Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Master and Margarita

The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov
Written 1928-1940, published 1966, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, 1997, 412 pp.

I recently read a roundtable discussion in which prominent book critics and literary personalities confessed to which great works of literature they'd never read. Ulysses featured prominently, of course, to the extent that I rather thought the discussion should have been titled "Excuses For Why I Never Read Ulysses," or maybe "How to Become a Prominent Literary Personality Without Reading Joyce." War and Peace was naturally the close runner-up. Delectably, the last respondent was Garry Wills, who lamented that he's never read the Psalms, Job, and Isaiah in the original Hebrew. In a fit of originality, Cynthia Ozick said "A book I've been told, again and again, it's imperative to read is Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. I hope to remedy this omission."

I too have been told, again and again, that it is imperative to read The Master and Margarita. Bulgakov is probably surpassed only by Solzhenitsyn in the chilly field of prominent twentieth-century Russian writers, and the story of the writing and publishing of The Master and Margarita is about as compelling as Solzhenitsyn's own long struggle. Bulgakov was a well-known writer during that brief flare of creative genius which emerged in the wake of the October Revolution. He wrote a novel about the Civil War and several plays, all of which were frequently denounced for being reactionary, counter-revolutionary, and entirely too sympathetic to the White forces. He wrote the first draft of Master and Margarita in 1928, but burned it in 1930, in despair of the future of art in the Soviet Union. He rewrote it by 1936, and continued polishing (it came to four drafts) until his death in 1940. A censored version was finally published in a Moscow-based literary magazine in 1966, and the full draft began to circulate in samizdat until a Frankfurt publisher began to put out the full version in 1967. A Russian edition came out in 1973, and the book is by now something of a classic. A Russian television channel put out a ten-hour miniseries of the novel in 2005, to enormous acclaim, and the book has been cited as an inspiration by everyone from China MiƩville to Mick Jagger. Apparently there's even a level in Grand Theft Auto 4 based on it.

All of that said, I will not tell you, even once let alone again and again, that it is an imperative read. It is a good book and an interesting one, but it is a very different reading experience from what the stories of persecution and proud artistic independence would suggest.

The novel opens with Berlioz, the stuffy bureaucratic director of the official Moscow literary group, talking to a radical and untalented young poet named Homeless about the non-existence of Jesus. They meet an alarming, dark stranger who assures them he was an eyewitness to Pontius Pilate's meeting with Jesus, and tells them the story in great, naturalistic detail. The stranger is, of course, Satan, and the book follows the lunatic effects of his intrusion into the regulated, stultified world of Soviet Moscow. Berlioz is soon run over by a tram car and Homeless ends up in a lunatic asylum. Satan and his retinue (a talking, chess-playing, gun-toting cat named Behemoth, a naked, red-headed vampiress, the angel of death, and a minor devil) take over a Moscow theater and stage a black-magic show, leaving a swathe of destruction and mayhem in their wake. They trap everyone they encounter into being arrested, leading to quite an influx of people to the lunatic asylum, all protesting that they'd been framed by Satan.

About the time of the magic show, I was wondering who exactly was the protagonist. Then I turned page 133 and saw: "Chapter 13: The Hero Enters." The hero is "the master," a brilliant writer who had authored a novel about Pontius Pilate before being denounced by his neighbor (who wanted his apartment) and imprisoned in the asylum. To prove that he is indeed the master, he wears a little hat with an "M" embroidered on it. Bulgakov is very oblique about his circumstances: only the footnotes make it clear that he was arrested by the secret police. There are none of the dramatic midnight knocks on the door that are so common in dissident literature. Instead Stalinist repression is presented as a sort of phantasmagorical circus. This reaches its apotheosis in a chapter called "Nikanor Ivanovich's Dream," which is a clear satire on show trials and the Stalinist habit of declaring political opponents to be mentally ill.

