The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov

Song of the Day: Petite by Léo Ferré


The first time I read Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, I was about fifteen, young and impressionable, and with a sense of self-import (only possible at such an age) that I could grasp the meaning behind any work of literature I read and even be able to perhaps convey it better than the author. The idiocy of adolescence, right?

Needless to say, I read it, got a bit of it, wasn’t too impressed with it and its religious symbolism, wondered why my dad thought it was an amazing work of literature, and promptly forgot all about it. But it must have made some impression somewhere in my subconscious that I mentioned it in my own writings.

F., a close college friend (whose library collection I have raided on so many occasions) gave me the book to read one summer (when as usual I pestered him for my next read). I offhandedly related my first experience of it. Anyhow, my second close read proved to be fulfilling and revelatory, breathing a new life to meaning.

Mikhail Bulgakov worked on this luminous book throughout one of the darkest decades of the century. His last revisions were dictated to his wife a few weeks before his death in 1940 at the age of forty-nine. For him, there was never any question of publishing the novel. The mere existence of the manuscript, had it come to the knowledge of Stalin’s police, would almost certainly have led to the permanent disappearance of its author. Yet the book was of great importance to him, and he clearly believed that a time would come when it would be published. Another twenty-six years had to pass before events bore out that belief and The Master and Margarita, by what seems a surprising oversight in Soviet literary politics, finally appeared in print. The effect was electrifying.

The monthly magazine, Moskva, otherwise a rather cautious and quiet publication carried the first part of The Master and Margarita in its November 1966 issue. The 150000 copies sold out within hours. In the weeks that followed, group readings were held, people meeting each other would quote and compare favourite passages, there was talk of little else. Certain sentences from the novel became proverbial. The very language of the novel was a contradiction to everything wooden, official, imposed. It was a joy to speak.

When the second part appeared in the January 1967 issue of Moskva, it was greeted with the same enthusiasm. Yet this was not excitement caused by the emergence of a new writer, as when Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (an amazing book that everyone should read) appeared in the magazine Novy Mir in 1962. Bulgakov was neither unknown nor forgotten. His plays had begun to be revived in theatres during the late fifties and were published in 1962. His superb Life of Monsieur de Molière came out that same year. His early stories were reprinted. Then, in 1965 came the Theatrical Novel, based on his years of experience with Stanislavsky’s renowned Moscow Art Theatre. And finally in 1966, a volume of selected works of his had been printed. Needless to say then that The Master and Margarita is a book that has so permeated society that key phrases from the book have become common Russian speech (even I, with my rudimentary Russian knowledge, could recognise some of them).

Bulgakov takes his reader to a (not-so) imaginary world: a world filled with magic realism, where poets and prophets play verbal volleyball, and we are then taken to an insane asylum, and a couple of characters lose their heads – figuratively and literally. It is a novel of black humour littered with strange and spirited people, weird dreams, chess pieces that come alive, and birds who dance. People break out in song uncontrollably, undergo hypnosis (or are they just plain hallucinating?), and have a tendency to metamorphose from one being into another (and from one place to another).

The book is simultaneously set in 1930s Moscow (or could be ‘20s – he doesn’t make it clear. All we know is that it is Stalin’s era and prior to WWII) and portrays a vision of Soviet life so painfully accurate that it could not have been published in Bulgakov’s lifetime; and in Yeshalayim right before and after the Crucifixion. Bulgakov’s eccentric satire bring Satan (or Messier – as his followers respectfully call him) that ruler of the shadows into the lives of the unassuming citizens of Moscow.

Living in a heavily censored Soviet Union, Bulgakov mocks the bureaucracy, hints at literary and political persecution, and employs the tightly regulated social life under Stalin to create a colourful scene of chaos.

It all begins when an editor Mikhail Aleksandrovich Berlioz urges a poet, Ivan Nikolayevich Bezdomny (who wrote under the pseudonym Homeless), to revise his latest piece in a way to demonstrate that religion is bogus – namely, by explaining that Jesus never existed. A curious stranger joins the debate and, taken aback by the suggestions that both God and Satan do not exist, begins prophesising about Berlioz’s fast-approaching death. When the editor dies, Ivan loses it and soon many people in Moscow do too.

