Want to read with me? Follow this link to view the list and pick a book (or a few!) to read along with me. I'd love for this project to be collaborative, and will post anyone's thoughts beside my own.

Friday, January 17, 2014

The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it.

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
For Whom the Bell Tolls is an introspective tale of love, violence, the passionate pursuit of a cause, and the raw truths brought out in all of us when war descends. It follows Robert Jordan (a.k.a. Roberto, or sometimes, Inglés) as he infiltrates a tight-knit group of guerrilla fighters tucked away in the mountains during the Spanish Civil War. He is working for the Republic (the non-fascists, in this case) and must convince the fighters to help him blow up a bridge as part of a planned attack. The ostensible leader of the band, Pablo, turns out to be a loose cannon, and has seen too much violence to be of much use to the group. Pablo's 'woman', Pilar, is of the most strategic help to Robert, and also introduces him to Maria, a woman the fighters have taken under their wing after a series of traumatic events. Maria and Robert fall in love, and their time together, though brief, is imbued with an unparalleled intensity of affection. The plan for blowing the bridge becomes increasingly less likely to succeed due to bad luck and poor timing, but Roberto triumphs in the end. The bridge is blown, against all odds, but in the group's escape, Roberto is injured and must be left behind. Obeying Roberto's wishes, Pablo and Pilar tear Maria off of him and whisk her away. The book closes on Roberto, alone, lying in wait for the enemy to finish him off.  
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

This book was exquisite. Like every other Hemingway novel I've read, I didn't like it at the beginning. I didn't even like it at 200 pages. And then all of a sudden, a switch flipped, and I went from downright despising the book to falling head over heels for it. Here's a snippet from when I read my first Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises, that captures this nicely:

"This book felt a bit like riding a horse that I didn't know well (or what I would imagine that would feel like) -- when I started it, we were moving forward, but sort of jerkily, and there was an unsure quality to the movement. As I settled in and continued reading, the ride became smoother, and the hesitancy started to fade away. As I finished the novel, I realized I'd been enjoying the ride for quite some time without thinking about it anymore. I guess some novels are a joyful ride all the way through, but I've found that many of the best ones (or at least the ones I enjoy the most) I have to work for a little."

If you haven't read this one, I highly recommend it. Be forewarned, though, it is quite violent, and in a way that is very different from the violence I've experienced in other books. I think it's worth it, but if you have a low tolerance for violence, it may not be for you. [Friends - I recognize the irony of this disclaimer, as someone who has the lowest tolerance for violence of everyone I know. ;)]

This post is going to be a doozy, because it deserves it. I often try to trim my posts if I feel I'm oversharing, or going on ad nauseam, but when a book is excellently crafted and packed with gems, as this one is, I go all out. Spectacular work deserves a celebration!

In case you've always wondered where that title comes from...
The title is derived from a John Donne quote (truncated below):
"Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee."
I love the part about any man's death diminishing me because I am involved in mankind. We are, I believe, intimately connected, and our actions have repercussions for all.

Didn't your mother tell you not to curse?
Hemingway self-censors swear words, ostensibly to make sure his book could get published. The result is quite amusing. Here are a few of my favorites:
  • "What are you doing now, you lazy drunken obscene unsayable son of an unnameable unmarried gypsy obscenity?
  • Agustín: "I un-name in the milk of their motors." Pilar: "That's something. That is really something. But really difficult of execution." haghahghagha. True, Pilar. True.
  • "I obscenity in the milk of science!"
Thou shalt not kill.
There are several exquisite reflections on killing in this book. As I mentioned, it's quite violent, as it takes place during a civil war. Part of the novel's beauty, though, is the way Hemingway treats one of the most difficult topics for us to bear as humans - killing each other, and attempting to justify it. These scenes stood out to me in particular:

- Conversation between Roberto and Anselmo, an old man whom he enlists to help blow the bridge:
Anselmo(on hunting): "I received a pleasure of pride of remembrance of the encounter with the bear on that hillside in the early spring. But of the killing of a man, who is a man as we are, there is nothing good that remains."

