The professor and the poet who've come to Patriarch's Ponds for a stroll on a hot and stagnant Moscow afternoon are dismayed to encounter a quite extraordinary stranger, surely a deranged foreigner. As this quixotic character recalls a centuries-old story of destiny, his infamy becomes a matter of gruesome revelation for the doomed professor and his poor companion. And what will become of the Master's suppressed masterpiece? Something his lover, Margarita, will go to great lengths to ensure.
(published posthumously in 1966-1967; translated by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky, 1997)
I was intimidated before I read the introduction by Richard Pevear and saw what Bulgakov put into this work, and risks he took. I imagined difficult and complex reading, something beyond me that I would need to struggle just to get through the surface. I think I was literally shaking at one point, and never did feel really read to open this up. I thought about these feelings with amusement, in the past tense, as I was reading part II and our heroine was riding a broom, naked, over Moscow, and along with her house help, Natasha also naked. Natasha was flying an accountant turned into a pig. For all the seriously stuff here, this book is first fun, delightfully so.
You can look up the details in Wikipedia of what Bulgakov put into writing this, but it involved putting his life on the line in the midst of the USSR’s Great Purge of 1937/8, and in direct sight of Stalin, who he spoke to directly at least once. Bulgakov lived in fear, and burnt his first manuscripts of this book in the early 1930’s. He wrote M&M secretly and was still revising at his death in 1940. His wife kept it hidden until a political thaw allowed the work to finally be published in a censored serial form in 1966/7.
So it’s stunning that there is so much fun here. A plot is summary is beyond this review, but it involves the Devil visiting atheist/communist Moscow and having a conversation with some of the leading literary figures. It also explores the general literary community of the repressed time, the life of Pontius Pilate, an author writing Pilates’ biography and this author’s married mistress. At some point there is a ball of famous, deceased tortured evil characters through time. Oh, and the devils retinue includes a black, person-sized cat, a rather nasty an opinionated one.
When looking deeper into this there are many ways to go. There are parallels to Goethe’s Faust, which I haven’t read. There are religious and moral themes, and an emphasis on fear as the fundamental sin, one which hits home hard in 1930’s USSR. And there is a long series of indirect accusations against the USSR. There are many disappearances, a really disturbing show trial in dream, and much assured official explanations of things no one understands. The Devil and his retinue can be read as a parallel to the unrestrained, lethal and capriciously used power of Stalin and his main advisers, or maybe it shouldn’t be read that way. And Bulgakov takes his whacks at the literary community, and tormenting and killing in various brutal ways the parallels of his real-life critics.
There is also a curious complexity of the Master and Margarita, themselves. They are the books heroes, but the understated criticisms are sharp, unclear, and feel very personal. The Master may be partly Bulgakov himself, but he is plastered. Given his greatest hope, he shows no joy, and instead, overwhelmed by wariness, simply tries to make do. He ends up in a permanent, but restful purgatory. Margarita is wonderful, but we must wonder at her self-chosen sacrifice, and other questionable things, and we must wonder what she represents. At some points I thought she was mainly a muse, fickle and magnificent, able to flitter about across the skies, but ultimately tied down by her more-human attachments.
There are many levels to this work and it’s quite wonderful on all of them. The surface is a joy to read, the criticism is biting and sad. But, the later doesn’t taint the former; each can stand on its own. Finally, you can explore the meaning as far as you like, endlessly and in several directions. Highly recommended.
Do cats go to heaven?
The presence of an exquisite black cat on the cover led me to believe that I might receive some answers to this question. But even now at the end of the book I must admit I am a little confused.
For the cat described in the book doesn't seem to be the soft, angelic looking creature on the front of the book who sits thoughtfully on a windowsill looking out over Calvary. No, the cat in the book goes by the name of Behemoth, and is one of the devil's companions. He plays chess, and he tries to cheat, but is not good at that either. And, although, he did pay when trying to ride the subway, he also shoots at people and seems to be responsible for a number of fires. It seems, perhaps, that the question answered by the book is not whether cats go to heaven, but whether they go to hell. I shudder at the thought. Alas, perhaps there is some truth to the stories of black cats who serve as the familiars of witches.
Two things give me hope. One is Pilate's dog, his faithful dog, who wants only to comfort him, and who shares his fate as he is condemned to sit watching the path to the moon open up every night but unable to follow it. Pilate wants to find Ha-Nostri, the Christ he didn't defend, and continue the conversation they were having before Pilate confirmed the verdict that sent Ha-Nostri to his death. Even Satan says, "If it is true that cowardice is the most grave vice, then the dog, at least, is not guilty of it." But he also say, "But what can be done, the one who loves must share the fate of the one he loves."
Yes, the dog loves. Doesn't that mean that he can reach the depths and the heights, and, yes, when Pilate is released, the dog goes too, bounding up that moonbeam. True, cats are not dogs. Our love is not like theirs. We are more aloof, more separate, more complex. Nonetheless, aren't we of the same sort, Kingdom Animalia, Phylum Chordata (Does a cat not have a backbone?), class Mammalia (Is my blood not warm?), Order Carnivera (Do I not kill?).
The second thing, well, if Behemoth is Satan's companion, and thus a denizen of hell, doesn't it follow, if we can go to hell, surely, then, we can also go to heaven?
But, think, then, of how puzzled I became, when I came upon this paragraph which left me wondering, not just who is this cat, Behemoth, but what:
"Night had also torn off Behemoth's fluffy tail, stripped him of his fur and scattered clumps of it over the swamps. The one who had been the cat who amused the Prince of Darkness turned out to be a lean youth, a demon-page, the best jester the world has ever known. Now he, too, had fallen silent and was flying noiselessly, his young face raised to the light flowing from the moon."
