A little while ago, I wrote an article on “Literature and Literary Fiction.” But thinking more on this subject (as I’ve been doing most of my life) I found I was unsatisfied with it. So here are some further thoughts on those qualities that I think are necessary not only for “literary fiction” but for “great” literature in general—to which, as I suggested before, literary fiction aspires, if perhaps rarely achieving it.
Following a suggestion on the Amazon discussions website, I shall take one book and try to say what makes it a work of literature. Before that, however, it is worth noting that “literature” always means something acknowledged by the society in which it appears, sometimes to the extent of becoming “iconic.” All literate societies have their own great writers. Unpublished works may have the potential to become “literature” (as we shall see below) but until they are part of an accepted canon they haven’t yet achieved it.
We might also notice that quality of the writing is usually a given but isn’t in itself sufficient to produce literature. And sometimes works we consider as literature have their faults. Tolstoy, for example, is unnecessarily wordy, with long discussions and rarely using one adjective where three will do, while Herman Melville’s Moby Dick suffers from excessive length. Then tastes change: many of the great nineteenth-century novels would be considered overwritten if produced today.
So what are the major qualities of a work of literature (and of art in general too)? What I didn’t emphasize enough in my earlier article was originality—which doesn’t, of course, mean novelty for its own sake. Today originality is hard to achieve, for after so many years of artists creating how do we come up with something new? Others may disagree, but I find that all too often writers take refuge in simple description of everyday life: engaging because it is familiar but with little to say beyond that. While suggestive description is necessary to set a scene, too much can become boring. I have a short attention span and unless there is a good story, with interesting and challenging ideas, I will abandon a book in the middle.
As an example of “great literature”—indeed what I consider to be the greatest novel of the entire twentieth century—I shall take Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. (I am perhaps biased, since Bulgakov was my major research interest. I’ll talk more of this below, as well as giving some details about the writing of the book). The Master and Margarita is the story of the Devil visiting Moscow in the 1930s and creating havoc there: this combined with the story of Jesus before Pilate as told by an unknown writer, the Master, and the latter’s love for Margarita. Some people (particularly those with little knowledge of life in the once Soviet Union) may find it difficult to read, and yet, when I was teaching Russian Literature, it is the only book of which a student has ever said “I started it yesterday night and finished it at eight o’clock this morning because I couldn’t put it down.”
Besides having a good story, it’s a novel I can read and reread, and be totally engrossed with every sentence. Although its locales can be identified with actual places in Moscow (which is a great deal of fun), and although everyday life is alluded to satirically, it certainly doesn’t simply describe this. Instead, it takes us into the whole realm of fantasy, with something meaningful to say, although we may be puzzled initially as to what it’s all about. I used to tell my students that the best way to approach it is to start with what they find most interesting, leaving detailed interpretations for those who wish to delve further. In short, it is a book that has everything—which is why I regard it as great literature
I have no wish to repeat interpretations I’ve given in detail elsewhere, so what follows is very general. Looking at its themes, one finds:
- Religion and what life is all about
- Satire on contemporary Soviet life (very funny for anyone who experienced it)
- The contrast between light and darkness, good and evil, and what kind of peace one may find in the afterlife
- The enduring nature of art. (Its most famous line, said with regard to the Master's burning his own novel, is “Manuscripts don’t burn!”)
- The power of love
- The meaning of discipleship
It’s also worth mentioning that Bulgakov takes identifiable sources—notably the Bible, traditional demonology, and Goethe’s Faust—and changes them all to create something new.
- Satan is essentially a figure for good, named Woland after a character in Faust. He is surrounded by three “devilish” characters (one of them an enormous comical cat, another a woman who’s a vampire) who also can be identified with figures from the Bible, the Apocrypha, and Goethe.
- Margarita (based on the woman who was to become Bulgakov’s third wife, with her name and some if not all characteristics again taken from Faust) becomes the traditional witch in a Witches’ Sabbath or Black Mass.
- Jesus, rather than godlike, is a human figure, timid and afraid of death, while Judas, who betrayed him, is murdered at Pilate’s veiled command.
- Pilate himself longs for—and at the end achieves—reunification in the afterlife with the Jesus he was obliged to have crucified.
All of this may be complicated, but no one can avoid realizing the depth of Bulgakov’s knowledge and understanding.
The novel can be found in various translations, in slightly different editions since it originally appeared in censored form. It went through different versions from about 1928 until 1940, when Bulgakov, blind and on his death bed, was still dictating changes to his wife. This accounts for its undoubtedly untidy structure. His wife, however, for political reasons, had to wait for more propitious circumstances before it could be published: in 1966-67. For twenty-six years after his death Bulgakov remained unknown outside a small circle of friends, with no publications or performances of his plays and seemingly without hope of his works ever becoming “literature.” It was still some time until he finally became accepted as one of Russia’s major writers (with my help, I am proud to say).
My book Mikhail Bulgakov; Life and Interpretations was the first academic monograph on him to appear, published by the University of Toronto Press in 1978. A xerox copy was smuggled into the Soviet Union, while a copy of the book itself somehow got into the “Secret Archives” of the Lenin Library in Moscow. (As of last checking it’s still there. I later gave the Library a second copy, which is now on the open shelves.) So for a while I became known as “the” expert on Bulgakov, invited to give lectures on him in Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev, as well as in the West, at a time when he was still barely accepted.
My book isn’t listed on this site since it’s out of print, although second-hand copies or reprints may be found, sometimes at exorbitant prices: check Amazon and other bookselling sites. There’s also a whole list of my published scholarly articles on Bulgakov on my web-site www.acolinwright.ca. (These may be difficult to find without tracking them down in a university library. But see in particular “Satan in Moscow: An Approach to Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.)
To return to those of us who write “literary fiction.” I can only stand in awe before Bulgakov and my other literary “heroes” (Goethe, Kafka, Thomas Mann, Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov to name a few). Alas, I know I haven’t produced anything comparable, and I suspect that it is the same with most of us. Well I have one novel that I think is highly original (Veronica’s Papers—so original that it’s still waiting for a publisher!) and a number of well-written stories and plays. But in the meantime, all of us writers of “literary fiction” can only acknowledge great literature as our model and do our best to approach it. Who knows if we’ll ever be successful in creating it? But then Bulgakov, when he died, didn’t know either, even if I suspect that he knew within himself that he was a great writer.
So let us recall what I quoted in my other article, when Bulgakov said of Tolstoy: “The fact that he existed ... that there existed the phenomenon of Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy obliges every Russian writer after Tolstoy ... to be mercilessly strict towards himself and others”; it obliges him “To complete truth of thought and word. ... To utter sincerity. To knowing why and for what end you are writing! To a merciless intolerance towards every untruth in your own compositions! That's what the fact that there was a Lev Tolstoy in Russia obliges us to!” That, of course, applies to all of us too.
For more on A. Colin Wright, see www.acolinwright.ca, and for his recent novel, Sardinian Silver, www.sardiniansilver.com. For more blogs, articles and short stories, see elsewhere on this site.