- "You have killed?' Robert Jordan asked in the intimacy of the dark and of their day together."

- Roberto, to himself:
"Don't you know it is wrong to kill? Yes. But you do it? Yes. And you still believe absolutely that your cause is right? Yes.
But you mustn't believe in killing. You must do it as a necessity but you must not believe in it.
Because if you are not absolutely straight in your head you have no right to do the things you do for all of them are crimes and no man has a right to take another man's life unless it is to prevent something worse happening to other people."

Roberto, on drinking absinthe in the cave: "There was very little of it left and one cup of it took the place of the evening papers, of all the old evenings in cafés, of all chestnut trees that would be in bloom now in this month, of the great slow horses of the outer boulevards, of book shops, of kiosques, and of galleries, of the Parc Montsouris, of the Stade Buffalo, and of the Butte Chaumont, of the Guaranty Trust Company and the Ile de la Cité, of Foyot's old hotel, and of being able to read and relax in the evening; of all the things he had enjoyed and forgotten and that came back to him when he tasted that opaque, bitter, tongue-numbing, brain-warming, stomach-warming, idea-changing liquid alchemy." This reminded me of the classic Proust madeleine scene.

No use crying over spilled beer.
I spilled some beer on the side of this book, and while I was a tad angry at first, I have come to like the aesthetic. I think if any other would appreciate me enjoying a beer during his novel and accidentally dispersing a bit on the pages, it would be Hemingway. ;) 

But it's my only line!
There's a lyrical quality to Hemingway's writing in this novel that feels more advanced than in his previous works. This is my favorite line.

Pilar: "Do you know what you are going to say to El Sordo?"
Roberto: "Yes."
Pilar: "Because he is a man of few words unlike me and thee and this sentimental menagerie."

Pablo y Pilar
Pablo and Pilar are quite the odd couple, and Pilar is a great character. Here's a smattering of quotes to give you the flavor of their relationship:

The gypsy, to Roberto: "If you think Pablo is ugly you should see his woman."

Pablo: "I am afraid to die, Pilar. Tengo miedo de morir. Dost thou understand?"
Pilar: "Then get out of bed. There is not room in one bed for me and thee and thy fear all together."
hahgahga. nice, Pilar. you tell him!

Pilar, of Pablo - "He wants to stay in the eddy of his own weakness. But the river is rising."

Pilar, on herself: "Life is very curious. I would have made a good man, but I am all woman and all ugly."

Maria y Roberto
Maria, to Roberto, on kissing: "Where do the noses go? I always wondered where the noses would go." I always wondered that, too, Maria!

The tenderness of their relationship is almost painful in its perfection:
"They were walking through the heather of the mountain meadow and Robert Jordan felt the brushing of the heather against his legs, felt the weight of his pistol in his holster against his thigh, felt the sun on his head, felt the breeze from the snow of the mountain peaks cool on his back and, in his hand, he felt the girl's hand firm and strong, the fingers locked in his. From it, from the palm of her hand against the palm of his, from their fingers locked together, and from her wrist across his wrist something came from her hand, her fingers and her wrist to his that was as fresh as the first light air that moving toward you over the sea barely wrinkles the glassy surface of a calm, as light as a feather moved across one's lip, or a leaf falling when there is no breeze; so light that it could be felt with the touch of their fingers alone, but that was so strengthened, so intensified, and made so urgent, so aching and so strong by the hard pressure of their fingers and the close pressed palm and wrist, that it was as though a current moved up his arm and filled his whole body with an aching hollowness of wanting.

Roberto, to Maria, on making love: "Afterwards we will be as one animal of the forest and be so close that neither one can tell that one of us is one and not the other. Can you not feel my heart be your heart?"

It's hard to dance with a devil on your back.
The most difficult scene to read in the book deals with Pablo's past, and how he dispensed with the fascists in his town before they would have the chance to launch their attack. 

