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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

The Master, Novel Within Novel

The Master and Margarita Series 2
As I have expected (because I asked the same question myself in my first couple readings of the book), a couple important questions come to my students’ mind when reading the novel. Why is the novel called The Master and Margarita when those two characters arrive very late in the narrative? What’s the purpose of Woland (the Devil) in Moscow, and what does this have to do with Pontius Pilate? Obviously the change of style from the opening chapter to the second chapter, about Pontius Pilate, is a subtle hint that the narrator is unreliable and it might be a completely narrator altogether. The entry of the Master in Chapter 13 confirms this hypothesis. The Master realizes that Pontius Pilate is the reason why he and Ivan are in the mental asylum. The Master is barely characterized, his attitude to himself is sadly ironic, and his novel (about Pontius Pilate) is the only remarkable thing about him. It is the justification of his existence, and more importantly, the justification that Pontius chapter is part of the Moscow narrative (Part I) of the novel. After this crucial entry, the Pilate “novel” is revealed in many different ways and through different consciousness, as if it were an ur-text waiting to be discovered; but it is clearly the Master’s work, and meant to be understood as such, no matter how it is presented. That said, we have to understand that Jesus here is not that Jesus, just as this Woland is not that Satan. Even though Bulgakov sprinkles parodistic echoes from the gospels (crow of the rooster, the flood, etc), the Pilate chapters are not messianic or mythic at all. The reader’s consciousness must provide the coherence between widely spaced sections (of the biblical innuendos and Pontius novel), remembering details, and, most of all, wanting to know how this story will develop.

Never Talk To Strangers

The Master and Margarita Series 1
…is the heading of the first chapter of The Master and Margarita. This might as well be some of the most intriguing opening chapters in any novels—a good example of the playwright at work. Readers will realize that Bulgakov is playing a very sophisticated trick as they flip the page to the second chapter—on Pontius Pilate, from the gospel, which I’ll defer until later. Bulgakov’s narrator at first seems to promise a conventional story, but this narrator turns out to be a very unreliable one. His style is misleading. When Berlioz, Ivan and Woland (the Devil) meet on the park bench, the major worlds of this novel meet. The discussion about theology which appears merely to be a pretext for Woland to make fun of the atheism of the two Soviet writers is, in fact, filled with clues to Bulgakov’s intentions when telling the story of Pontius Pilate, but like Berlioz and Ivan themselves, we are unable to discern these clues until he has finished the novel. The themes touched on in this opening chapter—fate, atheism, the existence of God and the Devil, and humanizing Jesus Christ—are part of the overture. Obviously, the transition from this chapter to the next, which is really the novel the Master is writing, is what makes Bulgakov so brilliant a writer who possesses a remarkable ability to combine seemingly disparate elements, especially language levels, in such a way that we as readers accept the whole as coherent. More about the Pilate chapter tomorrow.

The Master and Margarita, and Sausage

In Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, events take a Satanic turn in the guise of a gentleman-magician by the name of Woland who wreaks havoc on Moscow. Woland, who turns out to be the devil himself, pays a visit to the home of the extremely hungover theater manager Stepa Likhoyedev and invites him to dine on small pan of sausages before casting a spell that transports him instantaneously to the seaside resort of Yalta, fifteen hundred kilometers away.

‘I cannot,’ put in the new arrival, ‘understand how he ever came to be manager.’ His voice grew more and more nasal–he’s as much a manager as I am a bishop.’
‘You don’t look much like a bishop, Azazello,’ remarked the cat, piling sausages on his plate.
‘That’s what I mean,’ snarled the man with red hair and turning to Woland he added in a voice of respect: ‘Will you permit us, messire, to kick him out of Moscow?’

Like the others, Bulgakov points to something gone wrong beneath the surface of the city, a chaos bordering on madness that has crept ominously into the daily life of the capital, threatening to erupt at any moment, especially if helped along by Woland’s trickery.

