The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov

1 November 2012
Chapters 1-9…
…which cover roughly the first half of Part 1. It’s quirky, clever, merciless in its satirical treatment of life in the Soviet Union under Stalinist rule… and, even in translation, Bulkakov is able to persuade you that you’re in the hands of a writer at the top of his game. There’s a lot of persuasion in this book – everybody is selling something to somebody – and I’ll come back to that.

I read this novel years ago, and all I could remember about it was the Devil, a big black talking cat and a lot of Soviet-style bureaucracy. It’s the last of these that Bulgakov begins with. The streets and landmarks of Moscow he presents in Chapter 1 are immediately recognisable – as are the workings of the mind of a seasoned apparatchik, Berlioz. He is the man in charge of ‘Massolit’, the imaginary body overseeing literary production which soon comes to represent all the nonsense – the privileges, the back-biting, the petty rivalries, even the queues – of Soviet bureaucracy in general. But we don’t see that until Chapter 5, based mainly at ‘Griboedov’s’ – as so often, a relic from pre-Revolutionary times that oozes exclusivity. What we see in Chapter 1 is Berlioz’s easy assurance as he explains the correct Party line. He’s explaining it to Ivan Nikolaevich Ponyrev, known as Homeless, an idealistic young poet who seems not to understand that you can’t just go around trying to speak the truth as you see it.

So far, so jauntily satirical – although Bulgkov apparently knew as he wrote it that there would be no chance of ever publishing it. And then along comes the Devil, a smartly dressed man, evidently a foreigner, who immediately begins to mess with both their minds. That’s what he always does, as we find out later. But we don’t know that yet, and don’t know he’s the Devil, but there is something uncanny about the way he knows their names, immediately seems to know their thoughts – and is perfectly happy to contradict everything that Berlioz says. Berlioz had been in the middle of explaining to Ivan Nikolaevich that Jesus Christ never existed when the foreigner interrupted them. Soon he begins to tell them the story that becomes Chapter 2, and it’s extraordinary.

It’s ‘Pontius Pilate’ and, just as we’ve got used to the satirically refracted version of Moscow that Bulgakov presents, we’re in a different universe altogether. Except for all the parallels. There’s the man in charge, so exhausted by the different factions he has to placate at once that he has a permanent headache: there’s the Imperial party line that he has to reconcile with the religious leaders in the city, and members of various dissident factions he has to keep in order. Into this mess comes the man we recognise as Jesus Christ – the narrator gives him an earlier Aramaic version of the name – presented to Pilate as another dissident. He is a speaker of what he calls the truth, happily and calmly contradicts everything Pilate has heard about him and most other things…. And, as Pilate speaks to this ragged-looking young man he finds himself being persuaded by his simplicity and his headache is soothed away completely. He needs to save this young man from execution for charges that are clearly false.

Almost all of this is told from Pilate’s point of view – but his dilemma would be instantly recognisable to any citizen of Moscow under Stalin. After a conversation with the high priest that brings his headache back, Pilate realises he has two opposite things in his head at once. The young man from Nazareth had been able to give him a glimpse into another, better, simpler world; and he is highly dangerous to him. He gives orders that he be locked away and given no opportunities to speak to anyone – and, unable to look the prisoner in the eye, he announces to the mob outside that he will be crucified along with two of the other three condemned prisoners. Bulgakov makes it clear that in Pilate’s mind it’s the worst thing he has ever done in his life.

You can see where Bulgakov is going with this, and as the story ends Ivan Nikolaevich is won over by it. The foreigner, having told the story, is in a hurry to get away. But before he does, he drops some accidental-sounding and mainly nonsensical remarks about things he is expecting to happen in the next few minutes. This is clearly one of the Devil’s party tricks, because it all comes true: a woman has spilt some cooking oil, on which Berlioz slips, sprawling into the path of a tram conducted by a woman. It cuts his head clean off. Ivan Nikolaevich is galvanised, both by the Pontius Pilate story and the immediate fulfilment of all the foreigner’s prophecies….

Some time later, following a series of mishaps – and sightings of unworldly creatures like a man-sized cat and a tall, thin figure who materialises out of thin air – Ivan Nikolaevich wakes up in a clinic for mental patients. Everything he says confirms to the doctors that he has lost his mind. Ok. And meanwhile the foreigner, who calls himself Woland, has been wreaking small-scale havoc elsewhere. He’d told Berlioz that he’d soon be living in his flat, a very nice place shared with someone called Styopa Likhodeev. He needs to get rid of this man, who wakes with a dreadful hangover to find Woland waiting there. With some sleight of hand and forged papers Woland convinces him, sort of, that he has agreed to a generous contract for a week’s performances of his act. Soon Styopa finds himself waking up again, on a beach. He’s in Yalta.