"If you have not seen the day of revolution in a small town where all know all in the town and always have known all, you have seen nothing." The violence is particularly hard to bear because the villagers are slaughtering their neighbors, their shopkeepers, their priests. I can't imagine the agony of this experience.

Pilar, on the drunk leaning on her after the ritual slaughter turns into a mob: "His breath on my neck smelled like the smell of the mob, sour, like vomit on paving stones and the smell of drunkenness, and then he put his mouth against the opening in the bars with his head over my shoulder, and shouted, 'Open up! Open!' and it was as though the mob were on my back as a devil is on your back in a dream."

Roberto, on believing in the cause
"In all that, in the fear that dries your mouth and your throat, in the smashed plaster dust and the sudden panic of a wall falling, collapsing in the flash and roar of a shellburst, clearing the gun, dragging those away who had been serving it, lying face downward and covered with rubble, your head behind the shield working on a stoppage, getting the broken case out, straightening the belt again, you now lying straight behind the shield, the gun searching the roadside again; you did the thing there was to do and knew that you were right. You learned the dry-mouthed, fear-purged, purging ecstasy of battle and you fought that summer and that fall for all the poor in the world, against all tyranny, for all the things that you believed and for the new world you had been educated into." I often wonder if there's something I would fight battles for. There are plenty of things I'll fight mental or political battles for, but I'm hard pressed to imagine a scenario where I can justify killing other humans. I know that many battles have been fought on my behalf, as an American, and I don't dispute those, or the right of my country to decide which battles are worthy. But it's different trying to imagine fighting with my own hands and weapons and bearing the personal responsibility  of those actions.

Pick your poison.
There's a hilarious scene where Robert doesn't want to share his whiskey with Pablo, but he offers it anyway to be polite: 

Robert: "Do you want some?"
Pablo shook his head. "I am making myself drunk with wine,' he said with dignity."
haghahgah. This reminded me of my cousin Marguerite, after her parents let her have all the candy she wanted: "I feel sick with chocolate." No, thank you. No whiskey for me. I am making myself drunk with chocolate. 

Karkov, to Roberto
"I think you write absolutely truly and that is very rare.
All right. He would write a book when he got through with this. But only about the things he knew, truly, and about what he knew." This reminded me of Little Women, and Friedrich advising Jo to "Write what you know." 

Tick tock, Tick tock, who's afraid of a big bad clock?
Hemingway is beautifully reflective on time and its relativity. This passage of Roberto's struck me with its sadness:
"Well, so that is what happens and what has happened and you might as well admit it and now you will never have two whole nights with her. Not a lifetime, not to live together, not to have what people were always supposed to have, not at all. One night that is past, once one afternoon, one night to come; maybe.
  Not time, not happiness, not fun, not children, not a house, not a bathroom, not a clean pair of pajamas, not the morning paper, not to wake up together, not to wake and know she's there and that you're not alone."

On snow...
There's a freak snowstorm in the mountains, even though it's the middle of May. Beautiful though it is, it also ruins their plan for reinforcements and gets El Sordo and his band murdered. Here are some of the best bits about the little white flakes:

"By the time they reached the camp it was snowing and the flakes were dropping diagonally through the pines. They slanted through the trees, sparse at first and circling as they fell, and then, as the cold wind came driving down the mountain, they came whirling and thick and Robert Jordan stood in front of the cave in a rage and watched them."

Pablo, to Robert: You won't want to sleep outside with the snow falling.
No, he said, politely.
Pablo: No. Very cold. Very wet.
Then I should sleep in here? he asked politely.
Pablo: Yes.
Thanks. I'll be sleeping outside.
Pablo: In the snow?
Yes (damn your bloody, red pig-eyes and your swine-bristly swines-end of a face). In the snow. (In the utterly damned, ruinous, unexpected, slutting, defeat-conniving, bastard-cessery of the snow.)

"Now that his rage was gone he was excited by this storm as he was always by all storms. In a blizzard, a gale, a sudden line squall, a tropical storm, or a summer thunder shower in the mountains there was an excitement that came to him from no other thing. It was like the excitement of battle except that it was clean." I always get excited by storms.

