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Reading Pile on Nightstand, Reading List

Look at my new Book Worm mug! Isn’t it cute? It was thoughtfully given to me. My last gift mug (the one I’m still using at home) is the “Is is Friday yet?” mug. To get ready for fall, I went through all my new books and singled out the ones I’ll most likely read in the next two months. The happy affair with Jane Austen, as I have confessed in The Sunday Salon, will continue with the reading Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion. These are the books on my nightstand:

Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance by Atul Gawande
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind
Asylum by Paul McGrath
Trauma by Paul McGrath
The Teahouse Fire by Ellis Avery
David and Jonathan by Cynthia Voight
The Savage Garden by Mark Mills
Fahrenheit 451: A Novel by Ray Bradbury
Middlemarch by George Eliot [Chunkster Challenge selection]
Coming Storm by Paul Russells
The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards
The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood [Man Booker Challenge selection]
The Debut by Anita Brookner
The Sea by John Banville [Man Booker Challenge selection]

I am keeping my eye on several books that are either soon to be released or rare/out-of-print:
What Happened to Anna K. by Irina Reyn
Landing by Emma Donoghue
Pilcrow by Adam Mars-Jones
The Birds Fall Down by Rebecca West

Jessica at The Bluestocking Society is hosting a Lit Flicks Challenge, which runs from September 1, 2008 to February 28, 2009. Read 5 books that have been made into movies and watch at least 2 of the movie adaptations of the works you read. Easy and fun huh? Check it out and sign up. I need to compile my list for it. I’ll re-read Blindness in preparation for the movie that opens up on September 11, and Marley and Me, the story of the naughtiest puppy ever lived.

What is your reading plan for fall? Do you plan to venture in a reading challenge to spice up your reading?

[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!

Catching Up, More Russian Lit, Finds

I have to catch up on replying to all your comments while I was gone, reading the blogs, and doing some actual reading. I have been avoiding to look at the Chunster Challenge site because I’m shamefully conscious that I haven’t made much progress in that enterprise. So to prove my repentance I have taken off my bookshelf the new translation of Anna Karenina by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. I read this particular translation five years ago in 12 days. With classes wrapping up soon for the summer (except for the Freshman Comp), I might be able to finish it in a week. The grand novel opens with the Oblonsky family’s being in a state of confusion and chaos. The lady just found out that the husband was having an affair with their former French governess, and had announced to the husband, who was now a total stranger to her, disgusting and vile, that she could no longer live in the same house with him.

‘No, she won’t forgive me and can’t forgive me! And the most terrible thing is that I’m the guilty one in it all—guilty, and yet not guilty. That’s the whole drama,’ he thought.’ [2] (Distantly reminiscent of To be, or not to be, that is the question.)

For the belated Friday Finds, it this brings me to a debut novel by Irina Reyn that skillfully retells the classic tragedy of Anna Karenina by setting it in present-day New York City within a community of Russian-Jewish immigrants. What Happened to Anna K. is due to be released in August. I have pre-ordered a copy and can’t wait. The NPR says “this novel is no more a strict homage than a pale modernization; Moscow-born and Brooklyn-based Reyn creates in Anna a fully formed character, whose dreams and realities clash like the two cities that make Reyn such an observant, wry writer.”

The narrator who doesn’t seem capable of telling the story reliably and coherently caught of attention of Patrick McGrath’s Trauma. It is the story of Charlie Weir, a Manhattan psychiatrist who treats patients with post-traumatic stress disorder. But despite his cool exterior, Charlie is haunted by his own repressed trauma. Looking forward to reading this one as well.

[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.


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.