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ClassicsOnline Home » BULGAKOV, M.: Master and Margarita (The) (Abridged)
Mikhail Bulgakov (1891–1940)
The Master and Margarita
The Master and Margarita is a novel that could not have been published when the author was alive; indeed it was pretty remarkable that it got published when it did, some 26 years after his death. In its energy, inventiveness, fantastic imagery, spirituality and belief in the capacity of the human spirit, it was a dangerously liberating book, and liberating books were not going to be published in the USSR of the 1920s and 30s. It was a world of overwhelming fear and suspicion, where the repressive State machinery made any opposition—real or imagined—punishable by death or imprisonment. This dark brutality infected every aspect of life; and the strict bureaucracy that enforced the State’s decrees led to profound social stagnation, quite apart from numbing inefficiency in even the most straightforward of transactions. In this world, art of any form was a dangerous currency, and the State did everything it could to ensure that only those works of which it approved were published. The Master and Margarita would not have been approved.
For a start, it is a satire, and people holding absolute power are rarely amused by being mocked. It pokes fun at the catastrophic absurdity of the system, uncovering the vanity and duplicity of those who operated within it. It makes a point of sending up the pompous literary establishment of the time, which would hardly endear it to publishers. More dangerously, it is also sympathetic to the figure of Christ (if not quite the orthodox one), an attitude the atheistic State would again have been ready and keen to punish. For today’s readers, these satirical elements would make the book worth attention. But what elevates it beyond its time, makes it more than a significant period-piece, is its dizzying, dazzling invention, its vivid fantasy, its complex, ambivalent morality, its humanity and its breadth of humour. It is Solzhenitsyn written by Lewis Carroll, Dostoyevsky by Vonnegut.
Mikhail Bulgakov was born in Kiev in 1891, a son of a professor at a theological academy. He went on to study medicine, but after the turmoil of the Civil War (in which he served as a doctor) he turned to the area he had always loved—theatre and literature. One day in 1919 while on a train, he had written a story and, when the train stopped, he sold it to the first paper he could find. It was never going to be that easy for him again. Over the next 10 years, he wrote sketches, stories, novellas and plays which gradually displayed a more critical attitude to the Soviet system. As a result his works began to be banned and were viciously attacked in the press. Deeply frustrated by this official interference, he wrote a letter asking for permission to go abroad. In an irony that Thomas Hardy might have enjoyed, Bulgakov was telephoned by Stalin himself, who asked if he really wanted to go. The author, quite possibly fearing for his life, rescinded his request, claiming that a writer could not work outside his homeland; and the dictator arranged for him to work at the Moscow Art Theatre, adapting Gogol’s work for the stage. But even here, his work continued to be banned, as it was later when he was at the Bolshoi Opera House as a librettist. In this atmosphere, The Master and Margarita had to be written in secret. He started it in 1928; it took, in its various forms, 12 years, and nearly never got written at all.
The novel contains several incidents taken from Bulgakov’s life. He was married three times, and the figure of Margarita is probably based on his third wife; Pilate’s faithful and brave dog is called Banga, the nickname of Bulgakov’s second wife. Bulgakov knew what it was like to be rejected and publicly humiliated by the literary establishment, for example—something the Master has to endure. There are also plenty of references to real people (in disguised form) in the characters. But in perhaps the most significant autobiographical incident, Bulgakov had been so alarmed by the potential threat if his novel was discovered that he had burned the manuscript. When he later decided to carry on, his wife asked how he would manage without all his notes. And just as the Master does, he said he could remember it all. ‘Manuscripts don’t burn’ became something of a catchphrase in the USSR when the book was eventually published, and this personal reflection of the author was recognised as a statement just as much about the indomitable nature of human invention. This incident and its implications echo through the whole book, as does the expression ‘Cowardice is the worst of sins’. It relates to Bulgakov’s own fear about the novel and his own attitude to the Stalinist regime—and by extension to everyone else who suffered under it.
He had lost his faith for a while, but regained it in later life, finding comfort in his belief in God. This might also have made him a target for the authorities, since the State enforced atheism. But again, the capacity of some humans to follow their own convictions despite the threats of the all-powerful State demonstrated the strength of individualism. And in the end, even Stalin failed to eradicate faith in the USSR, just as Caesar had failed to eliminate Christianity two thousand years before—the two periods reflected in the book.
The book weaves three separate strands together in its narrative. The first is 1920s and ’30s Moscow, visited by the Devil in the form of Professor Woland and his crew of bizarre assistants (including a talking, shooting, bipedal cat). They set about destroying the comfortable pretensions of the jobsworths who superintend apartments or run theatres, and in particular the smug literary world, through displays of impossible, wild, unpredictable, cruel, bloody and sometimes fatal magic. The second is set in Jerusalem (named Yershalaim in the book), where Pontius Pilate is about to sentence a charismatic leader accused of inciting the population against their Roman overlords. Again, the name is altered, shifted from Jesus to Yeshua; and the characters are different, too. Pilate is tortured by the problem of goodness and obedience, while Yeshua, despite dismissing some of the claims made for him by his followers, remains understatedly strong, charismatic and tender. The third of the novels’ storylines binds the others together, and features the Master and Margarita themselves. The Master, living in the Moscow of the 20s and 30s, wrote the story of Yeshua and Pilate; but, dispirited by its rejection by the literary establishment, he despairs of his tale and himself, burning the manuscript and committing himself to an asylum. His lover Margarita never loses faith in the man or his work; she enters into a Faustian pact with Woland to save the book, the Master and herself.
These interweaving plot lines are told either with extraordinary brio or brilliant control. In the Moscow sequences, the appearance of supernatural characters naturally allows for fantastic imaginings and events, creating an impossible, magic world inside the repressive reality of Moscow. Meanwhile, the discussions with Yeshua are told with a powerfully contrasting directness and simplicity. In both cases, Bulgakov examines the ideas of goodness, of obedience, of creativity, of courage and of freedom, but never reaches an easy moral conclusion. Woland may be the Devil—but his actions are sometimes beneficial. The Master has created a great work of art, but he is not granted simple or complete absolution. The system is mocked, but not directly. Pontius Pilate is made a human, sympathetic character; while innocents are sometimes punished. Margarita sides with Woland, but there is no retribution.
The Master and Margarita was eventually published in 1966. This was strange in itself—the Communist Party was still very strongly in power. The book came out in serial form, slightly censored and—equally strangely—in a rather conservative magazine. Whatever prompted the publication, it was greeted with a kind of rapturous joy. The boldness of its writing, the breadth and freshness of its imagining, the spirited and vivid characters, the courage to refer to the dire shortcomings of the system so fearlessly and with such humour—these were all inspirational and offered moral and intellectual hope. Since then, interest has if anything increased. The novel is filled with literary and musical references, especially Faust and the opera Eugene Onegin, allowing almost infinite academic speculation about its symbolic and thematic intentions, all fully justified by the text’s unobtrusive complexity. But whatever these close studies reveal, the magical depth of the book makes it as endlessly rewarding as it is immediately accessible.
Notes by Roy McMillan
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BULGAKOV, M.: Master and Margarita (The) (Abridged...