Reaction: The Master and Margarita, tr. Michael Glenny

The star of revolution shall rise high above the streets of Moscow, from a sea of blood and fire, and shall become a cynosure for the freedom of mankind

–          Bakunin, 1848

An adulterous writer has written a novel about Pontius Pilate, but is pilloried by the Soviet establishment, causing his own mental breakdown; his lover is desperate to regain him; the Devil himself comes down to Moscow, to visit chaos upon her people for their many sins. I’ve been meaning to read Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita for some time now; it is without a skilfull and striking book; I was disappointed by it.

Satan descends on Moscow, and through illusions and thaumaturgy wreaks havoc, with the assistance of a band of malicious and jocular demons, often for no apparent reason than chaos itself. Their target is the decadent population of Moscow, and primarily the literary elites – they seem to have the traditional power granted Satan to punish the sinful, and time and again they encounter Muscovites afflicted with greed, pride, gluttony and lust, and lay them low, sending many to the lunatic asylums.  His project intersects with the quest of Margarita to regain her lost love, the Master, at any cost – and throughout both tales is interspersed as a descant the half-real half-novelistic tale of Pontius Pilate, and his execution of a mad vagrant preacher named Yeshua.

Bulgakov is clearly good at his job; throughout the novel, I had the sense of being in good hands, who knew where they were taking me; and yet I felt I never really went anywhere. I’m surprised and dejected to be so unmoved by what is frequently named one of the greatest novels of the century.

Addressing each level in turn: to begin with, the prose. I cannot read Russian, unfortunately, and so the issue of translation was bound to get in the way – to an unknowable amount. The translation is read was that of Glenny, supposedly the most natural and authentic translation, albeit not the most precise and literal – if this is so, I pity people who read the LESS natural versions. The prose, barring one or two infelicities, was not bad, only stilted and uninspiring – occasionally a beautiful passage slips through, but far too rarely for my liking. For an ordinary book, this would be a tolerably, occasionally impressive, and at any rate interesting prose style; for a book attempting to be a highlight of the century, it was below par. At the same time, some depth of symbolism is likely to be lost by the less literal translation, which perhaps reduced the power of the novel for me.

The novel is also, alledgedly, funny, and I can see why people might think it so – much of it (almost the entire first half) is a riotious satire packed with wit and slapstick. But there’s only so much humour in slapstick, particularly where we do not care about the characters. The character of Behemoth continually amused me with hs wit and duplicity, but in the sense of provoking smiles, not the sense of outright laughter. The satire was biting – but in my mind too biting to really be funny. The tone of the book is negative to the point of malignancy – there is a viciousness, a hatred, in the downfall of the literary snobs who failed to recognise Bulgakov’s transcendent genius (the autobiographical elements are obvious to any reader) that makes it unpleasant to enjoy. In addition, I found the portrayals of women (always adjuncts to their men, divided into young sex objects and aging harpies, always petty, constantly going naked or being stripped naked by men) and non-Europeans (who feature only as servile ‘Negros’ in Satan’s retinue, and demoniacal jazz musicians who are themselves replaced, with no harm to the ‘music’, by gorillas and chimpanzees), somewhat off-putting.

Moreover, too much of the novel was too distant from my experience – while the general point of undermining a decadent society is universally  approachable, the details of the Soviet system Bulgakov attacks is, while known to me in outline, not as immediately visceral in my imagination as would be required to make the satire powerful. He spends too little time detailing his setting – because, we can assume, he was writing for an audience to whom the terrors and depressions of Stalinism  were so familiar that they need not be reiterated. Nonetheless, there is something a little incongruous in a novel so clearly written for posterity and for alterity (in addition to the thematic references in the novel itself, there is the extraneous biographical fact that he only hurried to complete the book when he knew that he was dying) that makes so little effort to be accessible outside its own times.

Regarding the central love affair – I found myself unmoved. The two characters are both unsympathetic (I would naturally sympathise with the man, but found him increasingly passive, and frankly whinging; the woman was odious from beginning to end); their love began unrealistically and uninterestingly; their love was put in peril in a way that is, with knowledge of the era, understandable, but adumbrated far too briefly and softly to bear the dramatic weight placed upon it; their love-story makes its way to its conclusion with very little actual imput from the characters themselves, primarily through reliance on God and Satan.

This reflects a wider problem with the novel – every single character is, by design, unsympathetic, and even those who have a glimmer of charisma spend hardly any time before the camera. What we have instead, particularly in the first half, is a procession of venal, personality-denuded apparatchiks stumbling into a succession of unpleasant fates through the untrammelled fiat of Satan himself, who fails entirely to take the usual poetic measures, or to give his enemies any way of saving themselves, but instead simply visits his omnipotence on them one by one. Things do improve somewhat in the second half, which is more directed, and more focused on the character of Margarita herself, but it is never really possible to care too deeply about anything that happens.

Bulgakov is supposedly erudite, and the novel contains many references and allusions; this is no doubt true, but erudition is an easy coin to find and no demarker of greatness; in any case, while the parallels with Faust are obvious, many of the more specific Russian allusions were lost upon me – I had only the vaguest notion of Pushkin’s works, and had not even heard of Griboyedov.

The story of Pontius Pilate, meanwhile, is written with a degree more eloquance, for some reason, and felt more immediate; Pilate and Yeshua are both vaguely sympathetic, I suppose, and Pilate is actually interesting now and then. Bulgakov does a good – and clever – job in this thread, creating a picture of Jesus that makes him historical and real without making him unsympathetic. Unfortunately, the story is too short, too familiar, and too devoid of a real ending (and, indeed, too disseminated throughout the novel) to have real power.

There is, it must be said, a little more too things that this. Satan does not simply punish vice, for a start – what he appears to be punishing is submission to a postmodern condition. The Muscovites have narrowed down their life to a fragile structure of laws and of rewards, in which fulfills their role to the extent that he is forced to, while continually striving for more – but what they strive for is only what they have been told to strive for. I’m reminded of Merton’s anomic deviance:  the Muscovites are indulging themselves in what he calls “innovation” – the pursuit of the approved goals by unapproved methods. When Satan gives out fashionable clothing to the women of Moscow, they innovate, reaching their goal (fine dresses) but avoiding the traditional communist mechanisms for attaining them; likewise, when a housing manager exploits his position to acquire bribes, he is innovating. The problem is, the decadent Muscovites have lost sight of the real, and are lost in a fetishisation of what are properly the symbols of, or the road to, real goals: fashion becomes a goal in itself, and money is collected, even hoarded, with no hope or intent of buying anything valuable with it. The system of rules and rewards is everything; their lives rest upon it; they are eager, for instance, to assimilate the chaos of Satan by explaining him and his demons away as hypnotist conmen – because to believe in Satan would be to cause the whole atheist, materialist framework of their system to collapse. They are apparatchiks in every sense of the word – they unconsciously defend their Apparatus at all costs, while having no actual loyalty to it. They believe they are exploiting the system, when in truth the system is exploiting them. It is interesting that something so close to Merton’s critique of capitalist ideology is here directed at communism.

