No (Or Maybe Some) ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ in Literature

During Trump’s hellish American presidency, thoughts can turn to the devil in literature. Satan or Lucifer or Beelzebub or whatever you want to call him, that immortal guy is an evil yet rather charismatic fellow good for plenty of drama — and perhaps some comedic hijinks, too.

All that is certainly part of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita — a raucous, sobering, hilarious novel I read last week that stars “the devil in disguise” (to quote an Elvis Presley song) and his memorable assistants. As in many books featuring the Prince of Darkness, this brimstone bro is depicted as both real and symbolic — partly functioning as a device to satirize the Stalin-ruled Soviet Union. (Pictured atop this blog post are the book’s title characters — with The Master not the devil but rather a 20th-century Russian who writes a novel, within Bulgakov’s novel, set in the time of Jesus.)

Set in the Russia of the 19th century, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s classic The Brothers Karamazov includes a long, significant, incredibly entertaining cameo from Satan.

American literature also has its share of Beelzebub-ian appearances. For instance, Douglass Wallop’s The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant uses the familiar trope of someone selling their soul to the devil to get something they crave; in Wallop’s novel (which inspired the hit musical Damn Yankees) that something is becoming a baseball star.

Then there’s William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian — with the latter novel featuring a chilling guy (Judge Holden) who may very well be the devil visiting America’s bloody 19th-century West.

Short stories I’ve read that fit this blog post’s sulfurous theme include Stephen Vincent Benét’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster” and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown.” In the second tale, Lucifer is more a philosophical presence than a “real” presence.

In the poetry realm, there’s of course Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Among the devilish works I haven’t read are Dante’s Inferno, Goethe’s play Faust, and Anne Rice’s novel Memnoch the Devil. Not sure Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada quite fits here…

Your favorite fictional offerings with a Satanic element?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — partly about a state politician who (surprise, surprise) isn’t keeping some of his campaign promises — is here.

‘Novels’ and ‘Numbers’ Both Start With the Letter ‘N’

With “Pi Day” coming March 14, I thought I’d mention novels I like that have numbers in their titles. I’m probably forgetting some of the ones I’ve read, and am deliberately leaving out ones I haven’t read. But here goes — from low numbers to high:

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Ken Kesey’s psychiatric ward-set novel says a lot about freedom, individualism, and…psychiatric wards. Perhaps better known for the film version.

One of Ours. Willa Cather’s absorbing World War I-themed novel won a Pulitzer.

One Summer. David Balducci’s poignant look at an unexpected death and life after that.

A Tale of Two Cities. Charles Dickens’ classic tale of the French revolution has what might be literature’s most memorable opening and closing passages.

Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands. Jorge Amado’s novel looks at an irresponsible (but charismatic) first hubby and a responsible (but kind of boring) second hubby. But the star is the kind, talented, memorable Dona Flor herself.

The Two Towers. The middle installment of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy is not as interesting as the first and third books, but still pretty darn good.

Two in the Field. Darryl Brock’s okay sequel to his amazing baseball/time-travel novel If I Never Get Back includes a cameo by the infamous General Custer.

The Three Musketeers. Alexandre Dumas’ fun, thrilling, swashbuckling novel. His second-best book after The Count of Monte Cristo — which features a person who’s a count rather than a numbers-related counting. 🙂

Three Junes. Julia Glass’ absorbing tale contains a trio of sections set a number of years apart.

Three Stations. One of Martin Cruz Smith’s seven excellent sequels to Gorky Park.

The Sign of the Four. Among Arthur Conan Doyle’s best Sherlock Holmes mysteries.

Slaughterhouse-Five. Kurt Vonnegut’s iconic look at the horrors of World War II.

The House of the Seven Gables. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s melancholy novel of old New England.

From a Buick 8. One of Stephen King’s lower-key novels, and quite haunting.

Twenty Years After. The first of Dumas’ sequels to The Three Musketeers.

Catch-22. Joseph Heller’s hilarious, bitingly satiric antiwar novel.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Robin Sloan’s quirky novel is set in San Francisco and New York City, and has a mystery element.

61 Hours. Might be my favorite of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels. Set in a snowy and bitterly cold South Dakota.

Around the World in Eighty Days. A Jules Verne adventure novel whose title is self-explanatory.

One Hundred Years of Solitude. Gabriel García Márquez’s tour de force is a multi-generational family saga that’s also about Latin America’s social and political history.

Fahrenheit 451. Ray Bradbury’s sobering book about book-burning.

Nineteen Eighty-Four. George Orwell’s dystopian classic about an ultra-controlled society.

2001: A Space Odyssey. Arthur C. Clarke’s mind-blowing sci-fi novel.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Another Jules Verne favorite with a self-explanatory title.

And then there are the 25 (so far) Janet Evanovich novels starring bounty hunter Stephanie Plum that have numbers in their titles: One for the Money, Two for the Dough, Three to Get Deadly

Life of Pi doesn’t qualify for this blog post because Pi is of course not a number but rather the nickname of Piscine Molitor Patel — the star of Yann Martel’s novel.

Your favorite books with numbers in their titles, including ones I mentioned or didn’t mention?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about a massive mega-mansion coming to my town — is here.

Not an Error to Depict Many an Era

A novel that spans a long period of time can be quite impressive and interesting. The author research required, the segueing from century to century, the awe that’s inspired in seeing the sweep of history, the mixed feelings about “civilization” encroaching on nature, etc.

One excellent example of this is a book I’m currently reading. Norah Lofts’ A Wayside Tavern begins in 384 AD with the story of a Roman soldier and a slave woman in Britain, and then chronologically proceeds nearly 1,600 years into the 20th century — all in 376 pages!

Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour takes many more pages (nearly 1,000) to tell the tale of four centuries of witches. That compelling novel’s timeline is not strictly linear — much of the book is set in the 1900s — but there’s plenty of back story spanning those aforementioned centuries.

Susan Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue evocatively proceeds in reverse-chronological order — focusing on the ownership of a painting (possibly a Vermeer) from the 20th century back to the 1600s.

I’m not sure exactly what the time span is in Gabriel García Márquez’s iconic One Hundred Years of Solitude, but it seems like more than a century as it chronicles seven generations of the Buendía family.

Seven generations are also featured in Alex Haley’s semi-autobiographical novel Roots, which depressingly and dramatically goes from the slave trade of the 1700s into the 1900s.

Time-travel and science-fiction novels of course often span many a year, century, or millennium. For instance, Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred (image atop this blog post) moves from California in 1976 to a Maryland plantation in 1815, Daphne du Maurier’s The House on the Strand goes from the 1900s to the 14th century, and Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court switches from the 1800s to the time of “Camelot.” H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine begins in the 19th century and brings its traveler first to 802,701 AD and then a mind-boggling 30 million years into the future to witness Earth dying. An author can’t span much more time than that!

Series and sequels obviously allow authors to potentially cover large swaths of time, but I’m focusing on individual books here.

Before ending this post, I did want to mention that there are some drawbacks to long time spans in fiction. For instance, readers aren’t able to enjoy a character for that many chapters before the author moves on to other characters. Meanwhile, we mourn the deaths of the previous characters — unless they’re villains, of course. 🙂

What are some of your favorite novels that cover many, many years?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which focuses on too much standardized testing and other topics — is here.