Category Archives: Classics

Gods, Power and Knowledge

Throughout human history we humans have created gods to help explain our existence. We look to these deities to give meaning to our circumstances, our actions, our past and future, our blessings and our sufferings. That these gods, with their immortality and their extraordinary powers, are often given human form is an interesting paradox: we create them because they are NOT like us, and yet we domesticate them by giving them our bodies and other human characteristics.

The Greeks set the barre high when it came to numbers of immortals. They had gods for almost all aspects of human existence: love, war, hearth and home, harvest and hunting, wine, fire, message delivery, wisdom, fertility, and much much more. The Egyptians put up a stiff competition, so, too, the Romans. Then came the Jews, and after them the Christians and Muslims who dispensed with all but a single omnipotent being – though the Christians with their Trinity might be thought to be having two bob each way.

The Greek gods, despite their immortality and godly powers, reveal a range of familiar human characteristics. They are jealous and envious, they lie and deceive, they love and hate, they play favourites, they protect and they bully, they can be shockingly violent and they can soothe and heal. What is fairly consistent across all the gods, and humans too, is that if they have power, they want to hold on to it, while those who are powerless strive to get it. The problem for both gods and humans is you can’t have it all. As Shelley so aptly wrote in his Prometheus Unbound:

The good want power, but to weep barren tears.
The powerful goodness want: worse need for them.
The wise want love; and those who love want wisdom;
And all best things are thus confused to ill.

Shelley’s verse drama, Prometheus Unbound, takes off where Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound finishes. Prometheus Bound is the first and only surviving play of a trilogy known as the Prometheia. While there are distinctive differences in the approaches taken by Aeschylus and Shelley, they both present a Zeus who is stubborn and violent and vindictive, and a Prometheus who is wise and generous, also inclined to stubbornness, but always humane. (In some versions of the story, Prometheus, one of the immortals himself, fashions the mortal humans out of clay. He is often referred to as the creator of humankind. It seems entirely apt, albeit anachronistic, to describe him as humane).

The story of Prometheus is shaped around the enduring conflict between those with power and those with curiosity; the authority of rulers on the one hand, and the free will of ordinary people on the other; the exercise of the intellect versus god-given laws. The story is also concerned with the power that comes with knowledge.

There are several different versions of the Prometheus story, but all versions agree that Prometheus defied Zeus by giving the pitiful, uncivilised mortals fire. The story is set at a time not long after the creation of the world out of chaos. The humans in these times were a wretched, barbaric underclass. Prometheus took pity on them. He taught them how to build shelters, how to sow crops, how to hunt. Zeus ordered that whatever help Prometheus gave, he was not to give the humans fire. Zeus knew that fire was an immensely powerful possession.

Prometheus disobeyed. He hunted out the source of fire and carried it to the humans, ‘And fire has proved/ For men a teacher in every art, their grand resource.’ With fire the humans learned to make proper tools, to cook their meat, defeat cold and disease; fire enabled them to pursue science and culture.

Zeus was furious. He ordered that Prometheus be chained to a mountainous crag, there to remain for all eternity, forced to suffer winds, ice and heat. And if this were not punishment enough, an eagle would attack every day and eat his liver; the liver would regenerate every night only to be attacked again come daybreak. Zeus, along with the ancient Greek dramatists could fashion highly imaginative violence.
Hephaestus, the god of fire, was ordered by Zeus to carry out the punishment. He didn’t want to do it, but like those at Nuremberg several thousand years later, he excused himself by saying he was only following orders. He acknowledged that ‘Power newly won [like Zeus’] is always harsh’ (line 31), but authority is authority and orders are orders. Hephaestus does what Zeus commanded him to do, and Prometheus is chained to the rock.


Prometheus defies the authority of Zeus and cops the punishment. But what is he being punished for? Is it because he disobeyed Zeus? Is it because he saved the human race (who might later constitute a threat to Zeus)? Is it because he exercised his own free will? Or is it because he gave the gift of knowledge to humankind and thereby empowered them? Or perhaps a combination of these possibilities? In which case, Prometheus’ actions resulted in multiple threats. (And there’s an additional element in this story that further threatens Zeus: Zeus knows that Prometheus holds the secret to his own eventual downfall.)
Similar themes percolate through the story of Adam and Eve, two more ‘first’ humans. Adam and Eve defy God’s authority by taking the apple from the tree of knowledge. Maybe they could have got away with a potato from the soil of stupidity – but not knowledge, not wisdom. Knowledge is power, wisdom even more so.

