Monday, April 24, 2017

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Source of book: I own this.

I read this book because it was selected by a book club that some friends are in, that I wanted to join before the fates conspired against me. I diligently read the book, and was all ready to go, provided I could finish my tasks for the day. And, I had a whole afternoon to just install some shocks and struts on my minivan - hey, at 110,000 miles, stuff wears out. It had been a while since I did struts, but it wasn’t like I had to learn a whole new skill.

At least until my hand slipped and I let the hub swing down enough to pop the CV joint boot off the axle. And then discovered that the clamp used to hold it on was a single use clamp that I couldn’t put back on. Except it took me a while to figure that out. And then, once I had that done, I took a test drive, and I was getting a rattle on the other side. Not good. Since I couldn’t find an obvious problem like a loose nut, there was nothing for it but to take it apart and reassemble it. Which worked, for reasons I still don’t understand. But by then, I was already an hour late and looked like I had bathed in brake dust. Sigh.

So I missed the discussion. But at least I can blog about it, right?

The Master and Margarita was written between 1928 and 1940, in the Soviet Union. By the time I became aware of the USSR, things had ossified significantly, and not too many alive at the time remembered life before Lenin. But when this was written, the revolution was the recent past. A mere decade ago, and artists like Mikhail Bulgakov, born in 1891, not only remembered life “before,” but had had careers and successes before that time.

Bulgakov served as a doctor in World War I (receiving several serious injuries), before switching to writing after the war. Most of his family emigrated to France after the revolution - they were loyal Whites. Bulgakov was prevented from doing so because he was ill with typhus, and couldn’t be moved.

Although he initially had some success with his plays and novels, he managed to get on the wrong side of Stalin, and his works were banned in 1929. Bulgakov was devastated and puzzled, as Stalin had championed his writing numerous times before. But apparently, the satire of the Soviet system, while popular with audiences, enraged a few influential critics who had Stalin’s ear. It was during this time of travail that Bulgakov began writing The Master and Margarita. He burned the first draft, then re-wrote it with significant changes, not least of which was the character of Margarita, which was inspired by his third wife, whom he married in 1932.

Bulgakov’s works remained banned until his death in 1940. He intended to submit this final work to the publisher, but he still had a few loose sentences to tie up. Chances are, his friends would have prevented him from doing so anyway, as the political consequences for Bulgakov would have been devastating. His widow waited for 26 years, before publishing it in 1966. Even then, it was published in a censored version. As was the practice at the time, the omitted portions were “unofficially” distributed as a handwritten supplement.

The novel is a classic example of early Magical Realism. The setting and human characters are realistic, and respond as normal, ordinary people would to the intrusion of the supernatural in their midst. The book is permeated by references to Goethe’s Faust, and I would have missed a lot of the references if I hadn’t read that work - particularly the bizarre and philosophical second part. Even the name of Margarita is a reference to Margaret/Gretchen in the Faust legend - and the Master himself is probably intended to be a new Faust.

The novel kicks off with Woland (Goethe’s name for the Devil) showing up in Moscow and getting in an argument with the aggressively atheistic writer Berlioz. (Yes, this is a reference to the composer who...wait for it...composed an epic work about Faust.) Not only does Berlioz disbelieve the Devil exists, but he denies that Jesus Christ was a historical person. This was a popular theory at the time in the USSR, which was aggressively imposing atheism on the population. This is where understanding the time the book was written is key. Bulgakov’s grandfathers were both Orthodox priests, and it had only been a decade since the revolution. Apparently, part of the impetus for the writing of this novel was Bulgakov’s experience with a pro-atheism propaganda committee. Obviously the existence of the Devil threw a bit of a wrench into society.

Woland predicts to Berlioz that not only will he not attend his committee meeting that night, he will have his head chopped off by a woman. The conversation starts with Berlioz asserting that man governs his own fate, with Woland countering that man cannot even foresee whether he will be alive tomorrow.

