The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, first published November 1966, completed 1940, 384 pages, ISBN 978-0679760801
“… who are you then?”
“I am part of that power which eternally wills evil and eternally works good.”
Hands on the table. This is my favourite book. I first read a tattered and badly translated copy in my early 20s. Even there Bulgakov’s language and the sheer inspired delight of this epic shone through. And that was before I even knew the context and history of this work.
“Afterwards, when, frankly speaking, it was already too late, various institutions presented reports describing this man… It must be acknowledged that none of these reports is of any value.
First of all, the man described did not limp on any leg, and was neither short nor enormous, but simply tall. As for his teeth, he had platinum crowns on the left side and gold on the right. He was wearing an expensive grey suit and imported shoes of a matching colour. His grey beret was cocked rakishly over one ear; under his arm he carried a stick with a black knob shaped like a poodle’s head. He looked to be a little over forty. Mouth somehow twisted. Clean-shaven. Dark-haired. Right eye black, left â€“ for some reason â€“ green. Dark eyebrows, but one higher than the other. In short, a foreigner.”
Satan comes to Moscow. More specifically, he arrives at the height of the purges and pogroms exercised by Stalin.
By tradition every spring he throws a ball to which the otherwise doomed denizens of Hell are invited. Mephistopheles, being a bachelor, requires a hostess. Also by tradition her name must be Margarita.
On the stage behind the tulips, where the waltz king’s orchestra had been playing, there now raged an ape jazz band. A huge gorilla with shaggy side-whiskers, a trumpet in his hand, capering heavily, was doing the conducting. Orang-utans sat in a row blowing on shiny trumpets. Perched on their shoulders were merry chimpanzees with concertinas. Two hamadryads with manes like lions played grand pianos, but these grand pianos were not heard amidst the thundering, squeaking and booming of saxophones, fiddles and drums in the paws of gibbons, mandrills and marmosets. On the mirror floor a countless number of couples, as if merged, amazing in the deftness and cleanness of their movements, all turning in the same direction, swept on like a wall threatening to clear away everything in its path. Live satin butterflies bobbed above the heads of the dancing hordes, flowers poured down from the ceiling. In the capitals of the columns, each time the electricity went off, myriads of fireflies lit up, and marsh-lights floated in the air.
In Satan’s retinue are Azazello, his choir master, Koroviev, his interpreter, and Behemoth, a large black cat.
Satan entertains himself in Moscow by taking over the apartment of a man who dies mysteriously by being beheaded by a tram and then delivering a single and outrageous magic show. Koroviev and Behemoth amuse themselves with mischief-making, including a violent shoot-out with a squad of police where â€“ although everyone is firing madly at each other with tommy-guns at point-blank range â€“ no-one gets hurt. Azazello teaches an entire staff at a bank to sing; at which point they burst into song, in complete harmony and unwillingly despite being out of sight or hearing of each other.
“Your king is in check,” said Woland.
“Very well, very well,” responded the cat, and he began studying the chessboard through his opera glasses.
Behemoth’s winking took on greater dimensions. The white king finally understood what was wanted of him. He suddenly pulled off his mantle, dropped it on the square, and ran off the board. The bishop covered himself with the abandoned royal garb and took the king’s place.
“I repeat, your king is in check!”
“Messire,” the cat responded in a falsely alarmed voice, “you are overtired. My king is not in check.”
If this was the story alone it would be charming, but it is not. Interwoven is the story of Yeshua Ha-Nozri, a minor Jewish prophet who is brought before Pontius Pilate for sentencing. The story is told, first by Satan, then dreamed of by the poet Ivan Homeless, and then completed by the mysterious Master.
The story of that crucifixion in Yershalaim, contextualised within the politics of the day, with Jesus stripped of divinity and presented as a man, is gripping and tragic. Told by Bulgakov, a man who was never allowed to leave the USSR and where religion was banned, it is nothing short of genius.