Next. Next is where Bulgakov really shows two worlds colliding as Woland is confirmed as the flat’s legal occupant. The chairman of the tenancy association, Nikanor Ivanovich Bosoy, breaks the seal into Berlioz’s part of the flat – to discover the thin man inside. This man, who calls himself Koroviev, knows exactly the forms of words to use to persuade the chairman that it would be perfectly acceptable for him to agree to the new tenancy. Money changes hands, which Nikanor Ivanovich persuades himself will be used for an unpaid fuel bill – it’s the kind of small-scale corruption that Muscovites know all about – and the knock on the chairman’s door that follows almost immediately is just as familiar. Koroviev has informed the authorities that Nikanor Ivanovich is speculating in foreign currency, knows exactly where it will be hidden in the lavatory – and when the two policemen find the package it has magically transformed itself into dollars. Oh dear.

That’s as far as I’ve got. I’ve mentioned different worlds, but really Bulgakov is deftly playing with different traditions. The mild, tolerant mockery of the annoyances of everyday life – the queues, the crowded shared apartments – is a given. To this Bulgakov adds a more biting satire on the privileges of the few, the everyday corruption and the lack of surprise at almost daily ‘disappearances’. (Nikanor Ivanovich’s wife is not at all surprised by the knock on the door, assumes her husband has been doing something illegal.) Superimposed on all this are the centuries-old traditions of Christian teaching and superstitions surrounding the powers of the Devil, suppressed for over 20 years in the Soviet era but no doubt as familiar as they always were: everybody knows about black magic and the Devil’s familiars.

But what I really like is the equal prominence and equal status that all these worlds are given in this novel. The Devil’s truths are no less outlandish than those we hear being spoken by Berlioz in the first chapter, in which Jesus Christ is simply airbrushed out of existence. And it is somehow perfectly credible that when Ivan Nikolaevich first gives chase to Woland, nobody on the tram is surprised when the black cat boards and offers its fare to the conductress. She orders it off for the simple reason that cats are not allowed on trams, an apparently reasonable statement in the circumstances. Moscow under Soviet rule is, clearly, such an absurd place that outlandish events aren’t even noticed.

4 November
Chapters 10-18 – to the end of Part 1
It carries on as before, only more so. And it becomes even clearer that what we’re looking at here are a lot of different versions of what might be the truth. Near the end of Part 1 comes another chapter based in First Century Palestine, describing the sordid little deaths of the three criminals on top of an ugly hill outside Palestine. There’s no mother of Christ, no sign of any group of well-wishers bemoaning their powerlessness…. But there is the lone figure of Matthew Levy, keeping himself out of sight and seeing things that we can imagine him transforming into significant events in his Gospel. It’s he alone who takes down the body and carries it down the side of the hill.

There are a lot more events in 20th Century Moscow – equally susceptible to interpretation and re-interpretation. The Devil and his sidekicks, having so far only subjected a few people to their mind-bending tricks, up their game. It’s still little more than a music hall act, dismissed later – by somebody who wasn’t present – as mass hypnosis. It looks as though real magic is taking place on the stage – just as it looks as though the black cat tears off the head of the master of ceremonies, causing the neck to spurt fountains of blood…. But it’s well known in the literature that the Devil has no real power beyond that of tempting men, and women, into evil. The man’s head is returned to his neck – it isn’t surprising that he’s the next person to arrive at the psychiatric clinic – and showers of banknotes fall from the theatre roof. There are mad scrambles, first for the money and then for the racks of top Paris fashions that women put on, having thrown off their own clothes. None of the Devil’s retinue is surprised. And nor, I suppose, is the reader: people in Moscow, in spite of two decades of Soviet re-education, are like people anywhere else.

Later, to farcical effect, the money turns into labels from wine bottles and the Paris fashions simply disappear, leaving dozens of women on the streets in their underwear. Bulgakov likes to keep it light. But these simple tricks quickly subvert whatever it is that the State stands for and bring some of its carefully monitored institutions to a standstill. At one of them, the ludicrously-named Commission on Spectacle and Entertainment of the Lighter Type, the chief has disappeared – he shouldn’t have burst out with ‘The Devil take me!’ so that now only his suit is sitting there writing on important documents with a pen it doesn’t realise is empty. (If that isn’t symbolic of something or other I don’t know what is.)