What a vision, noble, yet puzzling. Was this youth really a cat like me (I say like me, but really, much more clumsy and bumptious)? Or was he always something other, that I can not share? Oh, dear reader, my small mind, on its own, simply can't wrap itself around this conundrum. I, a cat, admit it. I need your help.
Do please read this book. Tell me what you think. Not just for me. Think of the children. I have to tell them something.
That all this good of evil shall produce,
And evil turn to good.
- John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book XII
What is Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita about? I find that an impossible question to answer, at least, in a nutshell. The meaning of the novel is too complex and multi-faceted to summarise in a few words. The content of the novel can be conveyed a bit more readily, although even here, one experiences problems: the titular ‘Master and Margarita’ do not appear in the novel until almost the half-way point. Problems also arise with descriptions like ‘Satan and his retinue arrive in 1930s Moscow and wreak havoc’. For one thing, do we know that Woland, the diabolical foreigner, really is Satan? Bulgakov is certainly coy about this identification. Moreover, we do not even know whether this really is 1930s Moscow. Again, Bulgakov avoids giving particulars about the period. It is certainly Moscow, but a fictional representation of the Russian city that mixes in fictitious places (Griboedov House) with real locations (the Patriarch Ponds). And what about the scenes from the Master’s manuscript? Are they really about the Passion of Christ? Bulgakov goes out of his way to contradict the gospels, changing facts (well, putative facts) and adding information that is quintessentially apocryphal. His use of Aramaic names and other details give these scenes a verisimilitude that contrasts strongly with the actual Biblical narratives. Why does Bulgakov go to such lengths to obscure his source material? Any lengthy consideration of Bulgakov’s masterpiece leads to a proliferation of questions, as this introductory paragraph illustrates (perhaps too clearly). I do not pretend to be able to answer these questions, but I will attempt to illuminate some of them, especially as concerns the interpretation of the novel. Most of my tentative conclusions are based on the excellent Critical Companion to the novel edited by Laura Weeks.
Several approaches to the novel are considered by Weeks in her introductory essay concerning the novel. Although, like Weeks, I prefer a unified reading of the novel, I will consider each of these approaches briefly. The first is the view of the novel as carnival, as suggested by the Russian formalist critic Mikhail Bakhtin. This reading takes its cue from the medieval mystery plays, where the ‘collision of the eternal… and the ephemeral allowed carnival goers to air their social and economic grievances and… set the prevailing social and moral order on its head’ (p.18). The representation of the Passion story was a popular part of the carnival days, and was often presented very realistically. This part of the carnival contrasted with the foolery and horse-play of the rest of the celebrations, which can by analogy apply to the role of Koroviev and Behemoth (Woland’s humorous assistants) in the novel. Some critics see this reading as applying to the novel because they claim that, just as nothing really changes after carnival, with the social order reasserting itself, so nothing really changes in Moscow after Woland and his retinue leaves. I do not completely agree, but more on this later.
Another way of seeing the novel is as a Menippean satire. Briefly, such a satire is a ‘mixture of seemingly contradictory elements: history and myth, philosophy and fantasy, the serious and the comic, high- and low-narrative levels’ (p.19). A famous English example would be Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels Being satirical, this kind of writing aims to ridicule the vices of society, which Bulgakov obviously does in writing about Stalinist practices. Closely following this satirical reading is the view of the novel as roman-a-clef, or a novel in which actual people and events are disguised as fictional characters and events. Bearing in mind Bulgakov’s own treatment at the hands of the Stalinist authorities, this reading is certainly tenable, but only to a degree, as it unfortunately leads to the parlour game of ‘identify-the-character-with-the-person’, which distracts from actual interpretation. This is also a problem with reading the novel as a straight political allegory of Stalinist Russia. Although this type of interpretation was quite in vogue for a while, there are several problems with it. As Weeks notes, there are problems of chronology, but it also cheapens the novel, implying that once one has guessed the ‘actual’ meaning of the scenes and who the characters ‘actually’ represent, ‘most of the marrow has been sucked from the bone’, (as Weeks puts it), which obviously is not true.
A different reading is to see the novel as a parody of Goethe’s Faust. There are certainly similarities between the two works, with characters sharing names and roles, and both works sharing similar moral concerns: the epigraph at the beginning of The Master and Margarita (which is from Faust) makes this clear. It is, however, important to note that Bulgakov consistently undermines our expectations. For instance, Woland, who initially seems to be a Mephistophelean figure, quickly departs from this role (as Weeks mentions, he does not conform to the Faust-Gretchen-Mephistopheles triangle in his relations with the Master and Margarita). Also, the Master does not conform to the role of the ever-striving Faust; nor does Margarita remotely resemble the innocent, demure Gretchen. So, while the novel can be seen as a reworking of the dramatic poem, direct analogies quickly break down. Similar problems arise from viewing the novel as a form of ‘miraculous Russian fairy tale’. Although there are certainly similarities (Russian fairy tales posit a similar blending of reality and fantasy), the fairy tales tend to strongly endorse binary oppositions of good and evil, while the fact is (as Weeks puts it) that ‘no one in this novel (except Yeshua) is unambiguously good or evil’ (p.25).
None of these formal approaches are quite satisfactory, as they ignore aspects of the novel that do not quite fit into their views. An example from Weeks:
For those haunted by the images of Rimskii’s shaking head and white hair, Baron Maigel’s burning body, and Berlioz’s severed head, this is no Bakhtinian “temporary liberation” from the prevailing social and moral order.
As Weeks goes on to mention, this is because these approaches ignore the theological and metaphysical aspects of the work. A useful way of looking at this is through Christian iconography, which I will not go into here, and the possibilities that Bulgakov was influenced by Gnostic and Manichean worldviews. The Gnostic and Manichean views both posit two plains of existence: ‘one transcendent, divine; the other fallen, material – a division that is echoed in the polarization of Bulgakov’s universe.’ The courage-cowardice polarization is of utmost importance in the novel, as it is the crux on which Pilate’s and the Master’s redemption hinges.