“And sometimes it’s worse still: the man has just decided to go to Kislovodsk” - here the foreigner squinted at Berlioz - “a trifling matter, it seems, but even this he cannot accomplish, because suddenly, no one knows why, he slips and falls under a tram-car! Are you going to say it was he who governed himself that way? Would it not be more correct to think that he was governed by someone else entirely?”

“I must counter him like this,” Berlioz decided, “yes, man is mortal, no one disputes that, but the thing is…”
However, before he managed to utter these words, the foreigner spoke:
“Yes, man is mortal, but that would be only half the trouble. The worst of it is that he’s sometimes unexpectedly mortal -- there’s the trick. And generally he’s unable to say what he’s going to do this same evening.”

I just adore the phrase “unexpectedly mortal,” even if the idea behind it is far from comforting.

However, Woland is indeed right, and Berlioz does become “unexpectedly mortal” soon thereafter, and his companion, the young poet Ivan Homeless, finds that his new-found belief in the Devil lands him in a mental institution.

Woland also begins the story within the story: a retelling of the story of Christ and Pontius Pilate. This story is begun by Woland, but is eventually taken up by the Master - a fellow inmate in the institution. This story is the obsession of the Master, who attempted to have the work published, but it was savaged by the critics, and he ended up burning it. (Hey, sounds just a bit self referential.) The story doesn’t exactly follow the Gospel accounts. Jesus is a mere idealistic human, there is only one disciple, Judas is an opportunistic hitman who is assassinated after the betrayal to prevent the secret from getting out, and a number of other details are changed. But there is a point to this. First, the very human Yeshua Ha-Nozri is even more of a threat to the Soviet authorities than a divine mystic - in part because he stands for radical love and the abolition of power. This all plays into the satire in the novel. But also, it is the conversation between Pilate and Yeshua that haunts Pilate through eternity. (And doesn’t it haunt anyone who has read the Gospels?) Pilate is involved in something so much bigger than he realizes - until it is too late. He just wants to keep the peace - and his job and therefore his life. But, alas, his name is now know throughout the whole world for all the wrong reasons.

When the story returns to Moscow, Woland is about to wreak havoc on the city. He and his minions, the tall and manipulative illusionist Koroviev, the short thug Azazello, the succubus Hella, and Behemoth the giant and sarcastic cat, take over an apartment and set up a seance at the local theater. During the show, huge piles of currency (see below) fall from the rafters, and women from the audience are given the opportunity to exchange their clothes for expensive designer fashions. After the show, naturally, the money turns to either foreign currency (a serious crime to possess) or worthless paper, and the women find themselves naked. More people end up in the sanitarium, one is transported magically to Yalta, and chaos ensues.

About that currency. The translation (and indeed most English translations) miss the point of this. The currency described as “ten rouble notes” are actually “chernovets,” a currency that the USSR attempted to replace the rouble with - to great disruption and embarrassment. This is one of the jokes that is kind of lost if you don’t know the background. On a related note, there is a fantastic website that is devoted to this book, and explains all of the historical and cultural background. I referred to this while reading the book, and it really made it come to life.

It is at about this point that we finally meet the Master and Margarita and hear their stories. This is a third of the way through the book, which is kind of odd considering the book is named after them. After we are introduced, we find out that the Master has written his magnum opus, a book about Pontius Pilate, which he has just burned. His mistress, Margarita, has tried to encourage him to not give up, but she disappears, and he first arrested, then is committed to the mental institution. She believes he is dead, and goes seeking Woland to get him back. She ends up becoming a witch and hosting the Walpurgis Night ball, before she is reunited with the Master.

In one of the iconic scenes, the burned manuscript is resurrected.

“Let me see it.” Woland held out his hand, palm up.
“Unfortunately, I cannot do that,” replied the master, “because I burned it in the stove.”
“Forgive me, but I don’t believe you,” Woland replied, “that cannot be: manuscripts don’t burn.”

“Manuscripts don’t burn” has become the most famous line from the novel: one I had heard before I knew the book existed. It became an axiom in the Soviet Union, and it represented the spirit of protest. As the Master says, it doesn’t matter if he has the manuscript, because it is all inside his head. The ideas do not die, they cannot be exterminated, even by fire.

