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Saturday, October 24, 2015

A review of THE MASTER AND MARGARITA by Mikhail Bulgakov

I was alerted to Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita by a Russian-speaking student of mine. I did a bit of on-line research and found that I should have heard about the novel, if not have read it. Various bits of pop trivia whetted my literary appetite: Marianne Faithful (whom I like as a singer – and having been associated with Mick Jagger, whom I also sometimes like as a singer, and having been associated with Heathcote Williams, whom I like as a poet) was supposed to have read the novel and then concocted, with Mick, the Rolling Stones lyrics of Sympathy for the Devil (a song I like). There is also a long list of other popular culture influences the novel is supposed to have had. And then there are claims that the novel is one of the best of its century, or even of all time: how come I had never heard of it (not that I am the great arbiter)? A cursory review of reviews suggested that the novel is a critique of Soviet life in the 1930s, in particular of Soviet-style atheism, as the novel’s theme seems to be of the Christian sort, what with Pontius Pilate, the Devil with his bizarre retinue and various Russian literati (not to mention the Master and beautiful Margarita) as protagonists. That the novel was published in the Soviet Union in the late 1960s was therefore somewhat surprising to me, given that the author is commonly portrayed, in the cursory reviews I reviewed, as a dissident not unlike Solzhenitsyn. And apparently the novel was a great success in the Soviet Union at the time. Something does not compute here, so I bought the book (the Penguin Classics version) and read it.

Now I understand several things and some I don’t.

  • ·      It is indeed not surprising to me now that the novel has reached some sort of cult status, as well as being hailed as major novel of our time; it is very well crafted and has that Russian literary charm and wit displayed by many of the great Russian writers
  • ·      I don’t think the main purpose of the novel is a critique of Soviet life at the time; in fact in some ways it is an affirmation of sorts; that the Soviet literary censors passed it for publication is thus much less surprising; if anything the novel is a clever satire of Soviet life at the time and can be compared to any other time in human history, like that of Pontius Pilate’s (his secret police is as efficient as that of the Soviets), and note that Pontius Pilate (and his dog) is given a divine pardon for having wanted to save Jesus from execution (thus somewhat unfortunately perpetuating the miserable myth that the Jews killed him and deserve all the punishment for it); the story is about the eternal Muscovites and not about the Soviets
  • ·      In fact, Bulgakov should have considered the involvement of the Woland and his retinue in Jerusalem to balance it with what happened in Moscow (that he didn’t makes the Pontius Pilate interludes somewhat less satirical and could thus be misunderstood as some sort of religious endorsement by Bulgakov)
  • ·      The novel is not anti-atheist either, at least in the sense that religion is not a topic in the novel; the author’s masterful treatment of magic realism simply makes use of some major Christian/Judaic/Roman figures that may or may not be mythical; Bulgakov pokes fun at the suggestion that all phenomena must have scientific explanations, including the idea that supernatural delusions can be caused by mass hypnosis; anyone driven ‘insane’ is treated humanely with injections at the modern psychiatric clinic (not much different from today); I suppose what Bulgakov is trying to convey is to say that if you see the devil and a black cat flying through the air, why not? There is no point in locking people up who are deluded (when in fact the vast majority of people generally are); when in the 1960s psychedelic drugs set a few minds wandering (and wondering) the reaction was the same: lock them up.
  • ·      It is not a novel of ‘good versus evil’ as well understood by Faithful/Jagger in the song Sympathy for the Devil, i.e. it is exactly that: the devil is quite a nice guy who shows up cowardice and greed while in the end providing the Master and Margarita with a peaceful afterlife; Margarita in particular has lots of fun with the Devil and his retinue; her maid even selects to be a naked witch for eternity rather than returning to a humdrum existence
  • ·      The retinue: Bulgakov cleverly transforms the Biblical behemoth into a big black cat and has lots of fun with it – another sign that he has a quite subversive attitude towards the whole Christian-Judaic (or any religion that paints the world back and white) idea of the ‘unclean powers’; in some reviews the Germanic sounding Woland (the devil/Satan) is strongly connected to Goethe’s Faust but I cannot detect any such connection: there is no Gretchen, there is no Faust; the Master is not a Faustian character as on the contrary he accepts his salvation to ‘rest in peace’ from Woland; Bulgakov’s Woland is an outlandish, all-powerful magician with a philosophical bent, just what Moscow and any other metropolis needs (the character of the Joker in the Batman movie industry is a pale imitation)
  • ·      The literary goings-on in Moscow in the 1930s are as bizarre as in any era in any place on earth: all the literary wanna-bees (excuse the pun) are on top of their game making sure that only very occasionally a good writer/playwright/poet passes through the cracks of the literary fortress: the idea that a writer has to have an ID to be admitted is ridiculed by the black cat and Koroviev when they say that Dostoyevsky would never have gotten an ID, and anyhow how does anyone know who is a writer and who is not; that the Soviet literary machine was as corrupt as any Western one can hardly be disputed unless one is a propagandist on either side; that Bulgakov survived as a writer under the Soviet regime is testament to the fact that it wasn’t all doom and gloom
  • ·      How a ‘writer’ is recognized as a true master, is however a main theme in the novel: it takes a beautiful woman who reads the novel backwards and forwards
  • ·      Margarita saves the Master only by becoming a lusty witch (I understand that earlier versions of the novel contained quite a bit of ribald sex while the current version is very tame even though any amount of beautiful naked young women scurry across the pages); Woland and his male retinue are strangely sexless in the presence of their naked ‘maid-witch’ Hella
  • ·      The scenes of greedy women getting pretty dresses at the Variety show only to be magically and justly disrobed afterwards in the street and thus are made the butt of jokes, is of course in tandem with getting ‘free’ rubles only to be turned into ‘foreign currency’ – which at the time was a major crime to have (and why not?); showing up greed and deception (and receiving appropriate punishments when exposed by the all-knowing evil retinue) has lots of comic effect but is a bit overdone in my opinion
  • ·      All the scenarios involving magic realism, i.e. all the scenes with Woland and his retinue, can become a bit tiresome after a while as the reader is left hanging in the air, as it were, not having the slightest idea as to what would happen next – as anything can happen (flying through the air seems a favourite activity and is often described in great detail, including the shocking disbelief it evokes from those left on the ground); magic realism as a literary device should be toned down so as to allow the reader some leeway; when in the end the Soviet investigative authorities put it all down to mass hypnosis, the joke is not very well carried
  • ·      The ending is a bit sad as the message seems to be that really good ‘citizens’ like the Master and Margarita can only live in peace after death, even if death is described in rather romantic phrases.

