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Mikhail Bulgakov, for whom “manuscripts don’t burn”

June 21, 2014 1 comment

I read a lot of books and I’m always searching for ‘new’ authors to become obsessed by. Once or twice a year I find an author especially to my liking. Preferably they’ve written a fair few books (at least 5) but not as many as 20-30 or it’ll take me forever to read everything they’ve written (see Elmore Leonard). They can be living but it’s all the same to me if they’re dead. At least that way you’re likely to get a biography or two. ‘New’ authors have to follow my ‘1918 Rule’ which simply states that they must have published their books since the end of the First World War (the birth of the modern era). I am especially partial to American authors, but I’ve read writers from all over the (mostly Western) world. In recent years I’ve been especially enamoured with the works of Raymond Carver, Daniel Woodrell and Megan Abbott, to name but three. 2014’s best ‘new’ author for me is Mikhail Bulgakov, who died in Stalin’s Russia in 1940.

I’ve read a bit of Russian literature over the years but it has tended to be single books by famous authors such as Solzhenitsyn and Pasternak. I haven’t really bonded with a Russian author before. At one point I thought I was going to like Andrey Kurkov (okay, so he’s Ukranian) but 3-4 books later my ardour for his work has cooled. I hadn’t heard of Bulgakov until I read an essay on him in Overland magazine, and that inspired me to buy a copy of his best known work, The Master and Margarita.

This novel is like nothing else I’ve read in Russian literature, which normally seems to exclusively consist of bleak realism, not that I have anything against that. Fresh from that novel, I ordered a copy of a volume of Bulgakov’s letters and diaries, which also serves as a quasi-biography. I highly recommend it.

By now I was hooked and determined to read the rest of Bulgakov’s work. Luckily for me, Vintage has six volumes of his novels and stories (but not his plays), meaning that I could get uniform editions which look nice on the shelf with their red spines. A Heart of a Dog (also known, in a different translation, as A Dog’s Heart) was an amusing read, too.

Black Snow: A Theatrical Novel (confusingly, also known as A Dead Man’s Memoir) is an interesting, albeit unfinished and not altogether satisfying satire about the Moscow theatre of the 20s. It was worth a read.

A Country Doctor’s Notebook (or A Young Doctor’s Notebook) is my favourite Bulgakov behind The Master and Margarita. I thought this was some kind of diary from the author’s time as a rural doctor duing WWI, but it turns out that the stories were written in the 20s and are highly polished. This is very good and very accessible, probably a great place to start with Bulgakov. Apparently it’s been made into a TV series, too.

Bulgakov’s only volume of short stories, Diaboliad, was suppressed during the author’s lifetime along with most of the rest of his work. Confusingly, some editions (thankfully not the Vintage) DON’T contain the novella length ‘The Fatal Eggs’ which is also available as a standalone title. Seeing as ‘The Fatal Eggs’ represents about 2/3 of the pages in the Vintage edition, that would really suck. I didn’t much like the three later stories in Diaboliad, but I liked ‘The Fatal Eggs’ (a SF story reminiscent of H. G. Wells) and especially the title story, which is something of a prototype for The Master and Margarita.

The sixth and final book in Vintage (all translated by Michael Glenny) is Bulgakov’s first novel, The White Guard, which is based on the author’s wartime experiences. Bulgakov’s most famous and successful play during his lifetime, “The Day of the Turbins”, is based on this. I haven’t got around to purchasing this sixth Vintage volume yet, but I will.

In addition to these six Vintage volumes, there are a handful of other obscure titles not available in Vintage. There’s something called Notes from the Cuff which I believe to be more short stories, there are collections of Bulgakov’s surviving plays and even a biography of Moliere which seems to be out of print. Hopefully I’ll get to these one day. Let me know if you’ve read any of these more obscure titles (or indeed any Bulgakov). I’m finding it hard to pin down exactly what I like about Bulgakov so much. He certainly seems atypical for a Russian writer, more Continental in character. His work is very dark and very funny, and the story of his life is one of perseverance in the face of the harshest of adversity. There are only a few photos of Bulgakov floating around on the internet. This one of he and his third wife, taken shortly before his premature death in 1940, I find especially haunting.

