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 Even during the post-Stalin thaw under Khrushchev, the book remained unpublished for a long time and didn't appear until a censored version came out in 1967.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.

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.