"In a snowstorm it always seemed, for a time, as though there were no enemies. In a snowstorm the wind could blow a gale; but it blew a white cleanness and the air was full of a driving whiteness and all things were changed and when the wind stopped there would be the stillness."

Does death have a smell?
There are many superstitions among the fighters and Pilar tries to convince Roberto that death has a distinct smell. The descriptions are beautiful, but quite long, so I'll let you look them up if you're interested. I also loved the counter-descriptions of what life smells like:

"He smelled the odor of the pine boughs under him, the piney smell of the crushed needles and the sharper odor of the resinous sap from the cut limbs. This is the smell I love. This and fresh-cut clover, the crushed sage as you ride after cattle, wood-smoke and the burning leaves of autumn. That must be the odor of nostalgia, the smell of the smoke from the piles of raked leaves burning in the streets in the fall in Missoula. Which would you rather smell? Sweet grass the Indians used in their baskets? Smoked leather? The odor of the ground in the spring after rain? The smell of the sea as you walk through the gorse on a headland in Galicia? Or the wind from the land as you come in toward Cuba in the dark? That was the odor of cactus flowers, mimosa and the sea-grape shrubs. Or would you rather smell frying bacon in the morning when you are hungry? Or coffee in the morning? Or a Jonathan apple as you bit into it? Or a cider mill in the grinding, or bread fresh from the oven?" I'd like fresh bread from the oven, cloves, and coffee. What would you like?

Bien sûr, il faut parler Français.
One of the critical moments in the book is General Golz's response to a message from Roberto, but it's in French, and it's not translated. Boy, was I pleased that I speak French!

"Nous sommes foutus. Oui. Comme toujours. Oui. C'est dommage. Oui. It's a shame it came too late."
"No. Rien à faire. Rien. Faut pas penser. Faut accepter." 

Suzy is an educated cat.
Agustín, on the anarchists not being very hygienic in their trenches: "It is not liberty not to bury the mess one makes, he thought. No animal has more liberty than the cat; but it buries the mess it makes. The cat is the best anarchist. Until they learn that from the cat I cannot respect them."

My brother-in-law is Senegalese, and in Senegal, cats aren't really house pets. They're more like street animals that you avoid at all costs. So when his family saw my cat, Suzy, sleeping happily on the couch behind Lune's head when we were Skyping with them, they started going, "Oh no! What's that cat doing there? She'll pee on the couch!" To which Lune proudly replied, "Not Suzy. She's an educated cat. She has her own bathroom." ahgahgahgahgahghaghag. 

Roberto, to himself:
Roberto makes an off-handed comment about his predecessor. The comment is coarse, but I loved Roberto's inner commentary.
"'I am alive and he is dead.' Then: what's the matter with you? he thought. Is that the way to talk? Does food make you that slap happy? What are you, drunk on onions?"

I had a tough time picking a title for this blog. Here are some of the others that were in contention:

Possible Titles:
  • We are nothing against such machines.
  • Are there no pleasant things to speak of? Do we have to talk always of horrors?
  • We exist here by a miracle.
  • Should a man carry out impossible orders knowing what they lead to?
  • Can you not feel my heart be your heart? Thou hast no heart but mine.
  • In politics and this other the first thing is to continue to exist.
  • There is no now but now.
Favorite Lines:
  • "I have never heard such a tone of voice. It was grayer than a morning without sunrise."
  • "In a fine body there is magic."
I'll leave you with three of my favorite lines:

Maria: "I wish we had horses to ride. In my happiness I would like to be on a good horse and ride fast with thee riding fast beside me and we would ride faster and faster, galloping, and never pass my happiness."

Roberto: "In the meantime, all the life you have or ever will have is today, tonight, tomorrow, today, tonight, tomorrow, over and over again (I hope), he thought and so you had better take what time there is and be very thankful for it."

"'Listo', Pablo said. 'I am ready for what the day brings."

