I find that lately I’ve been developing a soft spot for books that move away from the more traditional forms of storytelling — perfect plot arch, realistic descriptions, few narrative digressions, consistent characters, and so forth — and into literary universes that are altogether more fanciful. My readings have brought me to discover three such novels in the last couple of months, and I thought I’d share the pleasure with which I read them. All three of the books are quite famous, but they emerge from unique different traditions; still, they are all similar in their approach to certain artistic truths by their exhilarating stories and exuberant prose-styles.
The first of these books is The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov. It is, simply, a masterpiece. Written in 1938, two years before the author’s death, it was only published in 1967, Bulgakov’s works having long suffered at the hands of the Soviet censors. The novel, which meanders through the lives of a cast of vivid characters, follows the arrival of the devil in person (accompanied by a few of his hilarious henchmen) in a hot spring in Moscow, and his meddling in the affairs of Margarita, a beautiful, brilliant woman, and her lover, nicknamed the Master, who has written a novel about Pontius Pilate (the reader is also privy to three chapters from this novel, interspersed throughout the book). It’s a thrilling, sparkling ride, with an intrusive narrator leading the reader on with obvious relish. Thanks to Bulgakov’s powerful, elastic writing, the story is at once funny, fantastical, sexy, moving, and violent. A myriad of adjectives for the myriad of moods and sensations the novel provides with such perfection.
The second book I read in the same vein was Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. I came to this novel with a certain amount of reticence, since I found everything I’d read by Woolf to be utterly depressing. Not so Orlando. It was a writer’s holiday for Woolf, who worked on the novel as a kind of joke for her charistmatic, bisexual friend (and sometime lover) Vita Sackville-West; it’s also a real treat for the reader, who gets the chance to experience a writer at the top of her game, writing on a rampage, free from the bonds of tradition. Orlando is the story of the eponymous character, who begins life as a man in the 16th century and then sails through the centuries until first quarter of the 20th century, changing sex along the way. Woolf often focuses on beautifully rendered moments of fancy, like “The Great Frost”, during which “birds froze in mid-air and fell like stones to the ground” and the Tames becomes a pleasure ground for the city of London, or the cloud that comes to rests upon the British Isles on the first day of the 19th century, altering “the constitution of England”:
The muffin was invented and the crumpet. Coffee supplanted the after-dinner port, and, as coffee led to a drawing-room in which to drink it, and a drawing room to glass cases, and glass cases to artificial flowers, and artificial flowers, and artificial flowers to mantelpieces, and mantelpieces to pianofortes, and pianofortes to drawing-room ballads, and drawing-room ballads (skipping a stage or two) to innumerable little dogs, mats, and china ornaments, the home — which had become extremely important — was completely altered.
The tone is light, the writing carefree; Woolf is free as bird and can do whatever she likes, while creating an insightful satire of history and raising questions about the role of women in society. Orlando alone proves Michael Cunningham’s recent claim that Virginia Woolf was fun at parties, something many find difficult to believe.
Last, and certainly not least, in this small list of fabulist fiction of mine is a very strange novel called Gould’s Book of Fish: A novel in twelve fish, by Tasmanian writer Richard Flanagan. I have never read anything quite like it before. In the first section of the novel, we meet a male narrator, in modern-day Tasmania, who discovers in an old junk shop an original copy of The Book of Fish, a 19th century document filled with watercolour paintings of fish (which really does exist, by the way). What’s special about this book is that it’s also covered in writing; in a way it acts as the testament of Gould, the artist who painted all the fish, who was a convict in Van Dieman’s land. The narrator reads through Gould’s story, fascinated, but learns that Gould depicts only fictions in his Book of Fish, relating to people and events that never existed. In The Book of Fish, he recreates his own version of the penal colony in Van Dieman’s land, with a fake commander ousting the real one and establishing a Republic of New Venice, building a railway that goes nowhere and a great Mah-Jong Hall. When the book mysteriously disappears, however, the narrator decides to rewrite Gould’s story by memory, which makes up the eleven other sections. So the story we read is a recreated fake, even within the universe of the novel, and things get only worse from there. Like an intricate, tricky hall of mirrors, versions of fakery and artistic inventions are made to stare at each other in the face, multiplying the fictions into infinitely divisible versions. All of them are valid, but none of them are real. Truth is inconsequential in Gould’s Book of Fish; instead, the novel revels in the joyful possibilities of the counterfeit. There are echoes of Borges at times, for instance when Gould, reading the fictitious archives of the penal colony that another character has written, comes upon the very words he is now writing in a kind of mind-boggling narrative circularity. What keeps everything together is Flanagan’s mastery of language. His prose is exuberant and majestic — he uses countless metaphors related to the sea in order to maintain a coherence in imagery — and he is especially successful in crafting an original, provocative voice for his Gould, which gives the novel its energy and thrust.
These are three excellent novels, which create exciting universes and really original reading experiences. In the wake of Téa Obreht’s Orange Prize victory this week for her imaginative novel The Tiger’s Wife, we should perhaps expect more of these fabulist pieces of fiction to emerge as a counter-movement to the realism that has been dominant for the last decades. Authors exploring new magical realism or the picaresque certainly have a strong tradition to rest upon and emerge from, and their books are bound to be interesting and altogether different, as these seem to be inherent tropes of the genre.