Monday, April 24, 2017

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Source of book: I own this.

I read this book because it was selected by a book club that some friends are in, that I wanted to join before the fates conspired against me. I diligently read the book, and was all ready to go, provided I could finish my tasks for the day. And, I had a whole afternoon to just install some shocks and struts on my minivan - hey, at 110,000 miles, stuff wears out. It had been a while since I did struts, but it wasn’t like I had to learn a whole new skill.

At least until my hand slipped and I let the hub swing down enough to pop the CV joint boot off the axle. And then discovered that the clamp used to hold it on was a single use clamp that I couldn’t put back on. Except it took me a while to figure that out. And then, once I had that done, I took a test drive, and I was getting a rattle on the other side. Not good. Since I couldn’t find an obvious problem like a loose nut, there was nothing for it but to take it apart and reassemble it. Which worked, for reasons I still don’t understand. But by then, I was already an hour late and looked like I had bathed in brake dust. Sigh.

So I missed the discussion. But at least I can blog about it, right?

The Master and Margarita was written between 1928 and 1940, in the Soviet Union. By the time I became aware of the USSR, things had ossified significantly, and not too many alive at the time remembered life before Lenin. But when this was written, the revolution was the recent past. A mere decade ago, and artists like Mikhail Bulgakov, born in 1891, not only remembered life “before,” but had had careers and successes before that time.

Bulgakov served as a doctor in World War I (receiving several serious injuries), before switching to writing after the war. Most of his family emigrated to France after the revolution - they were loyal Whites. Bulgakov was prevented from doing so because he was ill with typhus, and couldn’t be moved.

Although he initially had some success with his plays and novels, he managed to get on the wrong side of Stalin, and his works were banned in 1929. Bulgakov was devastated and puzzled, as Stalin had championed his writing numerous times before. But apparently, the satire of the Soviet system, while popular with audiences, enraged a few influential critics who had Stalin’s ear. It was during this time of travail that Bulgakov began writing The Master and Margarita. He burned the first draft, then re-wrote it with significant changes, not least of which was the character of Margarita, which was inspired by his third wife, whom he married in 1932.

Bulgakov’s works remained banned until his death in 1940. He intended to submit this final work to the publisher, but he still had a few loose sentences to tie up. Chances are, his friends would have prevented him from doing so anyway, as the political consequences for Bulgakov would have been devastating. His widow waited for 26 years, before publishing it in 1966. Even then, it was published in a censored version. As was the practice at the time, the omitted portions were “unofficially” distributed as a handwritten supplement.

The novel is a classic example of early Magical Realism. The setting and human characters are realistic, and respond as normal, ordinary people would to the intrusion of the supernatural in their midst. The book is permeated by references to Goethe’s Faust, and I would have missed a lot of the references if I hadn’t read that work - particularly the bizarre and philosophical second part. Even the name of Margarita is a reference to Margaret/Gretchen in the Faust legend - and the Master himself is probably intended to be a new Faust.

The novel kicks off with Woland (Goethe’s name for the Devil) showing up in Moscow and getting in an argument with the aggressively atheistic writer Berlioz. (Yes, this is a reference to the composer who...wait for it...composed an epic work about Faust.) Not only does Berlioz disbelieve the Devil exists, but he denies that Jesus Christ was a historical person. This was a popular theory at the time in the USSR, which was aggressively imposing atheism on the population. This is where understanding the time the book was written is key. Bulgakov’s grandfathers were both Orthodox priests, and it had only been a decade since the revolution. Apparently, part of the impetus for the writing of this novel was Bulgakov’s experience with a pro-atheism propaganda committee. Obviously the existence of the Devil threw a bit of a wrench into society.

Woland predicts to Berlioz that not only will he not attend his committee meeting that night, he will have his head chopped off by a woman. The conversation starts with Berlioz asserting that man governs his own fate, with Woland countering that man cannot even foresee whether he will be alive tomorrow.