Alexander Pope wrote in his Essay on Criticism: ‘a little Learning is a dang’rous Thing’. Knowledge as something radical, that threatens the status quo, pervades the Christian era. This belief is still prevalent today in certain religious sects.

With the rise of fundamentalist interpretations in Christianity, Judaism and Islam across the globe, more and more people are forfeiting their free will to authority. Fundamentalism is exactly that: a way of life based on certain finite fundamental beliefs and behaviours. Fundamentalism holds things in place while world events whizz past at an ever increasing rate. Fundamentalism holds the believer in place while others grapple with the uncertainties and demands of contemporary life. For true believers doubt does not exist – and what a relief that is. There is no need to question, because all the answers are already at hand. Reason, memory, individual and idiosyncratic attachments are all neutralised. Religious authority cannot be questioned, its laws are immutable. All is pre-determined. Knowledge beyond religious lore is unnecessary, wisdom is heresy. Followers feel safe. And yet from those on the outside, they appear to be enslaved.

The certainties of structured religion keep adherents ignorant. But for the believers, far from feeling ignorant, they possess the truth, they have all the answers. Anyone who has tried to have a discussion with a fundamentalist of any sort – and fundamentalism is not the sole province of religion, there are plenty of political fundamentalists to be found, as there are fundamentalists on certain social issues such as abortion – knows that they argue from a closed position where everything is self-evident. There can be no argument.
People often wonder about the continuing relevance of the Greek myths to we moderns. Prometheus demonstrates free will, wisdom and courage; he shows the power that comes with knowledge. An immortal himself, he teaches by example what humans can achieve with courage, with risk-taking, with taking a stand for what is right. Zeus, in contrast, is the fundamentalist preacher/Ayatollah/Rabbi shoring up power, building a compliant army of the faithful, who will obey their leader without question.

Followers like this will burn down villages, they’ll rape and maim women and children, they’ll set fire to abortion clinics. Followers of fundamentalism will feed their children breakfast, strap bombs to their waist, wrap them in warm coats and kill them before lunch – and not need to give it any thought at all.

 

ODYSSEUS AND ME

I have always believed that, at a personal level, anything is possible, that if I desire to be a particular someone or do a particular something I can. All my desires have been realistic: no hankerings for time travel or reinvention as a theoretical physicist – though both have enormous appeal – my desires have been possibilities: working as a volunteer in Africa, joining a choir, mountaineering, falling helplessly in love, winning the Miles Franklin. The only things to stop me would be lack of ability, lack of application, and/or lack of courage – all of which, given enough time, could be worked upon and overcome.

Time, so recently as abundant as air, is now suddenly in short supply. One day everything seemed possible, and the next, my life wasn’t exactly on its knees, but neither was it leaping with anticipation.


 

 

To read the rest of this article please following the link below to Australian Book Review, April, 2018. The poems mentioned in the article are below.

https://www.australianbookreview.com.au/abr-online/current-issue/4700-odysseus-and-me-by-andrea-goldsmith

 

 

 

 

 

 

___________________________________________

ITHAKA by C.P. Cavafy (translated by Edmund Keeley & Philip Sherrard

As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
angry Poseidon – don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare sensation
touches your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
wild Poseidon – you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbours you’re seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind –
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from those who know.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

 

THE SECOND ODYSSEY (1894) – copied from the web, translated by Walter Kaiser.

A great second Odyssey,
Greater even than the first perhaps.
But alas, without Homer, without hexameters.

Small was his ancestral home,
Small was his ancestral city,
And the whole of his Ithaka was small.

The affection of Telemachus, the loyalty
Of Penelope, his father’s ageing years,
His old friends, the love
Of his devoted subjects,
The happy repose of his home,
Penetrated like rays of joy
The heart of the seafarer.

And like rays they faded.

