond its limitations. Jacques Derrida’s preferred French translation of the term was relever.

[146] Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy considers Anna Karenina his most complete novel. Critics might be thought otherwise, and pick War and Peace as the quintessential novel, one of the greatest in the species. Tolstoy views the latter no more than a historical chronicle. Anna Karenina is known the first novel because Tolstoy has deliberately embraced the conventional limits of the novel genre. The polemic of the book rests on the ordinariness of its small group of characters, who are related by birth and marriage. It sets in the present of Tolstoy’s time and deals with the personal side of upper-class family and social life. White it is considered an act of defiance at that time owing to its sarcastic nature, the novel delves in some of the most ordinary issues of the day. It’s a tissue of polemics on all the questions then being discussed among aristocrats and the newspapers. There are opposing views of Orthodox Christianity and atheism, arguments with the aristocracy as well as with the nihilists on feminist issues; with the conservative Slavophiles as well as with the radical populists on the question of the exact geographical location of the Russian soul; with both landowners and peasants on questions of farm management; and with advocates of old and new forces of political representation. All these issues, which seem extraneous to Anna and Vronksy’s adultery, is mediated by Konstantin Levin, who withdraws from his hope for the happiness that marriage is to have given him after Kitty has rejected him.

Of course, the enigma of Anna Karenina is at the heart of the novel, which for the most part explores the values of marriage and how women’s little control over their life deprives them of happiness. An inevitable question raises in my mind: Why would Tolstoy allow this fate for Anna, who is beautiful, wealthy, educated, and has an adored son and loving husband, consider that Tolstoy holds rather conservative views on women issues. For him, marriage and child-bearing are a woman’s essential tasks and family happiness is the highest human ideal. It is not until about half way through the book that we find out about how Anna comes to marry, at the age of eighteen, a man who is twelve years her senior, mistaking her wish to shine in society for love, how she discovers her full femininity only at the age of thirty. So Tolstoy portrays Anna not as guilty but as only deserving of pity, with diabolical passions and impulses like that she demonstrates at the ball when she entices Vronksy from Kitty.

Even though Tolstoy might sympathize with the adulterous wife and gradually enlarges the figure of Anna morally, the power of love as life purpose could not save her. Not only is she rejected by the snobbish society and ostracized, her husband refuses to grant a divorce. This tension in the individual between freedom and excitement of her own passionate imaginations is best demonstrated by Anna’s pursuit of love and happiness. She’s eddied in this personal conflict in which she feels so guilty that she will forever be the source of unhappiness to her husband. Not only does she later, in a state of delirium, renounce her happiness, she also imagines the cruelest words Vronksy could have said to her. This is when death presents itself to her clearly as the only way to restore the love for her in Vronsky’s heart. Her intense love and passion have turned into retribution–to punish and to triumph over Vronsky.

Levin’s only meeting with Anna finally reveals the subtle link between the “two sides” of the novel–the most obvious is the contrast of the happy marriage of Kitty and Levin with the tragic relation of Anna and Vronsky. This meeting reveals Anna’s truthfulness for she does not even conceal from him all the difficulty of her situation. Lies under the moral problem of adultery is also death, which Anna struggles and later to which she surrenders. While Levin struggles with suicidal thoughts as he loses the purpose of life, his realization that religion is the ultimate meaning of live, Anna perishes with the worldly love and desire that are just part of the plan to perfecting life. Her love for Vronsky cannot redeem her, and the death only fetters his life.

Anna Karenina: Love and Happiness

Anna Karenina Series 2

The adulterous and tragic affair of Anna and Count Vronsky is intertwined with the story of Levin and Kitty’s love in one of the world’s greatest novels. Kitty is pursued by two suitors. Levin is a wealthy landowner from the provinces who could move in aristocratic circles, but who prefers to work on his estate in the country. Levin tries unsuccessfully to fit into high society when wooing the young Kitty Shcherbatsky. She rejects Levin (the awkward intellectual, similar to Tolstoy himself) in favor of the more glamorous Count Vronsky; although deep in her heart she does feel affection for Levin. However, Kitty was just a plaything to Vronsky, to whom marriage life is a foreign concept. He soon falls in love with Anna and abandons Kitty, who lapses into a morbid irritation for which she takes covalescence at a German spa. Rejected by Kitty, heartsick Levin quits his bureaucratic job and returns to his country estate. He throws himself into developing new agricultural tools and working side-by-side with the peasants. His efforts with the peasants are not successful. Besides the wound of unrequited love, a depressed Levin has been questioning the meaning of life.