And what, then, of Woland and the opposition of good versus evil? Bulgakov’s cosmology differs markedly from traditional Christian eschatology, which was strongly influenced during its formative years by Persian dualism in which ‘good and evil do not coexist in the creation but are forever battling it out, until the final reckoning’ (p.42). This is obviously simplifies Christian eschatology, but it does contrast interestingly with the role of Satan in the Old Testament (especially in Job), where he is an agent of divine justice. Woland also seems to fulfil this role of punisher, but he also rewards characters. Weeks notes that ‘a number of critics see Woland as source of evil’ (p.43), or as playing the role of the Father of Lies. For example, Edward Ericson says that ‘the contrast between the end of Woland and Company and that of the Master and Margarita… should lay to rest any notion of Satan as a “good guy” in this novel’ (p.65).
As I began this review with a quote from Paradise Lost, I will end it by saying that I see a correlation between the roles of Satan in both these works. Critics, perhaps swayed by their personal beliefs, tend to interpret Satan and Woland (who may not be the same entity) as either fundamentally good or evil. I would contend that both play roles outside traditional Christian doctrine. Both Bulgakov and Milton were forming their own cosmologies based on Christianity, but neither were doctrinaire practitioners of their faiths. Their diabolical characters, though very different, are both ambiguous agents of a will which is perhaps not quite divine. As Shakespeare wrote in The Merchant of Venice, ‘The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose’. Perhaps writers can cite the Devil for their purposes.
and all hell broke loose, he played a mighty ruse,
cos the devil deals the cards! *
I’m not sure I fully understood this book - my copy had no helpful extras to enlighten me on my progression; but I was captivated by the antics all along the way. And I discerned the underlying premise; the foundation which enables Satan and his cohorts to wreak havoc on an unsuspecting, but far from hapless, citizenry of Stalinist Moscow.
Quite simply, the story begins with the appearance of a foreigner to a pair of learned Muscovites, and the extraordinary incidents he foretells; triggering a rebuttal, of sorts, to the common disbelief in the existence of any higher power, except possibly the state. It does not take long for the reader, however, to be prompted into the true identity of this stranger, Woland, and his rabid retinue, as they easily hold sway amidst the organised madness of the times. As Mikhail Bulgakov exhorts ceaselessly: “the devil knows” - as do most of the city’s inhabitants - just how to work the system to suit themselves...and if you don’t like it, speak up against it, dare to write innovative or original works about it, or do not follow the status quo, the devil take you. To the madhouse most likely...
There really are a lot of layers to this book; many most likely lost to me in my ignorance, some in the complex diabolism the author hides behind, inherent in his life. It is interesting to me that the devil and his dominions are, on the whole, portrayed only as menacing and manipulative as the average Russian living in this time; albeit with much more capacity for calamity. The subtle indictment on issues concerning foreigners, housing, currency and the behemoth of bureaucracy - a big black unruly monster; easily parodied as a weird and maniacal black cat - are woven artfully throughout the mix; along with a nagging repetition of the meaning of courage and cowardice in a society underpinned by the terror of a secret state-sanctioned power base. Somewhat akin to Pontius Pilate and the Roman regime...
The questions I felt The Master and Margarita ultimately posed were: how far does a person have to go to; what pact does a person make; what deal needs to be done - to survive and sustain some happiness and peace in this world while staying true to yourself? If you lose does the devil take your soul? If you win, do you still have a soul? This is an irreverent romp within a high degree of madness and mayhem - ironic in its witticism, satirical in its nature and hugely entertaining in the clever crafting of the many and varied fantastical scenes.
Why then does it lie so heavy on my heart?
*Profuse apologies to the lyricist for The Devil Came Down to Georgia - a song I found myself humming constantly whilst reading this book...
(Jan 15, 2011)
The second is the story of Ha-Nostri (Christ) and Pontius Pilate. We hear the first installment of this story from Woland (Satan) who is telling it to two writers who were sitting on a bench discussing a poem one had written about the non-existance of God. In this scene Pilate had a chance to free Ha-Nostri by refusing to affirm his sentence, but he could only do this by risking himself. Cowardice is the worst vice, Ha-Nostri is later reported to have said, although the statement is little elaborated on. It is for this cowardice that Pontious Pilate must wait so long after death before being released.
The third thread is the story of the Master and Margarita. The Master is a writer who wrote a novel which is the story of Pontius Pilate. Margarita is his lover, who, though married to another, becomes totally committed to the master and his work. Within the latter two threads is a theme of the roles of what we call good and evil, but which may also be light and shadow, necessary to each other. Why is it, for instance, that the master deserves peace but not light? Is it his brokenness in reaction to criticism of his novel? His abandonment of Margarite when he goes to the hospital? Is such a loss of confidence a kind of cowardice as well?
Margarite is a truly couragious character, taking risks for the master, and for his work. She doesn't hold back. Despite her initial misgivings she agrees to go to Satan just on the chance of hearing about her lover. She serves as the Queen of the grand ball of Satan. My feeling is that there is a lot in the chapter about the grand ball that I am not fully grasping. Why Margarite was chosen, how she is told that she is doing so well, although throughout Satan's cohorts seem to be doing a lot of prompting as well, the heavy necklace she has to wear that just gets heavier, her compassion for Frieda - one of the dead who is punished by being constantly presented with the hankerchief that she used to kill her baby, and although it is Satan's ball, he does not necessarily seem to enjoy it. When Margarite is offered her reward for serving as queen of the ball, she seems to give up what she came for in order to do what she feels is right. Yet she claims not to be a virtuous person. She simply would have no peace in her life if she didn't do what she does. Having offered hope, she can not deny it.