I am ready for what the day brings, and I look forward, now, finally, to Hillock! (Aka, Dune). Join me if you will!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Strike that! Reverse it.

I flubbed twice now in the section of my post where I reference the book I'm reading next. My fastidious older sister, Lexie, caught it the first time, when I referenced reading For Whom the Timpani Gongs after finishing To the Lighthouse, when in fact I was moving on to The Master and Margarita first. (Or perhaps I should say, The Lord and Martini.)

This past post, I said I was moving on to Hillock, when in fact Hillock comes after For Whom the Timpani Gongs, which I am still in the midst of reading. So just to clarify, you should feel free to get a head start on Hillock (in which case you'd be in good company, as both of my older sisters will now be joining me in a read-along and are getting a head start because word on the street is that I read quite quickly (could we be Quite quick?)) but if you wanted to read what I'm reading Right Now At This Very Moment, you'd need to find a copy of For Whom the Timpani Gongs. I mean, For Whom the Trumpet Blares. Oh, you know what I mean. ;)

Sunday, January 5, 2014

He has appeared! Catch him at once, or he will work untold disasters!

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
The Master and Margarita is a playful, satirical romp through our darkest dreams that simultaneously examines the deepest questions of our existence and the very real presence and influence of a supernatural devil and his minions when they appear in Moscow one hot spring day. It follows a cast of characters who are manipulated and bewildered by the devil and company in strange and often hilarious fashions. The devil is painted here as a master of black magic, though the titular "Master" is a different man, one who was driven mad by learning the truth of the devil's existence in the process of writing a novel as a sort of addendum to the Bible. Margarita is his love, the wife of another man (who seems to play no role at all in this book) who falls madly for the Master and gives him the name during her idolization of his epic novel. The Master and Margarita are reunited in the end, with a little help from some supernatural friends. The rest of the cast of characters are left reexamining their lives with the now very real knowledge of the existence of dark forces on this earth.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

When I told people I was reading this book, the overwhelming response was that no one had ever heard of it. I didn't really understand why until I read the foreword in my copy. It turns out that Bulgakov was a famous author during the Stalinist regime, and therefore a large majority of his works were censored, banned, or never published at all. This also explains why I thought this was a newer book - it was published in 1967, but he wrote it between 1928 and 1940, which actually makes him a contemporary of Virginia Woolf.

I greatly enjoyed this book, though it's certainly off the wall, and therefore likely not for everyone. Also definitely not for those who are not interested in spending time mapping out which character fits which of the 7 names given to him/her throughout the novel ;) #russianlit #neveradullmoment

A few of my thoughts, in no real order:

-Censorship by Stalin/Communist regime
I generally try not to read information about a book before I've read it - I don't like it to color my perception or experience of the novel, and I find it gives away a very great deal, often without meaning to. For this reason, I firmly believe that book jackets or back-of-the-book blurbs should be offered in a small hidden envelope, or in some sort of optional medium, as opposed to right-on-the-back-where-anyone-could-read-it-by-accident-and-then-suddenly-know-all-about-the-story-before-she's-even-started-it! They also automatically divulge information that a patient reader would have to wait to earn, like the name of the main character (assuming he has one, AHEM, looking at you, Proust!) or the type of book it's going to be (This MURDER MYSTERY NOVEL - "well great, now I'm going to spend the whole book wondering who's going to die!").

That being said, I read the intro to this book *after* I read it (I took it *out* of the Tulku...) and was very glad I did, because it was highly illuminating in regards to both Bulgakov and this novel. Here's what I discovered:

Apparently, like Proust (and countless others, he's just the first one that comes to mind), Bulgakov died before this novel was published. In fact, he never even got to prepare a final version for publication, and was still making edits until the time of his death. It took 27 years for it to be published after he died, largely due to the lasting influence of Communism on the availability of literature in the USSR. Bulgakov was a prolific writer, but he was tortured by his inability to publish his works as he wrote them. He once said, "There is no hope for any of my works. They cannot exist in the USSR", a reference to both the fact that his works were kept from being published, and that the environment of the USSR at the time was not primed for satires like his. Yet, he also said, "life outside literature is inconceivable to me". Stuck in this Catch-22, Bulgakov wrote a letter to Stalin, imploring him to allow him to leave the USSR. He wrote, "the impossibility to write is tantamount to being buried alive", and he begged the government to allow him to leave, or let him work as a stager of plays, rather than suffer the constant agony of creating and withholding his greatest works.