I won’t go any further with the plot than that. The whole impression of the novel is a bizarre mix of slapstick, satire, surrealism, and goodness knows what else. It is crazy and it will make you crazy, just as it did poor Ivan. Or perhaps the world is just crazy and he is the only sane one. Or both.

There are a few additional things I want to mention. In addition to currency wars, the politics of getting a scarce apartment is a topic that Bulgakov takes time to thoroughly skewer. From the multiple families sharing a flat - but each with their own little bit of territory: a personal Primus stove - to the rampant bribery, the author raises the reality to the level of a farce.

This book has a lot of references to historical personages, some of which, like Berlioz and Schiller, really don’t need an introduction. But other more minor persons, particularly contemporary Soviet notables in thinly disguised portraits, are harder to recognize. Fortunately, these are footnoted in the edition I have. Some others are ones that I personally enjoyed seeing, such as the Concertmaster at the Walpurgis ball, Henri Vieuxtemps. Perhaps only music nerds will recognize him as one of the most influential violinists of all time, practically inventing many of the techniques we all use today. Brownie points to Bulgakov for passing over the more obvious Paganini (who was rumored to have sold his soul to the devil) for the more obscure yet more influential figure.

Another line really made me smile, and it occurs in the scene where Koroviev and Behemoth are having a last fling - literally burning the town down - before they all leave Moscow for good. They show up at the restaurant that caters to the writers and critics, where their identification is demanded. (Not just anyone can eat here…) Koroviev insists that they are writers, and opines that Dostoevsky never had to present papers to prove he could write.

“You’re not Dostoevsky,” said the citizeness, who was getting muddled by Koroviev.
“Well, who knows, who knows,” he replied.
“Dostoevsky’s dead,” said the citizeness, but somehow not very confidently.
“I protest!” Behemoth exclaimed hotly. “Dostoevsky is immortal!”

One final scene contrasts with this humor. Margarita, who is the voice of compassion in the novel, has a chance at the end to plead for mercy for Pilate, who is condemned to an eternity of unfulfilled longing.

“What is he saying?” asked Margarita, and her perfectly calm face clouded over with compassion.
“He says one and the same thing,” Woland replied. “He says that even the moon gives him no peace, and that his is a bad job. That is what he always says when he is not asleep, and when he sleeps, he dreams one and the same thing: there is a path of moonlight, and he wants to walk down it and talk with the prisoner Ha-Nozri, because, as he insists, he never finished what he was saying that time, long ago, on the fourteenth day of the spring month of Nisan. But alas, for some reason he never manages to get on to this path, and no one comes to him.”

And this is the most beautiful moment in the novel, when the Master is able to free the character he has written his book about, and Pilate is able to walk down that path of moonlight with Christ as he has longed to do these 2000 years.

Without a doubt, this was an unusual book, not particularly easy to understand - particularly while in the middle. But in it one can see echoes of other books. Faust, most obviously. But also in the famous Grand Inquisitor scene in The Brothers Karamazov, in the writings of Tolstoy. And one can hear the voices of the Soviet artists of the 20th century, all seeking to do what they must: to write, to compose, to express, to tell the truth. As all totalitarian systems on all sides of the political spectrum have always known, it is the artists that pose the greatest danger, because their truth runs deeper than censorship, deeper than mere words and notes, and touches the very soul. Art is, in its own way, like that longing to walk the path of moonlight, to transcend. Ultimately, this necessity has defied the many attempts of despots to suppress it. Out of Stalin’s purges and forced atheism came this novel which spoke of something greater, something beyond the cramped vision of material success and ideological purity. And Caesar and Stalin are exposed as no different from the inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s book, worshiping power and exerting control by creating an artificial version of reality. Like Goethe, Bulgakov sees Woland and Mephistopheles as forces that are ultimately beneficial because they challenge the mirage of human power and terror. I’ll end with the quote from Goethe’s Faust which Bulgakov uses to preface the novel:

“...who are you then?”
“I am part of that power which eternally wills evil and eternally works good.”

