Monday, July 27, 2015

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

This novel is considered by many to be Bulgakov’s masterpiece. The translation copyrighted by Mirra Ginsburg in 1995 is quite modern enough for today’s readers to get a sense of the arc of Bulgakov’s life (1891-1940), for it is there, thinly disguised. Bulgakov trained & worked as a doctor in provincial towns, but since childhood was enraptured with literature--with words. And words were the cause of his joy and anguish, for his whole life he was never allowed to publish or produce anything without severe rancor from government censors.

Bulgakov saw war. He was sent to the front by the Red Cross just out of medical school in 1913, when he was twenty-two years old. He was badly injured, twice, and suffered such pain that, after a stint as a provincial doctor after the war, he became a morphine addict for a two-year period. The horror of that addiction is recalled in his short fictional monograph, Morphine, which is also immortalized in the BBC 2012 TV series A Young Doctor’s Notebook now playing on Netflix, starring Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame and John Hamm, who starred in Mad Men.

What would Bulgakov think now, that so long after this death his work is exciting audiences around the world? He would be pleased, though sorry it took so long, I’m sure. He was writing for those suffering through the reign of Stalin, writing to bring them joy and to urge perseverance. It never happened. Many of his works were unable to be published, and he was reduced to writing screenplays or librettos for opera. Even these came under attack.

His work on The Master and Margarita commenced in 1928, but because of the vitriolic reaction to his work, he burned the work in the 1930s in despair. As a medical man, he became aware he had an inherited kidney disease (his uncle had died of it), and began rewriting his great novel, knowing he would never see its publication.

Bulgakov’s parents and grandparents were Christian. His father was a clergyman. The Master and Margarita is a novel imbued with a Christian mentality and perspective. The scenes that riveted me the most were those in which Bulgakov imagines the sentencing of Jesus by Pontius Pilate. Pilate had a migraine, and couldn’t focus on his task: to sentence four men to death, and to reprieve one. What enormous arrogance, intellect, empathy, and knowledge of humanity it takes to imagine a scene two thousand years earlier, if it took place at all. All is shrouded in myth, and we feel that, palpably, in this novel filled with humor and tragedy.

Bulgakov’s great gift was to see clearly, and to speak truth to power. This work is a humorous fiction, but no less searing for that. Dante wrote about man’s weaknesses and Bulgakov parallels him in another century. It is said this work is modeled on Goethe’s Faust. The devil seduces Moscovites and plays on the delights of human desire, and then strips it all away in the most caustic way possible.

The novel references important events or experiences in Bulgakov’s life and can be read as a philosophy, an allegory, a stinging indictment of the Soviet state, or simply as a humorous play on words. Gogol’s Dead Souls is named explicitly, as is Dostoyevsky. Bulgakov wrote contemporaneously with another playwright whose work also couldn’t be published, the Jewish writer Isaac Babel. Soviet intelligentsia in the 1920s and 1930s must have kept the censors very busy and made the public very canny. It was a fantastically fruitful environment for satire. At one point in this novel, terrorized artists make casual reference to “they are coming to arrest us” as they sit at the dining room table finishing breakfast. One man replies, “Ah…well, well…” When a Mauser appears from under the goon’s coat, it sets off a scene of comedic slapstick, ending with a Browning in the hands of a demon cat.

Pontius Pilate returns at the end of the novel and we are treated to Bulgakov imagining Pilate’s discomfiture over the death and disappearance of Christ. The Master is a writer who wrote a novel on the imagined meeting of Pontius Pilate and Jesus Christ. He is confined to a mental institution where he meets a poet imprisoned there for imagining he’d heard just such a story.

Margarita is a lusty, outspoken woman married to a man who was “young, handsome, good, honest, and [who] adored his wife.” But Margarita loves the Master and tries to find him when he disappears, but cannot. “She often cried bitterly and long in secret. She did not know if she loved a living man or a dead one.” She blamed herself for allowing the Master to write about Pontius Pilate.

One of the most remarkable things about the story is how period Moscow comes so vibrantly to life. There is so much intellect, passion, love, and yes, absurdity in the prejudices and manners exposed. Bulgakov names a character with a patronymic matching his given name, Archibald Archibaldovich; shares the mores of drinking houses and artists’ clubs; stages a grand ball; exposes apartment-house living and lust: the uncle of a murdered man tries to secure his nephew's Moscow apartment before handling the details of his funeral. It is a marvelous parade of woe and fury.

We cannot mourn Bulgakov. We can only read him. His work is the result of the pressures in his life. But he does need to be celebrated for the great humanist that he was. Ah, humankind!

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