The thirst
For the sea rose up with him.
He hated the air of the dry land.
At night, spectres of Hesperia
Came to trouble his sleep.
He was seized with nostalgia
For voyages, for the morning arrivals
At harbours you sail into,
With such happiness, for the first time.

The affection of Telemachus, the loyalty
Of Penelope, his father’s ageing years,
His old friends, the love
Of his devoted subjects,
The peace and repose of his home
Bored him.

And so he left.

As the shores of Ithaka gradually
Faded away behind him
And he sailed swiftly westward
Toward Iberia and the Pillars of Hercules,
Far from every Achaean sea,
He felt he was alive once more,
Freed from the oppressive bonds
Of familiar, domestic things.
And his adventurous heart rejoiced
Coldly, devoid of love.

 

ULYSSES by Tennyson.

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, & sleep, & feed, & know not me.
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: all times I have enjoy’d
Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those
That loved me and alone; on shore, and when
Through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour’d of all them;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch where through
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life. Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge, like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.
This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle —
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and through soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.
There lies the port: the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil’d & wrought, & thought of me —
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads — you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks;
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

 

 

 

 

RAW DEAL FOR EMMA BOVARY

Ever since Eve was banished from paradise for demonstrating a curiosity sorely lacking in the insipid Adam, women have suffered for harbouring desires that do not fit within the narrow confines of their lives. The list of fictional women who have been punished for wanting more than their designated lot includes Anna Karenina, Wharton’s Lily Bart, Thackeray’s Becky Sharp and, more recently, Thelma and Louise. The list is long, and to my eyes delightfully illustrious, yet of all these women who defied the conventions of their time, it is Emma Bovary who has received the worse press.

I’ve been reminded of this during a recent rereading of Flaubert’s famous novel. Books and Arts Daily (ABC RN, weekdays at 10) is delving into a selection of European classics on the last Friday of the month throughout 2014. They are commencing the series with Madame Bovary – an excellent beginning to what promises to be a great series. (The series includes Crime and Punishment and All Quiet on the Western Front, both of which make my best novels of all time list.)

While I’m rereading Madame Bovary in Alan Russell’s wonderfully rhythmic and lucid translation, I receive a copy of Rebecca Mead’s irresistible and idiosyncratic The Road to Middlemarch (Text, 2014). I find myself comparing Dorothea Brooke with Emma Bovary. Both women reveal yearnings and desires far too abundant for the limited boundaries that corseted the lives of nineteenth century ladies. But Dorothea wins a happy ending while Emma, like so many tragic thwarted heroines of literature, kills herself.*

There are many reasons, above and beyond authorial whims, that accord Dorothea her happiness while Emma’s only option is death. Dorothea’s author, George Eliot, was a woman who had felt the constraints of the society in which she lived and had bucked against them. She lived with a man who was married to someone else, and after he died she married a man twenty years her junior. In contrast, Emma’s creator was a man who took lovers but never married, whose most committed connection with a woman was with his mother. George Eliot would have wanted more for her heroine than a tragic end – as indeed she wanted more for herself. But author biography aside, the desires and yearnings expressed by Dorothea and Emma are different. Yes, there is some overlap when it comes to romantic love – both women want that sort of passion, but Dorothea has intellectual and social justice passions as well. Dorothea reads beyond the fictional romances that fill the young Emma’s leisure hours, she reads about social conditions and she observes them as well, and she yearns to improve the lot of tenant farmers. So while both women revel in active imaginations, the life of Dorothea’s mind is far broader and better nourished than that of Emma’s.

Still, these reasons alone fail to explain why Emma Bovary has received such a consistently raw deal. A consideration of sex and motherhood fills out the picture. Emma is not a Madonna type. The passion Emma wants is sexual passion, that explosive, fall-in-love-at-first-sight, take-me-I’m-yours emotion that exists primarily in romantic novels and Hollywood films. And when she does fall in love the sparks don’t last. She discovers that love, like marriage, like town life, is prey to habit. Emma is imaginative but her imagination is mostly in service to her own well-being. Dorothea’s imagination, in contrast, takes in the intellectual as well, and is thus seen as a more admirable character.