Writers of Interest: Megan Abbott

January 14, 2012 3 comments

I’ve recently discovered an American author by the name of Megan Abbott, whose work goes some way toward hitting the spot that the best work of Raymond Chandler hits. I don’t know quite what it is: something dark, something both hard hitting and slyly reflective. Anyway, The Big Sleep does it. The Long Goodbye does it even better. And Megan Abbott does it in her own way, too.

Abbott has five novels to her credit, as I’ve discovered, and it seems that recently she’s moved away from crime fiction, or at least noir set in 40s and 50s L.A. The other four are all period pieces. In order of publication, they are Die a Little, The Song is You, Queenpin and Bury Me Deep. So far I’ve only read the second and third of these, and it’s the third, Queenpin, that’s the knockout.

I did enjoy reading The Song is You, a tale about ‘Hop’ Hopkins and his search for a missing starlet. It was chock-full of period detail (Abbott is clearly not only extremely well read in the genre, but interested in the history of this period in general), but I felt it to lack something in the way of a killer punch. There was so much period detail, in fact, that I thought it actually bogged the narrative down a touch. Not so in Queenpin. Told from the perspective of a young woman plucked from obscurity by the notorious Gloria Denton, the ‘queenpin’ of the title, the novel has a sledgehammer effect. I read it in about three hours and Abbott didn’t miss a beat throughout. Our narrator has a down-and-out paramour by the name of Vic Riordan (tip of the hat to Chandler there, methinks, with that surname), and increasingly she becomes torn between his rough handling and Gloria’s icy cool. I guess the knockout comes about two-thirds of the way through, but the rest is just as strong too.

So what’s the difference between Queenpin and some of Raymond Chandler’s best novels? In terms of quality, very little. You could say that there are fewer twists and turns here than in Chandler, but that’s neither here nor there. The characterisation, dialogue and settings are just as good. One thing that needs to be said is that Abbott is writing what might be termed ‘feminist noir’, in that she offers strong female leads where in Chandler and those of his era most of the ‘broads’ were just there to be killed and/or fucked. I think I’m right in saying that our heroine is never named, which isn’t to say she lacks definition. But Gloria Denton and Vic Riordan steal the show, as they’re supposed to.

Queenpin won something called the ‘Edgar’ Award, which I’m guessing is a crime fiction prize, so it’s not like it hasn’t received some attention. Still, I wouldn’t have heard of the book or its author if I hadn’t picked up a copy of The Song is You at a discount pile at the front of a local bookstore the other week. Long live the discount pile.  Queenpin is the best novel I’ve read this year, and I’m not just saying that because 2012 is, at the time of this writing, two weeks young.

Harry Crews – Survival is Triumph Enough

February 14, 2010 Leave a comment

I’ve been meaning to watch this short documentary concerning Harry Crews for some time now, but I hadn’t been able to for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it appeared that you could purchase and download it on a site called bside.com for about $2, but whenever I tried to add it to the shopping basket nothing happened. Then I realised that the film is now hosted on another site, indieflix.com, which may explain why it wasn’t working on bside. I didn’t really want to order the dvd, simply to download it, so I was pleased today to see that indieflix are finally allowing people to buy and download the film. You pay $2 for 30 day access to this 30 minute film. Here’s the youtube trailer:

And here’s the page on indieflix:

http://www.indieflix.com/film/harry-crews-survival-is-triumph-enough-29834/

So what is it like? Well, if you are looking for anything to do with Crews the writer you’ll be sorely disappointed here. I don’t think he mentioned a single one of his books in the film, or his writing career at all. For the most part, this is about Crews’ early life. There are a number of harrowing anecdotes, most of which had been written about in A Childhood. So I guess I’m saying there isn’t much new information here. But I don’t care. Watching Crews rail against the world in his seventies is triumph enough for me.