But there are some dark things going on beneath the burlesque. Alongside the absurd events brought about by the theatre performance, Bulgakov clearly want to raise more serious concerns, although he starts small. The act is billed, in the translation I’m reading, as ‘Black Magic and its Exposure’. After the magic, when a senior administrator confidently demands the promised ‘exposure’, all he gets is the highly public revelation of his own dodgy financial deals and the long-term affair he’s having. Things become darker in the next chapter, when we’re back in the clinic and the ‘Master’ introduces himself to Ivan. He is a self-portrait of the author, and his story is a disguised version of the way that the State has suppressed Bulgakov’s own work and subjected it to systematic abuse from critics in the pay of the Party. In the Master’s case, all this has happened despite his never having been able to get a publisher to touch his ‘Pontius Pilate’ novel. He burns the manuscript, a tiny part of which is saved by the woman who swears she will be leaving her husband to be with him – I’m guessing that this is Margarita – and it sends him mad.

All the main staff of the theatre suffer, more – or, usually in these later chapters, less – comically. The master of ceremonies is in the clinic, desperately searching for the head that is plainly attached to his neck. Styopa Likhodeev is presumably still in Yalta, despite frantic telegrams the other managers can’t come to terms with at all. One of the under-managers – or its it one of the Devil’s cronies in disguise? – tries to persuade the other that it’s an elaborate hoax, that Styopa is merely in the Yalta Hotel getting drunk. This manager, Rimsky, is then subjected to such a terrifying ordeal that his hair turns white and he becomes an old man overnight. He is only saved by the crowing of a nearby cock, his tormentors slink off, and he leaves in terror to catch the first available train to Kiev. Finally, the man in charge of the box office spends a miserable day, that culminates in the farcical conversation with the suit, and is arrested when the previous night’s takings are found to consist entirely of foreign currency.

One other chapter, focused on another man who has been taken to the clinic, is a transparent satire on the workings of the secret police. The chapter is ‘Nikanor Ivanovich’s Dream’ – he’s the chairman of the tenancy association – and the interrogation he’s clearly been subjected to is presented in the form of a theatrical performance. The ‘artiste’ who looks for volunteers to confess to their money-laundering misdeeds is condescending but not unkind, even shows a concerned understanding for the way that different members of the audience have strayed from the correct path. Just like the secret police, then – rather like the kindly staff of the psychiatric hospital run by Dr Stravinsky.

Do you have to be mad to live in Moscow? I couldn’t possibly say.

5 November
Chapters 19-25…
…roughly the first half of Part 2. There’d been a kind of warning at the end of Part 1 about ‘prodigies’ the author can’t tell us about. But it ends – and Part 2 begins – with ‘Follow me, reader!’ So we do, and we’re somewhere else again.

I’m not as comfortable in this new place. Once it’s been established that, yes, the Master’s lover really is as faithful as he’d hoped – and that, yes, she is Margarita – Bulgakov takes us further into the tradition of black magic tales than ever before. In other words, a lot of what happens to Margarita is rather familiar. In the apartment, Margarita encounters Woland’s three main cronies – Koroviev, the cat and Azazello, the fat, single-fanged one with the wall eye – and the naked woman who seems to be their servant. And for the next four or five chapters we’re whirled away into experiences that are described as real but that read like a dream. ‘Azazello’s cream’, which gives Chapter 20 its title, also gives Margarita the power of invisibility, and the title of the next chapter, ‘Flight’, tells you all you need to know. From high above the street she smashes up the sumptuous apartment of one of the critics who put an end to the Master’s career before it had begun. She’s a witch now, even uses a broom to direct her flight… and, like the servant in Woland’s apartment, she’s stark naked.

I’ll hurry through the next chapter or two. There’s a lot of flying about, drinking and female nakedness. There are descriptions of nocturnal landscapes glimpsed from a speeding broom, or savoured as Margarita slows the pace. And there’s Woland’s party – The Great Ball at Satan’s or Satan’s Rout, depending on the translation – in which notorious poisoners and other miscreants emerge rotting from the coffins that magically appear, morphing into dinner-suited or ravishingly naked guests, depending on their gender. Margarita, the queen of the event, finds the three hours of meeting and greeting absolutely exhausting. She isn’t the only one. And exactly 50 pages into Part 2, we get the first subversive moment. A mother who murdered her baby is there, having been executed for the crime, and Margarita asks where the father is. He had seduced the woman, and Woland’s cronies are momentarily embarrassed as Margarita’s sympathetic questioning holds up the line of guests….