The apparatchiks climb upon the frame of their apparatus, but in doing so they put themselves at its mercy; Satan tears it down, and them with it. Satan is chaotic – Satan is irreconcilable. Satan is the element of disorder that seeks to destroy all that they have constructed – and Satan is also omnipotent. Satan is, perhaps, the permanent revolution; and yet, as Bakunin says, a revolution still leaves somebody at the top – and so long as there is a ruler, there is injustice. Power corrupts – absolute power corrupts absolutely; Satan is corrupt. He seeks to be an eternal force of revolution, but he leaves himself always at the top; perhaps this bankruptcy explains a part of his curious lethargy, even depression, in much of the novel?  Perhaps, but it is not drawn out fully. Mostly, it seems his moods shift as the plot demands.

I hope that this has made a certain parallel obvious: one reason why the communist elite are so absent from this novel is that they are at its centre – Satan is Stalin. Around him, the citizens scurry for reward, yet are continually met with death and disgrace; they try to construct around him a latticework of rules and conventions up which they may climb to their reward – but like Leviathon he shifts his mass as he wills, and rearranges and destroys all the system built around him. He operates according to some principle of justice – but it is a principle that is unpredictable, and entirely at his own discretion, and that is particularly adept in finding reasons to punish and destroy.

The novel runs into difficulty, however, in articulating an alternative. This, we might expect, will be a Cynic retreat from convention into nature; Margarita’s choices, and Pilate’s urge to save Jesus, both call to mind the Cynics’ exhortation to ignore all rules, customs, conventions and public morals; the symbolic nudity of witches throughout the book reminds us, likewise, of Diogenes and Hypatia. And yet, the Cynics believed in defying custom not as a good in its own right, but instrumentally, as a path to a freedom that could only be obtained through reason; Bulgakov seems to discard the rational part of the equation. What we are left with is an exultation of groundedness per se, regardless of the ground, of love regardless of the loved, and of commitment, regardless of the cause. What we are left with, in other words, is a paean to fanaticism, and to obsession, as the only way to escape from insincerity and to achieve authenticity.

I find this problematic not only because it is amoral – with certain characters seemingly being rewarded despite being utterly despicable – but because it is incongruous within the framework of the novel, and because it feels dramatically unjustified. It is incongruous, because the novel is so pious in its blasphemy, so carefully sacrilegious in its profanity, that we are never in any doubt that we are operating in a theistic universe laid down by a theistic, even devout, author – and yet the morals being presented appear entirely at odds with the Christian viewpoint. It is true that we are presented with a distinction between ‘peace’ (an escape from the torment of the apparatus) and ‘light’ (salvation into heaven), but the distinction is so ill-drawn and peripheral that we do not clearly see why it matters. It is also true that there are Kierkegaardian elements in the rejection of public morals as a route to a higher individuality and freedom, but Kierkegaard’s angst comes from devotion to God, not from mere devotion – Abraham agrees to murder his son because he has been commanded by God, and God is not at the centre of this novel, Satan is. If he were in this novel, Abraham would be killing his son as a way of selling his soul to the Devil; as Bulgakov gives us no reason to like or admire the devil (a feat of non-sympathy that is by itself impressive, given the usual charisma of the character), and no reason to approve of murder, it is hard to see why  we are meant to applaud this.

In this light, in fact, we should remember that the love of the central pair is not strictly for each other alone, but is entangled with and fuelled by a love of the Pilate novel that the man is writing – it is hard not to see this, in this context, as a collapse into Kierkegaard’s recursive, narcissistic “aesthetic” phase. Indeed, all the most ‘grounded’, ‘authentic’ characters are obsessed not with anything truly Other but with a reflection of themselves –all of them, from Margarita to Matthew the Levite, are narcissists. Is this meant to be a refutation of Kierkegaard? It is hard to see how to piece it together as one. This, however, is a recurring feature in the novel – we are not given enough to work on. Sometimes this seems to be simple bad writing or bad translation – one character turns into a witch and back, which is meant to explain some change in her actions (the change being more a change of species than of profession – she explicitly turns back into a ‘human’), but she seems to speak and act exactly the same after the transformation as before it.  In other places, we cannot tell bad structure from intentional obscurity – much of the thematic weight of the novel must rest with the conclusion of the Pilate storyline, but it simply occurs, with little explanation or build-up. Indeed, it seems to intentionally make the end another random act of power – a power, this time, which unlike Satan’s is never fully explained within the context of the novel.  I have an idea about it – which I don’t dare share for fear of spoilers – but I can also see where the text refutes that idea. There’s just not enough to tell. The book gives us a puzzle – but, frustratingly, there doesn’t seem to be any reward.

Much of this rambling is me trying to find some depth to the book in the crannies of its obscurity. It’s hard to find much complexity in the light. Continuing the Pilate train of thought, the book doesn’t really address the fact that, to me at least, Pilate is the most sympathetic character, despite being the paradigm of a man who sacrifices his principles for the sake of obedience to power. I say ‘despite’ – but really he feels sympathetic BECAUSE of this. There seems more to admire (even if there is also more to condemn) in Pilate’s decision to kill an innocent man out of duty, though he completely feels it wrong, than there is in any number of childish deals with the Devil.  In this respect, we see Bulgakov imitating both the Cynics and Nietzsche, agreeing with the latter when he says that things performed out of love are beyond good and evil (beyond ‘light’ and ‘dark’ in the novel), but he does not address the complexities of Nietzsche, nor his criticisms of the Cynics – in essence, he fails to address Nietzsche’s concerns about the very concept of authenticity. If it is a matter, as we might expect with a Cynical interpretation, of following nature and not man, we are given the paradox: “how can we NOT follow our natures?”; if it is a matter, with a Nietzschean expectation, of asserting our own power, isn’t there also a great show of power in a man who can deny his own morals, as Pilate does?

This point is related to the dangling objection I made earlier, that the themes do not seem thematically earned. Everything occurs because it does – in this book, the god is let loose from the machine in the first chapter, and rules everything that follows with an iron fist and a shallow whim. A more philosophical novelist would try to show us HOW this or that led to peace, or salvation, or to death or to damnation – if not through the operation of external rules, then at least through some internal logic – but Bulgakov just relies on God or the Devil to sort everything out by will. Why can authentic (alledgedly) love triumph where venality and pride cannot? Because Satan says so. As an example, a Nietzschean expectation would lead us to think that love is protecting because it is less reliant on the facts of nature that social status relies upon – this is reinforced by the fact that Satan not only has power over these facts, but actually seems ONLY to have power over these facts. But of course the straits the central characters find themselves in at the time of their (belated) entrance into the novel demonstrate that this is not the case. Because he love is for something that is both outside of her and in the material world, Margarita is just as vulnerable to Satan’s power as any other character – except by the Will of the Author.

There are a few hints here and there of an attempt to address this – Margarita is, briefly, once, not entirely narcissistic, and Pilate’s final chapter is intriguing, if only because it is so obscure – but no matter how much I wrangle with it, I cannot put things together into anything particularly innovative or provocative.

I should also say that, unlike the other novel that I have felt bad about not liking enough, Dhalgren, this book had no ‘echo’ – when I finished the novel, the novel stopped being read. Great books – and even some, like Dhalgren, that are not great – have the power to possess the mind for some time after the final page, not only in conscious thoughts, but in an entire frame of mind, with the sensation of a deafeningly silent echo; I had none of that from this novel, although I concede that the conclusion was elegant and fitting.