Stalin actually wrote back, and arbitrarily decided that Bulgakov could not leave, but would be allowed to stage plays as he requested. Bulgakov, then, perhaps one of the greatest Russian writers to emerge from that generation, spent his time, not writing with every spare minute, but preparing and directing the works of others. This seems to me to be a real tragedy.

Growing up in America, I've never known what it would be like to write something (perhaps truly brilliant) and have my country and my government keep me from sharing it. Banning books is a very real problem in America, and one that is still a struggle, and keeps fantastic adventures and eye-opening classics out of the hands of children across the nation. But censorship, and an inability to write what you want and what you feel without fear of recrimination, or silencing, is not an issue here, at least on the grand scale of the era of Stalin. It leaves me wondering what else Bulgakov might have written given the opportunity, and if he'd had that chance, whether I'd still be teaching people his name today, nearly 75 years after he last set down a copy of his manuscript and added a sentence, or struck out a chapter.

-Perhaps a lunatic was simply a minority of one.
This was (at least) the 4th book on my list to feature a psychiatric hospital (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Fight Club, The Bell Jar) but what struck me was that in several of the novels, including this one, the psychiatric hospital includes both the truly mentally ill, and those that society deems as such. What, after all, defines insanity? Is the line clear? In many cases, the characters who seem the most sane actually choose to stay in the ward because it feels safe. The Master, for example, has had a set of keys to escape the ward for months, but only uses them to visit his fellow patients on the sly. 

One of my favorite characters, Ivan Nikolayevich, aka the poet Homeless, ends up in the psych ward because he meets the devil and the devil (accurately) predicts his friend Berlioz will be beheaded by a train. Naturally, his story is met with scrutiny. I loved the sarcasm in his first interaction with the doctor. It reminded me of the sassy patients in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.  

Dr. Stravinsky: "How do you do, Ivan?"
Ivan: "Hello, saboteur!" Ivan replied loudly, with venom.

-The Master and Margarita, sitting in a tree...
Their love story is so delicately written, and I relished the tenderness of their affection. Here are a few snippets from the Master detailing their courtship to Ivan in the psych ward:
  • "What struck me then was not so much her beauty as the extraordinary loneliness in her eyes."
  • "I was tormented by the feeling that I must speak to her."
  • "He wiped away a sudden tear with his sleeve and continued. 'Love caught us suddenly, leaped at us like a murderer appearing from out of nowhere in an alley, and struck us both down at once. Like lightning, like a Finnish knife!" apparently Finnish knives are sharp! or unexpected!
  • "She said that she had come out with the yellow flowers that day so that I'd find her at last."
Here's another bit I loved: 
"During the Maytime storms, when streams of water gushed noisily past the blurred windows, threatening to flood their last refuge, the lovers would light the stove and bake potatoes. The potatoes steamed, and their charred skins blackened their fingers. There was laughter in the basement, and in the garden the trees would shed broken twigs and white clusters of flowers after the rain." This description was so tender, and so achingly beautiful. I'd like someone to steam potatoes with me during the spring rain.

The Master, to Ivan, on why he can't tell Margarita that he is in the psych ward:
"If I had written to her, she would have received a letter from the madhouse. Can letters be written from such an address/. . . A mentally ill man? . . . You are joking, my friend! Make her unhappy? No, I am incapable of that." I thought this was so cute. He won't tell her where he is because he's worried about the return address - "XO, The Master, Madhouse #2, Moscow".