All this has taken place in the apartment, magically transformed into a huge, Pandemonium-style columned hall. After some hours, and not at all too soon for me, Bulgakov shrinks everything back to normal. He has a moral point to make, and it’s to do with the choices facing Margarita. There isn’t a lot of suspense in it: it’s clear from her engagement, or lack of any, with the guests at the ball that she isn’t going to choose the wrong thing. Like all the elements that have made up the first few chapters of Part 2, her choice is like one in a fairy-tale. Woland, as a kind of reward for her hard work – he’s less the Prince of Darkness than a kind of Lord of Misrule, who knows his place in the greater moral scheme of things – asks her what she would most like. We know that she only has one desire, and that is to free the Master from the clinic. But, reader, instead of asking for that she asks for forgiveness for the suffering mother she met at the ball. This is the right answer. Woland tells her that this is in her own power, and demonstrates it by having the woman enter to be forgiven by Margarita. The Devil can’t give you what you ask for, so if she had asked for the Master’s freedom she wouldn’t have got it. But she didn’t, so she does.

In fact, if you look at him in a certain way Woland is a benign character in this novel. The only people who suffer deserve all they get – and now he is able to undo the mischief of all those toadying critics who ruined the Master’s chances of success. Would it be possible to return to the basement flat where the Master and Margarita were happy? Sure – and the only person to be disconcerted is the man who pulled all the strings he could to get to live in it afterwards. At last, we’re back on safe ground, where Bulgakov can puncture the hypocrisy and everyday corruption of Soviet life. Not only that: the Master’s novel, instead of having been reduced to ashes beyond a few charred fragments, is undamaged. As one of the characters says – it doesn’t matter which – ‘Manuscripts don’t burn’ – a phrase that became a rallying-cry for Bulgakov’s supporters during the years before the official publication of this novel.

We’re back on even safer ground during the two chapters that mark the half-way point of Part 2. It’s a continuation of the Pontius Pilate story, now revealed to be the work of the Master himself. I’ve only read the first of them, ‘How the Procurator Tried to Save Judas of Karioth’, and it’s a tutorial in totalitarian double-think. The procurator is Pilate himself, still smarting from his failure to save Jesus from execution. (All he had managed to do, as we have seen, was ensure a swifter death than the three condemned men would otherwise have endured.) He talks to the chief of his secret police, his right-hand man, and any alert reader understands that, as he speaks of his fears for the life of Judas at the hands of unnamed fanatics, he is really issuing instructions for his murder. The officer understands perfectly, and agrees to let Pilate know when there is news. News of what? I couldn’t possibly say, but I’ll be surprised if Judas survives to the end of the next chapter.

22 November
Chapter 26 to the end
He doesn’t. Judas. Survive to the end of the chapter. He is betrayed – rather significantly in this novel – by the woman he thinks is in love with him, bribed or blackmailed by Pilate’s secret police chief. (Whether the Master thinks all men are betrayed by women in the end or not, Margarita never leaves him, ever. And I mean, ever.)

This final quarter of the novel has the feel of loose ends being tied up. And there are a lot of them. In order to do it, Bulgakov opts for different narrative styles that seem to jostle uneasily with one another. By comparison with Part 1, which never seems awkward, Part 2 is,often. Maybe Bulgakov wasn’t able to do the final edit before his death. First he has to move Woland and his cronies out of Moscow, and he does it through a continuation of the farcical shenanigans we’re familiar with by now. To one onlooker they are ‘motley buffoons’. Yep. Except they’re being more destructive now, as Koroviev goes around with Azazello in tow carrying kerosene and a primus stoves for the purpose of making a bonfire of some hated Moscow vanities. There’s the store where goods can only be bought using foreign currency – in other words, by the privileged, corrupt few – that is burnt to the ground. Next is Griboedov’s, home of Massolit and of its own assorted privileges and corruptions. Azazello turns his primus stove up so high it burns through one of the outdoor umbrellas, and soon Griboedov’s is toast.

Meanwhile the cat is having fun in the apartment with the cops who have finally tracked the gang down. It’s clownish, knockabout stuff – which I think I might be using as euphemisms for tedious and predictable – and guess what? The apartment goes up in flames. Ok. Luckily, there are some more transformations before our heroes can be incinerated. These start with all of them being whirled off into the distance (or something – the details can become a bit hazy) and then…. Then what? We’re into one of Bulgakov’s different places. It isn’t the same different place that Margarita flies to while she’s briefly in naked witch mode – much of which, after all, bears some relation to a space-time continuum we might be vaguely familiar with….