Adrenaline: 3/5. To be honest, I feel generous giving it this, but looking back at my scores for other books it would be unfair not to. Although I feel that the book as a whole lacks effective pacing, and that it’s never that exciting, it must be admitted that Bulgakov can write certain scenes very well, creating real suspense and even minor thrills. One sequence of chapters halfway through the book even reached excitement. Overall, though, there is so much chaos and absurdity (a word I should have used a lot more above – absurdity seems to be the power of the divine, both in Jesus and in Satan) that excitement cannot build up much. “Chaos is dull.”

Emotion: 2/5. There are some vaguely real characters, and yes, I did care a bit about them. But overall, everyone is too unlikeable, and too many people appear for only a chapter before vanishing, and the central love story is too alienating, and the book is too obscure, to really take my heart along with it. It also feels strangely neutered – although terrible things happen to people, they don’t feel terrible. Perhaps this is because of the humorous tone, perhaps because there is just so much nastiness, or perhaps it is because there is an omnipotent deity in every chapter who can undo anything that happens – it just feels more as though being sent to Stravinsky’s lunatic asylum (haha, incidentally Mr Bulgakov, a composers joke, you’re so urbane) is closer to losing a ‘life’ in a computer game than a real human tragedy.

Thought: 4/5. Here I really am being generous. Perhaps it deserves more than 3 – but it was the least intellectually interesting of the books I’ve scored a 4 so far. Most of the thought is more along the lines of “what’s the point of this?”, and “is he saying anything?”, rather than “what are the consequences of what he’s saying?” But… maybe I’m just missing a bit of the point. There’s enough loose ends that maybe someone could put together more than I can.

Beauty: 3/5. No! Here I rebell against good nature! The book is… elegant. Certain phrases are striking. But the prose (a translation, I know, but that’s all I have) is, while not bad, not normally noteworthy. Some images are beautiful; others are predictable.

Craft: 3/5. Again, I make a stand. Yes, well done, he weaves three plots together, and he’s not afraid of symbolism and in-jokes. But I’ve seen it done better. Again, the prose in translation can’t stand for him. If he has a point, he doesn’t transfer it too well. He’s clearly a good writer, and it’s clearly constructed professionally. But…

Endearingness: 3/5. I think I quite liked it, disappointing though it was. A lot of that is Behemoth. And also, let’s be honest, chaos may be dull, but there is something a little exhilerating about watching a riot – something that disposes us well toward tricksters and anarchists, even when we don’t admire them, or even like them. The book has charisma. On the other hand – there’s too little happiness, too little niceness, too little engagement with any of the sordid-yet-dull characters, to make it a book I can say is more pleasant to read than most.

Originality: 5/5. Maybe not as original as San Michele, but nonetheless pretty unique, all things considered. Yes, the “devil comes down to earth” idea is not entirely original, but the whole is perplexing and unpredictable enough to make that familiar germ grow into something wholly singular.

Total: 24

Overall: 5/7: Good. Oh, it’s definitely a good book. I just can’t see my way to admitting that it’s great – which is what disappoints me.

I’ve been thinking, not entirely unrelatedly, about my scoring system. I think the categories are mostly adequate (I’ve been thinking of adding in a ‘memorableness’ category, but it seems superfluous), but the point I raised in this reaction was a good one – some books have an ‘impact’ or ‘echo’ on the soul, and none of the other categories manage to predict whether or not this will occur. So, I’m adding a new category – but rather than being 1-5, this will be 0-2: this should be seen as a ‘top-up’ thing, rather than a pillar of the novel as a whol. I just don’t think my reactions in this direction can be more finely gauged than ‘nothing’, ‘something’ and ‘a lot’.

This will be one of three reforms. Secondly, and connectedly, I’ll do away with the ‘composite’ I’ve been mentioning, replacing it with a sum total – this is both more intuitive and better able to cope with the ‘small’ category of Echo that I’m adding. Thirdly, I’ll be adding one additional point for ever 5 – in other words, considering a 5 as a 6. This is because I think that, as between two equally-scoring books, the ‘advantage’, as it were, should go to the book that comes closer to perfection in one direction, rather than the book that is most average. The scoring system is, after all, only a way to break down and bring out more clearly my overall reaction, and I think that the extra point will cause the sum scores to more closely reflect my overall scores.

I know, nobody cares – nobody would care even if anybody were actually reading any of this. Nonetheless, it only seems appropriate to be clear about what I’m doing – even if it’s only for my own benefit.

Reaction: The Story of San Michele

“A man can stand a lot as long as he can stand himself.”

“I repent little I have done; I retract nothing.”

“What you keep to yourself you lose; what you give away you keep for ever.”


“One of the FAMOUS books of this century”, says the cover. It can’t be denied: published in 1929, it was on its twelfth English printing by 1930, when it was the best-selling non-fiction book in America. Nor was it a transient phenomenon – more copies were sold of the seventy-fifth printing than of all the editions in the year it was first published. It has been published in at least forty-five languages, and a bestseller in most of them; at least one translation, into German, sold over a million copies itself – I assume the same is true of French, Italian and Swedish at the least, but I can find no figures on a cursory search of the internet. Certainly, it is probably one of the most read books of the 20th century. My copy is from the early 1960s, and is from the 81st printing.  I speak, of course, of The Story of San Michele, by Axel Munthe. It has enjoyed impressive success – for a book that was archaic in style and content even when it was first written.


Although he disliked the description, San Michele is the memoirs of a doctor – the youngest doctor in modern French medical history, in fact, being fully qualified at the age of 23. In later life, Munthe was a minor celebrity himself, as a writer, philanthropist, friend and host to the famous, and personal physician to the Queen of Sweden – but his memoirs focus primarily on his life in the late 19th century, when he worked as a fashionable doctor in Paris and Rome.


This has hinted at the most noticeable thing about the book: it makes no attempt whatsoever to pander to the audience’s expectations of what will be interesting. Munthe tells us, in essence, a long series of anecdotes – but they are the anecdotes that he wishes to tell. In one of the prefaces (they were accreted over the years as editors demanded new prefaces for new editions), he admits quite openly that regarding his own life he has “left out its saddest and most eventful chapters”; he expresses a wish to “leave the dead in peace and the living to their illusions.” He even goes so far as to claim: “I am not a bookwriter and I hope never to become one. The Story of San Michele was the result of an unforeseen accident”.


Just how large the missing chapters are only becomes fully apparent once the reader learns a little of the author’s own life. The Queen of Sweden is only mentioned once or twice, and only elliptically. He served in the Red Cross during the First World War; there is one throwaway mention of the horrors of Verdun, and another about treating maimed soldiers who had been heaped into a pile in a room. He was married twice; no wife is ever mentioned, nor even any but the briefest of romances. He abandoned his own honeymoon to treat a typhus epidemic on Capri – I think the existence of the epidemic is mentioned in one sentence, but not his role in it, nor his honeymoon. His second wife was English; he moved to England, and became a naturalized British citizen; his citizenship is mentioned in a preface, but there is no account of his decades living here. He had two children by his second wife, but they are not mentioned.  Munthe clearly is not writing a confessional, and feels no duty to be complete.


