Saturday, October 06, 2012

Memories of My Favorite Book(s)

Last night, a few beers and a whiskey deep, I tried to describe to my friend Kevin why I love Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, which I seem to blather on about, at least on the web.  Being a sheet or two to the wind, little of what I said probably made sense.  I think it went like this:

“Dude… the devil comes to Moscow and, uh, shit happens.  Jesus and Pilate.  And a cat, a big fuckin’ cat with a gun drinks vodka.” 

Yeah, I’m not helping the Bulgakov estate with that description. 

I am always at a loss to explain why I love the book, even when sober.  I suppose I could go on about its satirical elements, it’s importance as a document of Stalinist repression, its imaginative qualities (magic realism is what many might call it, but that’s a loaded term), its scope, the brilliant translation by Burgin and O’Connor (better than the one by Pevear and Volokhonsky); I could spout any number of reasons why I obsess over that book, why I own 25 copies, why I subscribe to the fan page’s news feed, why I want to go to Moscow and visit the Bulgakov house, but what can I really say that will convince anyone that they ought to read this book?  More important:  should I bother? 

No, I probably shouldn’t.  Still, I come now to realize that the reasons why I love the books I love have as much to do with the memories attached to them as anything else.  Maybe that’s a better way into this discussion.  Without further ado, memories of reading my five favorite books (all tied for first place):

The Master and Margarita

I have a few distinct memories attached to this book.  I learned about it while killing time at Barbara’s Books in the basement of the Sears Tower.  It was a staff recommendation.  I always pay attention to those, even if only to laugh dismissively at them (On the Road?  C’mon).  The cover, which people wrongly say one should never judge a book by, also struck me: a silhouette of a cat against a red cityscape.  That image connected with me and I decided to buy the book.

I read it over the next few days, mostly while sneaking out of the office.  I was working in the courier room of a large healthcare council.  My boss was a shrewish scarecrow perpetually busy with trying to get laid via online chat rooms.  She never noticed if I took a longer than average break.  And over those next few days, that is what I did.  I hid in the Sears Tower Starbucks reading Bulgakov well into the afternoon.  I had to hustle to get the last few deliveries out the door, but it was worth it. 

Years later, I would reread the book with a large cat on my lap.  I was allergic to my Gato, but he was worth the mouth breathing and itchy eyes.  As I turned a page and read a bit, Behemoth, the gun-totting cat of Bulgakov's novel, let out a meow just as my own fat cat meowed in my face.  At the time, this was rare (Gato was pretty mellow), so I was appropriately freaked out by the coincidence.  

The Master and Margarita is also one of the books I gave to my wife to read.  I may have demanded that she read the thing.  It has since become an important book in our lives, cementing our union.  Some couples have a song.  We have books.  

Side note: this did not happen to me, but my friend Roland (who I often refer to as Woland, the devil in The Master and Margarita), claims that he read some of the book while on an international flight.  When he opened it, the plan hit turbulence.  When he closed it, the shaking ceased.  This happened a few times, leading him to conclude that reading the book would cause a disaster.  Yeah, it's that powerful.

The Sound and Fury

Another one that required multiple readings, though I knew the minute I finished the Benjy section that there was no better novel produced by an American and that there never will be.  I was working for the Aspidistra Bookshop.  My boss was “a Faulkner man” who derided my interest in Hemingway (there seems to be a rivalry between fans of these writers).  Taking my boss’s advice, I gave Faulkner a whirl.  I’ve never been the same.

The Sound and the Fury takes me back to the Aspidistra but also to a train ride through parts of the south.  Faulkner seemed an appropriate companion and rereading his masterpiece was the ideal way to whittle away a long, lonely trip.

Three Trapped Tigers

After reading page one of this book, G. Cabrera Infante rocketed to the top of my list of heroes.  The novel (if you can call it that) has been called the Cuban Ulysses.  Fuck that bullshit—TTT is better than Ulysses.  Joyce, for all his wordplay, never managed to make me laugh as much as G. Cabrera Infante.  I think of this book and remember reading it on a Pace bus heading down 79th street to see my family.  I laughed out loud and the oddballs who ride Pace buses (meth-headed suburbanites, drunks who have racked up too many DUIs, twitchy southwest side teens) cast their eyes my way wondering about this weirdo among them who was reading, of all things, a book. 

A few nights later, I finished the book while apartment sitting for my fiend, Julie.  She lives in a very nice high-rise pad that overlooks the lake and a bit of the skyline and, if you stretch your head, some of Wrigley Field.  It was dark and foggy and the skyline looked like fingers poking through smoke.  I read the very long “Bachata” section and the strange closing pages, put the book down, finished a beer, and watched the skyline of my favorite city with thoughts of the Havana I will never see, partially because travel to Cuba is verboten by our stupid government and partially because the city, as Cabrera Infante often said, is forever lost. 

The Obscene Bird of Night

Aside from having the greatest title in literary history, this is a book that was fated to be a favorite of mine as it takes the magic realism so popular with American readers of Latin American fiction and turns it into something horrific, grotesque, and chilling.  The ending of the book, which I read during a lunch break away from the law firm, reminded me of Robert De Niro disappearing in newspaper at the end of Brazil.  I was very creeped out at the conclusion of the book, so much so that returning to the office seemed a bad idea.  I dreaded seeing the one-eyed troll who served as my coworker and fancied herself my superior.  And indeed, immediately upon my return, this cyclops barked orders at me, demanding I attend to a chore that, really, she could have done had she not been so busy pretending to be busy.   I think I laughed in her face, my head full of the freaks that populate Jose Donoso’s nightmare of novel. Everything seemed so absurd.

Vilnius Poker

This is a recent addition to the list of my favorite books.  Again, my number one favorite book is comprised of all five on this list, and I knew when I finished Ričardas Gavelis’s masterpiece that I had just read something extraordinary.  I was sitting in my bedroom while my wife readied herself for our night out (we went to Kevin’s place that night—dude, you’re in this post twice!).  I told her we couldn’t leave until I finished the book.  I was somewhere around twenty or thirty pages away from the end, but I knew that I wouldn’t be able to think straight until I got done with the book. (And indeed, I don't know that I have recovered from the final moments of Vilnius Poker.  I think about them pretty much every day.) 

This is not to say that Vilnius Poker is a page-turner.  The opposite—it took me quite some time to read it.  I had taken a break form it when I met some Lithuanian women at the Russian Tea Time restaurant.  I was with my wife and we were taking a long lunch away from the office (that seems to be a theme of this post).  It was very cold that day and I was fortifying myself with mushroom barely soup and vodka.  The women at the next table struck up a conversation with us.  One of them was on her way back to Vilnius, never to return to America, or so she said.  It seemed sad, but, as her friend told us, her mind was made up and there was no changing it.  (The ladies were living in Oak Lawn, the city where I was born, not a giant coincidence seeing as we were eating in Chicago, but I rarely meet people who hail from my old stomping grounds, at least not at Russian Tea Time.)  I had never met anyone from Lithuania, so I asked her if she had heard of Vilnius Poker.   "Of course," she said.  We talked a bit about the book and I, so happy to have this connection, so amazed at the connective power of international literature, ordered another vodka sampler (three chilled, delicious shots). 

I returned to work drunk, full, and very happy with life.