Sunday, April 23, 2017

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

A law school classmate of mine recently assigned one of his kids the task of reading all of the Newbery Award winners - that’s nearly 100 books. And those are just the winners, not the honorable mentions. I have read 20 of them - and a good number of the runner ups - but nowhere near the whole list. Over the last three years, we have added several of them to our audiobook queue, including this one. 

First of all, before you read this book, I strongly recommend you read the winner from 1963: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. (Conveniently reviewed by me in this post.)  The reason why is that the book features prominently - and in important ways - in When You Reach Me. It is possible to follow the story without the background, but things make more sense and the story is richer if you know the subtext.

When You Reach Me is, by analogy to Magical Realism, “SciFi Realism.” The book is mostly realistic, and mostly about relationships. Parent to child, friend to friend, antagonistic relationships and friendly ones.

The story is set in New York City in the late 1970s. The author, Rebecca Stead, based much of the setting on her own childhood. The themes too are related to her experiences at that age, particularly her own love for A Wrinkle in Time, and her realization that she was acting mean for no reason. Thus, the main character, Miranda, learns to seek to build relationships rather than compete for attention in much the same way that the author did. Stead also noted that she wanted to portray the way that children back then enjoyed significantly more freedom at younger ages than they do now - despite the fact that the world is actually an objectively far safer place than it was back then. (Look at statistics on muggings and sexual assault in NYC in the 70s versus now…)

Miranda is trying to navigate 6th grade when things start to go sideways. Her best (and really only) friend Sal is punched randomly by a guy named Marcus, who is a math whiz, but socially awkward. Sal stops speaking to Miranda, who can’t figure it out. She clashes with her mom over typical adolescent stuff, and finds herself both making new friends and clashing with others. And then this weird old homeless guy shows up and starts sleeping with his head under the apartment complex mailbox, and she gets weird cryptic notes that appear to be able to foretell the future.

The mystery itself slowly unfolds - my wife and I figured out the solution just after halfway through the book - sooner than Miranda - but we had the advantage of age and suspension of disbelief. I’m not sure when the kids each got it, because I was driving and couldn’t exchange meaningful glances with the back seats. It’s a good mystery, though. The story itself is imaginative, and different. It doesn’t feel like a predictable twist on a usual story, which is nice.

I also liked that it had a host of nuanced characters. There aren’t any villains, even though it is easy to think so. (The rich, snobby girl, Julia, is a villain because of how she is perceived, as much as anything, and as Miranda changes, so does how she perceives Julia.) The various parents are believable and a bit eccentric. Miranda’s mother, the single mom who dresses a bit off, but who treats Miranda “like a person,” as Annmarie says. Annmarie’s dad, who works from home, and is a bit obsessive about the special diet she needs, but who is a kind and decent person. Julia’s mom, who absolutely must not be disturbed ever when she is in the closet meditating. And a few others, like the Soup Nazi-like school supplies administrator, or the hole-in-the-wall sandwich shop owner, Jerry, who is crusty, a bit odd, a bit racist, and hoards $2.00 bills, Richard, the German-American boyfriend of Miranda’s mom, who defies the “evil stepparent” stereotype while helping keep Miranda and her mom from being too serious about the small things. They are people you care about, and recognize as being more than a little like someone you know.

It also bears mentioning that this book treats its themes lightly. There are some good jokes and funny scenes that kept even the most jaded of my kids laughing. It really was an enjoyable book.

I am hoping we can add a few more of these winning books to our list over the next few years. Great stories are timeless, and there are many outstanding writers telling new tales for new times, inspiring the imagination, and cultivating empathy and nuanced thinking.

The audiobook was read by Cynthia Holloway, who did a decent job. I don’t have any complaints - it was good - but it didn’t stand out in any particular way. Sometimes that is the best compliment: the reader didn’t get in the way of the story.