Bulgarov manages to suggest, and, more than that, to make you feel, that the relationship between heaven and hell, good and evil, is more complex and mysterious than usually presented. Without quite understanding the whole picture of what is going on in the Grand Ball, and in all the various relationships between the characters in woland's entourage and others, including Woland's support for the Master and Margarita, I still feel a richness in it, which I will probably lead me to reread it several more times.
One episode where this is apparent is when the bartender of the Variety Theater, Andrey Fokich Sokov, seeks admittance to apartment No. 50 in order to redress his loss from counterfeit currency. Ginsburg translates as follows:
The door opened instantly, but the bartender started, backed away, and hesitated before entering. And no wonder. The door was opened by a young woman wearing nothing but a frivolous little lace apron and a white housemaid's cap on her head.
What Ginsburg makes explicit, and hesitated before entering, Pevear and Volokhonsky, translate as and did not enter at once, describing the action, but not the actor's feeling. Instead of a white housemaid's cap, P&V have a white fichu. P&V may be more faithful to the original, but at times may obscure the meaning.
Another episode follows shortly after, in the apartment of Professor Kuzmin, where Sokov has gone for medical advice for his liver condition. After Sokov leaves, Kuzmin is exposed to some of the carnival antics of the satanic suite come to Moscow--in particular a sparrow's dance. Ginsburg:
The wretched bird limped on its left foot, obviously clowning and dragging it, moving in syncopation--in short, it was dancing a fox trot trot to the music of the phonograph like a drunk in a bar . . .
Pevear and Volokhonsky translate as The obnoxious little sparrow dipped on its left leg, losing the connotation of a limp. The sparrow is a familiar of Woland, appearing among the columns of the balcony with Pontius Pilate as Pilate thinks to free Ha-Nozri. Woland is across the courtyard of the apartment complex at the time of the sparrow's dance, later has his knee massaged with salve by the servant/vampiress Hella, and later still at the midnight ball limps as he approaches his assistant who is holding the severed head of Berlioz. The limp seems important to his persona.
Burgin, in her translation, keeps the limp and more: The filthy bird was lame in its left foot. The filthy bird is even more like to Woland as Margarita first sees him, Woland lay sprawled on the bed, dressed only in a long nightshirt, which was dirty and patched on the left shoulder. Wretched, obnoxious, or filthy? Filthy fits the bill best, I only hope that it isn't revisionist.
I noticed two major censored portions in the version Ginsburg translated (there may well be others). The first is the rationale put forth by the high priest, Kaifa, on why Ha-Nozri was more dangerous than Bar-Rabban, i.e., that his was a political crime which endangered the priesthood itself. The second is the episode of Koroviev and Behemoth at the currency store which exposed the luxuries that were available under the Soviet system to those who were more equal than others. These are historical truths which some would rather have us forget, but the greater truth in Master and Margarita goes beyond these histories, directly to the myths that reveal who we are.
The intersecting layers of the story (Woland and the Moscow Circus, the Passion story, the Master's literary angst) are clever and compelling, hinting at the author's personal travails, hitting the core of moral issues, and holding the Soviet regime up to ridicule. But great literature is more than clever and compelling, transcending the time and place of its origin, and Master and Margarita certainly qualifies.
MM is, more than anything, a query into the very underpinnings of our belief system, i.e., epistemology, or the understanding of belief and truth. Woland comes to Moscow to assess the current status of mankind's epistemological development. He finds the Soviet literary establishment holding truth subservient to belief, denying even the existence of an historical Jesus. Woland knows better (he was there) and forcibly exposes the power of Truth to Poet Ivan Nikolaevich Ponyrev (or Bezdomny, "Homeless") by forecasting details of his editor's imminent death.
Woland goes on to host a Carnival in the midst of Moscow, freely dispensing paper currency and Parisian fashion to the crowd, tearing off and reattaching Master of Ceremony Bengalsky's head, dispensing Variety Director Styopa Likhodeev momentarily to Yalta, and other feats of Black Magic. The people of Moscow suspend disbelief to accept the largess and, when the ersatz money and clothes disappear and Likhodeev reappears, they suspend their suspension, finding rational explanations for all the impossibilities. Again, belief over truth.
Homeless recovers from his bout with Woland in the sanitorium, where he meets the Master and experiences Truth firsthand in his dream. He abandons poetry and becomes an historian during daylight hours, seeking truths via conventional paths. But at every full moon, he still taps into the dream where Truth is revealed to him.
Bulgakov's central thread of Truth, the Passion story, can easily be embraced because it is so familiar, but its truth is somewhat at variance with the canonical versions. Matthew Levi, for instance, is represented as missing the essence of Yeshua's message, chronicling isolated factual elements entirely devoid of their context and meaning. The story is revealed through Woland's narrative, Ivan's dream, Margarita reading from the Master's restored manuscript. It is one and the same story in all its incarnations, with a consistency the canonical versions lack. It is literary, if not literal truth. Or is it?
Pilate has been tormented through the centuries by his cowardice in allowing the execution. Bezdomny dreams the following encounter:
Pilate: But, please tell me it never happened! I implore you, tell me, it never happened?
Yeshua: Well, of course it never happened, you imagined it.
Pilate: And you can swear it to me?
Yeshua: I swear it!
"...and his eyes smile for some reason."
Pilate: I need nothing more!
Matthew Levi could never have reached such a greater truth to forgive the cowardice of the equestrian. Woland, as demonstrated by his recusal in Frieda's pardon, did not consider mercy to be his department. Pilate was, at the last, touched by "that power which....eternally works good." And so truth flows from Goethe to Bulgakov to you, good readers, to you, "good people."
