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Thursday, 29 October 2009

Where are all the poetical prodigies?


mozart ok If you were asked to think of a prodigy, who would jump to mind? I would suggest that that list would be topped by Mozart. Wee Wölfi began to play the harpsichord when he was 3. By 5 he was performing publicly and had begun composing. But were these early pieces any good? Well, good enough at the time but the earliest work by him that is still performed today is Exsultate, Jubilate K165, written in 1773 when he was 17. (The K refers to Köchel, a musicologist who catalogued Mozart's complete output which makes Exsultate, Jubilate his 165th composition.)

Musical prodigies come ten a penny. If I restrict myself to the composers, though, there are a few well-known names there who made careers out of music: Mendelssohn was 12 when he started; Nino Rota and Korngold (best known as composer of film music) began at 11; Bizet entered the Paris Conservatoire at age 10 whilst Menotti began writing music at the tender age of 7, as did Paganini, Barber and Rheinberger.

So, how do you decide who's the greatest? According to the Times:

Ask most people to name classical music’s greatest child prodigy and you’d guess they would probably say Mozart. Not according to a poll in next month’s BBC Music Magazine, where Mendelssohn comes top, followed by Schubert. And Mozart? Not even in the top 10.

This rum result is partly to do with a condition of the poll, carried out by the country’s “most renowned” critics. The composers’ works had to be written before they were 18. And although little Wolfgang might have begun scribbling at the age of 5, he did nothing of great note, apparently, until his Symphony in A Major, K201, written when he was already 18. Quite a put-down for a man who composed more than 600 works before his death, aged 35. – TimesOnline, May 17th 2009

Prior There was a recent television series highlighting the talents of Alex Prior (born 5 October 1992 in London) who began composing when he was only 8 and has already got 4 symphonies, 4 concertos, 2 ballets and an opera under his belt; the programme we saw concerned his Concerto for 4 soloists and orchestra, Velesslavitsa, the premiere of which featured 4 child prodigies as the soloists that were hand-picked during the series.

Just what is a child prodigy, though?

According to American developmental psychologist Dr David Henry Feldman, typically it is a child younger than 10 who is performing at the level of a highly trained adult in a very demanding field of endeavour. –

Other sites say they can be anything up to 13 or even 15.

Musical prodigies are well known, as are science prodigies, maths prodigies, chess prodigies, but where are the poets?

In the future I won't need a Köchel to come along and catalogue my poems. I've been cataloguing and numbering them since I was 13 and by the time I'd reached 17 I'd already passed the 400 mark, 99% of which were eminently forgettable. I was first published at 16 and continued to see my name in print from then on. But was I a prodigy? I think not.

Wikipedia has a list of child prodigies and from it I extracted the poets:

Ervin Hatibi published his first poems at 14 in the major journals of the time, and, at 15, published his first book - well acclaimed by the critics.

William Cullen Bryant was published at 10 years old; at 13 years old, he published a book of political-satire poems.

Thomas Chatterton started as a poet at 11 years old. He began writing the poems that would make him famous at 12 years old.

Lucretia Maria Davidson, by 11 years old, had written some poems of note; before her death at 16 years old, she received praise as a writer.

Marjorie Fleming was a published poet before her death at 8 years old.

H. P. Lovecraft recited poetry at 2 years old and wrote long poems at 5 years old.

Other than Lovecraft – and who thinks of him as a poet nowadays? – I knew none of the names. So I started to see what I could discover on my own.

Milton was my first discovery, the only one I know as a poet. He started writing when he was 10.

Frankly, I don't think 10 is that amazing. And I certainly expect there are loads of poets out there who began writing by the age of 12. The question is: Have they written anything memorable? And I bet the answer is: No. I still have all my juvenilia. Almost all the paintings and music are long gone following a stupid self-righteous clear out about twenty years ago but the poems survived. I can think of very little I own from before I was twenty apart from them. A letter opener from Arran (or perhaps Dunoon) is the only other thing that jumps to mind although it's an ugly thing with some animal's leg as a handle. I have no idea what possessed me to buy it even at the time.

akiane3 One prodigy I found online is a young girl called Akiane Kramarik, who is 13 now. You can read a selection of the poetry she has written between the ages of 7 and 11 here. She's probably better known as a painter and, while I'm not particularly taken by her work’s New Age-ness, I can't criticise her technique. I have seen far worse made into mass-market prints. One has to wonder if Mozart would be marketed more vigorously nowadays and I guess knowing what I do about Leopold (his dad) the answer would be: Yes.

I'm going to have a look at one of Akiane's poems on the subject of love. I'm assuming she was 11 when she wrote this one and, of course, one has to ask: What does a kid of 11 know about love?


Love is never alone
Love is always crowded
Love is the shared self
We cannot own our love
And we cannot teach our love
The longest breath of love
is the shortest distance to heaven
The deepest life is love
The deepest love is an embrace
Love is not rest
Love is peace
Love is the purpose

Seriously I wonder how many times people have attempted this very poem? And how do you write about love without dipping into the vast well of clichés that exist revolving around it? That's a hard one. I suppose it's one of those we need to get out of our system before we move on. Akiane's chosen to go down the 1 Corinthians 13 route and that's just fine, agape love is as valid a subject as any of the other loves. The problem is, how to improve on the scripture:

4Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

I actually think she's done a fair job. And I so badly want to write ". . . for a kid," but I'm not going to. The whole thing about prodigies is that they need to be measured on adult terms – Akiane is either a good poet, full stop, or she's not. On the whole I think what's she's produced is the kind of stuff that a lot of kids who've undergone a strict religious upbringing might have done; yes, she's a bit precocious but I don’t see her, poetically anyway, as a child genius; her art is another thing entirely.

My very first poem was about love, the unrequited kind. 275 poems later I finally got round to trying to define love and it's just about as bad as you'd expect with a line like "Olives, vines and marble pillars" in it but I don't mind sharing poem #1 because I realised when I'd written it that I had something, didn't know quite what and it was years before it became clear to me:

Dreams Don't Come True

I put my arm around her shoulder,
I touched her skin:
So soft.
It was all unreal, a fantasy.
Her hands were on her lap.
Her lips were sealed.
So cold.
She was so cold.
And I,
So helpless.

A beautiful thing,
Lovely and fair,
Colder than ice,
Heart of stone,
She and I alone:
And she was so cold.

I talked a little,
She laughed me off.
Like the fly on the horse's back,
Crushed my dream,
Crushed my hope,
Squashed my life, my soul.

And she was so cold.

I never dated my poems back then but I'd say I was 13 at the time. And I'm sure it's not the worst poem that a 13-year-old has written but I would never pretend to be any kind of prodigy. For all that it's still a poem that still manages to please me 37 years later.

Someone said – I forget who and, for once, Google has let me down – that no one should be allowed to be a writer until they reach 30. By 30 I'd just about given up writing. Oh, I'd been published, loads of times, but that stopped mattering to me and I hardly sent anything out and finally I stopped writing completely. And then I hit my mid-thirties and began writing novels. Who the hell knew there was a novelist in there? Certainly not me. And after two novels the poetry came back.

The point that guy (I think it was a guy) had to make is to do with life experience. If I can twist a scripture to my own ends: When I was a child I wrote as a child but when I became a man I wrote like a man. There are two things that contribute to someone becoming a half-decent writer: reading and living, and both take time. Add these to natural talent and you might just have a fighting chance of making it as a writer.