Then there’s the matter of children. Emma has often been criticised for being a bad mother to young Berthe. This judgement lacks evidence. There is a single instance in which Emma lashes out at Berthe; she is immediately appalled at her behaviour and deeply remorseful. She’s been accused of being neglectful, but the fact is that women of her class and time had nursemaids and wet nurses. Often parents saw their children only briefly in the mornings and evenings. Berthe and her mother most certainly have a relationship on which the young girl doted. This is demonstrated on a day when Emma fails to return to Yonville after a rendezvous with Léon, and Berthe is distraught because her mother is not around to kiss her good night. With this instance, many readers have simply focussed on Emma’s absence, rather than the child’s response which suggests that mother and daughter were accustomed to regular and close connection.

Emma has been excoriated through the years, but what about the men in the novel? All of them are either weak or cads – or in the case of Léon, both. But somehow a weak and rather stupid man like Charles Bovary is less deserving of our condemnation than his passionate adulterator of a wife. I can understand this response in 1856 when the book was first published, I can understand it through much of the twentieth century (although I would have thought plenty of 1950s housewives would have understood Emma’s plight). From the viewpoint of the twenty-first century though, Emma Bovary is a quintessentially modern woman. And while I wish she had more of Dorothea Brooke’s intellectual muscle, Emma Bovary nonetheless pushes at the boundaries of her life with courage and imagination.

*The comparison runs deep. Madame Bovary (1856) is subtitled ‘A story of provincial life’, while Middlemarch (1871-2) carries the subtitle ‘A study of provincial life’.

6/3/14

READING DANTE

It is 1960, Melbourne. There’s a shed down the end of the garden. It is empty save for a bench on which sits a child with a book. There’s a musty smell overlaid with the tang of pine. The door to the shed doesn’t close and the soughing of the wind in the huge pine tree cushions the silence that surrounds the reading child.

Another scene. The same child reading a different book is sitting on the floor in a corner of a large attic room. The attic smells of dust, old smoke and neglect. There are battered suitcases and boxes, there are rickety chairs and fold-up tables, and a chest filled with ancient photos and theatre programmes. Down one end of the attic there’s a small door that opens into the roof. The child sits as far from this door as possible, yet must keep it in view, must keep a watchful eye on the demons and spirits that lurk in the roof’s blackness. And watch she does, periodically looking up from her book. But after a while it seems she has forgotten about the demons because her gaze no longer lifts from the page. She’s given herself over to fiction.

A third image. The same little girl as before is stretched out on her bed in the room she shares with her sister, an open book propped against her pillow. Beyond the bedroom family life whirls about. There are voices calling, a radio blaring, a barking dog. The child is immune to it all; she’s lost in her book.

******

Reading for me has always been a private affair. As a child growing up in the crowded world of the family, reading was my sanctuary and a time of necessary solitude. My mother valued reading so, if I had a book in my hands, I was left alone. With the book of the moment I would be whisked away to other times and places and into the lives of people very different from those who filled my ordinary days. It was the making of me as a writer. Those hours spent reading, those hours spent in a deep and prolonged immersion in the imagination is what gives rise to creative work. Reading took me into a world of make-believe. Here life was real, it was authentic, but it was made up. And even if it were not real – as a very young child I loved Enid Blyton’s fantasies and the tales of King Arthur and his knights – it seemed as if it could be.

In fact, I learned very early that fiction could convince me of just about anything.

As a very young child, I enjoyed being read to. But as soon as I learned to read independently I wanted to keep the pleasure all to myself. It was not only the stories that held me in thrall, there was the utterly seductive effect of reading itself. A unique intimacy was created between me and the characters, and through them with the imagination of the author. There is no intimacy to compare to this sort of imaginative coupling.

I never felt the need to discuss the books I read. They were part of my private world, a world that shaped my understanding and my desires. I harboured the sense that to reveal how important these books were, would both taint their effect as well as betray the life I secretly longed for, which was, in fact, the secret life I was actually living.

I grew up. Books still filled my days and still I guarded them closely. I found in them security, I found excitement, I found curiosity, I found endless stimulation, I found illumination. I did not want my reading to be public. I did not want my reading to be touched.