Anyway, this Newbery winner for 2010 is worth a read - just be sure to read the 1963 winner too.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Romeo and Juliet (The Empty Space 2017)

This is by no means the first time I have seen this play. I read it during high school, and have seen at least a couple of local productions prior to this one. It has been a few years, and only the older kids were old enough to go see it. All except my youngest came to see this one with me at The Empty Space.

As with all Shakespeare plays, Romeo and Juliet reveals new insights every time you see it. Some of this is the difference in how it is interpreted by the actors and director. But some too is just how the human brain perceives things differently at different times.

I will assume for purposes of this post that everyone is familiar with the plot, the characters, and Shakespeare’s particular take on an ancient story.

I have plugged The Empty Space before. It’s a local theater which is low on budget and stage space, but high on production values and commitment to excellence. The experience is always worth much more than the low ticket prices would suggest.

The casting was interesting in a number of ways. The title characters were - as they should be - rather young. Tessa Ogles as Juliet captured the naivete and purity of love that the character requires. She is deeply in love, but a love without that first taste of disillusionment, and one senses that Romeo is not at all worthy of her. (This was a bit of a new insight for me. Usually, I find Juliet to be as silly as Romeo. Overearnest, yes, but not as pure as in this case.) I saw Ogles last year as the one normal family member in You Can’t Take It With You, where she likewise turned in a memorable and believable performance. 

 Tessa Ogles as Juliet
Publicity photo - The Empty Space 

Romeo, in contrast, is written as flaky more than truly in love. After all, he spends the opening scenes mooning over Rosaline, who maintains her chastity, to Romeo’s frustration. Nick Ono chose to make Romeo hopelessly melodramatic and unable - or unwilling - to come to terms with his own emotional instability. As much as he falls for Juliet, he is more concerned about the way fate has wronged him as he is about her needs. His was not the favorite of the portrayals I have seen, but it is a legitimate take on the character, and he sells it well. When Friar Lawrence has to drag him off the floor, the blubbering, quivering mess that he has become is entirely in line with the way Ono sets the character up. 

 Romeo (Nick Ono) and Juliet (Tessa Ogles)
Publicity photo - The Empty Space 

Another character which stood out to me this time were Lady Capulet (Carolyn Fox), who owned her scenes. Fox is a regular at The Empty Space, and fuses restraint and emotionality in her roles. The interplay of Juliet and her mother is interesting to me. There is a definite emotional distance that neither is able to bridge, which is why when Juliet realizes her nurse isn’t really on her side, she is so devastated. She literally has no one to turn to, with Tybalt dead, her parents distant, and her confidant selling her out. (And Romeo, even if he had anywhere near the strength to provide her some stability, has been banished.)

As for the nurse, I think this is the first time I really felt her to be a malevolent character. Because she is funny and witty and all, it is easy to miss the lines where she makes clear that she resents that Juliet lived, while her own daughter died. Juliet doesn’t realise it herself until it is too late, and she regrets that she has revealed as much as she has. Amy Hall is also a veteran actor, and turned in a strong performance in that role.

One unexpected treat was Nolan Long as Peter, the illiterate servant tasked with delivering invitations. Because of the limited number of lines, the part is often (in amateur productions particularly) given to someone who is still learning the craft. The lines are funny by themselves, but they are so much better when well played. Long nailed it, with perfect timing, physical humor, and truly inhabiting the part. Also, a bonus for dancing like nobody was watching during the ball.

There were plenty of other good performances. Ryan Lee (who was outstanding in Arsenic and Old Lace and The Glass Menagerie) as the uptight Paris. The always-delightful Cory Rickard as Friar Lawrence. Blanka Trujillo as a female Benvolio (which made the frisson between her and Romeo more apparent).

But the two best played parts - and the best parts in the play - go to Mercutio and Tybalt. Had Shakespeare not killed them off in the third act, they would have dominated the play entirely, which is presumably why he had to do it.

Justin Thompson, as a particularly ribald and portly Mercutio was hilarious, scandalous, and entirely unsafe to be around. Thompson would make a fine Falstaff. Not everyone can pull off the naughty jokes in Shakespeare, but Thompson relished in them. He was Mercutio, jokester to the last, even as he curses both houses for making him an inadvertent martyr to their stupid feud. 