This interesting passage couldn’t come in a more timely fashion, as my friend just posted pictures of his sausage-making adventure in England. I bumped into an article online talking about sausage and the city, in how Pig and pork references color the writing of Dickens, Hamsun, Sartre, Camus, Bulgakov, and Dostoevsky, shattering the comfy world of the self-satisfied bourgeois and replacing it with something more, well, sausagey. These authors look beyond the taut and regular skin of urban existence to an offaly underside that is ready to burst through the seams at the slightest provocation.


Existentialism is not really a school of thought nor reducible to any set of tenets. The three writers who invariably appear on every list of “existentialists”, Jaspers, Heideger, and Sartre, are not in agreement on essentials. Their alleged precursors, Pascal and Kierkegaard, differed from all three men by being dedicated Christians; and Pascal was a Catholic of sorts while Kierkegaard was a Protestant’s Protestant. If, as is often done, Nietzche and Dostoevsky are included in the fold, one must make room for an impassioned anti-Christian and an even more fanatical Greek-Orthodox Russian imperialist. By the time we consider adding Rilke, Kafka, and Camus, it becomes plain that one essential feature shared by all three men is their perfervid individualism.

The refusal to belong to any school of thought, the repudiation of the adequacy of any body of beliefs whatever, and especially of systems, and a marked dissatisfaction with traditional philosophy as superficial, academic, and remote from life—that is the heart of existentialism. Existentialism is a timeless sensibility (again, not a school of thought) that can be discerned here and there in the past; but it is only in recent times that it has solidified into a sustained protest and preoccupation. In Notes From Underground no good society can rid man of depravity: the book is among other things an inspired polemic against Rousseau and the whole tradition of social philosophy from Plato and Aristotle through Hobbes and Locke to Bentham, Hegel, and John Stuart Mill. The man whom Dostoevsky has created in this book holds out for what traditional Christianity has called depravity; but he believes neither in original sin nor in God, and for him man’s self-will is not depravity; it is only perverse from the point of view of rationalities and others who value neat schemes above the rich texture of individuality.

Dostoevsky himself was a Christian, to be sure, and for that matter also a rabid anti-Semite, anti-Catholic, and anti-Western Russian nationalist. We have no right whatsoever to attribute to him the opinions of all of his most interesting characters. Unfortunately, most readers fail to distinguish between Dostoevsky’s views and those of the Grand Inquisitor in Ivan’s story in The Brothers Karamazov, though it is patent that this figure was inspired by the author’s hatred of the Church of Rome; and many critics take for Dostoevsky’s reasoned judgments the strange views of Kirilov, though he is mad. As a human being, Dostoevsky was as fascinating as any of his characters; but we must not ascribe to him, who after all believed in God, the outlook and ideas of his underground man.

Propagated Misattribution about Dostoevsky

Possibly the best-known quote from the works of Dostoevsky is from The Brothers Karamazov:

“If God does not exist, everything is permitted.”

The sentence does not appear, nor anything close to it. Nor does it appear in any of the other four Dostoevsky novels whose complete English texts are available online. The fact that a nonexistent text can be widely attributed to a famous author reveals the limitations of pre-computer scholarship. The fact that I could so quickly prove it erroneous highlights the opportunities for modern scholars. It is true that “If God does not exist, everything is permitted” is an accurate capsule description of the belief espoused by Ivan Karamazov in the early chapters of The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan has concluded, or pretends to conclude, that there is no God, no immortality. As what he claims is a logical consequence, “everything is lawful.” However, Ivan never speaks the sentence in question, and neither does any other character in the novel! The phrase, “everything is lawful,” is used frequently by other characters as an idea that they got from Ivan. And once, Ivan says “If there is no immortality, there is no virtue.” But the magic sound-bite sentence is not to be found. Jean Paul Sartre has said that all of French Existentialism is to be found in Ivan Karamazov’s contention that if there is no God, everything is permitted. But what did Dostoevsky say?