“First he decided from that day on not to hope any more for the extraordinary happiness that marriage was to have given him, and as a consequence not to neglect the present so much. Second, he would never again allow himself to be carried away by a vile passion, the memory of which had so tormented him as he was about to propose.” [92]

Late Levin and Kitty meet again–and both of them have changed. Levin wins her only when he allows himself to be himself.
The joyous, honest and solid relationship of Levin and Kitty is continually contrasted in the novel with that of Anna and Vronsky, which is tainted by its uncertain status (marriage) resulting in constant upheaval, backbiting, and suspicion. So by the time Anna commits the tragic act that takes her life, Tolstoy supposedly did not want readers to sympathize with her supposed mistreatment, but rather to recognize that it was her inability to truly commit to her own happiness or self-truth which leads to her ignominious end.

“He had often felt that sometimes during an argument you would understand what your opponent loves, and suddenly come to love the same thing yourself, and agree all at once, and then all reasonings would fall away as superflouous; and sometimes it was the other way round: you would finally say what yourself love, for the sake of which you are inventing your reasonings, and if you happened to say it well and sincerely, the opponent would suddenly agree and stop arguing.” [396]

That is, when Levin becomes comfortable in his skin, and says it sincerely, she responses. The most beautiful thing happens after Kitty has read that he has written his diary with her in mind. She knows his whole soul through love, and in his soul she sees what she wants. How often do we really get to know someone but only let our stubborn reasonings get in the way of something that might flourish?

Further Reading
Anna Karenina: Quintessential Personal Conflict

Anna Karenina: Quintessential Personal Conflict

Anna Karenina Series 1

We all (maybe not all, but those who are familiar with the story through the movie) know the story: Anna Karenina is charmer. She has beauty, social position, wealth, a husband, and an adored son—except that her existence seems to be empty. When she meets Vronsky on the train to Moscow from Petersburg, ironically on a trip to help reconcile and mediate her brother’s marriage, she rejects her marriage and turns to him to fulfill her passionate nature. No she is not Madame Bovary, because Anna has the power to put people under her influence and make them fall in love with her. While her comrades feel that Anna is perfectly simple and keeps nothing hidden, but there is in her some other, higher world of interests, inaccessible to them, complex and poetic.

Like in War and Peace, Tolstoy does not confront us at the outset with the familiar lengthy description of a character, nor does he take refuge in the awkward flashback. The revelation of personality in real life comes about over a period of time by slow accretions, by the accumulation of much detailed information and understanding through innumerable small actions and intimacies. Maybe the slow progression makes Anna appear to be more likable even when she commits adultery that leads to devastating consequences.

Even though Vronsky importunates her with his presence, speaks to her whenever he can about his love, she never gives him any cause. But her soul has lit up with the feeling animation that has swept her on the day they first met. She clearly understands that from the sadness which has come over her that she is deceiving herself, that Vronsky’s pursuit not only is not unpleasant for her but constitutes the entire interest of her life. This book is about an agonizing personal conflict, with scattered notions of marriage values.

‘Then do this for me, never say these words to me, and let us be good friends,’ she said in words; but her eyes were saying something quite different.
‘We won’t be friends, you know that yourself. And whether we will be the happiest or the unhappiest of people—is in your power.’ [140]

This sentimental exchange seems almost too familiar to me!

[144] The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov (Fourth Review)

Disclaimer: You might wish to read previous reviews and articles on this novel prior to this discourse for better understanding. See links below.

“You pronounced your words as if you refuse to acknowledge the existence of either shadows or evil. But would you kindly ponder this question: What would your good do if evil didn’t exist, and what would the earth look like if all the shadows disappeared? After all, shadows are cast by things and people.” [305]

This reading of the modern Russian landmark novel in the 1920s again breathes some freshness to the experience. The plot is simple although it does not appear to be some straight-forward. The bundles do tie at the end, very seamlessly in fact. Satan in the literal sense disguised as a magician comes to Moscow and wreaks a havoc, but he does perform a good deed in the end—to offer the Master and his lover, Margarita, something better than what they asked for and what Jesus requests for them. Eternal peace and refuge. Perspicacious reader would know that the Pontius Pilate, the second one in the Moscow narrative which most don’t expect it coming, is the work of the Master, who does not make his appearance until Chapter 13, at the mental asylum, when he confirms that the poet Ivan has indeed met the Devil at Patriach Pond. This parallelism will become very crucial in Part 2, when the narrative shifts its focus to Margarita and how she is tested by the Devil. Underneath the humor, the magical maneuvers, the fantasy, and deep lyrical sadness, is this philosophical structure.

