Commentary Magazine

The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov

The Devil In Moscow

The Master and Margarita.
by Mikhail Bulgakov.
Translated by Michael Glenny. Harper & Row. 284 pp. $6.95.

by Mirra Ginsburg.
Grove. 402 pp. $5.95.

Mikhail Bulgakov was already twelve years old when Chekhov died in 1904, an overlap that seems to preclude reincarnation as a possible clue to the uncanny affinities between the two men. Both were physicians patently unable to heal themselves, hopelessly addicted to the stage, prolific in their output. Both gained early recognition for their short stories and went on to fame as dramatists, wrote immensely popular plays, and paid an exorbitant price for their popularity. Chekhov died at forty-four; Bulgakov lived four years longer.

Beyond these intriguing if surface parallels loom the essential points of contact touching upon their creative work, and here the evidence is more complex. For their deeper kinship rests mainly on a skeptical humanism and compassionate irony which, though common to both, are inevitably shaped and scarred by their respective times. Chekhov's world was that of 19th-century Russia; he died before the fall of Port Arthur. Bulgakov started practicing medicine during World War I, began to write after the October Revolution, reached the crest of his fame in the 20's and died on the eve of World War II, an un-person to the extent of not even rating an obituary notice in the Soviet press. He represents the spirit and the fate of Chekhov in the age of Stalin.

Bulgakov's eclipse, like that of most writers suppressed along with him, has of course always been relative. In a recently published and deeply personal tribute to him, the Soviet novelist Viktor Nekrassov estimates that at least a million people saw The Days of the Turbins, Bulgakov's best-known play, in the course of its thirteen-year run, one of the spectators being Stalin, who, according to the theater's archives, attended no less than fifteen performances over the years. A dramatization of Bulgakov's first novel, it focuses on the ordeal of a middle-class Kiev family—typical Chekhovian liberals, in the parlance of Soviet criticism—caught in the civil war and facing, beyond its physical horrors, the agonizing moral choices implicit in this kind of fratricidal butchery. It marked the first time that a Soviet playwright dared to grapple with the central themes of revolutionary iconography in terms moral rather than political, eschewing the stock Red-and-White clichés of the post-revolutionary stage and creating characters whose complex individuality transformed them into prototypes of an entire generation.

On the whole, the play's enormous popularity proved a more than dubious blessing for its author. His clearly ambivalent non-commitment fatally provoked the jackals of the proletcult and the bloodhounds of the GPU, whose time-tested methods quickly reduced an “uregenerate bourgeois writer” to an un-writer by the simple expedient of cutting him off from his public. Of Bulgakov's eleven surviving plays (about one-third of his total output), only six were ever produced in his lifetime; the first collection of his stories and novellas—far from complete—appeared in 1966. Yet some aspects of his work seem to have held a curious fascination for Stalin, not otherwise renowned as a patron of the arts; though rejecting his petition for an exit visa, the dictator in 1932 personally put a stop to GPU harassment of Bulgakov and probably saved him from prison, exile, or worse. It was neither the first nor the last intervention of this kind on Stalin's part and revealed some cryptic dimensions to which Bulgakov, in turn, responded with an ambivalence clearly reflected in the pages of his last major novel.

Fatally ill, blind toward the end, Bulgakov devoted the last twelve years of his life to The Master and Margarita fully aware that, barring a miracle, he would never live to see it published. And I don't think he believed in miracles—which may have been one reason why he was able to write about them with such engaging verve.

The book consists of three novels on distinct if related themes, hinged together in a triptych of sorts. The hinges creak, the panels sag, and the profusion of detail often makes it difficult to trace their intricate relationship. Which is another way of saying that like all truly significant works of literature this one is alive, hence flawed.