The Master and Margarita is an invisible classic. It belongs to that numberless crowd of books that has been passed up in English 101, its author uninvoked by amateurs flexing the literary muscles at each other (Oh yeah, Tolstoy. He did, like, War and Peace right?), its lines unmissquoted (I think you protest to much!), its genius undiscovered by any but those who stumble upon it like a gem in the gray bedrock of the 'literary fiction' section. But it is there, available, waiting for people to discover it after decades of censorship, suppression, and obscurity among the reading masses.
I stumbled upon this book through librarything (thank you librarything!) It was a suggested group read, and since I had worn out my other travelling book I ducked into a bookstore and picked this up. The first thing that told me I had been missing out was the cashier, who told me she really wanted to read M&M herself. Of course she must feel that way about most of the books in the store, I said, but at this she gave me a serious look and said no, not at all. She meant -this- book.
Now my interest was piqued. On the train I cracked it open and found myself enchanted by what I read. The devil in Moscow? What an odd premise. What chaos! What revelry! What imagination! What the hell is going on? I checked up with the group that had suggested the book. Mention was being made of scathing criticism, of deep things left unsaid between the lines of the story. I saw none of this, having no experience in soviet history or literature, and did some sleuthing.
It turns out that there is a great deal of academic criticism written about this book, and much of it was fascinating. The juxtaposition of absurdity and reality in the two main narratives makes the 'real world' of Moscow feel like the impossibility and the 'fable' of Jesus' last days an everyday event. The invisibility of the secret police was so expertly handled that their saturation in the plot had to be pointed out to me, and then I hit myself for not seeing them. The cast of characters, a veritable parade of them, were not only amusing, but representative of great ideals; faith, cowardice, intellectual dishonesty, illusion and illumination were all personified by the cast of M&M.
You can read M&M and enjoy it completely without realizing that you are grazing on top of a goldmine. It's a shame that high school students are not subjected to this book more often. M&M deserves to be misquoted and name-dropped by every Lit 101 student out there. I'd say that Master and Margarita is without a doubt my favorite read from 2009.
It is absurd.
It is also one of the funniest and best novels I have read in a long time. Every chapter is abounding with clever quips, absurdist action, and poignant observations. There is a great literary observation going on here on what makes an artist suffer for his art. Another: What is art considered by those in leagues with government control? It also makes you think about the value of good and evil, and why we are so bent on considering one thing evil and another good with punitive absolution. It shows situation as being more complicated than anything really is. And to say that the Devil is an evil thing…well, in this book, it seems like both an overstatement & oversimplification.
One interesting about this novel is things are written as an account; as they happen. There is no real character development. But you learn much about the people (and demons) within the work as they involve themselves within everyone else—much like real life. Because in real life, we do not have our encounters developed for us with all background information known: we experience it…just as everyone else in this novel does, too. Do not expect easy explanations. Just enjoy it as one would enjoy any wild ride in which everywhere one looks there is something new and fascinating.
There are three main story lines: one in which the devil and his cohorts trick, entrap, and terrorize various citizens of Moscow, toying with them as if they were puppets on a string, secondly a version of Pontius Pilate and the crucifixion of Christ written by the Master, broken up across chapters in the book and told by several narrators, and finally the story of the love between the Master and an unhappily married woman, Margarita, a story which echoed Bulgakov’s own life.
The devil and his retinue dominate; they are both comic as they banter back and forth, revealing their own foibles, as well as and dangerously cruel. Amidst all the clowning, what are the questions that Bulgakov is asking? Would you sell your soul to the devil for love? Would you want to be returned to a lover and a time and a place when all was right with the world, even if it meant turning yourself over to Satan? Partially, but this book goes far deeper than the Faustian bargain.
There are parallels in the stories: Caesar is to Pilate’s time as Stalin is to the Russians’ time, and dark forces appear to be behind both. As the devil reigns terror in Moscow, one wonders, where is God? Similarly, where was God at the time of Christ’s crucifixion? And by extension, where was God while the Communists took power in Russia, and brutally suppressed the people, their faith, and the arts?
The criticism of the life under communism is understandably subtle. It hints at Stalin’s tactics to make people disappear, detain people secretly for questioning, the widespread corruption that existed, and the difficulties of living in communal apartments.
This is a story that is playful, whimsical, and highly entertaining on the surface, and underneath implies resilience and faith in the face of all these difficulties. Where is God? Satan implies the proof of God. Just as the comic lightness throughout the novel implies the beauty and meaning of life, and outward cowardice implies the existence of hidden courage.
One of Bulgakov’s key messages is that cowardice is the most terrible of vices. Out of cowardice, Pontius Pilate does not stand up to Rome and orders the crucifixion of Christ, and subtly he is saying that out of cowardice, modern Russians submitted to Communism. However with the power of faith and love, there is forgiveness and hope. In the novel the phrase “Manuscripts don’t burn” is uttered, which became a Russian saying; here is he is saying that even if the arts and the people are suppressed, there is a resilience which will ultimately overcome. It’s a miracle “The Master and the Margarita” was completed and eventually published, and it’s a testimony to that resilience.
“It went without saying that today’s execution proved to be a sheer misunderstanding: here this philosopher, who had thought up such an incredibly absurd thing as that all men are good, was walking beside him, therefore he was alive. And, of course, it would be terrible even to think that one could execute such a man. There had been no execution! No execution! There was the loveliness of this journey up the stairway of the moon.”
“Gods, my gods! How sad the evening earth! How mysterious the mists over the swamps! He who has wandered in these mists, he who has suffered much before death, he who has flown over this earth bearing on himself too heavy a burden, knows it. The weary man knows it. And without regret he leaves the mists of the earth, its swamps and rivers, with a light heart he gives himself into the hands of death, knowing that she alone can bring him peace.”