Then several years ago I changed the pattern of a lifetime. I asked a small group of people to join me in reading Plato’s Dialogues. Over the years I had dipped into several of the dialogues, but I had arrived at a point where I found this unsatisfactory, and all my attempts at private study had petered out long before the task was finished. The group provided the necessary structure I seemed to require.

At first I found it difficult to discuss what I had read. Being public, being in a group, felt like working against the current, trying to run with stiffened limbs. And it was difficult to listen to others with my own reading reverberating in my mind. And the pace of discussion could be irritating. You set your own pace when reading, but a discussion will sometimes pull you back or push you forward faster or slower than you would choose for yourself. But in time I adapted and came to enjoy our meetings. After a while we moved from Plato’s dialogues to Montaigne’s essays. And then, after a year or two, life with its demands and its deaths intervened, and the group stopped meeting.

Next week will see the first meeting of another group: three of us have decided to read Dante’s Divine Comedy, three cantos for each monthly meeting. Years ago I read Dorothy L. Sayers’ translation of The Inferno, and I always planned to read Purgatorio and Paradiso but never got round to it. As with Plato, a group seemed the way to proceed.

I’ve been preparing for our first meeting by a full reading of The Inferno. I have several translations at hand but have focussed particularly on those by Robert Pinsky (for the poetry), Mark Musa (for the lucidity and the detailed notes) and John Ciardi (a looser translation but very lyrical). I also have a quarto-sized book containing the hauntingly beautiful plates of Gustave Doré’s illustrations for The Divine Comedy. I love the focus of this reading, the detail, I love the study. And yet I know that if not for the group I would not be reading Dante in this way or at this time.

Antaeus - Descent to the last circle. Inf XXXI

What is happening here? Why a sharing of what has always been a private activity?

It seems to me that some books are so layered and so complex that to be fulfilled by them – and to find them fulfilling – requires study and discussion and the richness that comes from other minds, other thoughts, other understandings. But there’s something else as well, and it concerns the type of reading involved. When I open a novel, a novel that is the right book for the time, I find myself drawn inside the fictional world. I experience understanding from the inside; I become one of the initiated. This does not stop me from reflecting as I read, making connections between this novel and other books (novels, poetry, history, philosophy) but as soon as I start reading again I am pulled back into that imagined world.

This is not how I read Plato’s Dialogues, nor is it the way I read Dante. Here the reading is infused with study. I am grappling to understand from the outside. I am grappling rather than being immersed. Even with Dante, who has told a gripper of a story, I am not pulled inside the narrative in the way I am with, say, Jane Austen or Elizabeth Strout or Justin Cartwright.

It is reading for study rather than reading for creative life. It’s reading to know, rather than reading to be. That is not to say I won’t glean fundamental understandings from Plato or Dante, of course I will, but it is the act of reading of these books that is so different from my fiction reading.

I expect many others would want to disagree.

READING THE CLASSICS – OR NOT

READING THE CLASSICS – OR NOT.

A couple of months ago I discovered a Henry James novel I’d not read. Titled The American, it is his third novel, first published in 1876-7 in The Atlantic Monthly. Later in life James acknowledged fundamental flaws in this novel, and most James’ readers would agree. And yet the novel gripped me from the start with its universal themes of love and honour and clash of cultures. It was only at the send-the-beloved-to-a-convent ending that I felt let down.

The American is not a literary classic in the sense that The Portrait of a Lady is a classic – although both are classic Henry James. Love, deception, misplaced trust, ravenous curiosity, the pitfalls of innocence, and the immorality that can be at the back door of worldliness are all to be found in The Portrait of a Lady, while its leading lady, Isabel Archer, is one of the enduring characters in literature.

I often find myself musing about what makes a classic. In my recent revisiting of Patrick White’s classic Riders in The Chariot (see posting – November, 2013) I quoted James Stern’s definition of a classic (from NYT Book Review in August 1955).

‘Almost all novels are transients, very few remain on, permanent residents of the mind. Of those that do, some cease to be books and become part of the reader’s past, of an experience felt so deeply it is sometimes difficult to believe that the illusion has not been lived. From these rare works of literature characters emerge better known than our most intimate friends, for every human being has a secret life… To reveal in a novel this life (which is that of the soul) in such a way that by the time the last page is reached all questions have been answered, while all the glory and mystery of the world remains, is not only the prime function of the novelist but the artist’s greatest ambition – and surely his rarest achievement.’