In the end I am not quite sure what the proverbial moral of the story is. Given the clever novel structure of a Russian doll, the interpretations can be equally manifold. It is not at the level of a phantasmagoria with Faustian themes, a la Goethe, lacking the leaden Teutonic weight of a Wagnerian opera. It is not straight-out comedy or even tragicomedy a la Shakespeare. Neither is it a Satyricon a la Fellini. The novel is much lighter than those of his much quoted Russian heroes: Gogol, Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy. Bulgakov never mentions any of the political figures of the day. Apparently he once wrote a letter to Stalin complaining about being sidelined as a playwright – and Stalin arranged for him to get a job (apparently Stalin quite liked his work). There are many ambiguities. Some reviewers suggest that Bulgakov’s attendance at the notorious Bullit (the US ambassador) party gave him the ideas for his Walpurgisnacht scene. Well, the only unnamed ‘foreigner’ in the novel is a fat customer in a ‘currency shop’ who is made fun of by the black cat and his companion. This is not a political novel. This is a literary novel dealing with the age-old dilemma of the true writer/philosopher (masterful and Christ-like) being in the way of the corporate establishment which will go to any length to extinguish dissenting voices, knowing well enough that the dissidents are right and they are wrong, like the Pontius Pilate character. Life seems dedicated to the all-powerful Caesars of this world, exercising their wretched power on the backs of the mostly deluded citizens. What would real power look like? Consider an all-knowing black cat that talks and walks like a common man. That would be truly amazing as the black cat would transform the world in a minute or two. Bulgakov gives it a go, knowing full well that it’s just a nice delusion, a nice fantasy, like dreaming of beauty and wine, drifting off into another world when this old one is done. One wonders what Marianne Faithful and Mick Jagger think of all this as they approach their twilight years. Did they really understand the whole idea by interpolating “allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste … what’s puzzling you is the nature of my game”. Certainly the second part of the refrain sounds true for Woland but not the first one. Bulgakov quite correctly paints Woland and his retinue as somewhat slovenly characters who have not the slightest interest in wealth (and taste). Wealth after all is a human folly now enacted again in a neo-capitalist and neo-feudalist Moscow that Bulgakov would also view with great literary disdain.