Friday, August 21, 2020

The Master and Margarita

What if the devil came to Moscow in 1930?

Professor Woland arrives from somewhere (never quite specified--maybe Germany? Maybe someplace a little hotter...) and arranges to give a demonstration in black magic, after which, in a nod to the official rationalism of the Soviet Union, he will explain how the tricks are done.

Except he doesn't. Because those tricks can't be rationally explained.

We're not exactly told Woland is the devil, but it's pretty clear from the start. Wikipedia tells me that voland is an archaic German word for demon. At the very beginning of Bulgakov's novel, in arranging his demonstration of magic, Woland meets Mikhail Berlioz, the director of MASSOLIT. He predicts Berlioz will die within the hour when his head is cut off by a woman. Which proceeds to happen. Did Woland make it happen? Or did he just foresee it?

The epigram to Bulgakov's novel is another clue: he quotes Goethe's Faust: "'Say at last -- who are thou?'/'That power that I serve/Which wills forever evil/Yet does forever good.'" The quote is from the scene in Faust's study after Faust has first summoned Mephistopheles. Is Woland doing good by doing evil to those who deserve it in 1930s Moscow? Hmm. A bit. But I'd say Bulgakov's novel is far too anarchic to be so simply categorized.

But it's a great anarchic ride. There are three strands woven together: there's Woland, and his devilish entourage, in Moscow, afflicting the comfortable, getting rid of minor bureaucrats as needed. There's the final days of Yeshua ha-Notsri, that is, Jesus of Nazareth, recognizably parallel to the biblical account, but not identical to it. Is that a tale told by the devil? Or is it the novel of The Master, thought burned? Or is it the actual historical record? Don't ask me; evidence for all three theories appear.

The third strand is the one that gives the novel its title, but is the last to get started. It's a love story. The thirteenth (numerologically significant?) chapter is titled 'Enter the Hero' and it's where we first meet the Master, who has a written a novel about Pontius Pilate and his search for philosophical wisdom, which may be identical to some of the chapters we've already read. But the Master, otherwise unnamed, is confined to a madhouse, and believes his manuscript burned, that his one true love has forgotten him. 

The nineteenth chapter is titled 'Margarita.' It begins:
"Follow me, reader! Who told you that there is no such thing as real, true, eternal love? Cut out his lying tongue!
Follow me, reader, and only me and I will show you that love!" 

Margarita believes she has lost the Master; he thinks she has forgotten him. But maybe by becoming a witch, and with a little help from the Devil...

Bulgakov was unable to publish this during his lifetime--or really anything during the last decade of his life. (He died in 1940, at age 48, of kidney disease.) He must have known this novel had no chance. He had reason to be angry at Stalin, at the snivelling Stalinist bureaucrats who managed to keep him from publishing. Yet the satirical parts struck me as surprisingly genial. Embarrassment and discomfiture are the rule, not anything more dire. Berlioz dies, grotesquely, but the director of the theatre, who has done some actual bad things, is magically carried off to Yalta and returns to Moscow at the end unharmed. There are other restorations of the sort.

It's funny, it's affecting, it's a remarkable tour-de-force. Basically it's a great book that bears rereading and I've only just read it, so maybe I'll simply not say anything else. (And I've been a slow blogger of late.) But I can see that I will be rereading it. It's been translated multiple times. I read it in the Michael Glenny version. I didn't compare this version to others, but it read quite well.


  1. there's been a bit of commentary re this book, both good and bad, that i've read... never read it myself and it doesn't quite sound like my sort of journey but who knows, things change a lot... informative and polished review, tx...

    1. I wasn't really sure what I would think, but I did like it.

      Thanks for stopping in!

  2. Your post has totally made me want to run out and get a copy of this one to read! :)

  3. I really loved my read of this book. It was so bizarre but anything truly deep or relating to history went completely over my head.

    Are you ready for The Decameron? I'm raring to go! How much I keep up, remains to be seen.

    1. I am ready! We're going up north for the long weekend, but should be ready to start after that. Are you going to do an organizing post?

      The Master & Margarita is a strange one, but it's so good, isn't it? It made me want to reread Faust & then read it again. I know a little bit about the period--not a super lot, and mostly from other novels--but I'm not sure how much knowing the history really helps. The satirical elements struck me as fairly indirect.

    2. I don't know if I'm coming or going. I'm actually in the process of moving, but I will attempt what I can. Who knows? I might surprise even myself but once I'm settled life will/should be more predictable.

      I felt Bulgakov was definitely saying something but it was certainly cloaked and perhaps even those of that day couldn't figure it out. Lots of fun, though!

      I haven't read Faust yet. Isn't that terrible?

    3. If you're moving I'm sure you're in a complete muddle--I know I would be. I won't start the next week anyway so we can figure out something at that point.

      I thought Faust pretty readable--I forget which translation, a poetic one, though. I think you've got a good one ahead--you'll like it.

  4. How ambitious to be reading this alongside Cortazar. I'm so impressed! But then, I've heard that this one is funnier than one might expect from its blurb (which you seem to have found it to be as well)!

    1. I wasn't sure what to expect, but it really is pretty readable. It goes along much more lightly than Hopscotch, though I'm pretty sure if I read it again I'll pick up a lot more nuances.