Thursday, 5 August 2010
THE WHITE GUARD BY MIKHAIL BULGAKOV
I wasn't sure if Bulgakov's first novel, described as a historical novel about the fortunes of the city of Kiev in the year 1918, as the repercussions of the Russian revolution and the tail-end of the first world war play out, would be as good as his satirical masterpieces, The Master And Margarita and Black Snow.
It certainly is.
Bulgakov was a literary genius, that's the only conclusion I can draw. Not only does he maintain complete control over a narrative that segues constantly from the panoramic to the personal, he keeps finding memorable motifs and metaphors to bring his tale to life. There is an entire section where he describes people's expressions and states of minds in terms of clock-hand positions. It seems like a subjective, potentially opaque conceit, but Bulgakov makes it work brilliantly. A good deal of his tale is told through dreams - again something potentially confusing and tedious that he does incredibly well. His talent for invoking the truly fantastic was evident in The Master, as was his facility with conjuring the bad numinous. Here, in an early vision of heaven, he brings us face to face with an equally convincing vision of divinity, both comforting and chilling.
There are numerous bravura scenes of crowds and action, and of the thoughts and experiences of a his focus characters. This novel is also amazingly well structured, casting out a bewildering array of narrative threads that are all woven together into a tight, immaculate narrative tapestry. In all this, Bulgakov's trademark black humour is never very far away, either, although I don't think it dominates as much as in his later novels.
The novel ends with a virtuoso display of oneiric head-hopping which culminates in a passage which shows where the true strength of this novel lies - not in its many technical merits and literary flourishes, amazing though they are - but in its strong sense of the pathos of human destiny.
I have always been curious with this author; many times have I held The Master and Margarita in my hands but left it... This was a great review and it rekindled my curiosity.
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