These omissions are possible because the book is not an autobiography, but only a collection of memoirs. There is no set timeline – events late in the book as a general rule occurred later than those early on, but as between neighbouring chapters there is no way to say which precedes which, or whether they are simultaneous. A servant is dismissed in one chapter, only to be mentioned again in the next, still employed. One chapter may span several years – only for the next to return to the beginning. Frequently, the author seems to have intentionally defied the reality of time: the events of ten years are compressed into a single turning of the seasons, while a week may seem like years. Each chapter generally has one (or sometimes two) themes, and, at least at first, deals almost entirely with that theme – if he is talking about his demonic housekeeper, he does not divert into discussing his work, and if he is talking about a particular patient he will not digress into discussing his friends. This patchwork technique allows many things – even two marriages and two children – to simply disappear into the cracks without trace or indication. Later in the novel, he gains more confidence, and chapters twist in unexpected directions, generally following only thematic, rather than chronological, principles.


The reader may not notice his omissions at first reading; what they will notice is the reverse, when unmentioned things float suddenly into view. These are usually not significant to the plot, yet serve to continually tantalise – in one anecdote about an arrest, for instance, the police divest him of five pocket-watches, and when he gives his name they do not believe him, for he is not wearing his Legion d’Honneur at the time. Until this point, we have no knowledge of his “mania” for watches (although there are hints), and we have had no clue (nor reason!) that the man has been awarded the highest decoration in France. When a story requires him to have solitude on a train, he reluctantly and off-handedly admits to us that was at the time the doctor of one of the Rothschilds, who happened to own the railway company. If we pay attention to a certain string of names, we happen to notice his friendship with August Strindberg. Munthe does not boast of his associations – he seems instead to be ashamed of them. Certainly he does not view them as interesting.


The habit of concealing things from us, added to a tendency to mention things in passing as though known to us, even when they only feature later in the novel (for instance, there are casually cryptic allusions to Mamsell Agata many chapters before she is actually employed – or else the events of the two chapters have simply been inverted; it is impossible to say), creates a curiously oceanic, almost nauseous, disconnection from time and causality. We are left entirely in the hands of the author, to guide us in the appropriate direction, as we have no way of knowing for ourselves which things will prove important and which will not.


Unfortunately for us, this requisite trust is not without complications: Munthe is not a reliable narrator. He admits openly that he has made omissions, and distorted his account in places to make himself appear more admirable (though this is easy to forget, faced with his continual air of almost vain humility). He even enjoins us to accept the conceit that because only parts of the book were written by hand, and others only by typewriter, that only the former sections are really his responsibility, while the latter can be partly blamed on the collusion of the Corona Typewriting Company. He does not say which passages are which, but he is interested to know whether we can tell the difference – he has set out to play games with us, even if he would never admit it. This duality of pen and typewriter is only one part of the systematic plurality of authorship – the man who acts and speaks, the man who remembers, and the man who is writing down those reminiscences are all given to us as distinct narrative figures, and yet their voices are not distinct. I am tempted to think that this plurality is a conceit to allow him to contradict and undermine himself; and yet any sort of conceit or manipulation is difficult to combine with the honesty and integrity of the author’s voice – even if that voice may sometimes take, sometimes explicitly and sometimes through irony, to lambasting its own pomposity, naivity, and dishonesty. If we cannot trust the man, should we trust him when he tells us he is not to be trusted?


Some instances of this unreliability are unknown to us as readers – only through external accounts could we learn that his acquaintance with Charcot was probably not nearly so close as it appears in the novel. Other examples we cannot but suspect, particularly regarding women. He is vague about his relationship with one of his patients and what exactly happened on a moonlit walk, and though he protests his innocence he does it with such knowing coyness that he seems to be trying to tell us something different from what he says. At one point, he takes under his wing an ‘orphan’ child, so like him in appearance that everybody believes that it is his illegitimate child, and he even lets some of them believe it – but he insists to us that it is merely coincidence. At another time, he is expelled by Charcot, when it is found that he has hypnotised a vulnerable young girl into going to his own house for, it is assumed, nefarious purposes; he, of course, presents his own perfectly reasonable explanation for why he hypnotised her and gave her those commands, but do we really believe him? On the other hand, if, as it seems, Charcot barely knew him, should we even take this sensationalist little story at face value? With Munthe, it is clear that he often writes himself in a better light than he deserves; yet, at the same time, we cannot discount the possibility that he is also making himself look worse than he is. And yet it is hard to believe that he is simply inventing these episodes, if only because, from the preface to the finale, he is unwavering in counterposing his own honest experience to the ignorant fictions of other. When a reviewer speaks of how the book could furnish the writers of short sensational stories with plots for their whole lives, he austerely regrets not having become such a writer himself: “Surely it must be a more comfortable job to sit in an arm-chair and write short sensational stories than to toil through life to collect the material for them”. He even castigates writers of fiction: “Novel writers, who insist on taking their readers to the slums, seldom go there themselves.” Munthe, however much of the peripheral material we take at face value, has certainly been there himself – to the slums, and to worse than the slums. His apparent untrustworthiness almost seems designed to make us doubt his undoubtable virtues.


Partly, this is because Munthe seems to take a perverse joy in confusing us. Repeatedly, he says one thing and we believe another – only to see that he intended himself to be disbelieved. Again and again, we see the enormous vanity and arrogance of the character – only for he himself, or another character, to mock him for it, or, worse, to undermine our reasons for thinking him arrogant. At one point he gives himself an almost appalling speech about the inferiority of women – only to have himself undermine his own argument. Another character disapproves of his misogyny, but the conversation is interrupted by the arrival of some prostitutes, who it turns out are Munthe’s friends, and Munthe gives, in the most piteous and sympathetic tones, the terrible life story of one of them, in which he himself is featured in a positive light, while men in general are condemned.


Munthe’s character, in short, is complex and troublesome, particularly to the modern reader. He is arrogant – and yet he often seems to have a strain of self-contempt. That, however, is not enough for him – looking back with hindsight, he mocks both his vanity and his self-loathing, to the point where it is impossible to tell whether he is acting entirely sincerely or entirely ironically, and whether an action is from self-love or self-hate, and we cannot but suspect that many of his flaws have been inserted to make himself look better. He has an insatiable pity, and a love for all those who are weak, powerless, isolated or condemned. He likes and cares for nobody more than for prostitutes. This pity drives what we would normally consider incredible philanthropy – which is such a matter of record that we cannot doubt it: he risks his life fighting cholera in Naples, typhus on Capri; saving lives in the trenches of WWI, and in the shattered and polluted ruins of Messina after the great earthquake (which, for modern readers unfamiliar with the event, killed up to 200,000, including 70,000 in Messina alone); he spends his spare time working for free in the slums, fighting diphtheria epidemics almost single-handed, operating on kitchen tables; he helps the vets at the Parisian zoo; he volunteers to work with dangerous rabies patients, helping Pasteur develop a cure, and frequently with violent lunatics; he forces the women who rely on him for medical help to donate toys and clothes that he distributes to the poor. His home on Capri, he made into a refuge for abandoned pets (including two tortoises, an owl, a baboon, and a mongoose), and he gave up other land to make a bird sanctuary. He made a fortune through his career, and gave almost all of it to charity. And yet this is not philanthropy at all. When he refuses to send bills to his patients, and instead demands the clothes off their backs, it is just as much to humiliate them as to help the children. He admits that he cares far more for animals than he does for humans – it seems that humanity in general he treats with hatred and contempt. He is a misanthrope, and he includes himself in the contempt.


