Quarantine Reading

So I wanted to write a short post covering what I have been reading during quarantine. Being a furloughed worker during lockdown has given me ample time to tick off some of the novels on my book bucket list. That said, I have not been too formulaic, and often ordered a book on a whim, or been drawn to a particular/author genre after reading literary articles online. As a result, my list is quite eclectic, but this is true of my normal reading patterns. I’m always branching out and, perhaps like many others, daunted and impelled by the notion that there is still a lot out there I haven’t encountered. 

Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is a novel that has been on my reading bucket list for a few years. During my first year at university, I delved into a lot of Russian Literature in my spare time (Gogol’s Dead Souls and Grossman’s Everything Flows are memorable), and this is perhaps where the desire to read The Master and Margarita sprang from. At the beginning of lockdown I was looking for a comic novel and Bulgakov’s work fitted the bill. In Will Self’s introduction to the translation I read, he alludes to the novel as a precursor to the magic realism popularised by Latin American authors like Jorge Luis Borges. This analysis really stuck with me throughout: Bulgakov’s Moscow is simultaneously ordinary and realistic, as well as fantastical and supernatural. Woland’s (Satan’s) party and Margarita’s flight across USSR stand out as particularly magical episodes. From a purely comic perspective the novel did not disappoint. The magic show at the Variety Theatre, where Bulgakov critiques the greed and materialism of the Moscow elite, was another highlight. 

I read Julian Barnes’ England England alongside The Master and Margarita. I don’t want to go into too much detail because I dedicated a whole post to the novel, but it was my first experience with Barnes and I enjoyed it so much that I recently ordered The Sense of Ending, his 2011 Man Booker Prize winning work. 

Next up was Chuck Palahniuk’s cult classic Fight Club, another on my list. I’d watched the film a few times and loved it, and a lot of people had suggested that the book was even better. I found the book actually triggered a more emotional response – Palahniuk writes in direct, graphic, savage and visceral prose. The narrator – Tyler Durden – is despairing and distant, and his thoughts capture the generational psychosis that Palahniuk was so perturbed by. I also enjoyed Tyler’s ruminations on IKEA furniture (“I want to be that type of person, so I buy products that cohere with that sense of image”) and the attack on consumer culture. The book is short, punchy and damning, and achieves a lot in only 200 odd pages. 

Since finishing my English Literature degree last year I have been reading a lot of non-fiction, a conscious break away, I think, from three years of studying fiction. I’ve tried to fill in gaps in my historical knowledge by reading texts on specific historical events/peoples (lately I’ve turned my attention to the Vikings, the Medici and the Egyptians). A limited understanding of the Normans and   the subsequent Norman colonisation of England impelled me to read Marc Morris’ The Norman Conquest. This is a great piece of historical fiction – Morris’ vast narrative is accessible and moves at an appropriate pace without compromising on essential details. It pays close attention to contemporary evidence, demystifying popular assumptions about the Normans and their involvement in England. Upon finishing, I had a much better understanding of the historical process and the staggering impact that William the Conqueror’s fated journey across the Channel had on English secular and religious society. 

I’ve now moved on to the daunting prospect of David Foster Wallace’s acclaimed work Infinite Jest. My former colleague, also a friend and science fiction fan, gave it to me as a secret santa gift at last year’s work Christmas party. I started it soon after receiving it but became disillusioned after 50 or so pages and moved on to different pursuits. Now, with time in abundance, I’m ready to give it a second go. 

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