‘Manuscripts don’t burn’
In 1968, the Rollings Stones released one of their most famous songs, ‘Sympathy for the Devil’. It immediately hit the charts and eventually became an iconic Stones song. Sure, you know this.
What you probably don’t know is that the song was inspired by the novel of the Russian playwright and author, Mikhail Bulgakov, who is now considered to be one of the greatest Russian writers of the XXth century. The book is called ‘The Master and Margarita’.
He began writing it in 1928 and finished only in 1940, the year he died. It wasn’t published in Russia and the West until 1967. Mick Jagger’s then-girlfriend Marianne Faithfull gave him the book as a present, and according to her, they had a lengthy discussion about it. Jagger himself has confirmed that several times.
I first read it in 1990 when I was sixteen. In the Soviet Union it had been released in very limited circulation but still has become an iconic thing staged at theaters and later, in post-Soviet times, as a movie or TV series. Back in 1990 it was perestroika time and the book has been released in great circulation by various publishing houses.
I’ve started reading the novel’s first chapter three times. In it, the Satan (his identity still not clear to the reader) comes to Moscow of the 1930s depicted as some weird foreign Professor Woland. The beginning seemed too boring to me as I couldn’t get inside the plot at such an early stage.
How I was wrong… after my third try it was like diving into the deep waters and never wanting to get out, to stop floating in this ocean… I was gulping it chapter by chapter, then getting back, choosing the favorite pieces and reading it again countless times. It was just like getting into some parallel dimension. The book has become larger than life to me at this time and for years to come.
The novel has two settings, mixed with each other, chapter-based. The first is Moscow during the 1930s, where Satan appears at Patriarch’s Ponds, a famous historical location, as Professor Woland. It is also a love story of the Master, a mad writer locked up in a home for the insane (it is believed this character to be a reflection of the author himself) and Margarita, a 30-year old beautiful woman. She lived, or I’d say, locked up in a passionless marriage with some Moscow bureaucrat much older than her. As the story goes by, the Master and Margarita lose each other, then encounter Woland in very strange ways…
The second setting is… the Jerusalem of Pontius Pilate where there is the trial of Yeshua Ha-Notsri or Jesus of Nazareth, going on. The author describes Jesus in the novel as a real person which was unthinkable for Soviet Russia. Pilate gets to the recognition of an affinity with Yeshua and even of some spiritual need for him… This is where Jagger got his idea for his song.
Finally, both settings meet, each leading to a very strange connection between Woland and Yeshua… ‘When evil is only seems to pretend evil but actually creates good…’ It then impacts Master and Margarita’s destiny, mysteriously changing their lives and spiritual habitat forever.
I love sci-fi and fantasy but this was a very unusual, even breathtaking plot staged in Stalin’s Moscow, so tightly mixed with reality, written in perfect language. It is deep and fun, satiric and serious, phantasmagoric and very real… I’ve never seen anything like this before in my life.
It is really hard and kind of useless trying to describe what the book is about. Love, devotion, good, evil, satire, fantasy; whole life is within the book, depicted in very dramatic style.
You better just read it and make your own opinion. Some critics consider it to be one of the best novels of the 20th century, as well as the foremost of Soviet satires.
P.S. The title of this blog is the most famous line from the book. The Master burned his book (just like the author who did the same with the first version of the novel) and, at some point, got it back from Woland, absolutely unharmed, along with this quotation…
My favourite book
Sounds and Scores – Henry Mancini
This is effectively a practical guide to professional orchestration, with all the hundreds of examples contained within being composed and arranged by the multi-award winning author.
It was originally published in 1962, and today, a pristine, unused copy is easily worth up to £500.00. I bought mine back in 1977, and even with over 40-odd years of wear and tear, it would still pocket me £50 or £60 on eBay, not that I ever intend to sell.
I’ll tell you how old it is – it came with four separate records, or discs, (not the compact sort either!) to help illustrate aurally around 150 passages of orchestration contained in the 243-page book.
Henry Mancini was a true legend – even if you’re not familiar with his name, you are almost bound to know some of his creations, like the song “Moon River”, or the theme tune to the “Pink Panther” films. He wrote music for over 60 films – check –
For a musician, this book has everything you need to know about each and every instrument of the orchestra; it will tell you, for instance, what the top and bottom notes of a bass flute are, and it contains all the hints and tips you would ever need for orchestrating and arranging, all written by one of the world’s greatest contemporary orchestrators and arrangers.
I have kept and referred to this book throughout my musical career, and still today in retirement, I am happy to peruse its contents. I marvel at how much easier it is today to use the many sophisticated computer programmes to actually “write” the millions of notes that are used in a score, rather than in Mancini’s day, (he died in 1994), when it still all had to be done by hand, using reams of expensive music manuscript paper.
All through the years, I always was able to vividly recall the last three sentences in the book. Mancini writes: “Finally, don’t fall in love with every note you write. The professional writer must be a first class editor. Be prepared to eliminate anything that tends to clutter up your score, painful as it may be to do so.”
If you substitute the word “note” with “word”, and then “score” with “blog”, I think it’s every bit as relevant to me today!
A Connoisseur of Rubbish!
First, you should know that I will never be asked to host a book of the month reading club. My taste in books is, well… lacking. It’s not that I don’t read, I read quite a bit actually, it’s that I would not burden others with my bizarre taste in literature.
Perhaps my most outlandish turn at book consumption was during about the seventh and eighth grades. I read college astronomy textbooks for fun. I’m still a big fan of all things space and can tell you what SpaceX is doing in any given week.
From this you would already guess that I read Science Fiction. Another thing you may not know is that Si-Fi fans can be a little snobbish. See, there are two different kinds of Science Fiction. First is the Star Wars stuff where our hero grabs a light sabre and slays the Dark Lord. The second maybe better called Science Speculation instead of Science Fiction.
These authors spend months doing the math to make sure their worlds would actually work. Let me give you an example: You may have heard of a fellow named Arthur C. Clark. One of his books is called Rendezvous with Rama. The book is set on a giant rotating space craft called an O’Neill Cylinder. I absolutely guarantee you that if you run the formula to predict gravity and plug-in the size of Rama and its rotational speed, the interior would produce the exact same gravity we have here on Earth. This is a long way from the magic floor plates producing gravity in Star Wars.
Moreover, American physicist Gerard K. O’Neill developed these habitats for real, peer reviewed papers. Unless something terrible happens, your grandchildren may live on one of these things. You may not know about O’Neill Cylinders but I promise NASA does.
So, I’ll recommend one of my crazy, childish Si-Fi books: how about The Mote in God’s Eye? It’s by two guys named Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. (Gregorian Chants swell in the background) They wrote a couple of books you may not find too stupid.
While there is faster than light travel in this book, it’s based on real theory so it could be possible. The story is about first contact and it really is well done. My only complaint is that the story-telling in the first 95% of the book is so good you expect it to close with some massive plot twist on the last page. I guess basing fiction on physics has some drawbacks.