Wrapped Up in Books, Or Two Writers Newly Known to Me: Harry Crews and Alan Warner

October 13, 2009 Leave a comment

I was listening to one of my favourite songs from one of my favourite albums on the drive home from work today, Belle & Sebastian’s ‘Wrapped Up in Books’ from their Dear Catastrophe Waitress album. The central line of the song is “Our aspirations/are wrapped up in books” and I was thinking that it might be true for them, but it must be doubly true for me. The feeling I get when reading a new author I especially like, as has been the case so far with Harry Crews and Alan Warner, is ecstatic. Reading A Feast of Snakes the other day, I had to read several pages or passages a second time, not because I had lost the thread of the narrative, but because the writing was so good that I wanted to relive the experience of reading it. I don’t think I get that sense of exhilaration for any other activity, which I suppose is a strange thing to say about reading, but it’s true for me. I love reading even more than I love writing, and although I do read in part to learn from other writers, my major reason for reading is in the pleasure of it. But I’m such a picky reader that I rarely get that feeling now. I get it from Harry Crews and Alan Warner, which is why I did a stupid thing today: I ordered a few books by these authors from fishpond.com.au on my credit card, even though I’m basically broke at the moment. You know you’re addicted to something when you have to have it, even when you can’t afford it. I’m addicted to reading.

And I’m especially addicted to finding new authors. Not necessarily new new authors, but authors that are new to me. Harry Crews’ first novel was first published in 1968, but I hadn’t heard of him until a few days ago. Alan Warner is more contemporary, but he still started publishing his novels in the mid-nineties. Take a look at these suckers:

Harry Crews:

Alan Warner:

Warner looks fairly normal to me, but Crews? My God, look at that man’s face. I mean this respectfully: he’s a fearsome sight. The books I’ve ordered are Classic Crews (a compilation of two novels and one autobiography), Morvern Callar (prequel to These Demented Lands, already reviewed) and The Worms Can Carry Me to Heaven. I can’t wait to read them.

Writers of interest – Simon Haynes

April 10, 2008 Leave a comment

Simon Haynes is an up-and-coming SF writer whom, like myself, was born in the U.K. but has lived in this fair land for many years. He is the author of the “Hal Spacejock” novels, published by Fremantle Press. Titles in the series are #1 – Hal Spacejock, #2 – Hal Spacejock: Second Course, #3 – Hal Spacejock: Just Desserts, and the soon-to-be-released #4 – Hal Spacejock: No Free Lunch. All of these titles are in-print, and can be obtained from various retailers in Perth and across Australia (#4 will be released on the 2nd of June). You can find a comprehensive list of places to buy Hal Spacejock on Simon Haynes’ website:

http://www.spacejock.com.au/Hal1Shops.html

In fact, Haynes’ website is exceedingly useful, not only in terms of the Hal Spacejock series, but also as a resource for would-be and could-be writers. www.spacejock.com.au contains a number of useful articles on the practice and business of writing. Haynes addresses the perennial questions of how to get a novel published, how to find an agent, as well as technical matters such as how to plot a novel. This is highly recommended reading for anyone wanting to acclimatise themselves to the business of writing fiction.

As I said in my review of #2 – Hal Spacejock: Second Course, Haynes’ story is an inspiring one. And readers and booksellers alike are catching on. Hal #1 recently figured in Fantastic Planet’s Top 10 Bestsellers for March 2008. Who said science fiction was dead? Long live SF.

Writers of interest – James Tiptree, Jr.

