Random Reading (#2): Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita (1967, uncensored 1973)

A friend of mine recommended The Master and Margarita to me about eight years ago. Though I have forgotten which translation he favored, I made my way through Burgin and O’Connor’s rendering of the novel for the first time last month. Dear Lord, what a weird book.

Enfolding an odd assemblage of themes and ideas—religion, atheism, fate, history and/as fiction, supernaturalism, fate, evil, institutions, governmental coercion, dreams, illusions, love, loss, the admixture of aesthetics and politics, industry, media, peace, madness, medicine, etc.—Bulgakov’s novel dresses Moscow in dark, comedic garb. Once upon a time I was going to write a dissertation on doubles and devils in modern literature; if I had continued down that path The Master and Margarita would probably be far more familiar to me than it is now (even after reading through it). Satan and his deliciously mischievous retinue arrive in Moscow in its opening chapters and target the leaders of the publishing and theater industry, all in an effort—it would seem—to bring peace (rather than pain) to the lives of a failed novelist (who had written a fictional/historical revision of the encounter between Jesus Christ and Pontius Pilate) and his beloved Margarita (a married woman who later becomes a witch and a merciful hostess of the damned at a hellish banquet). Just writing those sentences makes me feel somewhat mad. Could this really be the premise of a novel? I go back and check. Yes. Yes it is.

For all its ironic literalization of figures of speech (e.g., “What the devil is he after?” [7]; “And, the devil knows, maybe he did, but that’s not the point!” [45]; “devilish things started happening” [64]; “the devil only knows where they were headed” [67]; “The devil knows who she is” [75]”; “He’s already the devil knows where!” [80]; “I tell you, he’s fussy as the devil!” [81]; “The devil knows what’s going on” [86]; “I got obsessed with the devil knows what!” [97]; “The devil only knows where the red-haired girl in the black evening dress came from…” [105]; “all hell broke loose” [106]; “Yes, and the devil only knows what mischief he’ll do here!” [114]; “some unlikely, unexpected fellow, who looks like the devil knows what” [120]; “Confound you, devil!” [127]; “But that Korovyov, he’s a devil” [134]; etc.) . . . to repeat: for all its ironic literalization of common figures of speech, The Master and Margarita is perhaps most impressive in its balance of irony and sincerity, especially in its seemingly random retelling of the story involving the apostle Matthew, Pontius Pilate, Judas Iscariot, and Jesus Christ. What’s the point of this retelling? It does not revise this story in order to demystify it. The point is not necessarily to humanize or de-spiritualize it. Though each character’s role deviates dramatically from the gospel records, though the novel encompasses and generates its own gnostic version of the death and resurrection of Christ and the anguish of Pilate and the death of Judas, the fact that each chapter dedicated to this retellling comes in a different form (from the mouth of Satan, in the dreams of a failed poet, through the mind of Margarita as she scans the surviving manuscript pages of The Master’s unpublished novel) problematizes ahead of time any attempt to moralize this retelling or to ground it in any sort of normative project. The Pilate bits are more than a mere doubling of the main plot, then; they are less than a whole scale deconstruction of Christianity; it is not an affirmation of the gospel story in the face of widespread Soviet anti-religious sentiment.

In fact, it is not altogether clear what Satan’s purpose is in counteracting the ruin of The Master’s career or reigniting his love affair with the married Margarita or reeking havoc amongst a corrupt publishing industry and its public. As Ellendea Proffer writes in her afterword to the novel, “The question of genre is essential to Bulgakov’s magic: because we don’t know what category this work belongs to, we don’t know what expectations to bring to it [. . .] No one has a childhood in The Master and Margarita, no one’s character evolves profoundly over time, no souls are probed deeply. We are shown adulterous love which appears to have no physical side. Nor is this the Gogolian world of grostesque ‘types,’ although Gogol is a major influence on Bulgakov (as well as a possible model for the Master). Very realistic minor characters intermingle with archetypal or deliberately abstract figures” (362). Indeed, when Behemoth encounters these minor characters, the novel’s full charm evinces a clash of genres, enacts a confusion of readerly expectations, and engenders a hilarious cross-hatching of effects and affects. For this reason, it would be even more fruitful to situate Bulgakov’s novel in the history of double/demon literature, since a good deal of this literature has been so unquestionably situated in a period, tradition, or genre that never quite manages to dull its fantastic, surprising, or disconcerting elements.

While I was reading The Master and Margarita, I could never quite shake the feeling that I didn’t really know enough to understand its subtleties, that (despite the helpful commentary at the back of my edition) my cluelessness concerning the Soviet history of publishing or its art culture—a history that is also part of MM‘s own delayed and heavily censored posthumous publication—was handicapping my not-too-meagre reading abilities. But then again perhaps knowing less about the historical sources of Bulgakov’s characters is the best way to experience this odd text for the first time . . .

Reading on.

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