“And I was struck not so much by her beauty as by an extraordinary loneliness in her eyes, such as no one had ever seen before! Obeying this yellow sign, I also turned down the lane and followed her. We walked along the crooked, boring lane silently, I on one side, she on the other. And, imagine, there was not a soul in the lane. I was suffering, because it seemed to me that it was necessary to speak to her, and I worried that I wouldn’t utter a single word, and she would leave, and I’d never see her again.”
“Love leaped out in front of us like a murderer in an alley leaping out of nowhere, and struck us both at once.”
“In short…was she happy? Not for one minute! Never, since the age of nineteen, when she had married and wound up in this house, had she known any happiness. Gods, my gods! What, then, did this woman need?! What did this woman need, in whose eyes there always burned some enigmatic little fire? What did she need, this witch with a slight cast in one eye, who had adorned herself with mimosa that time in the spring? I do not know. I have no idea. Obviously she was telling the truth, she needed him, the master, and not at all some Gothic mansion, not a private garden, not money. She loved him, she was telling the truth.”
“..there’s something not nice hidden in men who avoid wine, games, the society of charming women, table talk. Such people are either gravely ill or secretly hate everybody around them.”
Lastly, these snippets which give a taste of the fantasy of the book, images which are indelible.
“But worse things were to be found in the bedroom: on the jeweller’s wife’s ottoman, in a casual pose, sprawled a third party – namely, a black cat of uncanny size, with a glass of vodka in one paw and a fork, on which he had managed to spear a pickled mushroom, in the other.”
“Here the two robbers vanished, and in their place there appeared in the front hall a completely naked girl – red-haired, her eyes burning with a phosphorescent gleam.”
“As it drew nearer to Margarita, it became more distinct – a mounted flying person could be seen. And finally it became quite distinct: slowing down, Natasha came abreast of Margarita.
Completely naked, her disheveled hair flying in the air, she flew astride a fat hog, who was clutching a briefcase in his front hoofs, while his hind hoofs desperately threshed the air.”
“Two eyes were fixed on Margarita’s face. The right one with a golden spark at its bottom, drilling anyone to the bottom of his soul, and the left one empty and black, like the narrow eye of a needle, like the entrance to the bottomless well of all darkness and shadow.”
“And finally, Woland also flew in his true image. Margarita could not have said what his horse’s bridle was made of, but thought it might be chains of moonlight, and the horse itself was a mass of darkness, and the horse’s mane a storm cloud, and the rider’s spurs the white flecks of stars.”
And on a globe that has the power to show current events, including a war which had broken out; a war which the devil looks dispassionately on and assures Margarita that Abaddon, the angel of destruction, “is of rare and impartiality and sympathizes equally with both sides of the fight. Owing to that, the results are always the same for both sides.”
It doesn't take long to understand what would have gotten Soviet powers-that-be riled. To say the novel is irreverent is an understatement. Satan is loose in Moscow, in a city that no longer believes in him or God. And no, this is not meant metaphorically in the least. Satan aka "Woland" has come with an entourage of a man in a checkered suit, a demon named Azazello and a giant talking cat who walks on his hind legs, wears a mustache, and rides streetcars--paying the fare natch. Madness and mayhem ensue, of course, but that doesn't begin to capture the charm of the novel, which sometimes reminded me of Rowling, sometimes Faust, sometimes Dante--particularly in the chapter "Satan's Grand Ball." The "Master" is a writer crushed by censorship and plain old censure of his masterpiece, a novel about Pontius Pilate, chapters of which are interspersed within the novel. Margarita is the woman who loves him and would do anything to save him. Meanwhile, in this Moscow people would do anything--not short of murder--for a prime apartment or sell themselves to the devil for a fine set of clothes. So you get this strange mix of slice of life of Soviet Russia under Stalin (even if heavily satirized) and the outright fantastical and even metafiction, given one of the themes is the artist and his creation being his only reward in a world hostile to both whimsy and bald truth alike. Another theme is definitely redemption. If love has such a power in a world where God may or not be in charge, then it's perhaps because "the one who loves must share the fate of the one he loves" and that draws mercy to the less deserving of the pair. Maybe. It's not as if it's easy to derive cozy little morals wrapped in a bow. It's not that I think the style or the plot is ambiguous--but the meaning sure is. But even if I was left unsure of the destination Bulgakov was driving at, I sure enjoyed the journey.
Culturally much of it was lost on me, but the sheer force of the work is inescapable. The foreword, which I only read half of before beginning the book proper, is very correct when it says that this book is about parable. It is an incredibly deep parable. The wild bits are wild like folk tales: they rage along. The serious parts are sad and knowing and bitterly clever. And when one thinks that Bulgakov wrote all this-- poured so much wit and so much vision into this one book-- EXPECTING IT NEVER TO BE PUBLISHED, so that in time he made himself exactly like the poor destroyed master-- well. There is no reason to not read this book. None whatsoever.
MANUSCRIPTS DON'T BURN.
There is a further subversion of expectations later in the novel when Margarita makes a pact with the devil to find the character she calls the Master. We are so used to Faustian pacts throughout literature and popular culture that the assumption is that it will work out badly – which it does in a way, but not in the way that you’d expect. The devil is more true to his word than most of the human characters in the book, and doesn’t require much in return for his favours.
Cowardice seems to be chief among Bulgakov’s targets, which is understandable given the times in which the novel was written. In Stalinist Russia, as under any dictatorship, the choice between cowardice and death would have been a frequent one, and the majority necessarily chose the former. There are frequent allusions to Soviet life: sudden disappearances, bureaucratic entities with ridiculous compound names, etc. I suspect that many of the characters are thinly-veiled versions of Russian writers and critics of the day, too, but my knowledge of 1920s/30s Russian literati doesn’t allow me to get the references. Still, it doesn’t matter – there’s plenty more going on here.
