Sunday, March 8, 2020

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

I don't think I'll be writing much about any of the Russian books that I read this year. Far better things have been written about any of the works I'll get to for there to be anything I can add. If you doubt me, check out this blog. Still, I will slap together a few quick takes, nonetheless. (Note: apparently, this is not true, and I'll be writing too much, probably)

Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940) greatest work, The Master and Margarita (1940),  was never published during his lifetime. Much of his work, reviled by the Soviet literary establishment, was suppressed. Even during the post-Stalin thaw under Khrushchev, the book remained unpublished for a long time and didn't appear until a censored version came out in 1967. The full text wasn't available until 1973. The first English translation was in 1967.

The Devil and his retinue
by Alekshey Galushkov
One hot spring day, the Devil and his entourage come to Moscow. When he comes upon the head of the writers' union, Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz, lecturing the poet, Ivan Bezdomny, that it's not enough to portray Christ as a comical figure, but instead he must be shown to have never existed at all, he is excited.

The visit brings down chaos on the citizens of the capital, exposing many of the vicious little ways people have accommodated themselves to the corruption and evil of the Soviet Union. Shortages of most luxuries and even many necessities have turned many ordinary people cagey and covetous. When the writer Berlioz is killed, having slipped and fallen under a tram, his uncle's first thought upon hearing the news is not one of sympathy but of how to claim his large Moscow apartment. Poets conform their words to the official dogma while loudly condemning all who don't. People, for no apparent reason most times, disappear in the middle of the day from their apartments, never to be seen again, and no one ever speaks of it.

In the middle of all the Satanic shenanigans, there's the tale of Margarita and her lover, the writer known only as the Master. For writing a book presented as a non-supernatural tale of Pontius Pilate and a prisoner called Yeshua Ha-Notsri, he was blacklisted and eventually went mad. Selections from the Master's novel are spread throughout the book.

Margarita spies
the Master watching her
I've read this book numerous times over the past thirty-five years and loved it each time. This time around, though, my enjoyment came more from the satirical anti-Soviet elements than the artistic and philosophical/theological ones. I've read a bit more about the period and Bulgakov's life and  While very funny, Bulgakov never softens his depictions of the brutality and moral decay wrought by the Soviet government.

What surprised me on this reading was how much I remembered and how much I forgot. Few specific scenes surprised me; Professor Woland holding forth on the existence of God, Pilate interrogating Ha-Notsri, the magic show in Moscow, and Satanic ball. It all came back to me.

Azzazello, Behemoth, and Korovyev
What threw me was the novel's overall flow. Despite its title, while hinted at, both Margarita and the Master don't show up till nearly halfway through the book. Even Pilate get much less time on the stage then I believed. The travails of the government poet, Ivan Bezdomny, and assorted writers and theater employees make up most of the first half of the book. I suspect it's this part, far more than the Pilate chapters, that ensured Bulgakov's book would never see the light of day in the USSR.

Moscow is a city of limits. Despite the modernity of its streetcars, theaters, even the thoughts, and ideas of its citizens, it is bereft of much. For artists, only the luckiest have adequate living space and only those who regurgitate state dogma have access to fine cuisine. Even the refreshment stand at Patriarch's Ponds on a hot day has no cold beer or seltzer, only warm apricot juice.

Behemoth
While there are obvious allusions to the sudden disappearance of innocents who fall afoul of the state's terror apparatus, most people manage to live in, even if only willful, ignorance of such terrors. Instead, they simply live lives that seem threadbare and bereft of most simple comforts, let alone luxuries. It's a gray world where the only light comes from Margarita's love for the Master.



Pilate and Banga

Despite finding myself drawn more to the Moscow chapters this reading, the Pilate ones are still the heart of the book. Bulgakov's Pilate is miserable, pained by endless headaches, brought about by Jerusalem's heat, his hatred of the endless plotting by the Sanhedrin, and what he sees as the Jewish fanaticism. His only real fellowship is with his dog. Suddenly, confronted by Ha-Notsri's unwarranted goodness, he senses the possibility of relief, even redemption.

When I first met the luminous Mrs. V., I gave her The Master and Margarita to read. She didn't finish it, put off as she was by the retelling of the Pilate's and Jesus' story. Yeshua Ha-Notsri isn't divine (though his insights seem to be), he has no real disciples, and he isn't preaching salvation or messiah hood. For me, no less orthodox in my theology, it was never a problem. It's a story within a story, it's the Master's novel. In the end, a character in a book, his deliverance must come from his creator, not the Creator.