 Romeo (Nick Ono) and Mercutio (Justin Thompson)
Publicity photo - The Empty Space 

Tybalt takes his name from the cat character in the Medieval stories of Reynard the Fox, which is why Mercutio taunts him as “The Prince of Cats.” Shakespeare probably also intended to reference the cat character himself, the quarrelsome, sly, and corrupt constable portrayed by Chaucer. This character is able to manipulate others into doing his bidding, bringing trouble on themselves while Tybalt goes free. Thus the reference to “rat catcher.” Mercutio probably also intended to bait Tybalt by questioning his manhood - which is pretty effective.

Isaac Asimov also points out (in his excellent book on Shakespeare) that Tybalt is the only person on either side of the feud who actually takes the feud seriously. Lord Capulet knows Romeo has crashed his party, and complements Romeo, infuriating Tybalt. Juliet herself is heavily influenced by Tybalt, which is probably why she thrills at the idea of a forbidden love.

In this version, Tybalt was played by Claire Rock, in a “trousers” role. With some seriously righteous hair. She showed an edge of menace in the part which was delightful. 

 Claire Rock as the Prince of Cats
Publicity photo - The Empty Space 

Romeo and Juliet isn’t really set in any place or time period, so it invites imaginative settings. The Empty Space chose the 1960s, complete with fun costumes and a marvelous soundtrack. (Among others, tunes from The Who’s Tommy.)

I also should not fail to mention the excellent fight choreography in this production. Brass knuckles and knives took the place of swords, and everything was carefully set up to match the music, blow for blow. The time they put in to pull it off must have been incredible. The larger fights were crazy enough, but the best had to have been the fight between Romeo and Paris in the tomb. The only lighting was Romeo’s discarded flashlight (carefully placed, of course) and the fight went from full speed to slow motion until the last, where it felt like a strobe effect, with the knife outlined against the glare of the naked light on the ground. Whoever planned that out deserves serious brownie points.

Romeo and Juliet runs for one more weekend, so if you are a Bakersfield local, go out and see it. The Utah Shakespeare Festival is also doing the play this summer - my wife is planning to make her annual pilgrimage.


This post needs some classical music too. The best known music related to Romeo and Juliet has to be Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. Next would probably be Tchaikovsky’s tone poem based on the story.

My favorite, though is Prokofiev’s ballet. I haven’t played the entire thing, but I have played both suites.

I first played two excerpts during my junior high days in the viola section of a youth orchestra in Los Angeles.

The first was “Montagues and Capulets,” which is just fabulous writing. Those clashing chords in the winds at the beginning, with the strings slipping in unnoticed at pianissimo. Then the feuding sections (primarily cellos versus violas) laying down the groove while that unforgettable melody from the violins floats on top. And the middle section, portraying the innocence of Juliet, with the glissandos in the strings under the flute. 

The second is the scene with Romeo and Mercutio masked at the ball. Typical Prokofiev melodies. 

And, because Tybalt is a key character, the fight scene and death of Tybalt. This is the most wickedly difficult bit I have played, particularly starting at around 1:35. Yikes. (And this is a slower tempo in this recording…) Then those seemingly endless hammer strokes, followed by that grotesque and disjointed funeral march which grows ever more dissonant until the end.

I can’t resist one more, the folk dance. I just love this exuberant and crazy bit of music. But those exposed high notes in the violins…

Monday, April 17, 2017

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Source of book: Borrowed from the library.

This book probably fits better into the “Books I Should Have Read in College” category, rather than the “Books I Should Have Read in High School” one. And yes, this is the first Marquez I have read, I am pretty sure. I’ll have to read One Hundred Years of Solitude in the future. 

Love in the Time of Cholera was the last of Marquez’s three best known novels, published in 1985, nearly 20 years after One Hundred Years of Solitude. Born in Colombia, Marquez was one of the greatest Latin American authors of the 20th Century. Although Marquez is best known for his use of Magical Realism, this book is just realistic, with no magical elements. Unless you count coincidence, which is the stock in trade of the romantic story from time immemorial.