-What's in a name?
So there's a whole section of plot that I basically left out because I still don't entirely understand its role, though I think it's coming to me in bits and pieces. In addition to following the present day in Moscow, the novel also tracks the story of Jesus and his crucifixion by Pontius Pilate. It took me quite some time to decipher the names that Bulgakov used. I'm not sure whether they were of his design, or are derived from a language I'm unfamiliar with. It reminded me of A Clockwork Orange, and looking for my glazzies in the morning. ;) Here are a few examples: 

Yershalayim - Jerusalem
Yeshua - Jesus
Bar-Rabban - Barabbas
Yehuda - Judah

-"The devil take you? Why not, it can be done!"
Several of the curious events that occur to the characters in the novel are plays on actual common phrases like the one above. One of my favorite scenes occurs when a man shouts "The Devil take you!" when he's been interrupted at work. 

"Behind the enormous desk with the massive inkwell sat an empty suit and with a dry pen undipped in ink traced something on a sheet of paper. The suit wore a tie; the tip of a fountain pen protruded from its pocket. But over the collar there was neither neck nor head, just as there were no hands showing from the cuffs. The suit was absorbed in work and completely oblivious of the wild confusion around it. 
  [The secretary] burst into sobs again.
"I must ask you to desist from sobbing in my office!' The hot-tempered striped suit said, flaring up, and with its sleeve it pulled over a fresh pile of papers, evidently intending to affix its resolutions to them." haghaghaghahg. Desist from sobbing in my office! I have WORK to do! Now, if I could only find my face...

-Suzy Chubsters' favorite character
I also neglected to mention one of my favorite characters, a human-sized tomcat who works for the devil. Here's a classic scene featuring him:

"'Passport!' the tom barked and held out a plump paw. 
  Understanding nothing and seeing nothing except two sparks burning in the cat's eyes, Poplavsky pulled the passport from his pocket as if it were a sword. The tom picked up a pair of glasses with thick black frames from the pier-glass table and put them on his nose, which made him even more imposing, and took the passport from Poplavsky's shaking hand."
  'Your presence at the funeral is canceled. Be kind enough to return to your place of residence!"

-OK, OK, maybe you are actually losing it. 
Several characters try to rationalize the bizarre events that keep occurring around them. I loved this: 

"Hm, calm now!' The professor said to himself. 'It flew in when I was walking away from the window. Everything is all right!' the professor told himself, feeling that everything was all wrong, mainly, of course, because of that sparrow. Taking a close look at it, the professor immediately realized that it was not quite an ordinary sparrow. The wretched bird limped on its left foot, obviously clowning and dragging it, moving in syncopation - in short, it was dancing a fox trot to the music of the phonograph like a drunk in a bar, staring at the professor as impudently and provokingly as it could."

-A scene where pigs literally fly in this novel:
"Completely naked, with tangled hair flying in the wind, she rode a fat hog. The hog was clutching a briefcase with its front hooves, while the hind ones furiously beat the air. A pair of pince-nez occasionally glinting in the moonlight, had evidently fallen off its nose and flew beside it on a cord. Its hat kept slipping down over its eyes." on a related note, I've been hearing the phrase "literally" used in the figurative sense FAR more often than I'd like lately. Example from a Biggest Loser episode I watched yesterday: "My heart was LITERALLY breaking for my dad during the challenge because his knees were hurting so much." Was it, though? Was your heart LITERALLY breaking? Because I think that would be excruciating, and that you'd also be DEAD Dead Dead. My friend Daniel-ay told me over winter break that the figurative version of the word has been added to the OED, to which I replied that I was, "NOT Amused"!

-What does the devil look like?
Interestingly enough, this was not the first novel on my list to feature the Devil as a main character. The Stand (Stephen King) features Randall Flagg, a spur-boots-wearing cowboy of a Satan. I think it's fascinating to see how the face of evil is imagined - it makes me think of boggarts and their many faces. Here's a description of Randall Flagg, followed by Margarita's perception of the devil:

"She never saw him; she didn't have to see him. He was a shadow passing through the corn at noon, a cold pocket of air, a gore-crow peering down at you from the phone lines. His voice called to her in all the sounds that had ever frightened her - spoken soft, it was the tick of a deathwatch beetle under the stairs, telling that someone loved would soon pass over; spoken loud it was the afternoon thunder rolling amid the clouds that came out of the west like boiling Armageddon."