I'm not sure that this applies to the other arts. As one can see by Akiane's paintings, they stand up against the paintings of adults; you would never know that Mozart's Symphony No 1 had been written by a child (I have a copy so I can say for sure) although it is understandably derivative. Mind you if you're going to copy anyone then the Bachs are a good place to start.

Another prodigy I ran across was Mattie Stepanek who died recently at the age of 13; he suffered from a rare form of muscular dystrophy, dysautonomic mitochondrial myopathy. He has been hailed not only as a poet but a peacemaker. stepanekPrecociously intelligent from all accounts, he began writing poetry at age 3 to cope with the death of his brother. He had apparently written hundreds of poems by the time he was 6. Only time will tell if he will be remembered or not but I suspect his response to the events of September 2001 might just be. It's hard to say. So many artists responded to that event that his poem might just get lost in the fray.

FOR OUR WORLD – Written September 2001

We need to stop.
Just stop.
Stop for a moment…
Before anybody
Says or does anything
That may hurt anyone else.
We need to be silent.
Just silent.
Silent for a moment…
Before we forever lose
The blessing of songs
That grow in our hearts.
We need to notice.
Just notice.
Notice for a moment…
Before the future slips away
Into ashes and dust of humility.

                       Stop, be silent, and notice…
                       In so many ways, we are the same.
                       Our differences are unique treasures,
                       We have, we are, a mosaic of gifts
                       To nurture, to offer, to accept.
                       We need to be.
                       Just be.
                       Be for a moment…
                       Kind and gentle, innocent and trusting.
                       Like children and lambs.
                       Never judging or vengeful
                       Like the judging and vengeful.
                       And now, let us pray.
                       Differently, yet together,
                       Before there is no earth, no life,
                       No chance for peace.

After him I'm struggling. Why?

Prodigies tend to appear almost exclusively in "rule-based" fields like music, chess or mathematics. Sam Vaknin, author of Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited, likens child prodigies to computers: Both excel in symbol manipulation, but fail to impress when it comes to the fuzzier undertakings.

“Fields like literature require maturity and life experience,” he explains. “Prodigies, no matter how gifted, rarely possess the requisite emotional spectrum, an acquaintance with the nuances and subtleties of human relationships, or the accumulated knowledge that comes from first-hand exposure to the ups and downs of reality.”

Some scholars, however, have argued that brilliant young minds like H.P. Lovecraft (who composed long poems by age 5) and John Stuart Mill (who knew several dead languages by age 8) were indeed gifted enough to qualify as prodigies. But they are in the minority. – 'Whiz Kids',

So what do you think? Is there a poetic prodigy out there who could stand shoulder to shoulder – metaphorically speaking – with Eliot or Yeats or Heaney or even Kipling? I await you comments.

Monday, 26 October 2009

The Master and Margarita

Book Cover

When God created light, the first shadow was born – tagline to the film Shadow Builder


This is a very long review so for those of you reading this in your lunch hour let me cut to the chase. The Master and Margarita can be reasonably called the greatest novel to come out of Communist Russia, a work of magical realism, a pre-apocalyptic novel, a love story, a biting political satire or simply a damn good read if you can get over the fact that most of the names are thirty-odd characters long. But even that doesn't really cover it so there's no way in this review I can do this book justice. Oh, I can hurl superlatives at it but I won't have space to back them all up. To that end at the end of this post there will be links to numerous lengthy articles (I've been reading them for the past two days solid) which underscore much of what I'm about to say. It's the kind of book you'd expect a writer to produce after working on it for eleven years. It is a book every writer should read.

There are many levels to this book and numerous interpretations. The Master and Margarita was not, however, its original title; one of its working titles was Satan in Moscow[1] but even that is not an especially helpful title although it does set the scene. A more accurate, if unwieldy, title might have been The Master, the Master, the Master, the Master and Margarita because there are four main masters in this book, all with their own disciples. Here they are:

  • the Master of the title, a historian who, when he wins a hundred-thousand rubles in a lottery connected to a state loan, quits his job to work on a book – we never learn his true name

  • Jesus Christ (or Yeshua Ha-Nozri[2] as he is known in the book), a character in the Master's novel

  • Pontius Pilate, the subject of the Master's novel, the Prefect (governor) of the Roman province of Judaea from AD 26–36

  • the devil who decides to visit Moscow in the 1930s in the guise of a professor called Woland, a character clearly reminiscent of Goethe's Mephistopheles and, to a lesser extent, perhaps Milton's Satan.

Behemoth Some of the disciples are Margarita, the Master's lover; Matthew Levi, the only one of Jesus' followers to take an active role in the book although he's something of an amalgam of both the apostle and the evangelist; Banga, Pilate's faithful dog, the only creature who truly loves him and Woland's small entourage: Korovyev (also known as 'Fagot'), Behemoth[3], Azazello[4], Abadona[5] and the witch, Hella, who all serve as his proxies, an apparently typical Russian Orthodox representation of the devil.

Many of these characters have counterparts in the real world: for example, it is generally accepted that Woland represents Stalin (his parallel in the Master's book being Emperor Tiberius); Azazello is immediately recognizable as one of the chiefs of the secret police (his parallel in the Master's book is Afranius); the Master is based on Bulgakov himself – no prizes there – although he really stands for all the disenfranchised writers of the time and Margarita was inspired by his third wife, Yelena Shilovskaya, who actually put the finishing touches to the novel after Bulgakov's death in 1940 although one or two minor inconsistencies still exist.

This is not to say that these are the only significant characters, in fact the book opens with two key characters. Ivan Nikolayevich Ponyryov is a 23 year old poet who goes by the pseudonym 'Bezdomny', which means 'homeless' in Russian. Mikhaïl Alexandrovitch Berlioz is editor of "a fat literary journal" and chairman of the board of one of the major Moscow literary associations, MASSOLIT, a fictitious organisation that takes the place of the Union of Soviet Writers which, after 1934, one effectively had to be a member of in order to work as a writer.

Later in the novel MASSOLIT is attacked when Korovyev and Behemoth attempt to enter Massolit headquarters without identity cards:

"Your identification cards?" asked the citizeness in her turn.

"My lovely…" Korovyev began tenderly.

"I'm not lovely," the citizeness interrupted him.

"Oh, isn’t that a pity," said Korovyev, disenchanted, and continued: "Well, all right, if you don't wish to be lovely, which would have been most pleasant, you don't have to be. So then, to be satisfied that Dostoevsky is a writer, surely it's not necessary to ask for his identification card? Just take any five pages from any of his novels, and you'll be satisfied without any identification card that you're dealing with a writer. I actually suspect that he didn't even have an identification card."


"You're not Dostoevsky," said the citizeness, knocked out of her stride by Korovyev.

"Well, who knows, who knows?" he replied.

"Dostoevsky is dead," said the citizeness, but not very confidently somehow.

"I protest!" exclaimed Behemoth heatedly. "Dostoevsky is immortal!"

Titles The Master and Margarita had, as you can imagine, a hell of a time getting published in Russia, even after the death of Stalin, so it was quite an achievement when on 19th December 2005 some 80 million Russians sat down to watch the first episode of an almost 10-hour long television adaptation of the novel which is more than tuned into The Ed Sullivan Show to watch The Beatles (73.3 million). That is astounding when you consider that most of the first episode consists of three blokes talking on a bench. In between that we have a couple of guys talking in a colonnade; the only real action takes place in the last few seconds – CSI it is not. The significance of this book to Russians cannot be minimised, especially to those who grew up in the former USSR; they understand the analogies, know who is symbolic of whom, and can relate to the emotions, motivations, and weaknesses of the characters.