At any rate, Satan and his colleagues meet up with Margarita, the master's long-lost lover, who they decide is the ordained Queen of the ball they apparently must have on Walpurgis Night. Margarita uses some magic cream, becomes a witch, spends a lot of time flying around naked, and attends Satan's ball. I will not give away the ending except to mention that the conventional plot structure which would have demanded the titular master and Margarita as heroes fighting against Satan and his minions is entirely missing here. In fact, there's little if any actual conflict in the book, since Satan and Company are effectively all-powerful, and mostly toy with the unnamed representatives of the Soviet government who try and stop them from carrying out their nefarious, surreal, and largely inexplicable plans. I never quite understood why Satan decided to manifest himself on earth, why he put on the magic show, why he threw the ball, why he had to live in that specific apartment, or why anything at all happened in the book, aside from the obvious logic that it was necessary in order for there to be a book. Satan and his retinue seem to be on a powerful mission for most of the book, eliminating anyone in their way, but by the end I still had no idea why.

The book is strange, inventive, and often entertaining. During his initial chase of Satan, the poet Homeless mystically self-baptizes by stripping naked and jumping in a river. He leaves his clothes with an old man and when he returns he finds both of them have been stolen. At Satan's ball, there is a parade of dead poisoners who emerge from coffins in the fireplace, a jazz band made up of gorillas and orangutans, people who jump naked in a swimming pool full of champagne, and the talking cat with a bow tie and opera glasses. Polar bears dance the Kamarinsky, and Margarita's maid, who is also a witch, rides a giant pig. These things are often amusing, and are certainly never dull. Bulgakov has a keen eye for a surreal detail and a good metaphor. My favorite: "Love leaped out in front of us like a murderer in an alley leaping out of nowhere, and struck us both at once."

The lunacy of Satan's activities is interspersed with a few chapters which are clearly taken from the master's book on Pontius Pilate. They are an intensely realistic retelling of the gospel story, and layer into the Moscow part of the narrative as characters read bits of the book or talk about the book to one another. This allows for an interesting parallel suggesting that Jesus may have been an early victim of a show trial, and that there is a timeless conflict between authority and authenticity which is even now playing itself out in Moscow. Bulgakov never makes the master into a Christ figure, though he seems to clearly be a representative of artistic integrity, suffering petty persecution in the time of officially-dictated socialist realism.

However, I am simply at a loss as to why the book is considered a satire. I assimilated three central themes. There is the theme of romance, which Bulgakov seems to see as a function or expression of personal courage, personified in Margarita’s devotion to the master. The second is the theme of art, which has great power over people (as evidenced by Satan’s power over everyone he meets, of the danger posed by the master, and so forth) and which is authentic and free, and therefore is in conflict with the inauthentic authority of Stalinist orthodoxy. The third theme is that of religion. Bulgakov shows us the power of religious figures being taken seriously, and holds up Stalinist repression as being no match for the eternal power of religion, which has control over death and the spirit—something no tyrant has yet managed, in Bulgakov’s view. Through these themes wander other symbols: Homeless seems to stand for rational intellect, a detached witness, the pig was once a person more interested in propriety than humanity, there are long lines for food and problems with currency, and there is an episode in which an empty suit sits at a desk, mindlessly processing papers: a perfect image of bureaucratic alienation. But satire? Stalin is absent, and indeed never actually named. Instead the targets seem to be state-sponsored artists, the Philistine public, and low-level bureaucrats. Worthy choices for demolition all, but hardly the stuff of grand satire. And the themes are heavily overshadowed by the riotous imagery and bizarre goings-on, making the book read more like a crazy dream which contains a few elements that might have greater meaning.

The Master and Margarita is therefore certainly a good book, a good entertainment, and fascinating as a period piece, but it lacks the withering satirical fire of Swift or Twain. It reads better as the sort of strange modern urban fairy tale which seems to delight Russian audiences: see for example the films Nightwatch and Daywatch, or the modern works of Victor Pelevin. Its creativity is superb, and its subject matter clearly audacious, so if taken on its own merits it is rewarding. Just ignore all those people who keep telling you that it is imperative to read.

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