The Master and Margarita - Mikhail Bulgakov (Russian)
I read half the book, often impressed, but I didn’t want to go any further. It didn’t seem worth the effort. (Much of that effort involved keeping the many characters, with their bewildering Russian names, in order.) The first scenes, with the devil arriving at the park, the Pontius Pilate story, the beheading, were very powerful – Bulgakov can make a scene attain a nightmarish intensity. But as the book progressed events were occurring at random, were unconnected and repetitious. I didn’t see any organization or restraint. Maybe this is the work of a self-indulgent genius, but he just tired me out.
Foe - J. M. Coetzee
This is a stylized novel of ideas. The ideas are abstract ones: the process of fictionalization, the nature of truth; and, mostly, the issue of slavery and freedom. It’s spared-down, with the landscapes and even the characters sketched in. The book is mostly one woman talking (or thinking). I wasn’t interested enough in the issues raised, and it’s difficult to relate to characters who don’t exist as fully-developed people. Finally, though still reading, my involvement in the story was almost nil, and at that point the book’s deficiencies came to the forefront. There’s an astringency to the writing that made it seem bloodless. The woman who tells the story does so in such an immaculately-honed prose that it’s unbelievable; how could she express herself like that, being who she’s supposed to be? The mystery of the girl who claims to be her daughter is never solved – just a perplexity, probably with a significance I couldn’t follow (but why would a mother deny motherhood, or why would a girl pretend to be a daughter?). The ending is murky. I thought the book was pretentious – but that can be intimidating. I suspect that Coetzee’s success (two Bookers and a Nobel) comes partly because he seems on a higher plane than most folks, a profound thinker, so people appreciate him to show that they too are profound.
Rates of Exchange - Malcolm Bradbury
Something different. The beginning, made up mostly of descriptions, moves very slowly, but the inventive prose held my attention. Then a plot starts unfolding, but still slowly. The conversations (and, boy, do the women in this book talk!) are bunched together in long paragraphs, so the pages are dense with words. The main character is extremely passive, saying (and thinking) little. Sound dull? It’s not – this is a funny book, partly a sex comedy in which even the cheap laughs work. And the inventive prose is in the Nabokov league. Bradbury can interest the reader even when he dispenses with plot and, to a degree (regarding Petworth’s passivity), characters. Near the end Petworth becomes more active, and I wasn’t sure I bought into the person that emerged. But when he’s betrayed and reveals his suffering, and, in small ways, his humanity and pain, I responded. The book closed on a strong note of pathos.