The story is that of a love triangle which lasts for over 50 years. Florentino Ariza starts off as a young and awkward man who falls in love with the beautiful Fermina Daza, the daughter of a former mule-driver who has become rich - through illicit trade, as it turns out later. She seems to return his love, but her father wants a wealthy man for her. After she is taken away for a while to forget him, she doesn’t. But when they reunite, she realizes that it is just infatuation, not love. Then, she is courted by Dr. Juvenal Urbino, a doctor who will go on to do great things toward the eradication of cholera, and become famous. Even at the outset, he is rich and somewhat famous, and it appears to be the perfect match. They marry and have children, and have what appears to be a happy and solid relationship until his death. Florentino, meanwhile, has never married, and courts her after she is widowed.

This book is both well written and impossibly melodramatic. I mean, I am kinda sorta romantic and all, and I love emotional poetry. I play violin, for heaven’s sake! But this was a bit much at times.

The meaning of the book has been debated. Many see in it a tribute to the endurance of true love. Others seem unhealthy obsession. Perhaps both are true. Florentino is a bit of an icky character who gets worse as the book goes on. Initially, you have to root for him, the underdog, to get the girl. And, in some ways, his single minded focus on getting Fermina someday, inevitably, is admirable. But he isn’t exactly faithful in the way most of us might understand it. He never marries, but he does sleep with too many women to count, and even keeps a little black book like Don Juan. Some of these affairs are actually understandable. He is seduced by a widow, who has no intention of marrying again, so the two have an understanding that they are not committed but just passing time with each other as friends and lovers. Many of his lovers are like that: consensual affairs between unattached adults with no misunderstandings about intentions. Others, though, are more problematic. The married women, for example. Although, in the society the story is set in, the men are pretty much all sleeping around on their wives anyway, and the marriages were arranged, so a wink and a nod about what happened as long as nobody got caught. But, a bit more icky.

The worst, though, came near the end, when the 70ish Florentino seduces a 14 year old girl - his ward. At this point, it is pretty clear just how selfish Florentino is, and how little he really cares for the feelings and needs of others. Even his obsession with Fermina is all about him, not her, and her lack of reciprocal feelings are an obstacle for him to overcome, not an indication that he should give her her space. This whole episode is sordid, and makes you want to take a shower afterward.

Notwithstanding the above, I was struck by just how well Marquez writes about sex. In general, I believe less is more, and that the harder the author tries to be graphic (“realistic”), the less sexy the scene is. If anything, the best use of graphic sex is to write the most unsexy, awkward scenes. But Marquez actually manages to be (sort of) graphic and sexy at the same time. I mean, this isn’t porn, of course, but body parts are named. Marquez knows when to disclose detail, and when to elide, when to turn away and let the imagination take over, and when to give a delicious detail that gives a bit of a thrill.

The best character in the book, in my opinion, is Dr. Juvenal Urbino. He is the foil to Florentino. Where Florentino is all emotion and smoldering fire, Urbino is ice and steel. He is rationality to Florentino’s emotion. While Florentino represents the past - even his work eventually running a riverboat company is anachronistic by the end of the book - Urbino is modernity. Modern medicine. Modern, globalistic, rational, and focused. He lives a regimented life, hewing to routine, and getting things done. The city and the nation rightfully owe him a debt. But as a result, even his wooing of Fermina is mechanical. He is just a tiny bit short of humanity.

But because Marquez is a good writer, even this script is oversimple. Just as Florentino’s affairs have a mechanistic feel to them after time, Urbino has a human side. One of the best scenes in the book is on his and Fermina’s honeymoon, when he half-clinically, half-romantic-in-a-gentle-way introduces Fermina to the male body and sex. It is a delightful bit of work, and Urbino comes off as a rather nice guy, patient and kind, even as he worries that her inhibitions may prove too much to overcome. Urbino also shows his humanity in his discomfort with his mortality. (This is a common theme in the book, actually.) He also ends up having a single affair, and suffers significant embarrassment when he is discovered. To some degree, I identify with Urbino. I have more of a passionate nature, I would say, but I like order, routine, and focus on goals. If I had his wealth and talent, I would tend his direction.