Surrounded by an incredible retinue comprising of an odd-looking fellow in a pince-nez suit; a talking, drinking and mischievous black tom; a beautiful and often naked red-haired woman; and a vicious, stocky, short man with a fang protruding from his mouth, Messire – or Woland, as other call the devil – rules Moscow for a brief few days, amusing himself and his entourage and terrifying many others.

Bulgakov’s genius perhaps lies in writing a novel in which he not only tackles the social and political dynamic of Soviet life, but also attacks the strict atheism of Soviet life. He shows the need for religious feeling, but not necessarily organised religion itself. This is obvious from how whilst showering parodical echoes from gospels throughout the Moscow narrative; he scrupulously strips away everything that hints of being messianic from the Pilate chapters, leaving a pitiful figure of Jesus. He took what is normally perceived as religious material and imbued in it a social context. In understanding the historical factor incorporating apocryphal material – this is not a book on Jesus (and his divinity) or religion but about the unseen forces of politics and morality, which led to the death of a historically plausible figure.

Bulgakov has been wrongly accused by many of his critics as subverting humanism, but I beg to differ. I argue that he longs to re-establish it in a country where it was held in contempt. The introduction of theology at the beginning of the novel not only sneers at Soviet atheism but also contrives to put humanism back in place. The theme from the very beginning he establishes is that of a society that refuses to believe in either God or Satan and is yet so oblivious to the disaster to come. Berlioz’s character is quintessential of the atheist society whose world is so rational, and feels safe and in control. Educated and intelligent, even with a touch of arrogance and obnoxiousness, he lives under the rigidly rationalist and materialist nature of the philosophical-political system that makes him unprepared to deal with even Ivan’s (the poet) degree of imagination of Jesus’ existence, let alone all the irrational and unconscious, unreal things the Soviet ideology denied. It is no doubt the talk of fate; existence of evil completely inundates the scholar in the person of Woland. The dramatic opening act, in addition to injecting a heavy dose of suspense, also foretells the city’s crumbling at the escapes of the devil’s retinue.

Whilst the mischievous retinue wreak havoc in the city, they also bring peace and happiness to an ill-fated, unhappy couple, the Master and his lover, Margarita. The Master, who was interested in no more than the political and psychological aspect of Christ and Pilate, was pilloried for writing forbidden literature. Margarita, who is as enthralled by his writing as she is in love with the doomed author, would sell her soul to the devil if she could save the Master from his misery and mental illness. Indeed, the only hope that she would regain happiness makes her invincible and fearless, even when she is placed at the mercy of the devil. Throughout the book Woland gives the same test to those who he encounters – that is, one must show compassion even to the worst humanity has to offer – from the hell of a dance at Griboyedov, to the hell of the criminals at Satan’s ball, to Pilate’s suffering in the relentless sun. Not only does she pass the test, she puts complete trust in Woland that in her readiness to take risk at any expense, she is the central and most active figure in the story.

As the book unfolds with further disturbance in Moscow, one might question the purpose of telling the story of Pilate. How would the omission of it make a difference in the fate of the Master and Margarita? Clues to answer this question persist and stipple the narrative, in the form of myriad biblical motifs, and are incomprehensible until the end of the novel. While Bulgakov is not to debate about God and Satan, good and evil, he uses parodical echoes and facts from the Bible to send out his message. The point, out of all the meticulous planning and orchestration is that Woland and Jesus bring the same message, one that is only comprehensible by stripping away the conventional notion of good and evil. Whether it is taught by example or by provocation, the message is one and the same: Compassion is preferable to revenge. The parallel narratives of Pilate-Levi-Jesus and Margarita-Master-Aloisy are meant to enlighten the reader that the division of humanity into good and evil is no longer useful and transcendence of the need for retribution is the goal.

Wickedly funny and devilishly clever, The Master and Margarita, is a caviar of gold and evil served with political, historical, and biblical references. It’s a delicious riot.

Till Next Post!


36 thoughts on “The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov

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