June 2008


I have chosen a Way – dear Friend – I must hold to it. Think of me if you will as the Lady of Shalott – with a Narrower Wisdom – who chooses not the Gulp of outside Air and the chilly river-journey deathwards – but who chooses to watch diligently the bright colours of her Web – to ply an industrious shuttle – to make – something – to close the Shutters and the Peephole too – you will say, you are no threat to That. You will argue – rationally. There are things we have not said to each other beyond the – One – you so starkly – Defined. I know in my Intrinsic Self – the Threat is there.

Roland Michell is a scholar in 1980s London, studying the Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash. He finds some drafts of a letter between the leaves of a book from Ash’s own library, which leads him to investigate a possible connection with another Victorian poet, Christabel LaMotte – which leads him to a LaMotte scholar, Maud Bailey. The story is about the four of them – Roland and Maud tracing the connection between Randolph and Christabel – and where it all took them. It’s also about language, and poetry, and solitude, and relation, and academia, and stuff. Oh yeah, and feminism.

It took a very long time to get going, this book, and the “action” was intermittent even then – but there is action and there is insight, and poetry, and there is even feminism. I did like it, I did want to get to the end of it, I did gain something valuable from it, I have even found myself influenced by it in several directions – I just don’t think I would want to read it again! It had – too many words. The library fine will be enormous.

An Amazon link.
As hinted above, mine came from the library.

“The street veered sideways and vanished. Beneath her now was only an expanse of roofs, criss-crossed with brilliantly lit roads. Suddenly it all slipped sideways, the strings of light grew blurred and vanished.
Margarita gave another jerk, at which the sea of roofs disappeared, replaced below her by a sea of shimmering electric lights. Suddenly the sea of light swung round to the vertical and appeared over Margarita’s head whilst the moon shone under her legs. Realising that she had looped the loop, Margarita righted herself, turned around and saw that the sea had vanished: behind her there was now only a pink glow on the horizon. In a second that too had disappeared and Margarita saw that she was alone with the moon, sailing above her and to the left. Margarita’s hair streamed out behind her in wisps as the moonlight swished past her body.”

The Master is a writer working in Moscow who – among many of his fellow citizens – falls victim to the satanic Woland, who has come to Moscow with his coterie to throw his annual ball – and to cause a little havoc while he is at it. The Master, a gibbering wreck after all the strange things he has seen – including the apparent murder of his friend Berlioz – ends up in an insane asylum.

Margarita, the Master’s (married) lover is offered the chance of reunion with her beloved by the demon Azazello, if she will follow his and Woland’s instructions. She agrees, and becomes a witch, later to be hostess at the devil’s ball.

Interwoven with this story is the manuscript of the Master: the story of Yeshua (Jesus) and his execution by Pontius Pilate. Unlike the fantastical events in “contemporary” (1929) Moscow, the ancient story of Yeshua is told with a quiet, calm realism.

Sounds surreal? It is a bit. Mostly it’s political, although I try not to worry too much about that… What I mean is you can’t help noticing at least some of the allegorical elements, but I prefer not to dissect such things unduly, it’s not my way – I don’t want the novel to die on the table.

So I loved Margarita, adventuresome and courageous, and the only non-demonic character to profit by Woland’s visit – taking the bizarre in her stride, accepting the unacceptable, and demanding what is good from what is, to say the least, morally ambiguous. Big wow.

Here’s an Amazon link.
I already had a copy (I read it in a book club I was in years ago).