2021 Book Reviews IV
Moscow to the End of the Line by Venedikt Yerofeyev
I was instantly sold on Moscow to the End of the Line as soon as I heard the basic premise; the story follows a recently unemployed man as he rides the train from Moscow to Petushki to visit his child and girlfriend, gets progressively drunker with each stop and regales the reader with his thoughts on philosophy, religion and politics. His view on alcohol is that it’s ambrosaic, that being drunk is the only way one can live a happy life, and that intoxication, at a certain point, becomes a spiritual experience, which is precisely what he describes during the train journey. It is all laced with typical Russian dark satirical wit, and given it was written in 1970, a lot of the critiques of Russian culture seem plausibly applicable today. Yerofoeyev is even less subtle than Kerouac when it comes to his stories being pseudo-autobiographical - all the former did was shorten his character’s first name to “Venya”. I love this kind of Russian literature that revels in the absurd and the nihilistic, and Yerofeyev makes some alarmingly cogent points about alcohol as both a spiritual guide and an intellectual stimulant.
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
I’m not sure I am smart enough to understand what Kafka was getting at with this one. The story of a man who wakes up one day to find he’s a giant cockroach, I know he is getting at something, I’m just not entirely confident as to what. Perhaps it’s a memento mori type deal? One day you might wake up and find you’re a giant cockroach, so make the most of your short time in human form? Or some kind of work/produce/consume/die tale, about how when we become trapped in the cycle of unfulfilling corporate dronery and familial caretaking we become no better than the lowly cockroach? Or the personification of existential dread - is man’s deepest fear that one day he will wake up having sprouted mandibles, spindly legs and antennae, unable to communicate with his loved ones and inexplicably salivating at the sight of mouldy cheese?
Honestly I have no idea. Alternative interpretations more than welcome.
Faust, Parts I & II by Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe
Embarrassingly, when I first picked up Faust I was expecting it to be prose, not a play written in verse form. Really this shows that I am being far too pretentious by attempting to read works like it, and should endeavour to have fewer ideas above my station.
With that being said, once I got used to reading it (largely ignoring metre as Goethe flies from one to another much like his fabled witches), I adored it. A tale about the worst parts of humanity, the superficial and banal which resides within all of us, combined with the purely fantastical and folkloric and the holy magnitude of the gods both Judeo-Christian and Hellenic, Faust held me enrapt for its entire duration. I felt like I journeyed to so many curious and wonderful places and was granted audience to many beings so wise and powerful, as if along for the same ride that Mephistopheles had granted the titular Faust, without having to pay for the fare with my soul in return. After adoring <em>Master and Margarita</em>, Faust was an obvious follow-up, as Bulgakov had drawn so much inspiration from Goethe’s epic tragedy (the Margarita in question is likely taken from Faust’s Margerite, and Bulgakov’s Voland is a 20th century reworking of Goethe’s Mephistopheles). I love the interweaving of religious themes in both works, especially in their most epic sense (although I similarly enjoyed the more restrained theological explorations in The Dharma Bums, Siddhartha and even Moscow to the End of the Line). An incredibly enjoyable high tale of the sort that have seemed unreproducable since Goethe’s time, I fully understand why this is considered to be the defining work of the Germanic literary canon.