And yet, for him, this misanthropy is a double-edged thing. He seems to operate an inverse hierarchy: the weaker and more miserable a thing is, the more he loves it. This is why he prefers animals to humans, women to men, prostitutes to respectable women, and the poor to the rich. This explains the bizarre contradictions between word and deed: why, for instance, he happily opines that women are inherently inferior to men, and that the chief desire of women is to be dominated by men, and yet throughout the novel undoubtedly admires the female characters more than the male – for him, being inferior is something praise-worthy. Inferiority exonerates – if women sin, he says, it is usually because they have been forced to by a man. Those who are controlled are freed from guilt: guilt resides at the top of the hierarchy, and in the institution of the hierarchy itself. This spurs in him a certain antinominalism, a certain appreciation of all forms of disrespect, which produces a distinctly un-Victorian admiration for lustiness, and even criminality; and yet he has double-standards with regard to himself, accusing himself in word of being a ‘fornicator’, yet portraying his actions as continually unimpeachable. Regarding sex, there is also something of a double standard when it comes to gender: he tends to condemn men, including himself, for their crude sexual impulses, yet appreciate the same things in women – because for women it is taking something of their own from their relationships, while for men, who are generally in the position of power, it is connected too greatly to exploitation. I think that he thinks it admirable when the exploited are able to find some happiness in their exploitation, but terrible that the exploitation exists at all. It is at the lowest, most primitive point of humanity – whether naturally among the native Lapps of his own country, or forced upon the shattered people suffering after Messina, that Munthe, it seems, believes humanity is reduced to the level of animals, which is to say, from his perspective, elevated to the status of the divine. The most pitiable human being of all the book may be the poor Sicilian peasant who has lost her home and her family to the earthquake, suckling two babies by the side of the road – and it is she who in the imagination of Munthe becomes one with the highest deity, the Mother Earth itself.


Of course, Munthe himself would never theorise so systematically as I have above: such speculation would be ‘un-English’. Whenever he does diverge into theorizing, it is plain to see that he is mocking himself. In the discussion on women, for instance, it is never clear what their ‘inferiority’ actually consists in – he makes an attempt to show how pathetic, and rare, their efforts have been in every discipline of art and science, yet he ends by confessing, as though not noticing the contradiction, that the greatest of all poets is Sappho, and he has already admitted, in parenthesis, that as a general rule women are considerably more intelligent than men. Throughout the novel, he expresses disdain for the way he treated women as a younger man – not because of any error of theory regarding them, but as a weakness in himself. It is hard not to wonder whether he puts his misogynist views into his own mouth to further degrade himself, to make even clearer how even he has been inveigled into the structure of domination and exploitation. Certainly he does not try to hide it: his main method of treatment is to bring women under his control, through bullying and occasional hypnosis; this is justified because most of his patients are hysterical hypochondriacs, and need nothing more than discipline and a good hobby. It is plain he despises them as a group – and yet every one of them is described in sympathetic terms. As with mankind in general, he has contempt for the species, but affection for the individual – because as he gets to know the individual, he discovers their flaws, and their flaws are what make them attractive to him.


This is why his misanthropy is double-edged: by viewing people as contemptible, he views them as pitiable. He loves the weak and hates the strong, but by revealing the hateable flaws of the strong, he shows how they are really weak. He shows this paradox explicitly when he condemns Judas as “the greatest evildoer of all time”, yet questions whether he had any choice in the matter, and ends by comparing him to Christ himself: “Was there not in that night on Golgotha more than one man who was made to suffer for a sin which was not his?” To criticize Satan, Munthe naturally compares him to an aristocrat (what could be worse?), and even then ends by pitying him – “poor old Beelzebub!” he exclaims, “I am sure it is not easy to be a devil for one who was born with wings.”


Those who are cruel and controlling are driven by flaws (fear, lust, greed) that are painful and demeaning to them, and that often result in their own downfall. One example he gives is of Guy de Maupassant, who is portrayed extremely negatively – degenerate, drugged, a serial abuser of vulnerable young girls whom he seduces and abandons – and yet it is clear that Munthe has affection for him. With most authors, this would be a puzzling inconsistency, but with Munthe it makes perfect sense: it is because he is flawed that Munthe pities him. In the end, Maupassant’s cruelty to women is his downfall, as his lust drives him into pathetic madness (a form of syphilitic lunacy; he was finally placed in an asylum after a suicide attempt). Maupassant wrote his own epitaph: “I have coveted everything and enjoyed nothing”. This is why Munthe was his friend: Munthe simultaneously could look down upon him, not only for his actions, but for his sniveling pessimism, and yet at the same time admire the bold and unapologetic acceptance of inadequacy, which he seems never to have been able to achieve himself: Munthe clearly is infected with a strong love of life, and had no time for whiners, including himself.


This, perhaps, is why he portrays himself in a negative light: as a way of praising himself by making himself seem pathetic. Or, to see it the other way, perhaps he is condemning himself by making himself seem vain. Does he unabashedly show us his vanity in order to display his inadequacy, or is he so vain that he even want to show off his powers of self-criticism? And that forces us to ask the question: should we believe his self-criticism any more than his self-praise? The book seems underlain by the pathological paradox that I have set out – but was Munthe really pathological, or is he just making himself seem that way? It almost seems at times that he is an entirely healthy, even joyful, man who is merely affecting this distorted self-perception. He even has an adjective for it: ‘English’. He admires the English greatly for it, yet he admits that he is not very English himself. Another paradox to hide the first…


This bizarre combination of vanity and humility is seen most explicitly in a passage where, in a letter to the Swedish Consulate, he flippantly rejects the award of the Messina Medal, on the paradoxical grounds that his policy has always been to accept only honours he has done nothing to deserve (hence his vast array of them), and that as he did a great deal to deserve this honour, accepting it would be a risky endeavour that would likely introduce confusion into his philosophy. And yet, he promptly tells us, the apparent humility was really all “humbug” – the medal is still in his drawer. And yet he accepts the humbug wholesale when he defends his decision to keep it by admitting that he had done hardly anything to merit it. And yet he undermines that defence by listing some of the things he did – which, he is quick to retort, was nothing compared to what was done by the real heroes of the earthquake, and in most cases was nothing more than anybody else would have done. Except that, as we know but he does not remind us, most doctors would not have rushed to the disaster site at the first opportunity, and lodged each night with murderers and looters.


Let it not be thought, however, that this book is full of self-obsessed reflection. Indeed, part of the confusion is that it is almost entirely absent. The worldview I have laid out as either being Munthe’s or as being presented by Munthe as his own is never laid out explicitly, and must be gleaned from hints here and there. Indeed, there is almost nothing about Munthe at all. This, perhaps, is why his wives and children are not mentioned: they would be too close to him, reveal too much about himself. Instead, “Axel Munthe” seems often like a lens for observing the follies of the late nineteenth century – including the follies of young men, doctors, and writers of memoirs, as exposed through the reported words and thoughts of a certain “Axel Munthe”. Munthe himself, in the guise of gentle mockery, draws attention to this idea when he reports the view of an American reviewer that “Axel Munthe does not exist”. It is an appealing thought – and yet the essence of Axel Munthe, is so immanently present in every page, so seemingly real, so simple and unitary, that it is hard to accept the theory, even as it is hard to remember the inconsistencies and pluralities.


I have said a lot, without saying very much. Perhaps I should talk a little more about reading this book. As can be seen from all of the above, a large part of the fascination of the book is the nature and character of the narrator, who simultaneously seems so close and graspable that by the end of the novel he is likely to be thought of as a brother, father or eccentric uncle, and yet so distant and intangible that it is almost believable that he does not exist at all. He seems, like the book itself, to be both ironic and unironic at the same time, through careful attention to, and flagrant disregard of, the nature of irony. The character, and his story, can be interpreted in two quite contradictory ways: and neither way makes sense unless the opposite way is also assumed.