In fact, it’s the kind of book that you could probably read several times and get new layers of meaning each time. The character of Pontius Pilate appears throughout the book, including at the beginning and the end, and was the subject of a book written by the Master and a story told by the devil to prove the existence of Jesus to a doubting literature professor just before he predicts (or engineers?) the professor’s decapitation by a tram. Decapitation is a repeated motif, as are sin and punishment.
One thing I found amazing about the book was that I believed in the characters and the action, even when it was absolutely absurd, as it frequently was. I think Bulgakov achieved this by focusing on the ordinary aspects of the situation, not on the absurd. For example, when a cat jumps on a subway car and attempts to pay ten kopecks to the conductress, Bulgakov adds in little details like the fact that he grabbed hold of a handrail and paid through a window “open on account of the stuffiness”. By reminding readers of familiar things like this, he makes the situation seem more real. I know it probably still sounds absurd when taken out of context like this, but in the book itself it worked, trust me!
REALISM as PHANTASY for TRUTH-TELLING. The writing follows a masterful gymnastʻs thinking except the rings of the event are hard core history. IT IS THE MOST INTELLECTUAL NOVEL of the TIME, speaking of the absolute need for human freedom and when that is not physically possible, for the survival of human spirit. In a profound sense, it is not merely of Stalinist Russiaʻs terrorist government but of all tyrranical extremist governments that force individuals to take to the most interior parts of their minds and hold them together with the falterings of their hearts to keep alive, all the while there is wholesale betrayal, fear, desperation, suffocating restraint, forced conspiracies, murder. The air itself is poisoned. And the way to escape is to set up a satirical phantasy, except like all clowning that is truth-centered, it is self-immolating to point out in any other way. Masked as supreme weirdness and light-headed fantastical exhortations and wicked double crostic steely wit, THIS IS TRAGEDY AT ITS MOST PROFOUND,
Bulgakov was a renowned dramatist in Russia. His plays were allowed to be written but not produced. He was also a poet. But he wrote in novel form because it allowed him the action of drama, the intellectual significance of plot which is motivated action, and the warp and woof of character development as the theme could be unfolded. He was a MAGICIAN of Belles Lettres. So subtle is the Magic that in much of the democratic Middle Class world, the magic is treated like circus magic, whereas it is in fact a tragedy rolled into comedy -- in order that, if found, it would not condemn the holders of the manuscript to automatic execution or what is another form of that: life without human expressive witness to the truth of one manʻs inhumanity to millions of his countrymen of the time.
For that reason, I rate this book a SOLID FIVE STARS.
Anyway, I like Satan's style. I like the way he empowers people, I ike the way him and Jesus work together (the only setup that ever made sense, take note, vulgar Abrahamic religiosity), and when Margarita goees screaming across the sky as a witch for the first time it's like dropping Cinderella into some mashup between An American Tail and some old D&D adventure where David Topovkul outfoxes Demogorgon in hilarious fashion and just as it can't possibly continue any longer the rest of the party burst in and get the blood they've patiently been craving. Poor put-upon Behemoth and Koroviev and Hella (ha!) and Azazello, and wht a masterstroke to include the other dude with his empty eyes to remind you, uh . . . pure evil?
Anyway, they put on an amazing show, and I love that Bulgakov not only reslutely sticks to the POV or at least affairs of the cultural nomenklatura and the Moscow bourgeoisie more generally (it's a useful corrective--there was a Moscow bourgeoisie! Not a technocracy, a real honest-to-God-and-Woland-and-Uncle-Joe bourgeoisie with old-world manners and shit) but implicates himself by dropping himself squarely in the centre, nameless but still oddly proud. and you think shit, it was still a tight enough world that old Misha Bulgakov could call up the Chairman and ask to be let out of the country, and if the mass society had made so little headway in the Soviet Union, it really makes you look twice at the American "meritocracy" with its Holts and Thorpes and Rockefellers and Bushes.
But lest this sour you on Bulgakov, first I say, read this book! It was samizdat and fuck Solzhenitsyn, dude, because this prolly saved lives instead of ruining them. And he totally gets the equivocation charge, setting himself up with Pilate the way he does. And the interrogation scene won't chill your blood the same as Orwell's Room 101, but the relish and showmanship that gets put into it chills in a different way--I venture to say that Bulgakov's Azazello even more than Orwell's O'Brien could get away with the "boot stamping on a human face--forever", which is pretty, let's face it, camp.
And there are so many wonderful moments and it makes you sad because there will always be oligarchies and there will always be totalitarianism, but this particular fiery Russian mix of the two, with the class encounter and peasants being asked to be citizens and office owrkers to be comrades, has vanished from the Earth, and it'll take Satan to bring it back again, and among other things this book makes a good auxiliary argument that we'd accept it with enough bread and circuses and condemn the demons,from Hell or just the Caucasus, twenty yearrs down the road when the fear had worn off. So good for Mikhail, putting this in the world.
The raucous main theme, that the Devil visits atheist Moscow and proceeds to confuse, befuddle and torment its oh so deserving denizens, especially the literary community, is set against two beautiful counterpoint melodies. The first of these is the story of Pontius Pilate and his encounter with Christ (Yeshua Ha-Nozri in the book). This tale, woven throughout the novel, is written in beautiful prose and details the events of the crucifixion through the eyes of Pilate. His motivations, failure of nerve, and ultimate redemption are told in a way which is non-canonical yet strangely familiar. The eventual intersection of this plot with that of the Devil leads to interesting questions about the relationship between good and evil.
The second melody, for which the book is named, is that of the Master and Margarita. This thread is a romance, intellectual and sensual simultaneously, in which Margarita makes the ultimate sacrifice of her soul to the Devil to save the Master. And yet her purity of heart redeems her even as she acts as the hostess at Satan's Ball and revels in her powers as a witch. The Master himself seems to be a semi-autobiographical character who is mostly powerless in the story, confined to an asylum or following Margarita. His greatness lies in his writing and not in his strength of character.
