Saturday, July 31, 2010

What's done, what's undone

Regarding Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, I'll quote from my post at the Asimov's forum:

Finished yesterday. I think it's a brilliant novel. Whether or not a particular reader enjoys it is a different issue; the thing is a great work, both entertaining and challenging, making me both feel and think. The resolution does tie together everything--and you see it coming, that Bulgakov is going to pull the past and present together somehow--and is a prompt for further discussion.

One has to discard traditional theological notions, given that Satan/Woland isn't evil and the Pilate/Jesus story is laden more with philosophical and humanistic concerns than religious ones (in fact, religion is avoided in the novel); however, I see a straight line between this narrative and Milton's. Just as Satan hopes to undo God's plan (and for reasons Milton helps us understand) in
Paradise Lost, so Woland seeks to undo bureaucracies, systems that stifle the artist, selfishness and even rationalism. He inserts himself into the Soviet scheme and, with his wilder associates, damages whatever he can.

The novel is subtly structured, with its protagonists slowly revealed and its agenda unclear for much of its length. The writing, especially in the sections supposedly written by the Master, is at times beautiful but at all times skillful. The narrator, both in the book proper and in the Master's tale of Pilate, is very much a presence, sometimes apologizing for what he can't explain or perceive.

It did take me a long time to read the book. It's not a page-turner, but it's well done throughout and worth the time. Only one section, "Satan's Ball," felt like it needed a trim. What a strange, strange book.

I'll have something to say about my story "Clockworks" next week.

Tangentially, given that both "Clockworks" and "Helping Them Take the Old Man Down" contain a character who is an homage to Doc Savage, I want to mention Warren Ellis's Planetary, a comic book series. I read the first volume a few days ago. Sadly, my library does not have all of the subsequent volumes. In any case, Planetary contains a character named "Doc Brass" who is clearly based on Doc Savage ("The Man of Bronze"). Visually, he's the spitting image of the James Bama version of Doc on the Bantam paperbacks. There's no mention of "thanks for the trademark steal" in the front of the book, but I suppose Wildstorm Comics, owned by DC, had permission to use it, given DC's flirtation with the character over the years.

I've been reading short stories by James Lasdun.

I mostly finished a draft of a new story, "Unimagined." It is not a "genre" piece. A few gaps in the narrative remain, though I know what goes where. As often happens, I'd started the story thinking it was about one thing, but once I figured out who the characters were, it became about something else and ended in a way I didn't see coming . . . which is partly the point of the title.


Calvin said...

I wrote other responses on Asimov's.

What originally inspired me to mention Master and Margarita was specifically your complaint about Pullman's book, how Pullman was using Jesus/Christ as a mouthpiece for his own views. Bulgakov is almost the opposite: Woland implicitly criticizes Berlioz and Ivan for their forcing their views onto history, and Yeshua complains about Levi putting words into his mouth.

I'm very curious to hear about "Clockworks"...

William Preston said...

Certainly the Jesus character doesn't represent the entirety of Bulgakov's views . . . though Bulgakov seems to at least sympathize with him. The Master and Woland are probably both fronting for Bulgakov in varying ways. In any case, Pullman's kind of polemical work does represent the opposite approach Bulgakov takes. Interesting, too, that the book (or, rather, the story) insists on the supernatural (though the book's aim with that insistence is really to put down the kind of stifling rationalism present in the Soviet state), while simultaneously taking an un-pin-downable theological stance. Lots of bobbing and weaving on Bulgakov's part. Thanks for recommending it. It will stay with me.

S. E. Johnson said...

With respect to Planetary: have you read the rest of the series? Have you read any of Philip Jose Farmer's "Wold Newton" stuff?

I'm interested, too, in how they dodged the copyright (which seem to come up for Alan Moore, too, in everything from Watchmen to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). I've got a short, comic piece that has, for its protagonist, a character who's obviously based on The Shadow--but, much as editors have liked and praised it, they're unwilling to risk the copyright violations, even though the character isn't mentioned by name.

William Preston said...

I haven't read any more Planetary books. The library doesn't have the next one, so I ceased from all my explorations.

When I was a teen, I had Farmer's Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, which confused me mightily, since I had no idea where Farmer might be drawing on actual history and I was unfamiliar with many of his bookish references. I no longer have the book, regrettably. I remember I would leaf through it from time to time, but it seemed a tedious read.

I do wonder why editors balked at your story. Sheila and Brian at Asimov's didn't say a thing about trademark or copyright infringement in relation to my first tale--though Brian commented that they likely couldn't have used the familiar image of the bronze man on the cover due to trademark concerns. With the second story, Sheila explicitly asked whether I was directly using certain things from the original stories. In every case, the answer was no, so we were again good. (I'll check e-mails to see what specific concerns were raised, but I think they had to do with particular characters or events--all of which were my invention.)

Not only did I not mention Doc by name, I always thought of the character as "not Doc." I never went back to the original books, and anything that I did recall, I altered.

S. E. Johnson said...

Hunh. I wonder, then, if I should send it to Sheila. It's more comic and pulp-y than anything else, but why the hell not, you know?

William Preston said...

I initially didn't send the "Old Man" tale to Sheila, thinking (in retrospect, I'm not sure why) that it didn't suit Asimov's. As Sheila said later, and as one often hears from editors, the writer shouldn't try to do the editor's job for her.

I dug up the exchanges I had with her and with someone doing copyright research on this issue, and I was on safe territory with a character that was derived from, though not identical to, the existing character. In addition, the plot wasn't lifted (nor was any previous plot or character referenced). You might want to make sure you've got those bases covered--and then mention that in your cover letter.

I've discovered (or, more accurately, been discovered by) a sizable group of people who write "new pulp" stories, some of them using new characters, some using characters who have entered the public domain. There's a site called All Pulp that talks with some of the writers and has links to the publishers.