Munthe, however, is not the only interest. Although he says little about the many luminaries of European culture with whom he was good friends, he is nonetheless a fascinating window into the turn of the century – a period about which I knew little. Sometimes his own views are so extremely of their time that they may appall a modern reader – not only his views of women, but his views on criminal punishment (he believes criminals should be used for live medical experiments) and on homosexuality (or rather “sexual inversion”, a phenomenon then very much in vogue, which seemingly combined elements of homosexual and transgender behavior with physical androgyny). And yet, though his views are clearly of his time, they are so not because they state prevailing opinions of the day (indeed, Munthe is consistently contrarian and sceptical throughout his career), but because they are unacceptable even in his day, but unacceptable in a dialogue with the opinions of his day, in which the very premises are alien to us. Sexual inversion is a good example: the very concept is likely to be considered offensive these days, and yet Munthe’s views are hard to fault morally on their own grounds. Not only does he insist that there is nothing immoral about it, and that it should not be penalized by law, but he even claims that it is not a medical condition, but an act of God, and that it cannot be cured either physically or psychologically, even by hypnotism (as was then popular) – and that attempts to treat it almost always caused far more harm than good. This may seem unexceptional to us, but it should be remembered that Munthe was an acquaintance of Oscar Wilde, imprisoned for sodomy. For comparison, homosexuality was not made legal in Scotland until 1980. In 1952, thirteen years after Munthe’s book was published, Alan Turing was forced, at threat of prison, to accept a ‘treatment’ for homosexuality based on dosing him with female hormones. We should not condemn Munthe too greatly for not being modern, and instead marvel at the many ways in which he was not Victorian. While he accepts the moral panic’s claim that sexual inversion is rising alarmingly, and even describes it in seemingly critical terms, his final comment on the matter is to wonder whether, if the reports are true, sexual inversion is not the beginning of a new stage of humanity in which the genders are more equal: the “last survival of a doomed race on a worn-out planet, missing link between the Homo sapiens of to-day and the mysterious Super-Homo of to-morrow”. A conservative transhumanist… another paradox.


As for the book itself, Munthe is quite correct in saying that he is no bookwriter – many passages are constructed inelegantly, and in particular he lacks any ear for authentic dialogue. Most agonizingly of all, he is seemingly unaware of semi-colons: he uses them correctly, but writes them as simple commas, a mistake it is essential to correct in one’s own head while reading, for fear of fatal annoyance. He is not, however, an ineloquent man, and though his arrangement of sentences may be sometimes clumsy, the sentences themselves are often pithy, endearing, humorous, or agonizing in their pathos. On the larger scale, it is hard to judge how much of the alienation from space and time is due to inexperience and how much is intentional – it is certainly intriguing. In addition to the paradoxes of time and character, there is also a surprising liberality with events – in essence, Munthe was a magic realist before such a movement existed. The Sweden of his childhood is not dissimilar to the Colombia of Garcia Marquez – a place where magic and reality, simplicity and modernity, co-exist and intermingle. He tells his tales, as Garcia Marquez puts it, as though they were being told by his grandmother, like fairy-tales – although most of the chapters have no opportunity to display this, it is a constant theme. No attention is paid to reality, or to the distinction between metaphor and narration – from the apparently demonic stature of his housekeeper, easily dismissed as exaggeration, to the goblin who talks to him in Sweden, he relates it all in the same, bloodily realistic, yet childishly whimsical tone. Nor is it clear when an episode is light-hearted and when it is serious: the episode with the goblin may be seen at first as a frippery, but it turns somewhat somber, and it is poignantly picked out at the conclusion to the preface, where he states that it is only the myth, the trolls and the goblins in the forest, whose habitat is being stolen by modernity, that is truly immortal: “Old uncle Lars Anders in Forsstugan, six feet six in his sheepskin-coat and wooden shoes, is dead long ago, and so is dear old Mother Kerstin, his wife. But the little goblin I saw sitting cross-legged on the table in the attic over the cow-stall is alive. It is only we who die.” The dreamlike quality is also particularly evident in the first chapter, set on Capri, where the young man discovers a seeming paradise, and makes his future life there his sole goal in the present – if it were filmed, it would be filmed with a blurred lens, much light, and cheerful rustic music. It is in fact somewhat off-putting to the casual reader, who is not to know that the book becomes rapidly more realistic.


Character, style, prose, themes… what of the plot? There isn’t any. He is young, he grows older, and then he faces death. There is no apparent rhyme of reason why certain things are including and others not, or why a certain order has been given, except that in general the book becomes increasingly disjointed, abstract, and meaningful. There is no destination, other than death – it is a book to read for the journey (and, indeed, when ON a journey, I’ve discovered – the discrete anecdotal chapters can fit into the most broken travel plan without causing frustration).


I’ve more or less run out of things to say now, or at least I have run out of things to say that I haven’t said already, although I do feel something of an urge to say a few of them again. Instead, I’ll leave you with the end of the “Instead of a Preface” to the book, written seven years later, where his thoughts yet again turn to death:


“…I ought to warn the reader to try not to believe all the nice things I have been telling about myself with un-English volubility. I am not conscious of having told any deliberate lies to my readers. Where I may deceived them, I have been deceived myself, deceived by the better man I might have been. But in one respect at least I can say with a clear conscience that I have not deceived m readers – in my love for animals. I have loved them and suffered with them my whole life. I have loved them far more than I have ever loved my fellow-men. All that is best in me I have given to them, and I mean to stand by them to the last and share their fate whatever it may be. If it is true that there is to be no haven of rest for them when their sufferings here are at an end, I, for one, am not going to bargain for any haven for myself. I shall go without fear where they go, and by the side of my brothers and sisters from the forests and the fields, from skies and seas, lie down to merciful extinction in their mysterious underworld, safe from any further torments inflicted by God or man, safe from any haunting dream of eternity.

The night will be dark for there will be no stars overhead and no hope for a dawn, but I have been in darkness before. It will be lonely to be dead, but it cannot be much more lonely than to be alive.”

And now to the evaluation!


Adrenaline: 2/5. I can’t deny it: I struggled through at times. Most of the chapters have enough interest to see me through to the end, but I often stopped between chapters. This is definitely a “read a chapter on the train each day” book, rather than a book to be read through in a single drive. Munthe doesn’t care too much to try to be sensational. That said, there were a couple of exciting moments, and plenty of curious ones.


Emotion: 4/5. Bizarrely mixed. I think perhaps there is a great river of pathos running beneath the book, but it is paved over with jollity, humour, and a stiff upper lip. Much of it was therefore fairly unemotional. I have to give it at least a 4, however, because it made me cry on several occasions, which takes a certain power.


Thought: 4/5. There’s no world-shattering rumination going on here. Nonetheless, the ramblings up above bear testimony to how itchingly engaging the novel was – my brain still wants to scratch at the memory until it makes better sense. Seeing the world through eyes so alien as Munthe’s is also inevitably going to encourage a degree of re-evaluation and confusion.


Beauty: 4/5. I think that there’s an ineffable elegance about not only portions of the prose, but the dream-like structure, the pathos, certain images and concepts, and much of the attitude – paradoxical or otherwise – of the narrator.


