The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
One of the things I’ve been promising myself for some time now is a re-read of Bulgakov’s masterwork “The Master and Margarita”. It’s a book I read and loved many years ago, and then fell in love with again more recently when I watched the 2005 Russian TV miniseries. The time had to be right, though, and recently when I was between books and unsure, I just picked it up and started reading. And, oh my! Am I glad I did so!
“The Master and Margarita” was unpublished during Bulgakov’s lifetime (and could perhaps be regarded as unfinished, only finally coming to print in the 1960s. Summarising it is not easy, but here goes nothing. One hot spring evening in 1930s Moscow, the Devil materialises in Patriarch’s Ponds, along with his retinue: an unpredictable and manic ex-choirmaster called variously Korovyev or Fagot (bassoon); and a large black cat called Behemoth with a habit of walking around on his hind legs, a fondness for vodka and a very garrulous tongue (he’s also a bit of a pyromaniac!). Encountering a proletariat poet Ivan Bezdomny (Homeless) and a literary editor Berlioz, they debate the existence of God and the Devil. The narrative then takes a turn into a story of Pontius Pilate, which runs through the whole work, related sometimes by Woland (the Devil), sometimes in a book by a writer known only as the Master, and sometimes in dreams. Woland and his retinue (mainly the retinue, to be honest!) proceed to cause havoc, death and destruction in Moscow. Ivan ends up in a clinic, where he encounters a mysterious man known only as the Master. The latter is the author of the story of Pilate, but has been crushed by the vilification he received by the critics and authorities, and is separated from the woman he loves and who loves him – Margarita.
The tale rushes on, with Woland’s Midnight Ball taking place, where Margarita is hostess and greets a hideous collection of the dead; Korovyev and Behemoth cause havoc wherever they go; Pilate searches for peace and revenge; and Margarita seeks to be reunited with the Master. Can peace be restored to all and will Moscow ever recover from the confusion?
That’s some of the bare bones of what is a rich, complex and quite fascinating novel, but I’ve barely scratched the surface. And yet, despite its complexity and length, I found M&M incredibly easy to read. It’s full of the most wonderful set pieces – a ‘magic show’ at the Variety Theatre, where Korovyev and Behemoth play tricks on greedy Muscovites, while Woland gets the chance to observe them; Korovyev and Behemoth’s visit to the Torgsin store (which you just *know* will not end well); Margarita’s flight through night-time Moscow and her revenge on Latunsky; the execution of Yeshua; well, I could list them forever!
So you might think from some of the initial impressions you get that this book is just a wacky satire, and that is one of the superficial elements; but it’s also very deep and has much, much more than just historical high-jinks. On a basic level, the Master can be taken as a self-portrait of Bulgakov (and I hadn’t realised quite how much on my first read of this book, but this became much clearer after having read his letters and diaries). Persecuted by the critics, unable to publish or make a living, the Master has struggled to create his mammoth life of Pilate, only to have it torn to pieces. He does not survive the attack (unlike Bulgakov, who fought on to keep writing, composing this book right up until his early death), and ends up in the clinic, broken and unwilling or unable to consider writing again. However, he could also stand for any number of Russian writers who were persecuted, and with the burning of manuscripts (which Bulgakov also undertook) you could draw a parallel with Gogol, who indeed burned the second part of his great work “Dead Souls” so that we’ll never know what was to come next.
Bulgakov is obviously using his work to critique the Soviet regime, and cleverly much of his comment is hidden in the Yershalaim sections of the book: a repressive regime (the Romans), arrests, torture, execution, spying and betrayal. The section where Pilate discusses the fate of Judas with the mysterious executioner Afranius is a model of double-speak, with even the chapter title being ironic, and it’s hard to see how this could ever have been published during Stalin’s time (but then Bulgakov did know that he was writing for the drawer).
And the book certainly gets you thinking about the fine line between good and evil, because nothing is black and white in M&M. Woland is the devil; Yeshua is a messiah. One is good, one evil, you would think but it’s not that simple. Yeshua here (and it needs to be pointed out that this is not just a Gospel retelling; this is Bulgakov’s – and the Master’s – telling of a tale of a historical figure who might have existed, a simple man who believed in peace and was turned into a figurehead); anyway, this Yeshua is no hero, no leader and perhaps is morally ambiguous. His fame will rest on the myth that grows up around him, and he even tells Pilate at one point that the things written down about him are untrue. Conversely, Woland, who should be purely bad, ends up being a force for good. In a pivotal exchange between Woland and Levi Matvei (Matthew), the former says:
“But would you ponder this question: What would your good do if evil didn’t exist, and what would the earth look like if all the shadows disappeared? After all, shadows are cast by things and people. Here is the shadow of my sword. But shadows also come from trees and from living things. Do you want to strip the earth of all trees and living things just because of your fantasy of enjoying naked light?”