February 28, 2008 Leave a comment

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It occurred to me last night that all the writers I’ve written about on this blog so far are men! Here I am, a so-called egalitarian thinker, but 90% of my favourite authors are male. I wonder why this is? One of my favourite female authors, Alice Sheldon, used to be a man. Erm, kinda. If you don’t know who James Tiptree Jr aka Alice Sheldon is, it’s not hard to find out. The best place to learn about Sheldon’s life is in the biography James Tiptree Jr: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Philips. Check out some reviews of this outstanding book, including one by yours truly.

http://www.amazon.com/James-Tiptree-Jr-Double-Sheldon/dp/B0012BTBWE/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1204153989&sr=8-1

This is the best biography I’ve ever read. If you’ve read some of Tiptree’s stories and appreciated them, you need to read this biography. If you’ve never read Tiptree, trust me, you can’t go wrong with this. You don’t even need to be interested in SF to get into this book. For some reason, Amazon have slashed the price of this book to $6.99, and that’s for the hardcover. This is literally the best $7 you can spend!

OK, so that’s the biography of a life, but what about the work itself? It turns out that there is just ONE essential volume of stories that everyone interested in Tiptree/Sheldon needs to own. It’s called Her Smoke Rose Up Forever and it was re-issued by Tachyon a few years ago. The first edition came out in 1990 or so, but it’s out of print now.

I’ve just realised that you can get both of these books for $US17.84 plus postage. I’m not kidding – you can’t go wrong with this. Just to prove I didn’t make this up, if you look at my PKD bookshelf at the top of the page, you can see Tiptree on the end. I’ve got the biography, as well as the original edition of Her Smoke Rose Up Forever. Tiptree published several volumes of short stories and a couple of undistinguished novels, but the cream is in Her Smoke Rose Up Forever. Read “Her Smoke Rose Up Forever” and “A Momentary Taste of Being” and then get back to me.

Writers of interest – Barry N. Malzberg

February 27, 2008 Leave a comment

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Philip K. Dick is famous these days. So are William S. Burroughs and J. G. Ballard. But there are plenty of other writers who have produced work of a similar calibre – perhaps not as consistently or for so long a period – work that is well worth reading. One of these writers is Barry N. Malzberg.

Malzberg (born 1939) hasn’t really written SF for a couple of decades now, but in the 70s he was extremely prolific. He once won the John W. Campbell award for Best SF novel (in 1974 I think). Unfortunately, most of Malzberg’s books are out of print now. I’ve read something like 25-30 Malzberg novels. These are the best of them, in my opinion:

The Men Inside

The Falling Astronauts

Beyond Apollo

Galaxies

The Cross of Fire

Underlay (not SF – it’s about horse racing)

The Remaking of Sigmund Freud

Any of those are worth reading, but you’ll have to look in second-hand bookstores to find them. I can recommend abebooks.com for this. In actual fact, however, there are only about 3 Malzberg books that I know are currently in print. The first is the most important, a collection of short stories called In the Stone House. Now, I always thought of Malzberg as a good writer, but this collection of stories, published by Arkham House (of H. P. Lovecraft fame), is a great collection. You can get this from Amazon or from direct from the publisher at http://www.arkhamhouse.com/ If you want to read Malzberg, then I would recommend In the Stone House above all else.

The second Malzberg book that I know is in print is a collection of three novels, published by ibooks under the title of On a Planet Alien. This is actually a collection of three novels: not only On a Planet Alien, but In the Enclosure and Scop. Unfortunately, none of these novels are among Malzberg’s best, at least to my way of thinking.

The third Malzberg book in print is actually non-fiction, published by Baen Books in 2007 as Breakfast in the Ruins. Breakfast is actually an expanded version of a book of essays called Engines of the Night: Science Fiction in the Eighties, which was published in 1982 or thereabouts. Malzberg has a unique and interesting perspective on the history of science fiction. I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the history of the genre. Many of the essays in Breakfast in the Ruins have been written in more recent years, although I will say that that the earlier essays are generally of a higher quality.

And that’s it, as far as I know. It’s a pretty sad state of affairs, because Malzberg is an interesting writer who will probably appeal to readers of Philip K. Dick. If you know of any other Malzberg titles in print, I’d love to hear about them.

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