Does this mean that if you are unfamiliar with Soviet history, Russian culture, or the fact that this is a satire you won't appreciate the book? The Master and Margarita has been described as Solzhenitsyn crossed with Lewis Carroll – now, are Carroll's Alice books simply children's stories or a satire on the ordered, earnest world of Victorian England? Bulgakov's novel works just fine as a plain ol' story with a beginning, middle and an end. When I first read it thirty years ago my knowledge of Russian history was sketchy at best and I treated it simply as a fantasy novel, in fact the blurb on the back of my copy, which I still own, has this quote:

The fantastic scenes are done with terrific verve and the nonsense is sometimes reminiscent of Lewis Carroll . . . on another level. Bulgakov's intentions are mystically serious. You need not catch them all to appreciate his great imaginative power and ingenuity. – Sunday Times

The key word here is 'fantastic' and what is interesting is that it is the supposed real world of 1930s Moscow that contains all the fantastical elements whereas the chapters set in Judea in the first century are presented as cold, hard facts: Bulgakov has turned everything on its head. Bulgakov's Yeshua Ha-Nozri is quite unlike the Jesus of the gospels, sometimes funny, sometimes cowardly, manipulative even – very human. The same can be said for Bulgakov's Woland. In that respect the cover of the latest translation by Hugh Aplin, published by Oneworld Classics, is misleading. This is not how the devil appears in the book, even at the end when he sheds his 'Woland' persona. He's certainly not evil incarnate in fact he seems more interested in making the lives of bad people more miserable rather than rewarding them for keeping the faith.

Yeshua Ha-Nozri

Bulgakov's Satan seeks out the essence of each individual life and sees to it that each is transformed into an eternal form of that essence. He is the embodiment of merciless truth, the kind of truth which does not allow for questions of mercy, compassion, or forgiveness. […] Like the artist, Satan discerns the essence of a life and transforms it into its pure form.[6]

He is actually capable of benevolence. He is far more subtle and sophisticated than the biblical Devil; "he acts more as a counterpart to God rather than his opponent."[7]

We get to meet Woland in the very first chapter of the novel. He is walking through the Patriarch's Ponds area of Moscow one hot evening in May (one might say 'devilishly hot') when he chances upon Bezdomny and Berlioz sitting on a bench engrossed in a heated discussion regarding the existence, historically at least, of Jesus Christ. Eyewitness accounts vary but the narrator of the novel describes the stranger as follows:

Woland First of all: the person described did not limp on either leg, and was neither small nor enormous in stature, but simply tall. As far as his teeth are concerned, on the left side he had platinum crowns, and on the right gold ones. He wore an expensive grey suit and foreign shoes the same colour as the suit. He had his grey beret cocked jauntily over one ear, and under his arm he carried a walking stick with a black handle in the shape of a poodle's head. To look at, he was about forty plus. Mouth a bit crooked. Clean-shaven. Dark-haired. The right eye black, the left for some reason green. Eyebrows black, but one higher than the other. In short – a foreigner.

Just before this Berlioz was witness to what he thought was a hallucination but what actually turned out to be a semi-transparent Korovyev which he describes as follows:

On his head a jockey's peaked cap, I little checked jacket, tight and airy too… A citizen almost seven feet tall, but narrow at the shoulders, unbelievably thin, and a physiognomy, I beg you to note, that was mocking.

"Well I'll be damned!" he exclaims. Now, that's the kind of thing we all say without thinking about it along with expressions like 'devilish business', 'the devil knows where', 'go to the devil' and 'what the devil for' – we never think twice about them but you start to notice these more and more in this book. Everyone calls on the devil. Why else would the devil appear? He was invited.

3 men Woland's discussion with the two men focused on two areas, their atheism – and resultant belief that, assuming there is no God, they are somehow in control over their own destinies – and the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth. The latter he 'proves' by describing in detail the conversation between Jesus and Pilate prior to Jesus being sentenced saying that he had witnessed it personally; the former he proves by telling Berlioz that he would miss an appointment later in the day, that the professor intended staying in Berlioz's flat and finally by foretelling the manner of his death (that he would be beheaded by a woman) although this proof is lost on Berlioz, at least until later in the book. Slipping on spilled sunflower oil at the end of chapter three (which Woland had mentioned in passing in the first chapter), Berlioz falls onto the rails of an oncoming tram-car, which severs his head.

The question one needs to answer is: did the devil make that happen? I don't believe he did. He was simply at the right place, at the right time to relate what was just about to happen. Of note is the novel's epigraph, from Goethe's Faust:

" who are you in the end?"

"I am part of that power which eternally
desires evil and eternally works good."

How can Berlioz's death do anyone good? Well it starts a sequence of events that sends his companion into an asylum where he meets the Master who has been an inmate there for four months. This is an experience that ultimately changes the course of his life perhaps more than his encounter with Woland. As for Berlioz, we will meet him again later, in parts.

I mentioned that the Master winds up in an asylum. The breaking point for him has been an inability to get his novel about Pilate published. The editorial board reject it leaving the editorial secretary Lapshennikova, "a girl whose eyes were crossed towards her nose from constant lying", to inform him that the publisher already has sufficient material for two years ahead, and therefore the question of printing the novel, as she put it, "did not arise".

The final straw, however, is that, even though they have rejected his manuscript, members of the board – one in particular, the critic Latunsky – attack him in the press. The name Latunsky is probably a contraction of the names of two real critics, who were rather hostile to Bulgakov. The first one was Osaf Semenovich Litovsky who was the head of the Central Committee for Repertoires from 1930 to 1937, and who had coined the term Bulgakovism after the first performances of The Days of the Turbins. The second is the critic Alexander Robertovich Orlinsky, who preached resistance against Bulgakovism. In this respect the Master is not an especially heroic figure in the way he keels over, so easily it seems, after a bit of bad press. Bulgakov is much more of a hero. In the book's Appendix we have extracts from some of letters and diary entries:

Letter – 28th March 1930 – A very long letter, to the Soviet Government asking once again whether he could either be expelled, or at least be permitted to find gainful employment in the theatrical world:

"…when I carried out an analysis of my albums of press cuttings, I discovered that there had been 301 references to me in the Soviet press during my ten years in the field of literature, of these, three were complimentary, 298 were hostile and abusive."

We don't get to meet Margarita Nikolaevna until 221 pages into the novel. She is oblivious to the Master's whereabouts or even if he's alive or dead; in fact all she has of him is a fragment of the manuscript which she has saved from being burned which she reads over and over to try and find some comfort in it. While sitting on one of the benches beneath the Kremlin she hears "the approaching beats of a drum and the sounds of trumpets, a little out of tune" – it's a funeral procession, the late Mikhaïl Alexandrovitch Berlioz's as it happens, sans head as it also happens though, of course, she could not be aware of that at the time. We’ll catch up with his head later.

Margarita's eyes followed the procession, and she listened to the doleful bass drum producing that same repeated "boom boom boom" as it faded into the distance, and she thought: "What a strange funeral! And how depressing that 'boom' is. Oh, I’d truly pawn my soul to the Devil just to find out if he's alive or not! I winder who that is they’re burying?" (italics mine)

She doesn't have to wait long for an answer. A "somewhat nasal male voice" from behind her tells her: "Berlioz, Mikhaïl Alexandrovitch . . . the chairman of MASSOLIT." This time it's not Woland, it's one of his retinue, Azazello with an offer. Yes, you've guessed it.