The Pilate chapters are strategically arranged in a way that Part 1 of the book assumes a concentric structure, for the execution and burial chapter is placed at second to the end of this narrative. Pivoting over the Moscow narrative is Wolan’s black magic expose at the Variety Theater, the show that holds a sway over thousands of (skeptical and unbelieving) Moscovites and is made possible by hypnotizing some of the theater’s officers while making others disappear. So it’s obvious that the Pilate chapters are included within Part 1 for a reason, and there are certainly many stylistic and thematic parallels between them, but we are at first unable to see the connection.

The opening chapter affords clues to Bulgakov’s intentions of telling the story of Jesus and Pilate, as suggested by the conversation on existence of good and evil between Woland, Berlioz and Ivan. But the Pilate story is not Bulgakov’s but the Master’s novel. With the majestic rhetoric and almost transcendental irony, it dawns on us that Yeshua in the Pilate chapter is not that Jesus, just as this Woland is not that Satan. The Master has simply taken what is normally perceived as religious material and breathes in it a social context—one that is characterized by unseen forces of politics and morality—the very things that cripple his life. So Jesus is not messianic nor is the Pilate story gospel-like, owing to the incorporation of apocryphal material. The Master’s story is stripped of last suppers, baptisms or twelve disciples. But these motifs are all to be found in parodic form in the Moscow strand. For example, Satan’s grand ball is reminiscent of the last supper, Margarita’s basking in pleasures of a night swim resonates baptism and the number of Moscovites tricked by Woland accounts to the number of disciples. Pilate’s using of the spy to kill Judas is in a sense retribution, just like Margarita’s naughty escapade of destroying the literary critic’s apartment. But these parallelism only paves for what is the most significant theme: Transcendence of the need for retribution is more important than division of humanity into good and evil. The fantastic, whimsical nature of The Master and Margarita itself is Bulgakov’s answer to his era’s denial of imagination and its wish to strip the world of divine qualities.

Further reading:
The Master and Margarita: It’s a Comedy?
The Master, Novel Within Novel
Never Talk To Strangers
[70] The Master and Margarita: Book Review
The Master and Margarita: Revisited
[12] The Master and Margarita: Review

The Master and Margarita: It’s a Comedy?

The Master and Margarita Series 3
Despite the philosophical nature and themes—fate, existence of God and the Devil—the novel is considered a comedy. We might not full grasp all the scholarly and social in-jokes, but it is irrefutably a hilarious attack on the hypocrisy of early Soviet Moscow. In part two of the narrative, Margarita is said to carry out the comedy of destroying Latunsky’s apartment. Couple passages that never fail to make me laugh out loud:

Poplavsky, the opportunistic uncle of the dead author Berlioz, came into Moscow to claim his nephew’s apartment. The unlucky visitor was greeted by Woland’s retinue at the accursed Apartment 50.

“The he pulled out two pair of underwear, (Is this just me, the Russians are really obsessed with underwear?) a razor strop, a book, and a case and kicked everything except the chicken down the stairs. The empty suitcase was also sent flying. Judging by the sound it made when it crashed below, its top had come off. Next the red-haired thug grabbed the chicken by its leg and slammed it so roughly and savagely across Poplavsky’s neck that the carcass flew apart, leaving Azazello with only the drumstick in his hand.” [169]

Another passage is Margarita’s violent and vengeful escapade at the new apartment of the critic who turned down the Master’s novel and published a fragment of it under his name. To say that she wreaks a havoc at Latunsky’s abode is only an understatement. But I derive much pleasure reading about her crime.

“After smashing the mirror on the wardrobe door, she pulled out one of the critic’s suits, and submerged it in the bathtub. She poured an inkwell full of ink, taken from the study, onto the luxurious fluffed-up double bed in Latunsky’s bedroom. The destruction she was causing gave Margarita intense pleasure, but the whole time it seemed to her that the damage she was causing was too slight. Therefore, she began striking out at random.” [204]

Further reading:
The Master, Novel Within Novel
Never Talk To Strangers
In-depth Book Review
The Master and Margarita: Review

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