I don’t often re-read books, primarily for the reason that there are too many books out there I have never read and would like to, but also because a second read never quite stimulates the mind the way the first read does. The narrative greed isn’t the same when you remember every major plot twist, no matter how skilled the writer. The fun in encountering some clever turn of phrase, or pun, or imaginative element is lost the second time around as well. For those reasons, I’d avoided a re-read of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita for years, fearing I remembered too much to enjoy reading it again, even though it sits atop my personal ranking of the top 101 novels I’ve read. It’s almost exactly twenty years since I first read Bulgakov’s masterpiece, and I’m relieved to report it held up well against the expectations of my memories of the book, perhaps aided by the fact that I read a different translation this time around.
Bulgakov was a state playwright under the Soviets, but was himself an anti-communist who suffered under the repressive regime that refused to publish many of his works and denied his request to emigrate to a country where he could practice his craft freely. This novel, completed over the last decade of his life and published more than 20 years after his death during a brief thaw under Nikita Khrushchev, destroys the communist regime while also mocking the oligarchs who flourished through their obeisance and outright cowardice. It’s wickedly subversive, and yet often so subtle that I’m surprised the Soviets saw it for what it was – or were willing to publish it after they understood its true intent.
Bulgakov’s masterpiece is a sly satire of communism and Russian life under that political and economic system in Russia between the world wars, told via multiple narratives that all collide across time as the book concludes, with the one common thread among them coming in the person of Satan himself. The devil, calling himself Dr. Woland, appears in Moscow with his retinue – comprising Behemoth, an anthropomorphic cat; Azazello, an ugly stout man with flaming red hair; and Koroviev, also known as Fagot, a sort of chief-of-staff character who always wears a checked jacket and pince-nez (apparently an allusion to The Brothers Karamazov) – to reveal the baseness of the privileged classes under communism. Bulgakov’s Satan is not quite the Satan of the Bible – in some ways, he’s a forerunner of Tyler Durden, causing mayhem to provide meaning to a deadened life in a repressive society – just as Bulgakov’s Yeshua ha-Nozri, betrayed by Judas and crucified under Pontius Pilate, is not quite the Biblical Jesus.
The titular characters, while central to the novel’s themes of freedom, cowardice, and redemption, don’t appear until roughly a quarter of the novel has passed. Bulgakov opens the scene with a discussion between the poet Ivan Homeless and the avowed atheist Berlioz, only to have their talk interrupted by the appearance of a strange foreigner, Woland, who endeavors to show Berlioz that the devil does, in fact, exist, with a gruesome demonstration. This begins a chain of events where Woland and his retinue take over Berlioz’ apartment and hold a “seance” at a local theater where they dazzle the people with magic tricks that have hilarious consequences for the greedy audience members. The master, meanwhile, first appears in a sanitarium in conversation with Ivan Homeless, telling the story of his arrest by the secret police for his authorship of an anti-communist novel about Pontius Pilate, and how that arrest separated him from the love of his life, Margarita, for whom Woland has a special plan in the greatest scene among many in this complex novel.
Cowardice is the most explicit theme of The Master and Margarita, even though I think Bulgakov’s ultimate intent was to expose the emptiness of the Soviet state. Pontius Pilate, in a story that Woland begins telling but that the master completes in his novel-within-the-novel*, knows that the decision to pardon a common criminal over the peaceful philosopher Yeshua ha-Nozri is the wrong one, but given more than one opportunity to try to change that decision, he does nothing more than make a perfunctory request that his superior reconsider it. The master, while implicitly condemning Pilate’s own cowardice, exhibits some of his own, giving up on his life and his art when confronted by a seemingly invincible State that threatens to “disappear” any who threaten its sovereignty or integrity.
*That bit of meta-fiction gives rise to the most famous line from the novel, Woland’s response to the master’s lament that he burned the manuscript for the work that landed him in an asylum for its seditious nature: “Manuscripts never burn.”
Those disappearances are the subject of frequent allusions in the novel, in oblique references to the secret police and in Woland’s habit of moving people around the country or in transmogrifying them into other forms, such as the vaguely porcine man who becomes a flying pig. These fantastical elements were a major part of why I fell in love with the novel when I first read it at age nineteen – I hadn’t seen a classical novel deviate so far from the typical constraints of realistic literature; the most fantastical elements I’d come across were the coincidences that populated great works written before the last half of the 19th century. I didn’t know it as magical realism at the time, or even understand it as a literary technique – I think I just associated it with science fiction or fantasy novels – but Bulgakov’s use of it has to be one of the earliest such examples in literature, along with the works of Franz Kafka, much of whose work was published during the time Bulgakov spent writing The Master and Margarita. What better way to satirize a totalitarian state than through Satan exercising a similar disregard for human life, property, and individuality, alluding to a religion that the state sought to extinguish?
This is a remarkably rich, inventive novel, decades ahead of its time, socially important, funny, outrageous, and a tremendous pleasure to read.
Some stray thoughts:
* I first encountered the book in a class taught by Professor Donald Fanger (now emeritus) at Harvard called “Comedy and the Novel.” How good was that class? Six of the eight novels we read are on the Klaw 101, as is the book he told me a few years later was the unofficial ninth title he couldn’t squeeze into the semester, At Swim-Two-Birds. It was, by far, the best class I took in college, and the one that has had the greatest influence on me after the fact.
* I just discovered that there’s a graphic novel version of The Master and Margarita available, as well as one for Kafka’s The Trial. I’m curious how the illustrator handled Woland’s retinue – Bulgakov’s descriptions are quite vivid, but while Woland and his crew are somewhat anthropomorphic, they could easily turn into monsters without straying far from the original text, which I don’t think was Bulgakov’s intent.
* I’ve become slightly obsessed with spotting possible influences on J.K. Rowling, including A Dance to the Music of Time and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I might add The Master and Margarita to the list for the magical realism elements involved in Apartment #50, especially those elements that appear in the chapter “The Great Ball at Satan’s,” which seemed to show up all over Hogwart’s.