At the theatre Of course, quite a bit has happened between Berlioz's death and his funeral the misappropriation of his head notwithstanding (16 chapters worth). This is just before you think the entire book consists of Russian citizens being propositioned on park benches. The thing that everyone has been talking about has been a performance at the variety theatre the night before where Woland had appeared onstage with two other members of his retinue, Korovyev and Behemoth (in the guise of a large black cat), who crop up as a double act several times in the book and leave a trail of havoc in the wake. The main treats that were in store for the theatre audience were the decapitation of the compère, the distribution of new clothes and the showering of the audience with ten ruble notes. The compère gets his head back (and winds up in the cell next to Ivan in the asylum), the clothes vanish on the way home (leaving most of the audience half-naked in the street) and the money turns into bits of paper the next day (causing a furore among the city's taxi drivers for a start).

All of this Margarita is aware of. So when Azazello says that "a perfectly harmless foreigner" who is aware of the whereabouts of the Master would like to meet her she puts two and two together and realises – well Azazello states it in so many words – that this is an opportunity she can exploit. Azazello provides Margarita with some cream with instructions to cover herself in it. Later that day at the hour on which she has been instructed to she smears the cream over her body, is transformed into a witch and, following further instructions from. Azazello, proceeds to fly naked on a broom to the river for a meeting with Woland only pausing to wreck the critic Latunsky's apartment.

What the devil does Woland want with her? Quite simply to be the hostess of the Spring Ball of the Full Moon[8] which takes place annually during Easter week. This she agrees to and this is where she finally gets to meet the rest of poor Berlioz:

The limping Woland stopped beside his raised area, and immediately Azazello was before him with a dish in his hands, and on that dish Margarita saw a man's severed head with the front teeth knocked out. The most complete silence continued to reign, and it was broken only by a bell, incomprehensible in these circumstances, which was heard once in the distance, as if from a front entrance.

"Mikhaïl Alexandrovitch," Woland addressed the head quietly, and then the eyelids of the man who had been killed were raised a little, and in the dead face Margarita saw with a shudder living eyes, full of thought and suffering. "Everything came true, didn't it?" Woland continued, gazing into the head's eyes. "Your head was cut off by a woman, the meeting didn't take place, and I'm staying in your apartment. That is fact. And fact is the most obstinate thing in the world. But now we're interested in what happens next, and not this already accomplished fact. You were always an ardent advocate of the theory that upon the severance of the head, life ceases in a man, he turns to ashes and departs into unbeing. It's pleasant for me to inform you, in the presence of my guests, although they actually serve of proof of a quite different theory, that your theory is both well-founded and witty. There is even one amongst them, whereby everyone will receive in accordance with his beliefs. Let it come to pass! You depart into unbeing, and I shall take joy in drinking to being from the goblet into which you turn.

At this point the skull shrivels up and is transformed into a goblet with a hinged lid. Berlioz has had his proof.

Berlioz is not the only person to meet his final end at the ball. The informer Baron Von Meigel is killed paralleling the murder of Yehudah[9], another informer, by Pilate during the feast of the Passover. Bulgakov here may have had in mind the assassination of Kirov in 1934 although this is conjecture. Suffice to say when the book was first published in 1966 this section was heavily censored.

Master and Margarita After the ball Woland grants Margarita a wish. Interestingly she chooses to use this to end the suffering of one of the other guests at the ball rather than selfishly ask to be reunited with the Master and so Woland grants her a second wish specifically for herself; within moments the Master is returned to her and shortly thereafter the immolated manuscript is returned intact to him. "Manuscripts don't burn," Woland tells him, one of the book's key sentences.

In May 1926, Bulgakov's apartment was searched by the OGPU (precursor to the NKVD and KGB), and his diaries and the manuscript of the novel Heart of a Dog were confiscated. After repeated protests, they were returned to him. He burned the diaries, and never again kept another. Ironically, it was the OGPU that preserved the diaries for posterity, as they had made copies.

By 1929, all of Bulgakov's works had been banned. He compared his situation to "being buried alive."[10]

Pilate and his dog Anyway you would think that would tie everything up nicely but that's not the end of the story for the Master and Margarita, there's an interesting (and unexpected) coda. And you might have thought that we'd also seen the last of Pilate too but he appears again, no longer a character in a novel but a soul who has been trapped for nigh on two thousand years tormented in the moonlight: "Twenty-four thousand moons in penance for one moon long ago; isn't

that too much?" Margarita wants to know. Well we find out what happens to him. As for Moscow, yes, we find out too what happens in the weeks following and how the citizens cope with what they've been through by pure rationalisation. We also hear what happens to a few key characters like the poet Bezdomny who are honest enough to admit to what they've experienced. At the end of the book Woland and his retinue revert to their true forms and we see four of them on horseback fleeing the scene of their crimes; despite the fact they're all on black horses the nod to Revelation's four horsemen of the apocalypse is too tempting to miss. Although he never lived to see it, Bulgakov is calling time on Stalinism.

The book begins asking epistemological questions and it ends with one too when Woland asks Matthew Levi:

[W]hat would your good do if evil did not exist, and what would the earth look like if shadows disappeared from it? After all, shadows are cast by objects and people. There is the shadow of my sword. But there are also shadows of trees and living creatures. Would you like to denude the earth of all the trees and all living beings in order to satisfy your fantasy of rejoicing in the naked light?

Nothing is black and white in this life. The Master and Margarita is a funny book but it touches on very serious issues concerning human freedom and the nature of good and evil. Is evil all bad?

But there is still more, one final question that we are left to ponder. In chapter 13 the Master tells Ivan that he knew what the last words of his novel about Pilate would be, "The fifth Procurator of Judea, the knight Pontius Pilate," and these coincidentally are the final words of The Master and Margarita suggesting that the novel the Master actually wrote is the one we have just read, a work of metafiction on top of everything else.

Reading back on this I have to confess what a poor job I have done trying to convey the full depth of this novel. Books have been written about it and rightly so. What is so impressive about the book is that all the cleverness is a bonus. A lot of clever books are simply not very reader-friendly and apart from the long names (which you simply have to learn to cope with if you want to read any great Russian literature) it is a carefully-plotted, well-written page-turner. It can be a bit wordy at times but that's a style thing. Don't try and read the book in one sitting and you'll probably be all right. And, did I mention, it's also very funny?

Let me leave you with the first episode of that Russian adaptation covering the first three chapters of the book. The physical descriptions are a bit off but the dialogue is very accurate.


There is a ton of material on this book online. So here's some further reading you might like to have a look at:

The complete novel online - 1967 translation – by Michael Glenny

The complete novel online – 1997 translation – by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

The Master and Margarita – nice one-page summary with a lot of interesting discussion questions

The Master and Margarita website – a very comprehensive site indeed which include a page of links to essays online

A Duet In Three Movements: Bulgakov -- Olesha – Bulgakov

Naming things that aren’t: Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita

Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita: Why Can’t Critics Agree on What it Means?

Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita: the true content

Sympathy for the Devil – a 3-part article which includes a lot of personal recollections about the book from the likes of Roman Polanski who tried to get Warner Bros to make a film of the book


This new translation is available from Oneworld Classics priced at £8.99. As always with this publisher this is a nice edition on good paper supplemented by notes from the translator, a short biography and even a few black and white photographs.



Bulgakov [1] Other early titles were The Black Magician (1929), The Prince of Darkness (1930) and The Great Chancellor (1934).