Craft: 2/5. As noted above, I have to mark him down for the prose, which is occasionally superb, but frequently pedestrian, and for the dialogue, which is rarely convincing. It is likely that a degree of the overall stylistic effect, and possibly even of his own self-portrayal, are accidental. It tells, at time, that this book is not written by a professional novelist – which is not always a flaw in general terms, but which does entail a somewhat lower degree of overall craft.


Endearingness: 4/5. I loved it as a child – I adored it. It was my favourite book in the world. Even today, I feel a strong attraction to it, to an extent not entirely justified by its quality. Much of this is due to the avuncular quality of the author. That said, on re-reading it left me just a tiny bit cold – probably because of the lack of a sufficient overall direction.


Originality: 5/5. I’ve never read another book like it, and I doubt I ever will. The combination of honest, simple Victorian memoir with a literary playfulness and a unique perspective make this book extremely difficult to find a replica of. Some books appear stunningly singular at first observation, yet could honestly be fairly easily replicated by another novel in the same genre: I’m not sure anybody could, and certain nobody will, replicate this one. When somebody asks “what’s that about”, I really don’t know how to answer them – there’s nothing to compare it to. The closest thing, presumably, would be to compare it to other fin de siècle memoirs – a genre almost entirely lost to time – but I can’t imagine any of them feeling much like this.



Overall: 5/7: Good. Never going to be on top of my list of books to recommend to people looking for great literature, but a book I’ll probably still be reading in old age, and that I’ll recommend to any grandchildren, when I think they’re ready for it. It enhanced and expanded my world; only a handful of books have had a greater impact on me, and though I didn’t enjoy it as much this time round, that’s mostly because I have now encountered a wider range of brilliant books – there’s much in this one that I never saw the first few times through.

Reaction: Ficciones (2)

The second half of Fictions, entitled Artifices, consists of nine stories, six of them written immediately after The Garden of Forking Paths; the remaining three were not composed for another decade. Although most of the stories were written within three years of those of the first volume, we are promised in the foreword that these stories shall be “less clumsily executed” than those that came before, but that otherwise they will be no different.

Funes, His Memory (better known as Funes the Memorious) is the first of the new stories, and if not less clumsy in execution is certainly a change in style and conception – again, the same semi-philosophical ponderings, but here expressed with more subtlety, and, dare I say it, even with a touch of human emotion, as the story is told through glimpses of a human life, not merely detached narration. The ideas themselves are not that new or interesting, but are given legitimacy by their placement in the human world – we see people caring, and we care accordingly.

The next three stories are closely connected in style – all three draw from a particular mode of writing in which the detective, the spy, the adventurer and the discoverer of ghosts could all equally feature if the author chose – a melodramatic style of puzzles and twists and brightly daubed colours – much the same style that we saw earlier in the outer story of The Garden of Forking Paths itself. The Shape of the Sword is the simplest and most forgettable of the three, being an extremely standard (and, disappointingly, extremely predictable) twist story about Irish conspirators*. Nonetheless, it is well told, though brief. The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero is considerably more clever, although not, I note, beyond the limits of the wilder historical ‘documentaries’ we have inflicted upon us (the plot, with its connexion to the death of Julius Caesar, is only one step beyond what some now suggest is the truth behind Caesar’s murder, however exotic an idea that might seem). Only at the end does the musing hit that certain emotive note of disconcertation and beauty. Unfortunately, Borges tells his story metafictionally – and not even, this time, by reviewing a fictional book as though it were real, but as, self-admittedly, a recitation of a plot that he has thought of. I dislike this idea in Borges that the book is an irrelevance that offers nothing more than can be gained from a few minutes recitation – his plot is a fair enough plot, and if it were in a book, with prose, and characters, and minor things like that, it might be affecting and powerful, but as it is it is only a few pages of a man saying “here’s a great idea I’ve had” – he limits himself to appealing solely on an emotional level, like a magician who does not deign to perform magic tricks, but instead just tells you what you would see if he were to perform the trick. Consequently, the story is flat and unengaging, without even the ironic amusement of the metafictional games he played in Al-Mu’tasim and Herbert Quain.

The third of the trio, Death and the Compass, is the most important of the three, and like The Garden of Forking Paths it combines a melodramatic tale (in this case a detective story with a twist) with musings about labyrinths; this time, however, the two are fully integrated. The balance has been shifted considerably toward the narrative side, with the labyrinths minimised; frankly, I was glad of it. As it is, the musings seem a little detached – almost as though as he neared the end of his story Borges realised that he had to throw in a “Borges-feature” to keep his reputation for labyrinths – but nonetheless engaging, perhaps precisely because they are touched on tangentially, not lectured on as in the earlier story (although, contrariwise, there is less of lasting interest here). The detective part of the story is fair enough, although personally I find the high-irony maximum-melodrama style to be somewhat grating – I’ve seen so many parodies (intentional and unintentional) of that type of murder mystery that the Borgesian pastiche is neither amusing ironically nor enthralling directly. This said, I did like the story overall – it’s short enough that the grating style could be overlooked, and (like Funes) it shows a promising trend to try to integrate his own preoccupations into a matrix of human life.

The Secret Miracle demonstrates this trend perfectly, and is itself a perfect story – and more ambitious than The Library of Babel, in that it combines many preoccupations. It takes the secret labours of Tlön, and the ubiquitous labyrinths, and adds them to yet another metafiction – but this time, the text does not simply stand, frozen, as it is described, but lives and changes – the creative process is addressed, as in Menard (and in the process links the theme of secret labour with the theme of hermeneutics) – and there is the strange, magical or surreal, intrusion of fantasy. But more importantly than all this, it is willing to talk about reality. The setting is real and important (there is a wonderful line about the Nazi need for administration), and the protagonist is genuine, and pathetic, in the sense of the word that denotes our position about him, and not his own qualities. In this story, the two sides of Borges, the wonder and the pondering (one might say, the magic and the science) are brought together and given a context of emotion. For once, I care about what he’s saying.

Three Versions of Judas is another strong story, at least in my view, although it denies all I have praised before – it is a plain metafiction with little emotive content or connexion with reality that concerns itself with semi-philosophical fancies. This time, however, there is something both profound and active about his themes. On the one hand, as in The Secret Miracle, he addresses Nietzschean themes (with clear overtones of Kierkegaard and Wilde), not of impersonal Time and Thought and Meaning, but of life, and death, and renunciation and iniquity; asceticism and glory and their paradox. On the other hand, he remains preoccupied with hermeneutics, but does not simply (as in, for instance, Quain) talk about hermeneutics, saying how different meanings could be construed – this time he shows different meanings being construed. This time, he does hermeneutics. Recall Wittgenstein: philosophy is not a theory but an activity (and Nietzsche, likewise).