Instead we’re into a different universe entirely. It isn’t quite Middle-Earth or Narnia, although it shares something with those other worlds originating somewhere in the middle of the 20th Century. It’s more like the world of Paradise Lost, in which Satan bears a very close kinship to God. (Maybe it isn’t so surprising that I was reminded of Pandemonium at Satan’s Ball.) In Bulgakov’s version, the in-fighting seems long past, and Satan isn’t putting up any kind of opposition. By the end – and I’m getting slightly ahead of myself here – he seems to be working almost as God’s fixer, putting together a package that’s the best for everyone.

Before all that, Woland and his cronies metamorphose into their true selves: their clownish alter-egos are a punishment for misdeeds in life. Koroviev is ‘a dark violet knight’; the cat is ‘a youth… a demon-page’; Azazello is ‘the killer-demon’ of the ‘waterless desert’. And, as Margarita looks at Woland, he is now ‘his true image’ – whatever that might be – and his horse is ‘a mass of darkness…’. Meanwhile the Master and Margarita, whose former selves are now dead, achieve a different kind of true selfhood, he without the bitterness and anger, she… what? It seems to me a rather unsatisfactory kind of hand-maidenhood, simply being there throughout eternity at the Master’s side. Instead of their basement existence, a far more satisfactory eternity has been arranged for them in a much more upmarket kind of place. It’s not Heaven, but it’ll do.

There’s someone else to sort out first. They are taken to a kind of stone seat on a pedestal, where someone we recognise, but terribly old now, has been dozing away his time. Except on a certain spring full moon each year, when he suffers terrible insomnia and comes face to face with the regrets he’s had for nearly 2,000 years. This is where Satan demonstrates another of those neat little fixes of his, arranging to allow him to walk along the moonbeam he wasn’t able to in Jerusalem all that time ago, to have a proper chat with that nice young man. Satan has had a word with the young man and it’s sorted. The novel’s final chapter – excluding the Epilogue – ends with the news that he is ‘forgiven on the eve of Sunday, the cruel fifth procurator of Judea, the equestrian Pontius Pilate.’

The Epilogue ends with the same phrase (from ‘the cruel fifth procurator’ to the end), but this is isn’t about Pilate. It’s about Ivan Nikolaevich, the last of the loose ends that Bulgakov ties up. For years he’s lived a fulfilled life as a professor, having turned his back on his nonsensical existence before the arrival of Woland. Except… at the first full moon after the Spring Equinox, he has a tortured night and has to return to the spot where he and Berlioz first met him. Well. Now it seems that things will be ok, because ‘no one will be trouble the professor’ from now on, including the cruel et cetera.

There are other loose ends, but he’s the only one I want to write about here. Otherwise, in the jaunty style of much of Part 1, Bulgakov takes us through the post-traumatic experiences of most of the people who have been hexed by Woland’s crew. In similar style – or, rather, in that jokey doublespeak style we’re also familiar with – he describes how all the events of those fateful few days are explained away by the authorities. They are airbrushed out of existence, a technique Bulgakov’s readers would have been very familiar with, as the powers that be put it down to clever hypnosis by a bunch of crooks. If you think you saw something, well, you didn’t. The end.

Is it the end? I suppose it is. Satan and the others seem to have made their peace with Him upstairs by performing their high-octane cabaret tricks in the place on earth that deserves it most. In the topsy-turvey world of Stalin’s Soviet Union, anyone who sets fire to the underpants of those in authority is doing God’s own work. It will be clear from what I’ve written that I’m far more comfortable with the satire of Part 1 than the mysticism of Part 2…. But I’m sure that whatever astral plane Bulgakov is on in the 21st Century, he can live with that.

25 November
Postscript – a note on cowardice
In Chapter 26, cowardice is singled out as the vice that Jesus considered the worst. There isn’t anything in the Gospels to support this view, but it must have been one of the Master’s – that is, Bulgakov’s – key beliefs. Pilate’s 2,000 years in Purgatory punish his cowardly refusal to act on behalf of Jesus…. And Bulgakov, writing in the 1930s despite the dangers, must have had his own views on the cowardly acceptance of the status quo that he saw all around him every day. But in the burlesque of the Moscow chapters – that is, of most of the book – it isn’t a key theme, so the Pilate chapters have to carry the whole weight of it. It isn’t surprising that it gets somewhat lost as what should have been one of the novel’s key ideas. It’s why, I now realise, I haven’t mentioned it before.


2 Responses to The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov

  1. Interesting read, came for this and wasn’t disappointed, thanks.

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