Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Manuscripts Don't Burn: Books for This

Ellen Manning's poster for The Master and Margarita

This is by no means what I consider a comprehensive list. I have no doubt there are a multitude of works from a multitude of people and places covering these issues, from tomes written by those who have lived in any of the world's dictatorships to the popular genre of dystopian science fiction novels. But these are the ones I know and suggest.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Perhaps ironically, the book that's buoyed me the most since November is a Russian novel. 1930s Stalinist Moscow is already such a surreal place that demonic visitation is hardly the weirdest aspect. There are mysterious disappearances, labyrinthine but unassailable rules about everything, and overbearing but unspeakable truths, so what's a talking cat or a dance for hell's denizens? Muscovite Margarita has lost her lover, a writer who was whisked away by the authorities due to the subject of his novel. Will a mysterious stranger and his mischievous coterie be able to help her get him back?

Bulgakov wrote The Master and Margarita knowing that it could never be published in his lifetime. He even burned an early draft, wary and despairing, but later soldiered on with his secret writing. The book's very existence is a testament to the survival of art in impossible situations and support for one of its claims: manuscripts don't burn.

By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño

By Night in Chile is a feverish novella told in (mostly) one paragraph: the deathbed ramblings of fictional Father Urrutia, a priest and intellectual who was recruited to teach the "enemy tactics" of the left to the top brass of the new (and covertly USA-assisted) Pinochet regime. The defensive, opaque narrator is unsympathetic, but one wonders what he or she would have done differently, and what difference it would have made. While maddening in parts (it includes a Bolaño trademark: a lengthy, esoteric list - in this case a survey of churches using trained falcons to protect historic buildings from pigeon poop), the work reaches a heart-pounding climax when what lies beneath a literati dinner party is revealed.

By Night in Chile is a stark reminder that dictatorships come and go, but for their survivors, actions taken or not taken can last a lifetime in one's conscience.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

I admit I haven't been able to re-read this one recently; much like George Orwell's 1984, it's too close to home now. However, I plan to steel myself and dive in, since it has an eerily well timed miniseries coming in the spring. The Handmaid's Tale, a novel of women's oppression under a far-right group that has seized power in America, is an important reminder of how quickly the unthinkable can turn into something you're being told to get used to.

The Rougon-Macquart series by Émile Zola

During this election season, I've been thinking of the French disaster (or La Debacle, as Zola put it) that was the Franco-Prussian War, where seemingly every bad decision that could be made was made. Zola's series of novels covering the years leading up to this war and the fall of the Second Empire - a time Zola lived through - has some intriguing parallels to today's society, especially the extreme social stratification. As a conduit of mid-to-late-19th Century French history, with its many protests and rebellions, the novels are also a reminder that progress is a struggle, and it's not always clear where or when a decisive victory will arrive.

In L'assommoir, blacksmith Goujet decides not to join in the protests of Napoleon III's 1851 coup d'etat, feeling burned out and discouraged by the protests of 1848. However, he does hesitate and wonders if, "one day the people might regret having stood by with folded arms." 

Suite Française by Irène Némirovksy

Successful writer Irène Némirovksy was living in France with her husband and children when Germany invaded. She immediately began work on a planned series of novels which were to chronicle the invasion, the resistance, and then whatever the outcome of the war would be. After finishing drafts of the first two novellas, however, Némirovksy, who was Jewish by birth (she and her husband were converts to Catholicism), was arrested and sent to Auschwitz, where she died. Her husband's arrest and death at Auschwitz soon followed, but the nanny managed to get the children to safety. Némirovksy's eldest daughter, Denise Epstein, found the drafts and an outline for a third book many decades later, when she was going through her mother's papers before donating them.

The surviving writings were published as Suite Française, a captivating and near-contemporaneous account of the chaos of the initial siege of Paris and then the strange new reality of life under German rule. Knowing Némirovksy's fate, the glimmers of hope are all the more bittersweet. 

Courbet's Le Pont Ambroix

And to finish, here is the poem "Good Bones" by Maggie Smith. "Good Bones," both comforting and clear-eyed, went viral in the wake of the Orlando massacre - a rare feat for a poem. A broadside is available here.

"Manuscripts Don't Burn" poster by Ellen Manning: Master & Margarita website
Le Point Ambroix: wikimedia

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