While it is undeniable that Ivan advances this view, that does not mean it is Dostoevsky’s view, and it is wrong to imply that it is — at least, without more support. In this respect, note that the sentence is a logical implication, if A then B. Ivan advances the truth of the implication as a whole, apparently as an intellectual proposition.In common talk, people assume that a claim if A then B automatically implies the contrary claim …and if not-A then not-B. However, logic is not common-sensical. When the antecedent A is not true, an implication is not automatically false; it becomes null — the truth of B is simply unknown.

To my rather casual reading, it appears that the whole irony of The Brothers Karamazov is that Ivan advances this logical statement, but later admits to Alyosha that, in fact, he believes in God. Hence Ivan has believed right from the start that the antecedent is false and, therefore, that the implication is null — it was never more than an intellectual toy. Alas, other characters take the succedent B seriously and act on it, resulting in great evil, for which Ivan must feel indirectly responsible. In any case, did Dostoevsky himself mean to argue the truth of the logical implication? Or to argue either the antecedent (God does not exist) or the succedent (everything is lawful) separately? Did Dostoevsky believe the inverse statement (“If God does exist, then not everything is lawful”)? Or did he only believe mean to show that almost everyone else believes it true, without examination? From David E. Cortesi

Twitters on War and Peace

I want to share my students’ feedback on the novel and their reading experience. The depth of their insights, the enthusiasm, and perseverance (you need it for a 1400-page book) have truly inspired me and helped me gain a better understanding of the book.

Tolstoy is able to go in and out of his creations’ lives with simplicity and without exaggeration, whether its in relating the most common moments of their daily lives or the climaxes of their earthly existences. This is what kept me engaged.”

I never thought I could finish this book. It was a challenge to even think about signing up for this course. “War and Peace” gave me a much greater respect for Tolstoy than I had previously held (having read Anna Karenina, among others).”

The size of the book was daunting. If I had to pick only one novel that I would ever be able to read again, it would have to be War and Peace. The lectures on realism, Tolstoy’s style, and digression of Napoleon also made it very fun to read.”

Don’t be put off by the length, it’s quite possible to pick up and put down (although we were on a very rigorous schedule!) It maintains its power and vividness of scene and character however long you leave it alone. The war scenes are as gripping as the peace scenes, and there is a great deal to learn from Tolstoy, even us, even now.”

I have read the novel before this course but only vaguely remember the details. Thanks to the mini lectures on historical background, Tolstoy’s writing style and the critical analysis of characters that make this journey very enlightening. the book presents plenty of interesting philosophical and scientific (“science of history”) ideas. The chief one is undoubtedly the question “What causes and shapes historical events?”. Contrary to the popular dogma that historical events are the result of actions of single notable persons (such as Napoleon or king Alexander), Tolstoy believes that such persons don’t really cause events, but rather can only affect them in some ways once they are already in existence. He claims that what really changes history is the amalgam of human actions, built from thousands, nay, millions of small decisions, desires and ambitions of the people.”

I really enjoy reading the book and the discussion on how “peace” really has an implication on the people–how they eventually come to terms of themselves and the society, how they find peace among themselves. “War and peace” but may also mean “War and society”, since “peace” and “society” are homonyms in Russian. There are differences of opinion as to which Tolstoy actually meant when he authored the book. It is very obvious that Tolstoy places a lot of emphasis on society in the book.”

The novel is quite long, and that is the reason I found that I picked up this book in the past and then put it down (not completely grasping the naming structures and not having time I felt to give it my full attention). However, after having finally taken the time to read this great manuscript, it really is a simple story about life, love (true or not), loyalty, friendship, responsibility (real accountability or feigned) and leadership. It is also once again a story of families and their love for each other and how they are able to show their love for one another or how the love is still present; but remains emotionally hidden or ineffectual. And it is a story of how one must understand the true meaning of life and must be content in one’s own skin; before love can truly blossom and be realized.”

We’re having a little party to celebrate the completion of the chunkster in class today. Then we’ll move on to The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevksy.


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