“And sometimes it’s worse still: the man has just decided to go to Kislovodsk” - here the foreigner squinted at Berlioz - “a trifling matter, it seems, but even this he cannot accomplish, because suddenly, no one knows why, he slips and falls under a tram-car! Are you going to say it was he who governed himself that way? Would it not be more correct to think that he was governed by someone else entirely?”

“I must counter him like this,” Berlioz decided, “yes, man is mortal, no one disputes that, but the thing is…”
However, before he managed to utter these words, the foreigner spoke:
“Yes, man is mortal, but that would be only half the trouble. The worst of it is that he’s sometimes unexpectedly mortal -- there’s the trick. And generally he’s unable to say what he’s going to do this same evening.”

I just adore the phrase “unexpectedly mortal,” even if the idea behind it is far from comforting.

However, Woland is indeed right, and Berlioz does become “unexpectedly mortal” soon thereafter, and his companion, the young poet Ivan Homeless, finds that his new-found belief in the Devil lands him in a mental institution.

Woland also begins the story within the story: a retelling of the story of Christ and Pontius Pilate. This story is begun by Woland, but is eventually taken up by the Master - a fellow inmate in the institution. This story is the obsession of the Master, who attempted to have the work published, but it was savaged by the critics, and he ended up burning it. (Hey, sounds just a bit self referential.) The story doesn’t exactly follow the Gospel accounts. Jesus is a mere idealistic human, there is only one disciple, Judas is an opportunistic hitman who is assassinated after the betrayal to prevent the secret from getting out, and a number of other details are changed. But there is a point to this. First, the very human Yeshua Ha-Nozri is even more of a threat to the Soviet authorities than a divine mystic - in part because he stands for radical love and the abolition of power. This all plays into the satire in the novel. But also, it is the conversation between Pilate and Yeshua that haunts Pilate through eternity. (And doesn’t it haunt anyone who has read the Gospels?) Pilate is involved in something so much bigger than he realizes - until it is too late. He just wants to keep the peace - and his job and therefore his life. But, alas, his name is now know throughout the whole world for all the wrong reasons.

When the story returns to Moscow, Woland is about to wreak havoc on the city. He and his minions, the tall and manipulative illusionist Koroviev, the short thug Azazello, the succubus Hella, and Behemoth the giant and sarcastic cat, take over an apartment and set up a seance at the local theater. During the show, huge piles of currency (see below) fall from the rafters, and women from the audience are given the opportunity to exchange their clothes for expensive designer fashions. After the show, naturally, the money turns to either foreign currency (a serious crime to possess) or worthless paper, and the women find themselves naked. More people end up in the sanitarium, one is transported magically to Yalta, and chaos ensues.

About that currency. The translation (and indeed most English translations) miss the point of this. The currency described as “ten rouble notes” are actually “chernovets,” a currency that the USSR attempted to replace the rouble with - to great disruption and embarrassment. This is one of the jokes that is kind of lost if you don’t know the background. On a related note, there is a fantastic website that is devoted to this book, and explains all of the historical and cultural background. I referred to this while reading the book, and it really made it come to life.

It is at about this point that we finally meet the Master and Margarita and hear their stories. This is a third of the way through the book, which is kind of odd considering the book is named after them. After we are introduced, we find out that the Master has written his magnum opus, a book about Pontius Pilate, which he has just burned. His mistress, Margarita, has tried to encourage him to not give up, but she disappears, and he first arrested, then is committed to the mental institution. She believes he is dead, and goes seeking Woland to get him back. She ends up becoming a witch and hosting the Walpurgis Night ball, before she is reunited with the Master.

In one of the iconic scenes, the burned manuscript is resurrected.

“Let me see it.” Woland held out his hand, palm up.
“Unfortunately, I cannot do that,” replied the master, “because I burned it in the stove.”
“Forgive me, but I don’t believe you,” Woland replied, “that cannot be: manuscripts don’t burn.”

“Manuscripts don’t burn” has become the most famous line from the novel: one I had heard before I knew the book existed. It became an axiom in the Soviet Union, and it represented the spirit of protest. As the Master says, it doesn’t matter if he has the manuscript, because it is all inside his head. The ideas do not die, they cannot be exterminated, even by fire.