Central to it is the story of the devil in Moscow. Disguised as a professor of black magic and attended by a suitable retinue that includes a witch and a gun-slinging cat, the cynical but not unappealing Satan has come to town in order to find out for himself what changes the revolution has brought about and whether they affect the hearts and minds of Moscow's citizens or only the traffic pattern of its trolley cars. This research project involves him in a series of gruesomely hilarious situations. Officious bureaucrats and phrase-mongering party hacks are stripped bare in their encounters with him, as often as not caught literally with their pants down, but the most savage thrusts of Bulgakov's comic genius, for reasons easy to appreciate, he reserves for luminaries of the literary establishment. Hypocrisy, stupidity, greed, and lechery explode all over town as the devil proves what he had never doubted in the first place—plus ça change. . . . His casual demonstrations of supernatural powers fill the psycho wards, shake the State Writers' Club to its opulent foundations, paralyze the police force, and ultimately bring about citywide crisis conditions. And since the devil, along with God, has been officially pronounced dead, his rudimentary pranks also generate a frenzied flow of official explanations that explain nothing. Yet the devil is far from omnipotent. Like Goethe's Mephisto, Bulgakov's Professor Woland “wills forever evil, yet does forever good.” Moreover, his power is circumscribed by the exalted forces embodied in the myths of Faust and of the Crucifixion. It is these two myths, as reworked by Bulgakov, that provide a counterpoint in the novel to Satan's adventures in the proletarian Wonderland.

In Bulgakov's version, Pontius Pilate fails to save the life of a man whom he has come to love and perhaps even believe in, thus dramatizing the issues of courage, commitment, and personal responsibility. Indeed, Christ's last words in the gospel according to Bulgakov—“One of man's greatest sins is cowardice”—not only condemn Pilate to everlasting agony but seem to have retained sufficient relevance to disturb his linear descendents in present-day Moscow, for they are missing from the version published in Russia (as well as from the Grove Press edition based on it).

The final segment, variation on a theme by Goethe, contains the core of Bulgakov's faith and, either because or in spite of it, seems to me the least successful of the three. His Faust is a novelist referred to as the Master, whose crowning work on the life of Pontius Pilate has been rejected and ridiculed by every literary hatchetman and executioner in town. He finally burns his manuscript and retreats to the psycho ward, traditional last refuge of the sane. But love comes to the rescue; his Margarita—no Gretchen she, but a rather bovine Bovary—strikes a bargain with the devil, and in return for a brief but highly exhilarating stint as a witch persuades him to save the Master's soul, i.e., his manuscript. But “paper does not burn,” as the devil rather prophetically declaims, assuring the Master that his novel will yet come into its own.

The joke, of course, is on us, a reminder that even in our universe of the absurd it is occasionally possible for absurdity to pass ultimate limits and turn into its anti-particle. For the vision that must have sustained Bulgakov during those final desperate years, the wishful thinking which along with so much bitter irony, humor, and moral courage went into the writing of this tale, for once came true. Sometimes, it seems, paper really does not burn; a mere twenty-seven years after his death, Bulgakov's novel made him the literary man of the hour—a neat twist that would have appealed to his sense of irony. The discovery of a buried literary masterpiece is a rare enough event to justify the excitement. That this event has political overtones—as most things do, in the Soviet Union—is borne out by cuts made in the published version, though on the whole the censors appear to have been more allergic to Bulgakov's antic ribaldry than to his largely dated political lampooning.

Soviet censorship having all these years provided a bounty of smug comfort for Americans of all persuasions, it may be sacrilege to suggest that perhaps a dash of envy is finally called for. Not that I advocate repression; but the censor symbolizes a conceit still prevalent in the Soviet Union—namely the conviction that literature matters. The trend in the U.S. is increasingly toward the manufacture of books by giant business organizations geared to the mass distribution of consumer goods. And while, aside from a scattering of sclerotic bluenoses and vigilante virgins, we may have no more censors, the question is whether we still have readers and how long those few surviving can resist the automated onslaught of ideas conceived in indifference, created equal, utterly disposable, and sold at a discount.

The publication history of The Master and Margarita is an oblique but distressing example. Abetted by the absence of copyright conventions between the U.S. and the USSR, Grove Press rushed through its own translation of the novel, fully cognizant of the fact that Harper & Row had, through official Soviet channels, obtained and paid for publication rights. This misdirected spurt of initiative in a field not distinguished by an abundance of vision and energy misfired, as it was bound to; the cutthroat techniques of cloak-and-suiters applied to publishing spell murder here as there, the victims being book, author, and reader. The fact that the Mosvka-Grove version turned out to be significantly mutilated but better translated merely bears out this point. Yet in either version, the intrinsic stature of Bulgakov's novel should be obvious.

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