The final three stories were written a decade later than those we have discussed, and reading them this is no surprise, as they have a distinct style of their own. Following on from Judas, Borges is now practicing hermeneutics rather than discussing it, and in the same vein he is infusing his stories with greater pathos and tension – he is, in essence, finally telling stories, rather than mentioning them. At the same time, there is a certain loss of clarity here, a loss of audacity. The End is a simple tale; a retelling, I am told, of an episode from a famous Argentine story, with a different ending and a new perspective. As a story, it is well told, but my distance from its cultural resonance makes it to small a story to have my attention. The Cult of the Phoenix is more intriguing – rather than, as Borges often does, starting in an ordinary place and driving into strangeness, it begins in strangeness and returns to mundanity (as, through the gradual recognition of the parent tale, The End presumably does to an Argentine reader). It does this by seeming at first to describe something strange and bizarre, and then to gradually make plain that it is something ordinary and familiar. This is an implementation of his hermeneutic preoccupations – a familiar story is told from an entirely new perspective. Readers of philosophy will be familiar with the technique from Wittgenstein. An additional level is added to the mirroring by the fact that Borges leaves the riddle unsolved – while we may think the answer is clear, it is always possible to consider other solutions. Hence, not only can each story be told in a different way, but each telling can be a telling of more than one story. It should also be said here that although Phoenix is told in much the same sort of discursive style as, say, Lottery, it is clear that his writing ability has increased over the years – I felt genuine tension as the riddle was built up, despite the impersonal and distant nature of the topic. On the other hand, like many intellectual exercises, I was left somewhat cold (in an apathetical, rather than horrified, way) by the ending.

The final story is The South, which Borges believed to be his best. I’m not so sure. The Nietzschean mode is alluring, though the petty thought intrudes that Borges, like Nietzsche himself, seems always inauthentic when regaling us with gauchos and knife fights. That said, there is more pathos in this simple story than in any other in the collection; unfortunately, that’s not saying much. In translation, the story is unspectacular – sufficient, perhaps elegant, but not remarkable or greatly moving. If there is any secondary meaning, as Borges suggests, I failed entirely to divine it, beyond the obvious philosophical/ethical considerations, which have been a continual, if secondary theme in this book (all the way down from the secret labours of Tlön). I can’t deny that I enjoyed reading the story, but I do enjoy reading stories. Somehow, it manages to be human, yet to remain sterile. [A problem, I must confess, I find in almost all short fiction].

Regarding Artifices as a whole, I agree with Borges that it surpasses The Garden of Forking Paths in execution, and in general contains the better stories. At the same time, a degree of vitality and ingenuity is lost in the progression from the earliest stories to the latest – or is that a function of reading too many of these stories consecutively? I think… not entirely – there is little new in the second half for those who have read the first half.

Fictions is certainly a book worth reading if you haven’t read Borges – particularly if you don’t read much philosophy, as Borges is to a degree a populariser of philosophy into a literary context. Some of the stories are brilliant. Pierre Menard, The Library of Babel, and The Secret Miracle should be read by everyone; I would collect these three with Al-Mu’tasim, Funes, Three Versions of Judas, The Cult of the Phoenix and The South for a an excellent collection half the size of this. Even those I didn’t like greatly often had some appeal.

The chief thing on offer in this stories is ideas – from the central gimmicks (and they often feel like gimmicks) of the stories themselves down to incidental remarks that cast common things in a new light. Unfortunately, even those ideas that may have been broadly innovative at time of writing will now feel familiar and worn to the modern reader. Few are explored or explained with any depth or nuance; at his best, Borges shapes his stories into brilliant little gemstones – hard, brittle, small, self-contained, alluring, of little function. Those looking to be intrigued, to be thrown about by unheralded images and interpretations, to be enchanted in, and educed from, labyrinths would be better served reading genuine philosophy. His voice is inventive – perhaps distractingly, hubristically so in places; the prose of the translation has a few great moments, and is continually readable, although exotic – whether this is Borges, or an intention of the translator, or the translator’s ineptitude I cannot say (and I’ve heard all three explanations) – but I had no problem with it. Its excesses tend toward an unusual variance in register, an unusual use of usual words, and a certain degree of archaism and stiltedness – all stylistic techniques I enjoy.


Adrenaline: 1/5. Borges does not seem interested in exciting the reader (and in these short, often very short, stories would have little room to build up pace even if he wanted). There are a few stories where my heartbeat rose, particularly in the second half, but not enough to raise this score.

Emotion: 2/5. Some stories had no emotional aspect whatsoever. Many, I should say. Some had glimpses. Some of the later stories did have a genuine element of pathos, which is why this has more than a one, but it would be lying to say that this was not a less-emotional-than-average read.

Thought: 4/5. Too familiar, and too cursory, to score a 5 – and please remember that this is being judged as art, not for its place in the history of art, and so contingent facts of subsequent fashions must be considered where they impact on the reader’s perceptions, even when they are not the fault of the author. This probably would have been a 5 in 1945 or even 1960; it isn’t now.

Beauty: 4/5. Some elegant phrases; some ugly ones. Lifted above average because some of its ideas are themselves beautiful in my opinion.

Craft: 3/5. A strange score for a master, but hard to escape. The prose is not notable – it is only a translation, after all. There is no large-scale construction to praise, because they are (almost entirely) independent short stories. The stories themselves vary greatly in their elegance of form – some are shaped perfectly, others feel unbalanced or over-rough.

Endearingness: 3/5. Intellectually, I find Borges amenable. His voice, I find the voice of a friend or ally (in most cases). Even if some stories evoke no more admiration than a brief bark of laughter, that’s still a reaction that disposes us well toward a book in our opinions. On the other hand, this hasn’t been a book I’ve come back to repeatedly. It has a certain escapist value for its playfulness and shear disregard for normal concerns, but by and large it is too cold, too inhuman, too baroque, to truly warm the heart.

Originality: 4/5. Nobody could say that Borges was only average in originality. That said, I don’t believe it’s a 5. Remember that ‘originality’ here is not a historical fact, but the issue of how easy I feel it would be for me to have written the same stories, or equivalent ones (talent and execution aside) – and I rarely felt stunned by them. I rarely thought ‘I could never have thought of that – how did he?’ Or to put it another way – how unique is this book among others? Unusual, but much of the same ground has been covered in places, even if the style itself has rarely been imitated. The best of the stories – yes. There, a peak of originality is reached. Overall – not really.

Composite Score: 3.00

Overall Score: 5/7. Good

I was expecting a higher score, to be honest, but the stories just don’t have enough power. It should also be noted that this is lowered by the uneven nature of the collection – had I considered only my favourite few stories, they would have unproblematically been Very Good – at least on a par with Leibowitz. I have briefly considered that the excellence within the collection justifies raising the overall score – but this, I think, would be unfair. This score reflects my experience of the book as a whole – and many books have great passages within them. That said, interested readers may find the rumoured presence of great quality within the volume a greater incentive to find it and read it, and so I wanted to make it clear.

*And it’s frustrating, incidentally, that Borges couldn’t pay a little more attention to his setting. He places the action in Connaught in 1922, when the Revolution is fighting for its life against the Black and Tans, who at one point are said to capture a city ‘once and forever’… except, of course, that the Truce came into effect in July 1921, the Treaty was signed in December, and the Black and Tans began their withdrawal in January. By March, the War of Independence was long past, and the Civil War had begun.

Does any of this matter? Not particularly – just read it as 1921 instead. Nonetheless, it irritates. A consistent compliment given to Borges is his immense ‘erudition’, which I find it difficult to be impressed by at the best of times – and a man of famous ‘erudition’ ought to be able to spend thirty seconds looking in a book to research his setting for at least the most egregious errors.

[I’m also extremely sceptical about the role of communism he imagines for their ‘revolution’ that has been destined to be victorious – it rather feels as though he’s just importing Latin American revolutionary modes into the Irish context – but I can let that be]