I won’t go any further with the plot than that. The whole impression of the novel is a bizarre mix of slapstick, satire, surrealism, and goodness knows what else. It is crazy and it will make you crazy, just as it did poor Ivan. Or perhaps the world is just crazy and he is the only sane one. Or both.

There are a few additional things I want to mention. In addition to currency wars, the politics of getting a scarce apartment is a topic that Bulgakov takes time to thoroughly skewer. From the multiple families sharing a flat - but each with their own little bit of territory: a personal Primus stove - to the rampant bribery, the author raises the reality to the level of a farce.

This book has a lot of references to historical personages, some of which, like Berlioz and Schiller, really don’t need an introduction. But other more minor persons, particularly contemporary Soviet notables in thinly disguised portraits, are harder to recognize. Fortunately, these are footnoted in the edition I have. Some others are ones that I personally enjoyed seeing, such as the Concertmaster at the Walpurgis ball, Henri Vieuxtemps. Perhaps only music nerds will recognize him as one of the most influential violinists of all time, practically inventing many of the techniques we all use today. Brownie points to Bulgakov for passing over the more obvious Paganini (who was rumored to have sold his soul to the devil) for the more obscure yet more influential figure.

Another line really made me smile, and it occurs in the scene where Koroviev and Behemoth are having a last fling - literally burning the town down - before they all leave Moscow for good. They show up at the restaurant that caters to the writers and critics, where their identification is demanded. (Not just anyone can eat here…) Koroviev insists that they are writers, and opines that Dostoevsky never had to present papers to prove he could write.

“You’re not Dostoevsky,” said the citizeness, who was getting muddled by Koroviev.
“Well, who knows, who knows,” he replied.
“Dostoevsky’s dead,” said the citizeness, but somehow not very confidently.
“I protest!” Behemoth exclaimed hotly. “Dostoevsky is immortal!”

One final scene contrasts with this humor. Margarita, who is the voice of compassion in the novel, has a chance at the end to plead for mercy for Pilate, who is condemned to an eternity of unfulfilled longing.

“What is he saying?” asked Margarita, and her perfectly calm face clouded over with compassion.
“He says one and the same thing,” Woland replied. “He says that even the moon gives him no peace, and that his is a bad job. That is what he always says when he is not asleep, and when he sleeps, he dreams one and the same thing: there is a path of moonlight, and he wants to walk down it and talk with the prisoner Ha-Nozri, because, as he insists, he never finished what he was saying that time, long ago, on the fourteenth day of the spring month of Nisan. But alas, for some reason he never manages to get on to this path, and no one comes to him.”

And this is the most beautiful moment in the novel, when the Master is able to free the character he has written his book about, and Pilate is able to walk down that path of moonlight with Christ as he has longed to do these 2000 years.

Without a doubt, this was an unusual book, not particularly easy to understand - particularly while in the middle. But in it one can see echoes of other books. Faust, most obviously. But also in the famous Grand Inquisitor scene in The Brothers Karamazov, in the writings of Tolstoy. And one can hear the voices of the Soviet artists of the 20th century, all seeking to do what they must: to write, to compose, to express, to tell the truth. As all totalitarian systems on all sides of the political spectrum have always known, it is the artists that pose the greatest danger, because their truth runs deeper than censorship, deeper than mere words and notes, and touches the very soul. Art is, in its own way, like that longing to walk the path of moonlight, to transcend. Ultimately, this necessity has defied the many attempts of despots to suppress it. Out of Stalin’s purges and forced atheism came this novel which spoke of something greater, something beyond the cramped vision of material success and ideological purity. And Caesar and Stalin are exposed as no different from the inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s book, worshiping power and exerting control by creating an artificial version of reality. Like Goethe, Bulgakov sees Woland and Mephistopheles as forces that are ultimately beneficial because they challenge the mirage of human power and terror. I’ll end with the quote from Goethe’s Faust which Bulgakov uses to preface the novel:

“...who are you then?”
“I am part of that power which eternally wills evil and eternally works good.”

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