In his definition, Stern is particularly concerned with the powerful effect of a classic on a reader. There are a number of characteristics of the work itself that promote such an effect. Most importantly, classics canvas fundamental human qualities: jealousy and revenge (Medea), power (Macbeth), fraught love (Anna Karenina), the human struggle (David Copperfield), the complexities of family (Pride and Prejudice), brutality, idealised love, (Wuthering Heights), remorse and redemption (Crime and Punishment), obsession (Of Human Bondage), and thereby reveal what it is to be human. As well, classics provide entry into times and places not your own. So, for example: Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby and much of Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë.

Books that can reveal ourselves to our self? That can take us to places and times not our own? That can inform us of the complexities that make us human? This is powerful stuff. It’s no wonder we want to read classics. Indeed it would be foolish to ignore such rich resources.

I finished The American and placed it with all my other James volumes. Then I reached for Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.

For the third time.

I first tried this book years ago on the recommendation of my Russian friend Constantine. The novel was written in the late 1930’s during the worst of Stalin’s terrors but not published until a quarter of a century later (and, extraordinarily, published in the Soviet Union in an inexplicable lapse of diligence by the censorship authorities). In this fantasy tale the devil arrives in Moscow. He wreaks havoc: lives are ruined, some are ended, people are swindled. Given the novel’s coruscating view of the Soviet system the fantasy form is not surprising; indeed there’s a long tradition of literature using fantasy, allegory and fairytales to reveal dangerous truths.

But barely fifty pages in I gave up. The characters did not hold me. There were too many of them and too thinly drawn, and the society in which they lived too strange. As for the Jesus in Jerusalem sections, I simply could not see their relevance.

A few years later I tried the book again with the same failure. Yes, failure. For when it comes to a classic that you truly want to read, that you want to take it into your life as you’ve taken in other classics, when you are unable to do so you experience it as failure. Here is a book that is recognised as great, what’s wrong with you that you fail to respond to its greatness?

On my third attempt I thought it would be different. In recent months I’ve been reading about the Soviet years and I am much better informed. I understand the workings of this society into which the devil comes. The allegorical nuances that escaped me on my previous attempts would now be comprehensible. And it was true, my reading was easier: I understood the deaths, the removals to psychiatric institutions, the loss of rooms in apartment blocks that occur in the early part of this novel; I understood the devil  with his guilt-free, unapologetic brutality. But nonetheless, by page 150 I was lagging; 30 pages later I gave up.

There are so many books I want to read. If a book fails to satisfy I do not persist. Although when it comes to a classic, because I doubt myself more than I doubt the book’s renown I will persist a little longer. I do believe that if the Bulgakov had a lesser reputation I would have jettisoned it much earlier. For that matter, if it had had a lesser reputation I would not have given it three attempts.

I know about the lovely quirk of books that make then uninteresting at one point in your life and absolutely essential reading at another. I had truly hoped that given my current interest in the Soviet years this would be the right time for Bulgakov’s classic. But it seems there are some classics that, desire notwithstanding, will always elude me.

Like Joyce’s Ulysses.

One Bloomsday I attended a twenty-four hour reading of Ulysses in New York. I was in my twenties and absolutely capitvated by the idea of a 24-hour reading of a classic novel. I can still see the darkened room, the scattered tables, the raised platform, the shadows of people, the heavy clothes, the smoke, but for the life of me I can’t remember the words and voices, I can’t see the readers themselves. I was given a copy of Ulysses for my 21st birthday, I tried to read it but failed. I thought the 24-hour reading would help. And it did. For 100 pages. No more.

I have failed with The Master and Margarita as I failed with Ulysses.

And yet I still want these books, and other classics as well. I want to know their power, their originality, their wisdom. I want the pleasure that so many readers before me have known. I don’t mind failing at sport, at baking, at sewing, at bike-riding, at map-reading, at maths (well – I mind a little with maths) but I do mind failing at books. I want to know that any book I desire I can make my own. It’s a terrible disappointment when I can’t.