[2] Yeshua Ha-Nozri means Jesus of Nazareth in Aramaic

[3] A large biblical creature mentioned in the Book of Job, 40:15-24

[4] In the Old Testament apocryphal Book of Enoch 8:1-3, Azazel is the fallen angel who taught people to make weapons and jewellery

[5] In the Old Testament, Abaddon comes to mean "place of destruction," or the realm of the dead, and is associated with Sheol (see, for instance, Job 26:6, Proverbs 15:11, Proverbs 27:20 and Psalm 88:3, among others)

[6] Carol Arenberg, Mythic and Daimonic Paradigms in Bulgakov's Master i Margarita

[7] Marc Neininger, The Gnostic devil in Bulgakov's Master and Margarita

[8] This sun and its light, and the moon and its, are constantly present throughout the novel, in the "Moscow" chapters as well as in the "Bible" chapters.

[9] Judas Iscariot

[10] Mia Taylor, Sympathy for the Devil

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Memories of Spike (part two)

spikeDM0612_468x660 If you missed Part one you can find it here.


During the Second World War Spike served as a signaller in the 56th Heavy Regiment Royal Artillery, D Battery, as Gunner Milligan, 954024. He rose to the rank of Lance Bombardier and was about to be promoted to Bombardier when he was wounded in action in Italy. Subsequently hospitalised for a mortar wound to the right leg and shell shock, he was demoted by an unsympathetic commanding officer (identified in his war diaries as Major Evan 'Jumbo' Jenkins) back to Gunner.

After his hospitalisation, Milligan drifted through a number of rear-echelon military jobs in Italy, eventually becoming a full-time entertainer. He played the guitar with a jazz and comedy group called The Bill Hall Trio in concert parties for the troops. After being demobilised, Milligan stayed on in Italy playing with the Trio but returned to England soon after. While he was with the Central Pool of Artists (a group he described as composed "of bomb-happy squaddies") he began to write parodies of their mainstream plays that displayed many of the key elements of what would later become The Goon Show.

Milligan's professional entertainment career (after being demobbed) was on the radio. He appeared in – but more importantly wrote for a number of shows. His big break came in 1951 when he got the opportunity to write for a new show originally cowering under the unwieldy title Crazy People, featuring Radio's own Crazy Gang - "The Goons" subsequently truncated to simply The Goon Show.


Broadly speaking the Goons engaged in 'sound cartooning'. The kind of things that you would expect in a Tex Avery cartoon would happen on the show, holes could be picked up and carried to where needed and doors drawn on walls would open afterwards. The Wikipedia entry on The Goons is quite detailed and I would recommend you read the section on Surrealism. As a lead in to my favourite sketch I'll reproduce the section on transference of time:

If time causes calendars, calendars can cause time. If you drop a bundle of 1918 calendars on German troops in 1916, then they will all go home, thus shortening the war. (World War One (aka!), 22nd episode/ 8th series.) Two other shows with extreme examples of time transference are The Treasure in the Tower, 5th episode/8th series; and The Mysterious Punch Up the Conker, 19th episode / 7th series. (The famous 'What time is it Eccles?' scene.)

It was a huge success with the fans but not with the powers that be. From 1952 to 1956 alone, the producer, Peter Eton, faced thirty separate attempts from within the BBC to have the show taken off the air. Why?


Secombe, Bentine, Milligan and Sellers

Although The Goon Show did not deal explicitly in political satire, it was widely regarded at the time as subversive, both by the BBC hierarchy and the chief scriptwriter, Milligan. Among the prime objects of Goon humour were authority figures and officialdom generally, and the show specialised in sending up a whole host of hallowed British institutions. Privilege, patriotism, the parliament, the military and the Empire were all frequently lampooned. – Stuart Ward, British culture and the end of empire, p94

One has simply to look back on Milligan's life to see where all of that came from. Don't let the Irish-sounding name fool you, Spike was actually born in India, the son of a working-class military family in the dying days of the British Raj; he was fifteen before he returned to England, to Catford specifically, a stark contrast to India, and then a few years later he was off to war. He has said in so many words:

If all my youth had been spent in Catford, there would have been no Goon Show. . . I wasn’t consciously aware of it, but I had had enough of the British Empire. The Goons gave me a chance to knock people my father and I had to call ‘Sir’. Colonels. Chaps . . . with educated voices who were really bloody scoundrels.

Really what Milligan was doing was taking the anarchic comedy of the Marx Brothers and giving it his own peculiarly British twist. This is not to belittle him as an innovator but simply to point out that everyone builds on what has gone before; they develop it or react against it and Milligan did a bit of both.

When he began writing for the BBC, British radio was very mannered and polite and its shows were driven by catchphrases, as was the case the many music hall routines. The Goons maintained this tradition at least, one of the most popular being Little Jim's only line in most episodes (voiced by Milligan) where he simply exclaims: "He's fallen in the wah-taa!" Wikipedia has a section on The Goon Show running jokes here. Catchphrases from The Goon Show form the longest index entry in the 2002 publication of The Oxford Dictionary of Catchphrases.

Just as in a cartoon there are loose rules that exist in the gooniverse. Broadly speaking they're rules of convenience and conventional logic does not apply. To my mind the best example of this is the 'What Time is it, Eccles?' sketch from the Goon Show episode 'Mysterious Punch-up of the Conker'. The voices are Spike Milligan (Eccles – an amiable, well-meaning man with no wits or understanding) and Peter Sellers (Bluebottle – a young, lustful boy scout with a squeaky voice who normally gets blown up in each episode – shades of Kenny from South Park there):


What time is it Eccles?


Err, just a minute. I, I've got it written down 'ere on a piece of paper. A nice man wrote the time down for me this morning.


Ooooh, then why do you carry it around with you Eccles?


Well, umm, if a anybody asks me the ti-ime, I ca-can show it to dem.


Wait a minute Eccles, my good man...


What is it fellow?


It's writted on this bit of paper, what is eight o'clock, is writted.


I know that my good fellow. That's right, um, when I asked the fella to write it down, it was eight o'clock.


Well then. Supposing when somebody asks you the time, it isn't eight o'clock?


Ah, den I don't show it to dem.




[Smacks lips] Yeah.


Well how do you know when it's eight o'clock?


I've got it written down on a piece of paper!


Oh, I wish I could afford a piece of paper with the time written on.




'Ere Eccles?




Let me hold that piece of paper to my ear would you? - 'Ere. This piece of paper ain't goin'.


What? I've been sold a forgery!


No wonder it's stopped at eight o'clock.


Oh dear.


You should get one of them tings my grandad's got.




His firm give it to him when he retired.




It's one of dem tings what it is that wakes you up at eight o'clock, boils the kettil, and pours a cuppa tea.


Ohhh yeah! What's it called? Um...


My granma.


Ohh... Ohh, ah wait a minute. How does she know when it's eight o'clock?


She's got it written down on a piece of paper!

Now, it's funny on paper. But it's hysterical live:

Years later this inspired a poem:

Twelve O'Clock, Union City

(for Spike Milligan)

I wanted the time
so a nice woman
wrote it down for me.

It was eight o'clock
and it was true then
and twice a day it

becomes true again
but then it isn't
so true anymore.

What goes round comes round.