"Two eyes fixed themselves on Margarita's face. The right, with a golden spark in its depths, piercing anyone it turned on to the bottom of his soul; and the left, empty and black like the narrow eye of a needle, like the opening to a bottomless well of darkness and shadows. Woland's face was twisted sideways, the right corner of his mouth was drawn down, the high bald forehead was cleft by deep lines running parallel to the pointed eye brows. The skin on Woland's face seemed to have been forever darkened by some searing heat."

-And just why shouldn't I gild my whiskers?
In adorning themselves for Satan's ball, the minions choose different ways to gussy themselves up. Hilariously, the tomcat decides to gild his whiskers, and takes some serious flack for it: 

"The tom, covered with dust and standing on his hind legs, was in the meantime bowing to Margarita. Now he had a white evening bow tie around his neck; a ladies' mother-of-pearl opera glass dangled from a ribbon on his chest. Besides, his whiskers were gilded.
   'What's this now?' cried Woland. 'Why did you gild your whiskers? And why the devil do you need a tie if you have no trousers?'
   'A cat isn't supposed to wear trousers, Messire', the tom answered with great dignity. 'You will tell me to put on boots next! . . . Have you ever seen anyone at a ball without a tie? I don't intend to make myself a laughing stock and risk being kicked out! Everyone adorns himself as best he can." haghaghahgahg. That's right, tom, if you want to gild your whiskers, you go right ahead! now, if only I could find Suzy and some liquid gold...

-Excuse me, but the dog ate my homework. 
One of the most hilarious scenes in the book happens when a louse of a man (Nikolay) gets turned into a hog (see above reference to flying pigs) and Natasha, Margarita's servant, rides him (in hog form) to Satan's ball. Not concerned about having been turned into a hog, Nikolay begs Satan's lady minion, Hella, to write him a note proving to his wife (who has concerns (rightfully, it turns out) about his fidelity) that he was turned into a pig, which is why he wasn't home on time. [Excuse me, I've been turned into a cow. May I go home, please? Yes. You're excused.]

"Before Nikolay Ivanovich knew it, the naked Hella was already sitting at a typewriter, and the tom was dictating to her.
   'Herewith we certify that the bearer of same, Nikolay Ivanovich, spent the said night at Satan's ball, having been brought there in the capacity of a transportation facility . . . in parentheses, Hella put in 'hog'. Signed, Behemoth." haghaghaghahgahhagagh. 

-Does light need darkness to shine?
Woland (aka the Devil), to a disciple of Jesus: "Give some thought to this: what would your good be doing if there were no evil, and what would the earth look like if shadows disappeared from it?"

Several of the last few books have toyed with the idea that riches require poverty to exist, or that sadness needs joy, or darkness, light. This is a tricky question, and a deeply philosophical one. What do you think? Do you think we need the negative pole to experience the positive one? What would happen if only the positives existed? Would negatives emerge on their own? I like to think we could have a world filled only with joy, but I can't honestly say I know for sure.

Passages I particularly enjoyed:
  • "You are no longer interested in anyone's destiny but your own."
  • "Could there be crooks in Moscow?"
  • at Satan's ball: "Abandoned gaiety held sway here."
  • "For a long time they flew in silence, until the land below them began to change as well. The melancholy forests drowned in the darkness of the earth, taking with them the dully glinting blades of rivers. Huge boulders began to flash below, with black gaps between them where the moonlight did not penetrate."
This has been a long post, so I'll leave you with this line from another one of Satan's minions, Azazello, to the Master and Margarita after they have been reunited:

"The storm is thundering already, do you hear? It is growing dark. The horses paw the earth, the little garden shivers. Say your farewells, hurry, hurry."

The storm thunders, the little garden shivers. I must say my farewell until next time, with Hillock. 

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