and he’s right. Human beings can’t imagine heaven (the subject of an interesting recent post here) and we can’t imagine a world without striving and searching. So although we follow the Yershalaim sections of the book, thinking that we know what’s to come, our perceptions become skewed as we’re constantly reminded that this isn’t the familiar Biblical tale we expect. Interestingly, the more obvious Biblical elements in fact turn up transposed into the Moscow sections (a last supper with 12 attendees for example).
M&M works on so many different levels that it’s hardly surprising it took Bulgakov from 1929 till the end of his life to write it (and he was still revising it at his death). You can read it simply as a very funny satire, as its portrait of bureacracy-bound 1930s Moscow with its niggling regulations and pomposity is unparalleled; you can enjoy the wonderfully joyous romp as the characters cut through the pettiness of Soviet daily life; you can look at the criticisms of the regime hidden in the book and get a real feeling of what it was like to live under such an authoritarian system; you can enjoy Bulgakov’s take on the historical story of Yeshua; and you can see the painful struggle that Bulgakov and other authors had to try to create their art and have it recognised.
But more than anything the moral element shines through; the need for integrity, for tolerance, for a world where light and shade both exist to balance each other out and where humans can put aside their difference and trust one another. It is the *system* that prevents Pilate from saving Yeshua from execution, an event which will torment him for aeons; when all he wanted to do was walk with the preacher and talk with him. In fact, Pilate emerges from the book as a genuinely tragic character, and the resolution of his story is one of the most moving parts.
There’s so much more I could talk about: Bosoi and the currency; Varenukha and the vampires; everyone wanting reinforced cells; Bulgakov’s incredible use of the imagery of weather; the Moscow housing crisis (which turns up in every one of his books, it seems!); the significance of primus stoves; the motif of composers’ names for characters (Berlioz, Stravinsky, Rimsky); other recurring motifs (sun, moon, knives, roses, severed heads); the fate of Ivan; and of course the influence of “Faust” (Bulgakov was fond of the opera and the legend); but I fear there’s enough in this book for several university theses!
“The Master and Margarita” is truly a masterpiece; this is only my second read of the book, and already I feel I understood so much more from this time round. The characterisation is superb: all of the players leap off the page, alive and real, and I have to confess that Korovyev and Behemoth, with their gleeful mischief, are favourites of mine. In fact, it’s strange how M&M plays with your attitudes as a reader; you find yourself laughing with the bad guys as they burn and destroy; you want Pilate not to suffer any longer; you find yourself drawn to Woland despite his evil, as he actually seems more moral than the authorities in both cities. All of these elements intrigue and provoke, and I think on another re-read I will get even more from the book – there are so many subtleties and nuances.
M&M is one of those rare books that’s so all-consuming that when you get to the end, you simply want to go back to the beginning and start reading it again so you can re-experience every wonderful part of it. Bulgakov really was a genius, pulling together so many different strands in this story to make something extremely powerful, a book that possesses you all the way through. If you haven’t read it yet, you need to read it at least once – it really will change your view of life forever.
As an aside, the version I read this time was that translated by Burgin and O’Connor. There are several different translations (here’s a picture of some of the ones I have – the Glenny translation is not shown because I have an e-book version), and each seems to have its supporters and detractors.
This particular translation seems extremely good to me; it captured the voice of the author in a way that sounded authentic to me as I compare it with the other Bulgakov books I’ve read. The translators drew on two versions of the book available (it was initially published in a censored version, and there were also changes made by Bulgakov’s widow), and there are notes at the back which clearly explain why choices were made at certain points. There is also excellent commentary by Ellendea Proffer which not only illuminates specifics which might puzzle the general reader, but also draws out themes and allusions which might not be clear to a modern-day Westerner. For example, the Master skirts round the issue of his treatment shortly before he goes to the clinic, but an authorial mention of the fact that his buttons had been removed from his jacket would signal to a contemporary Russian reader that he had undergone interrogation. The notes are not indicated in the text, which I rather liked as I often find them intrusive; instead they are given for each chapter at the end of the book and you can seek them out if you wish. On my readings so far, I’d highly recommend this version, but I hope to read the more recent Hugh Aplin translation next time and see what I think of that!