The main story follows the various deviltries that are foisted upon the literati of Moscow. A talking cat, vampire women, seances and disappearing clothing feature large, along with the attempts of authorities to explain away these supernatural outbreaks. Humorous, grotesque and horrifying, this tale leads one to see the character of the Devil less as evil and more as an agent of justice, meting out the appropriate punishment for all and sundry. In Bulgakov's tale he is an agent of chaotic good.
To understand the work it helps to know something about its author. Being born in 1891, and having grandparents who were involved in the church, he saw the old deeply religious Russian empire and the new atheistic Stalinist dictatorship firsthand. He began writing The Master & Margarita in 1928 and did not complete it until just before his death in 1940 (he was in fact still working on the 4th version of the book at this point, so it may actually be regarded as incomplete). The first version was burned by Bulgakov in 1930, as he saw no future as a writer in the Soviet Union.
The book is set in 1930’s Moscow, where the devil in the guise of a ‘master of the dark arts’ called Woland comes to visit. Accompanying him are his assistants: the personable Koroviev, the fang toothed thug Azazello and the anthropomorphic gun toting tomcat Behemoth. The first part of the book mostly concerns itself with the havoc Woland and his cohorts cause in Moscow; predicting deaths and ‘outing’ members of society, having them investigated and in some cases ‘disappeared’ by the authorities seemingly just because they can. One person who unfortunately crosses paths with them is the atheistic poet ‘Homeless’. After witnessing the death of his literary patron; Berlioz, Homeless is institutionalized, where he meets ‘The Master’; a young writer who is in the institution for unspecified reasons.
The Master may be a vaguely autobiographical character, he’s a writer, and he was working on a manuscript that he burned before turning his back on society and being locked up. The Master’s manuscript; a version of the encounter between Christ and Pontius Pilate, also appears at various points of the story.
The second book concerns The Master’s lover; a spirited and beautiful, somewhat hedonistic lady, called Margarita. Bulgakov based her on two of his wives, although I rather fancied there were some parallels between her and Mary Magdalene, possibly influenced by the subject matter of her lover’s novel.
In the search for her lover Margarita encounters Woland’s associates, is given unearthly magical powers and taken to meet the devil himself. For me the book’s standout chapter is The Great Ball At Satan’s. Margarita seems to be the guest of honour and at a magnificent dreamlike ball held in the fifth dimension she meets all manner of characters, all sinners, but all so wonderfully portrayed in this one sumptuous chapter.
While The Master and Margarita are eventually reunited and the readers get to see the end of the writer’s story about Pilate I found the ending somewhat unsatisfactory, possibly because Bulgakov never really got to finish the book to his own satisfaction. It probably went on a chapter or two too long for me and I found the epilogue completely unnecessary, I didn’t require explanation of what happened to the many people whose lives Woland and his associates manage to so neatly ruin, it was implied at the time. I found the entire Pontius Pilate story dry and over long, not to mention wildly at odds with every other report of the events.
Bulgakov’s frustration with the regime he was forced to live under and his deep affection for the city in which he lived was evident in the narrative. Given the frank nature of the book and the subject matter it was unsurprising that it was not widely published until long after Mikhail Bulgakov’s death. It was circulated in a serialised and heavily censored version within Russia, but was not published in novel version or translated into English until the late 1960’s.
The Master and Margarita is well worth reading, even if only for that one marvellous chapter about Satan’s party. It will certainly make you think deeply as you’re reading it. I haven’t read anything quite like it previously, although the first part of it often brought George Orwell’s 1984 to mind and the second part with Margarita quite frequently recalled Clive Barker’s Weaveworld.
It seems to me important that you keep the Russian history of this period in the head. So one understands better why Bulgakov wrote the story so which was indeed a part of his own life. The story involves three completely different parts, but they are always linked.
One part is the story of the last days of Jesus, his conviction and above all the thinking and actions of Pontius Pilate. This story is told that it is the Bible text very close, yet the content and the deepening of the story is based on speculation, as the trial and the feelings of the protagonists could have been. If one keeps in mind, which was banned by the Russian Revolution, the Orthodox Church, its teaching and practice, makes this part of Bulgakov's narrative sense. There were still many Russians who secretly practicing their faith and could not come to terms with the ban.
Another part concerns the writers guild. On the one hand they want to write down the events of the day and publish other hand they can and may their thoughts reveal only secretly. This is illustrated in the story so that they were put in a psychiatric hospital, to say out of sight out of mind. Bulgakov could not publish his story. He is in this story the master, who does not care that his manuscript burns, since he had written it in his mind. Since this story was under censorship it was not published until long after his death in a literary magazine in different parts. The copies were sold out and the readers knew the lyrics by heart.
The third part relates to the spying. One could also make a comparison with Goethe's Faust here by the soul to the devil sold to benefit only a little and realizes too late that oneself therefore fell into corruption. Voland embodied in this story the devil. As a magician and a charlatan, he deceives the people and reveals who has hidden possessions from the public. Spying has long been the most normal thing in the Soviet bloc. No one was sure who was one of the spies. This made the cohabitation not easy and led to denunciations, arrests, detention camp to unexplained disappearance.
At this time, it was normal that people kept their possession confidential. It was hidden and especially not disclosed to the authorities. This is nowadays worldwide no different, but this is probably once written in another book.
In summary, I recommend this great book highly. For me it is one of a must-read.
Sounds surreal? It is a bit. And I loved Margarita, adventuresome and courageous, and the only non-demonic character to profit by Woland’s visit – taking the bizarre in her stride, accepting the unacceptable, and demanding what is good from what is, to say the least, morally ambiguous. Big wow.