9th May 1997

The Prince of Wales was a huge fan of The Goons (he even made his own Goon-esque skits) so either the show didn't live up to biting social satire that Milligan claimed he was aiming for, or Charles just didn't get the joke. Milligan caused a bit of a kerfuffle by calling him a "grovelling little bastard" on television in 1994 when he received the British Comedy Award for Lifetime Achievement. Milligan later faxed him, saying: "I suppose a knighthood is out of the question?" A knighthood (honorary because of his Irish citizenship) was finally awarded in 2000.


Milligan wrote nonsense verse for children, the best of which is comparable with that of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, and (while depressed) serious poetry. His most famous poem, On the Ning Nang Nong, was voted the UK's favourite comic poem in 1998 in a nationwide poll:

<On the Ning Nang Nong

On the Ning Nang Nong
Where the Cows go Bong!
and the monkeys all say BOO!
There's a Nong Nang Ning
Where the trees go Ping!
And the tea pots jibber jabber joo.
On the Nong Ning Nang
All the mice go Clang
And you just can't catch 'em when they do!
So its Ning Nang Nong
Cows go Bong!
Nong Nang Ning
Trees go ping
Nong Ning Nang
The mice go Clang
What a noisy place to belong
is the Ning Nang Ning Nang Nong!!

This is not the poem that I remember best, however. It is a simple four-liner called 'Rain':


There are holes in the sky
Where the rain gets in
But they're ever so small
That's why rain is thin.

While still at school I parodied this poem:

The Irish

There are holes in their heads
Where their brains get in
But they're ever so small
That's why they are dim.

Spike was not beyond a parody himself:

I must go down to the sea again

I must go down to the sea again,
To the lonely sea and the sky;
I left my shoes and socks there -
I wonder if they're dry?

Or just taking the mickey:

A Silly Poem

Said Hamlet to Ophelia,
I’ll draw a sketch of thee,
What kind of pencil shall I use?
2B or not 2B?

Although best known for his nonsense poetry, Spike also wrote serious poetry. You can listen to him read some of his poems about depression here. But here are a couple of gentler pieces.

Love Song

If I could write words
Like leaves on an Autumn Forest floor
What a bonfire my letters would make.
If I could speak words of water
You would drown when I said
‘I love you’.

When I Suspected

There will be a time when it will end.
Be it parting
Be it death
So each passing minute with you
            Pendulummed with sadness.
So many times
I looked long into your face.
            I could hear the clock ticking.


Life_of_brian_03 Probably Milligan's best known film role was an accident. While the Pythons were filming The Life of Brian it just so happened that Milligan was on holiday in Tunisia where the filming was taking place – he was visiting his old World War II battlefields. The Pythons were alerted to this one morning and he was promptly included in the scene that just happened to be being filmed.

In an interview in Australia he remembers the occasion:

Do you know what they never told me? They said, 'we want you to make up a speech to the followers of the slipper, a Biblical little speech to these people, with your back to them'. And so I said.

Surely they that goeth away do not seek the sun, they that cometh unto us do wee the serpent, and the apple of eel. We that go, therefore, wherefore, and though shall see, therefore, and thou shall cometh again. Surely as the day is red ...

I went on talking this shit, all the while, they're being told to move away. So when I turned, there was nobody there. They hadn't told me. That's why I walked sideways off the screen. – 'I think I caught up' with Spike Milligan, Union Recorder, v75 no 5

He disappeared again in the afternoon before he could be included in any of the close-up or publicity shots for the film.

After The Life of Brian, the main film that I associate Milligan with is The Bed-Sitting Room which he wrote along with John Antrobus. It started off as a one-act play which was adapted to a longer play in 1963 revived in 1967 and finally filmed in 1970 featuring such luminaries of the day as Ralph Richardson, Arthur Lowe, Rita Tushingham, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Michael Hordern, Marty Feldman, Harry Secombe and Milligan himself.

One critic memorably described it as being "like Samuel Beckett, but with better jokes".

The play is set in a post-apocalyptic London, nine months after World War III ("the Nuclear Misunderstanding"), which lasted for two minutes and twenty eight seconds – "including the signing of the peace treaty". Anyone who has read my novel, Stranger than Fiction, will recognise my nod to Milligan there.

Michael Coveney describes it as:

a Cold War farce three years after "the next war", a ragbag of sketches, visual jokes and satirical barbs limed in a premonition of radiation-infused doom which climaxed in a cannibalistic ritual and, literally, the last dance, the extermination waltz. – The Independent, 23 June 2009

The whole Independent article is worth a read because it details Milligan's pretty much forgotten stage career, something I knew next to nothing of.

Here's the first ten minutes of the film. You'll note that the credits are in order of height.

One other point of note. If anyone is interested in what Jonathan Payne (the hero of my first two novels) looks like then take note of the short, bald man in the underground train; that's Arthur Lowe and he was the model for Jonathan.

This, of course, was not the only time we see Milligan on screen. Most people would assume his first screen role would have been in 1952's commercial flop Down Among the Z Men which drew heavily on his work for the Goons and in fact starred all four of the original members, but there were two appearances before this, in 1951, in Let's Go Crazy and Penny Points to Paradise along with Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe.

The only film I'm aware of in which he was involved as a writer – as opposed to an ad-libber – was The Great McGonagall, which featured Peter Sellers as Queen Victoria although he did 'write', and feature in, the sixth segment of The Magnificent Seven Deadly Sins, 'Sloth' which is a series of silent film clips showing people not being active. I seem to recall his part involved him standing under a tree with his hands in his pockets waiting for an apple to drop.


depression Spike had his first major nervous breakdown in late 1951 (just after the start of Series 3 of The Goon Show) and spent two months in hospital. The pressure of writing the shows is given as a major contributing reason for the breakdown and the break-up of his first marriage. He was eventually diagnosed with manic depression as it was known then (bipolar disorder) and battled it for the rest of his life.

On one occasion, Peter Sellers had to lock his door against a knife-wielding Milligan; on another, Sellers and Harry Secombe broke into Milligan's dressing room, fearing he was suicidal. Over the years he did in fact attempt suicide. Eventually lithium was found to be the most effective treatment. He suffered from bipolar disorder for most of his life, having at least ten mental breakdowns. He was hospitalised more than once. His major coping strategy for this seems to have been his endlessly prolific writing which he states he absolutely had no choice but to do in order to extricate himself from the terrible blacknesses he fell into. Eventually, in 1994, he collaborated with Anthony Clare and they brought out a book, Depression and How to Survive It.


spike-milligan404_678027c Reading back over all of this I feel it is such a cursory portrayal of the man. I've mentioned nothing of his infidelities, his large family, his work for animal rights or his charity work. For a man who started his career late in life (he was 33) he achieved so much. In trawling through the Net looking for stuff to include here I discovered for example that from the 1960s onwards Spike was a regular correspondent with the writer Robert Graves. Milligan's letters to Graves usually addressed a question to do with classical studies. Now, I would never have imagined that. Nor would I have imagined him being passionate about archaeology but it seems he was.

What I can say is that my life has been indelibly marked by its contact with him. Like all my heroes he wasn't perfect. He had a bad temper. He even shot a boy with an airgun for coming onto his property once. But then who's perfect? Language was never the same for me after him. He was every bit as important in my development as a writer as Philip Larkin and William Carlos Williams were.

He was a professional amateur, a dabbler; he was having too much fun to treat what he was doing too seriously and so there are rough edges everywhere with him but that is a part of his charm. He had no airs and graces. And when he died the papers gave him the most coverage anyone had had since the death of Winston Churchill. If you've enjoyed anything I've touched on here I would heartily recommend you follow up. At the very least treat yourself to a copy of Puckoon.