The portrayal of the marriage between Urbino and Fermina is subtle as well. Their marriage has its ups and downs, its good and bad, its moments of love and moments of conflict. While it is hard to say the marriage is truly great - it isn’t really a grand passion - but it isn’t bad either. They both treat each other well most of the time, even if Urbino is as patriarchal and sexist as any man in Columbia in the early 20th Century. (Marquez is well aware of the gender issues - he writes them as they were, even as he notes the unfairness.) It is a thoroughly realistic marriage. And while such a marriage would not be my first choice, it wouldn’t be my last either. It’s a functional, moderately happy marriage, but without much in the way of passion.

The other part of the book that is truly thoughtful and elevates the story above the fluffy romance it could have been is the fact that the main characters (and a few minor ones) are all fully aware of and haunted by their mortality. Florentino believes in his heart that he will outlive Urbino and be able to get Fermina in the end. But he worries he won’t, that he will die first, and his life (from his perspective) will have been wasted. Fermina finds that she is discontent because of what she has failed to attain and believes she never will. She craves passion, but as she ages, she believes it has passed her by. (And her children are all too eager to opine that romance for older people is vulgar and disgusting - something many still believe, sadly.) Urbino is continually haunted by the thought of his death. As a doctor, he knows all too well the signs of aging and decline, and he has already by his accidental death (in an amusing and unlikely fall) seen the early signs of dementia in his own brain. This is just the surface, as there are references throughout to aging and death and the effects these have on the characters.

Just a few lines stood out as worth quoting. About one married woman Florentino sleeps with:

[She] seemed to belong to the wasp family, not only because of her high buttocks and meager bosom, but because of everything about her: her hair like copper wire, her freckles, her round, animated eyes that were farther apart than normal, and her melodious voice that she used only for saying intelligent and amusing things.

It is shocking that, without warning, this woman is brutally murdered by her husband a few pages later.

On the issue of cholera, which is used both as part of the narrative and as a metaphor (cholera is etymologically related to “choler”: red blood and the humor of passion), the author notes that Urbino’s father falls victim to the epidemic while Urbino is in Europe in medical school - and that one quarter of the population of the city dies. We forget just how much we have benefited from modern sanitation sometimes.

After Urbino returns, he not only works to reform the sanitation systems of the city, he is instrumental in establishing a local opera. While the patrons had to bring their own chairs at first, it eventually became an institution. The success led, as the author notes, to a plethora of kids named after famous characters.

But it never reached the extremes Dr. Urbino had hoped for, which was to see Italianizers and Wagnerians confronting each other with sticks and canes during the intermissions.

I just about died laughing at that one.

Finally, there is a line right near the beginning (which starts with the week of Urbino’s death, before going back and telling the story from the beginning) which talks about Dr. Urbino’s tendency to use medications on himself for the symptoms of old age, while lecturing his patients for wanting to do the same.

He arose at the crack of dawn, when he began to take his secret medicines: potassium bromide to raise his spirits, salicylates for the ache in his bones when it rained, ergosterol drops for vertigo, belladonna for sound sleep. He took something every hour, always in secret, because in his long life as a doctor and teacher he had always opposed prescribing palliatives for old age: it was easier for him to bear other people’s pains than his own.

Isn’t that the truth?

The book I read is the classic translation by Edith Grossman. It reads well, and flows, so I have no complaints.

Despite its melodramatic nature, this book is deeper and more intriguing than the plot itself would indicate. The ending is unsatisfying, but for the same reason that life itself is unsatisfying. What might have been is an unanswered question, and the roads we take by definition foreclose others. Nothing will ever be perfect or as we dream it. But what it is, what it becomes, and what we make it, are interesting too, and the inexorable march of time and change overcome us all in the end.