“I think”, the procurator replied, grinning strangely, “that there is now someone else in the world for whom you ought to feel sorrier than for Judas of Kiriath, and who is going to have it much worse than Judas! … So, then, Mark Ratslayer, a cold and convinced torturer, the people who, as I see,” the procurator pointed to Yeshua’s disfigured face, “beat you for your preaching, the robbers Dysmas and Gestas, who with their confreres killed four soldiers, and finally, the dirty traitor Judas â€“ are all good people?”
“Yes,” said the prisoner.
“And the kingdom of truth will come?”
“It will, Hegemon,” Yeshua answered, with conviction.
But more than that, the story is ultimately Bulgakov’s. For the tale of the Master is Bulgakov’s desperate and tragic attempt to contextualise his own story and his own, self-proclaimed, weakness: “Cowardice is the most terrible of vices.”
Bulgakov was Ukranian by birth and absorbed into the USSR by the communist uprising that also brought Stalin to power. In The White Russians, one of the best anti-war books, he depicted the final days of life in Kiev before the communists won power. Turned into a play it was Stalin’s favourite.
Yet, despite great acclaim, Bulgakov was just too free-spoken, too dangerous in the view of Stalin’s censors. He was banned, denied permission to travel and censured. He wrote a letter to Stalin requesting permission either to go into exile or, at least, to be allowed to work. Stalin replied personally and gave him a job as vice-theatre director of the Moscow Theatre.
From 1929 till his death in 1940 (at the age of 49) he struggled with The Master and Margarita. The story evolved, grew, changed, moved. He wrestled with his demons. Woven through the tale is his own story. Of betrayal by the literary establishment. Of his own fear that, by not standing up, he was being a coward.
“You’re a writer?” the poet asked with interest.
The guest’s face darkened and he threatened Ivan with his fist, then said:
“I am a master.” He grew stern and took from the pocket of his dressing-gown a completely greasy black cap with the letter “M” embroidered on it in yellow silk. He put this cap on and showed himself to Ivan both in profile and full face, to prove that he was a master. “She sewed it for me with her own hands,” he added mysteriously.
Terrified that the book would be discovered, he tried burning it. But it wouldn’t stay burned. The mantra “manuscripts don’t burn” became a clarion call for Russian writers suffering under oppression. Bulgakov wasn’t imagining things. The mere existence of the text would have been enough to cause his permanent “disappearance”.
Almost 30 years after his death, during an improbable lapse by the Soviet state, the book was serialised by Moskva. All 150 000 copies of the November 1966 edition in which Part 1 appeared were sold within hours. Group readings were held. The language and structure of the novel was a joy; a complete contradiction of everything contrived, rigid and authoritarian. And it’s bloody funny too.
Richard Pevear, writing in the introduction to his seminal translation, declares: “Then there were the qualities of the novel itself â€“ its formal originality, its devastating satire of Soviet life, and of Soviet literary life in particular, its ‘theatrical’ rendering of the Great Terror of the thirties, the audacity of its portrayal of Jesus Christ and Pontius Pilate, not to mention Satan. But, above all, the novel breathed an air of freedom, artistic and spiritual, which had become rare indeed, not only in Soviet Russia. We sense it in the special tone of Bulgakov’s writing, a combination of laughter (satire, caricature, buffoonery) and the most unguarded vulnerability.”
Bulgakov let his own sentence be read by Margarita, his love:
“Listen to the stillness,” Margarita said to the master, and the sand rustled under her bare feet, “listen and enjoy what you were not given in life â€“ peace. Look, there ahead is your eternal home, which you have been given as a reward. I can already see the Venetian window and the twisting vine, it climbs right up to the roof. Here is your home, your eternal home. I know that in the evenings you will be visited by those you love, those who interest you, they will sing for you, you will see what light is in the room when the candles are burning. You will fall asleep, having put on your greasy and eternal nightcap, you will fall asleep with a smile on your lips. Sleep will strengthen you, you will reason wisely. And you will no longer be able to drive me away. I will watch over you in your sleep.”