Monday, 19 October 2009



History is nothing but a certain kind of story that people agree to tell each other – J M Coetzee


Titles are odd things. How do you decide on a title that will encompass a complete novel? What is the purpose of that title? Is it simply a label or is it a code, a way into the book? And, keeping this in mind, what do you make of the title of J. M. Coetzee's 1986 novel, Foe? Strangely enough my first thought was right, at least I thought it was; it was a name. As I started to read through the book I realised that it might also signify a foe, an opponent or, in fact, a number of opposing forces. But I'll come back to that.

What is the purpose of writing? Okay, big question. Let’s rephrase. Is the purpose of writing to provide answers? Up to a point, yes, and Coetzee does indeed provide a number of them. We learn who Foe is for starters. It's the writer Daniel Foe, better known to us nowadays as Daniel Defoe, best known as the author of Robinson Crusoe. And there will be few people out there who don't know his story. But is it a story? Yes and no. It's generally accepted that the book is based on Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish castaway who lived four years on the Pacific island called Más a Tierra, now renamed Robinson Crusoe Island, off the coast of Chile, but in reality Defoe had access to a much wider and more plausible range of potential sources of inspiration and the fact is castaway surgeon Henry Pitman is a more likely candidate as the model for Crusoe. Pitman's short book about his desperate escape from a Caribbean penal colony, followed by his shipwrecking and subsequent desert island misadventures, was published by J. Taylor of Paternoster Row, London, whose son William Taylor later published Defoe's novel.

But what if that's not how it happened? This is the premise behind Coetzee's novel. In Foe he proposes that a woman, Susan Barton, ends up on the island and is rescued along with Cruso (as he is known in the book) and Friday and that Cruso dies on the voyage home once they are rescued. Additionally he suggests that Susan is the one who actually approaches Daniel Foe in the hotel in Clock Lane where she happens to be staying and asked him to write their story. So what happened to Susan in the Defoe’s book because I think I would have noticed if there had been a woman running around half-naked in it?

defoe2-1 Lots of people have ideas for books. You don't need to be a writer to have a good idea and Susan freely admits that she is no writer but a good idea is a good idea. And Foe agrees. It is a good idea . . . up to a point . . . but one that could be improved upon if he were not encumbered by the facts. The truth is all well and good but truth does not necessarily sell books because, most of the time, the truth is rather dull. How many stories have come down to us over the years where it’s obvious that the facts have been elaborated upon if not downright romanticised? Even Susan herself realises that "the idea of Cruso on his island is a better thing than the true Cruso."

But perhaps we should backtrack and explain how Susan came to be on the island. I'll let her do the talking:

'"Two years ago my only daughter was abducted and conveyed to the New World by an Englishman, a factor and agent in the carrying trade. I followed in search of her. Arriving in Bahia, I was met with denials and, when I persisted, with rudeness and threats. The officers of the Crown afforded me no aid, saying it was a matter between the English. I lived in lodgings, and took in sewing, and searched, and waited, but saw no trace of my child. So, despairing at last, and my means giving out, I embarked for Lisbon on a merchantman.

'"Ten days out from port, as if my misfortunes were not great enough, the crew mutinied. Bursting into their captain's cabin, they slew him heartlessly even while he pleaded for his life. Those of their fellows who were not with them they clapped in irons. They put me in a boat with the captain's corpse beside me and set us adrift. Why they chose to cast me away I do not know.'"

This she tells Cruso on arriving on the island but you'll notice the double inverted commas above. This is her telling Foe what she told Cruso. In fact the entire first two sections of the book, 106 pages, is in quotes; in Part I she is speaking – presumably directly to Foe – whereas Part II consists of a number of letters addressed to the writer expanding on what she has told him in Part I.

My first introduction to Robinson Crusoe, like many from my generation I'm sure, will have been the French production, The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe shown by the BBC first in 1965 and repeated on a regular basis. I didn’t remember a huge amount about the show but watching a few clips brought it all flooding back to me. The theme tune, however, and much of the incidental music is etched into my consciousness. I've just found a copy of it online and it's filled me with a warm fuzzy feeling. I actually teared-up for a second – seriously.

And, if you're really sentimental and have seven minutes to spare here's a link to a good quality recording of the entire Suite from the Adventures of Robinson Crusoe by Robert Mellin and Gian Piero Reverberi.

Robert Hoffmann will always be Crusoe for me, a civilised man despite the circumstances he found himself in. Coetzee's Cruso is nothing like him. And it's not simply time that has worn him down, he was never like that. The man Friday takes Susan to meet has lost all interest. He may well be monarch of all he surveys (to paraphrase the opening line of William Cowper's poem The Solitude Of Alexander Selkirk) but that is not saying much:

'In the hut there was nothing but the bed, which was made of poles bound together with thongs, crude in workmanship yet sturdy, and in a corner a pile of cured apeskins that made the hut smell like a tanner's storehouse (in time I grew used to the smell, and even missed it after I had put the island behind me; even today when I smell new leather I grow drowsy), and the stove in which the embers of the last fire were always left banked, for making new fire was tedious work.

'What I chiefly hoped to find was not there. Cruso kept no journal, perhaps because he lacked paper and ink, but more likely, I now believe, because he lacked the inclination to keep one, or, if he ever possessed the inclination, had lost it. I searched the poles that supported the roof, and the legs of the bed, but found no carvings, not even notches to indicate that he counted the years of his banishment or the cycles of the moon.'

Cruso offers scant explanation for any of this. He is clearly a man unused to having to answer for his actions and also one who has all but forgotten how to converse. Surely though he has had Friday for company for many years, has he not taught him to talk if not to aid communication between them then at least to wile away the hours? The answer is: no, but there is a good reason for that. Whereas the Friday I knew growing up was rescued by Crusoe, the Friday in this book came ashore with Cruso; he had been a slave onboard and what is more he had, according to Cruso, had his tongue removed by the slavers long before the two of them had become acquainted, So normal conversation was impossible and all Cruso had chosen to do was teach Friday to understand a few basic English words:

'One evening, as I was preparing our supper, my hands being full, I turned to Friday and said, "Bring more wood, Friday." Friday heard me, I could have sworn, but he did not stir. So I said the word "Wood" again, indicating the fire; upon which he stood up, but he did no more. Then Cruso spoke. "Firewood, Friday," he said and Friday went off and fetched wood from the woodpile.

'My first thought was that Friday was like a dog that heeds but one master; yet it was not so. "Firewood is the word I have taught him," said Cruso. "Wood he does not know."'

I asked earlier: Is the purpose of writing to provide answers? As far as this book goes the answers are as short as the answers Cruso provides Susan with; he answers but he rarely explains. He is the king of his island and although Susan can't fathom what law made him king she does her best to fit in with this odd couple. As the days pass though she ends up with more and more questions, questions that she – and, by extension, we – don't get answers to, don't expect to get answered and, indeed, never do get answered. Many of these are questions of a practical nature, for example, why had Cruso not tried to salvage items from the ship? Why had he contented himself with a knife as his only tool?

As the book progresses though Parts II and III Susan's questions become more and more philosophical in nature. When she finally returns to civilisation she finds herself living on its fringes not simply because she is carrying around Friday who is little more than deadweight but more because she cannot shake the island even though she only spends a year there, nothing in comparison to Cruso's fifteen. Indeed the wrench from the island proves too much for him and he dies on the homeward voyage, essentially "of woe, the extremest woe."