Mikhail Bulgakov
A line from the book, "Manuscripts don't burn," became well-known in the Soviet Union. In the book, it referred explicitly to the Master's novel about Pilate being given to him despite having burned the original manuscript. It came to pertain to politically unpublishable novels being memorized by their authors.

It's a powerful notion - that art persists despite the savagery of the world. Bulgakov's works were kept unpublished, his plays shut down after a performance, and Stalin would not allow him to emigrate. In the end, he died from an inherited disease, his greatest work unknown to anyone outside his immediate circle. Today, it's considered one of the great works of Russian literature, so maybe he was right.

When I started this whole Russian thing, I thought I'd be focusing largely on the writings of the great 19th and early 20th century writers - Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Chekhov, and the like. Instead, I started with a post-Revolutionary novel and I've already started on a second - Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. I'm  also looking forward to a collection of Soviet-era short stories my mother-in-law's giving me this week. Aside from just being good books, they're fascinating for their portrayal of Soviet Union from within. It was the great threat to the world for much of my life, it murdered untold millions of its own people, and now it's just gone. It's gripping to get a glimpse from the inside through the eyes of actual Russian writers instead of histories written by outsiders. I'm going to get to the 19th century at some point, but right now, I'm going to be sticking to the 20th.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Christmas Mailbag

While I've set out to try to focus on Russian fiction this year, I've also found myself drawn to Golden Age detective fiction again this year. So far, I've read Ngaio Marsh's first Roderick Alleyn book, A Man Lay Dead, and I'm well in to Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. The luminous Mrs. V and I are also rewatching for the many-manyieth time the inimitable Joan Hickson Miss Marple tv-show.

Golden Age detective fiction refers to a certain type of puzzle-heavy mystery featuring some sort of detective, be he or she an amateur or a professional, and written between the two world wars, and largely, though not exclusively, from Great Britain. While most the earliest examples focused on the puzzle aspect almost to the exclusion of character and atmosphere, this began to change fairly quickly with a growing focus on psychology and motive. While the era is generally considered to have ended in the years immediately following WWII, the sort of mystery Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers wrote is clearly still the template for a lot of crime fiction written today. There may be more gore and the sex more explicit, but complicated crimes and clever detectives are definitely not a thing of the past.

The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards

I remembered seeing this last year when I was doing research on Margery Allingham, so I figured it was worth a look. About a third of the way in, I can tell you it's terrific.

Not only is Edwards a mystery author himself, he's the president of the Detection Club. The club's founding members included Dorothy Sayers, Anthony Berkley (Francis Illes), Agatha Christie and most of the other British mystery writers of the day, and GK Chesterton was the first president.

As much as a history of the genre and its development, it's one of the club and its members. I knew a little of Sayers' and Christie's lives, but not as much as the book details. Edwards tells some fascinating stories, particularly where his subjects' writing overlaps with real world murder.

If you've any taste for these sorts of stories, this book is definitely one to add to your shelf.

As I'm making my way through The Golden Age of Murder, I'm being blown away discovering just how many authors wrote detective novels in the Golden Age. There are easily a half dozen or more for every one I know. Going along, I'm making notes of what looks especially interesting.

The Footsteps at the Lock by Ronald Knox

One of the books that immediately caught my eye was this one. Set during a canoe trip along the upper reach of the Thames, this sounded fun, so I grabbed it.
Knox was an Anglican priest who converted to Catholicism. In addition to many serious religious works, he wrote several successful and respected detective novels featuring Miles Bredon, a sheepdog-like agent of the Indescribable Insurance Company. If that company name doesn't make it obvious, from the very beginning, many authors were having fun with the genre, taking it no more seriously than it needed to be.


Knox, one of the founding members of the Detection Club, had also written a set of rules to be followed when writing detective fiction:

  1. The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.
  2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
  3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
  4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
  5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.
  6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
  7. The detective must not himself commit the crime.
  8. The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.
  9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
  10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.
Written only partially tongue-in-cheek, this is a great set of guidelines that would seem perfectly applicable today. 

Gallows Court by Martin Edwards

So, reading about Edwards regarding The Golden Age of Murder, I saw he had the first book in a new series available cheap, so I bough it. It's just the way I am, I guess. Rachel Savernake, daughter of a judge and amateur sleuth, gets caught up in crazy, murder-filled contretemps in foggy London in 1930. 










I loved the first Inspector O book, A Corpse in the Koryo, and hope to get to its first sequel soon. This time around, North Korean police inspector O is directed to solve a bank robbery, a crime that would seem impossible in his country. Church is the pseudonym of a long-serving American intelligence officer serving in the Far East. I expect really good things from this book.