Atmosphere & Neuroses

It has been almost three weeks since I last posted here, but I’m still alive and reading. I have been in a bit of a reviewing slump due to migraines, holidays, and work, but I hope to get back into the “at least once per week” schedule now.

Title: Rebecca
Author: Daphne Du Maurier
Genre: Modern Classic/Gothic
Pages: 416
Rating: 4 of 5

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian describes a book as, “I didn’t say I liked it…I said it fascinated me. There is a great difference.” I’ve used that quote in a few other book reviews (e.g. The Great Gatsby, and Dorian Gray itself), and it applies to this book as well. The characters sparkle with realism, but are some of the most unpleasant people you can imagine and treat each other appallingly.

Our unnamed narrator is painfully shy, socially awkward, and pathetically affection-starved. When she marries the brooding Maxim de Winter she is thrown into an upper class country manor lifestyle for which she is completely unprepared. Between the coldness of Maxim and the spiteful hatred of Mrs. Danvers the housekeeper (that window scene!), our narrator is adrift in a sea of insecurity and neuroses. She has little idea of her responsibilities or others’ expectations, and she constantly wonders what others are thinking and saying about her. She mentally plays out vivid imagined scenes of the disapproval that might be going on behind her back and the painful course that future events could take. Much of her awkwardness and self-doubt rang true to me as I am an extreme introvert in a job that involves a lot of social interaction and public scrutiny (though I hope I’m not anywhere near as neurotic and needy as she is).

Hovering over all this, driving it, and making it oh so much worse is the memory of Maxim’s first wife: the beautiful, masterful Rebecca. Her life was cut tragically short, and the more that our narrator learns about her and how much everyone seemed to adore her, the more insecure she becomes…and (because this is a Gothic novel) the more she begins to suspect that something sinister is boiling below the surface.

Eventually things come to a head, giving our heroine a chance to step up and show what she’s really made of. She does change and develop in her relationship with Maxim, but whether that is ultimately a good thing is questionable at best. The behavior of several “good” secondary characters in the later part of the book (though understandable and true to life) was disappointing to me.

Overall, this is a wonderfully atmospheric read featuring a neurotic narrator, plenty of moral ambiguity, and some downright despicable behavior. To me, its tone felt like a cross between The Great Gatsby and The Woman in White. I think that it worked, but it’s probably not for everyone.

One final thing: I am using this for my Classic By a New-To-You Author category over at the Back to the Classics 2018 reading challenge.

The Devil Went Down to Moscow

Title: The Master & Margarita
Author: Mikhail Bulgakov
Translators: Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky
Genre: Modern Russian Classic
Pages: 432
Rating: 2 of 5

A subtitle to this review could be: “What did I just read?” This is one of those books where I have to wonder if some of its critical acclaim doesn’t come from the “I didn’t understand half of what was going on but it sounded so deep!” factor. The book mixes together historical fiction, magical realism, and romance to tell the intertwined stories of Pontius Pilate’s interaction with Jesus and Satan visiting Soviet era Moscow with his entourage (complete with gun-wielding talking cat). I’d probably have to read the book another time or two to fully understand how the stories play off each other, but I didn’t enjoy it enough to do so any time soon.

The aspect of the book that I enjoyed most was the social commentary. I’m not sure  how Bulgakov managed to publish this without ending up “disappeared” or in the gulag. He points out the absurdity of atheism (or at least anti-supernaturalism), the housing shortage, censorship of literature, the greed and privilege of the rich, the climate of silence surrounding arrests and disappearances, cowardice (especially cowardice), and more, but he does it all in a light humorous tone.

Some of the antics of Satan’s associates are entertaining as they expose the nastiness in society, but the overall portrayal of spiritual issues and characters in the book twisted them from their biblical portrayal so much that it irked me. Given the central position of Jesus Christ the Son of God in my worldview, I have a hard time appreciating a book that portrays him as a slightly loony, naively optimistic travelling philosopher of illegitimate birth while playing the devil as a clear-sighted cynic capable of giving people true peace.