There are a number of issues that this book touches up but the three that crop up most in discussions are postcolonialism, feminism and postmodernism (and its tool, historiographic metafiction, a term which describes metafictional works that concentrate on histories and the historical). Let's take them one at a time:

The optimistic Robinson Crusoe, in Foe, becomes Cruso, a weak-minded mountain of insecurity who, unlike the original protagonist, lives sullenly on a desert island with only a few tools, no gun, no Bible, no writing utensils, and no records. He labours every day to construct gigantic terraces, walled by stone, which stand empty and barren, for he has nothing to plant. In Cruso's island (as opposed to Crusoe's island), there are no providential seeds, spiritual or natural. Such meaningless construction also symbolises the hollowness at the core of Empire-building. Cruso as colonist manqué is not only impotent but also ludicrous. - Ayo Kehinde, 'Post Colonial Literatures as Counter-Duscourse: J M Coetzee's Foe and the Reworking of the Canon'

Friday Defoe's Friday has a voice. His Crusoe has discourses with him. It's all very civilised; his Friday (a handsome Caribbean youth with near-European features) quickly learns his place. Cruso's Friday (now cast as an African slave) has had his tongue cut out of him. Is Coetzee presenting the true face of colonialism here? Susan also wonders if Friday's mutilation was at the hand of Cruso. History is written by the victors or if not by them by the survivors.

The book came out in 1986 at a time of cumulative and violent civil conflict in South Africa. It was not especially well received because, presumably following a cursory reading of the text, the reviewers couldn't understand why he was "writing about the writing of a somewhat pedestrian eighteenth-century English novelist", to quote Eugene Marais, when the country was burning, quite literally in many places. Since then appreciation for it has grown.

The most glaring difference between the two accounts is the insertion into proceedings of a woman. At first you can accept her treatment by the males around her a just a sign of the times but although that might have been typical, Susan Barton is not. The fact that she would get on a ship to pursue her child shows her metal. Perhaps had she remained in England she would have settled down but exposure to the rigors of the island only serves to develop this side to her.

Whoever owned this book before me has made copious notes in pencil especially in Part I and I would lay money that it was a female considering the tone of some of these and the fact 'she' makes a point of highlighting every sexist remark. Susan answers Cruso back on a couple of occasions and then apologises later. My predecessor has written: "Why?" both times in the margins. Actually I'm grateful to whoever she was; her underlining and comments drew my attention to a lot of detail I might have otherwise missed on a first reading.

Cruso is not really interested in Susan. Specifically he is not really interested in her as a woman. He only uses her once and that is more a matter of proximity than anything else; she had spent the night in his bed trying to calm him while he had a fever and once it broke, well, she was just there. Friday, the younger man, never comes near her.

The real problems arise for Susan when she returns to England and encounters Foe, the successful author, who is interested in her tale but really wants to write her out of it.

"Successful author" is a barbed phrase here, a highly barbed phrase. Foe in the book, or Daniel Defoe in "real" life is the type of the successful author. Am I being classed with Foe, though my interest clearly lies with Foe’s foe, the unsuccessful author, worse authoress – Susan Barton? How can one question power or "success" from a position of power? One ought to question it from its antagonistic position, namely, the position of weakness. Yet, once again in this interview, I am being installed in a position of power – power in this case over my own text. – Tony Morphett, "Two Interviews with J. M. Coetzee. 1983 and 1987." Triquarterly 69 (1987) p456

At one point she writes to him:

'"Better had there been only Cruso and Friday," you will murmur to yourself: "Better without the woman." Yet where would you be without the woman? Would Cruso have come to you of his own accord? Could you have made up Cruso and Friday and the island with its fleas and apes and lizards? I think not. Many strengths you have, but invention is not one of them.'

And then later and very much to the point:

Return to me the substance I have lost, Mr Foe.

Susan's in an ontological battle, a battle to determine her own worth and role in life, be it as a character, a person or a muse. Is her story enough or can it only find its place "by setting it within a larger story"? She's acutely aware of losing her place in Foe's book but she's also aware that she's gradually losing herself; it may have begun on the island but it has continued, perhaps even accelerated, back in Britain; people look at her and they see an old gypsy. Much 180of her problem is due to the fact she is metaphorically chained to the childlike Friday who is completely lost in this new land and has come to depend on her for everything. She tries to get him on a ship bound for Africa but when she realises that she would just be sending him back to a life of slavery she finds she can't do it.

defoe000 Foe, however, does disappear. For the whole of Part II he is in hiding, ostensibly from the bailiffs but more and more it looks as if he is hiding from Susan who has to make extraordinary efforts to trace him. She is like a character who refuses to be written out of her own story and this is where, for me, the book is simply about the confrontational aspects of writing, as the following text makes clear when, in Part III, after finally tracking him down, Susan ends up in bed with Foe:

I calmed Foe. 'Permit me,' I whispered – 'there is a privilege that comes with the first night that I claim as mine.' So I coaxed him till he lay beneath me. Then I drew off my shift and straddled him (which he did not seem easy with, in a woman). 'This is the manner of the Muse when she visits her poets,' I whispered, and felt some of the listlessness go out of my limbs.

'A bracing ride,' said Foe afterwards – 'My very bones are jolted, I must catch my breath before we resume.' 'It is always a hard ride when the Muse pays her visits,' I replied – 'She must do whatever lies in her power to father her offspring.' – italics mine

Such a curious turn of phrase! You'll need to read the whole conversation that precedes this to make sense of it though. The word author suggests authority but does that necessarily mean that every author write with authority?

Is the purpose of writing to provide answers? Perhaps. Is the true purpose of writing to provide questions? I would suggest that it is. And this book asks many questions: Why does Friday float on a log out to sea and toss petals? Who is the strange girl who calls herself 'Susan Barton' and stands watching Susan's lodgings? What's Friday's real story? Was he ever a cannibal? And who exactly is the narrator of Part IV? These are perhaps the obvious questions. There are others. Your head is probably full of them right now. I know mine is.

This is a book where much of the work will be done once the cover have been closed and I suspect the urge to pick it up and thumb through it will be strong especially after that final section to which my first response was quite simply: "Eh?" and I immediately went back to the start of Part IV and reread it. I felt very much the same after reading another metafiction recently, Paul Auster's Travels in the Scriptorium. Going back over it while writing this if there was one thing I noticed was how carefully Coetzee chooses his words but then his doctoral dissertation was on the early fiction of Samuel Beckett. I would read him again without question.


coetzee John Michael Coetzee is a South African writer who was educated at the University of Cape Town, where he received his master’s degree in 1963. He earned his doctorate in linguistics at the University of Texas in 1969. For two years, he taught at SUNY Buffalo, where he was arrested for protesting the Vietnam War. This arrest returned him to South Africa. He taught at the University of Cape Town since 1971 and was appointed Distinguished Professor of General Literature in 1999.

Between 1984 and 2003 he also taught frequently in the United States: at the State University of New York, Johns Hopkins University, Harvard University, Stanford University, and the University of Chicago, where for six years he was a member of the Committee on Social Thought.

His books are critically acclaimed, and he is the only writer to have been awarded the prestigious Booker Prize twice, once for The Life & Times of Michael K in 1983 and again for Disgrace in 1999.

In 2002 Coetzee emigrated to Australia. He lives with his partner Dorothy Driver in Adelaide, South Australia, where he holds an honorary position at the University of Adelaide. In 2003 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.


Understandably a lot has been written about Foe and I would recommend the following for those who get captivated by it:

This is an expanded version of the review that appeared originally on the Canongate site.
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