Monday, August 22, 2011

The Master and Margarita

I had a number of great suggestions for the novella series, so I'm going to take a break and read some of them before I continue with that.  In the meantime, I want to talk about The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov.  This novel is one of those fascinating pieces of Russian literature that snuck out during Stalin's reign.  At this time in the Soviet Union, all of the arts were highly censored, which caused many writers a lot of trouble.  For example, Bulgakov's esteemed contemporaries, Anna Akhmatovah and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, were respectively exiled and sent to labor camp.  Yet although Bulgakov was aware of the risk and even burned an early version of the story, he nevertheless decided to write this critical satire of the USSR, which was then published after his death.

I'll try to summarize the story as best I can, but it is by nature confusing and a bit crazy.  At the start of the novel, Woland, (understood to be Satan), and his crew descend upon Moscow, and they immediately stir up trouble.  After breaking into the story with an eerily accurate death prediction, this unholy Trinity of sorts takes over the dead man's apartment in order to camp out in Moscow for a while and wreak havoc on the city.  Their magical pranks send various people to the brink of insanity as well as to their deaths.  The title characters - the Master and Margarita - enter the story as lovers, but Margarita sells her soul to the devil in exchange for unbridled emotion, which she expresses by flying across the city stark naked on a broomstick of sorts.  She also plays hostess for a gathering of death people and works at Woland's side for a while.  Yet at the same time, a significant part of the story is the Master's novel about Pontius Pilot and Jesus, which he writes from a cynical and atheist perspective.  We read the story with Margarita late in the novel, and its themes coincide directly with that of the larger story which is concurrently taking place.

Whew, I warned you it was confusing! When I first began this novel, I have to admit that I was a little turned off by the magical realism.  In general, I am much more drawn to stark realism than fantasy in literature.  Early on, we learn that the main characters are a magician, a hitman, a witch, and a walking, talking black cat.  As Margarita flew naked across the sky and Behemoth, (the cat), hopped on the train like an ordinary man, I was a little skeptical.  I knew that I loved 19th century Russian literature, but this was quite a different flavor and I was a bit uncertain.  Yet by the end of the novel, I was completely sold and can say that I love this book.

I've discovered that magical realism is an extraordinary technique when used by the right hands.  The absurdity of the story is exaggerated so greatly that we are of course to agree it is absurd!  We must remember that this was written during Stalin's reign, a time in which people were being arrested and exiled for hardly predictable reasons.  Yet there is enough in here to offend a whole host of different people!  Bulgakov is hinting that Stalin should be viewed like the devil who purposefully mucks up Moscow in his story.  Woland sweeps through Moscow with a fair degree of madness, and one can hardly guess what will happen next.  Because of this extraordinary stage Bulgakov creates, he can make just about anything happen within the story.  One of the most fascinating chapters of the whole book is that of Satan's Ball, in which a number of famous dead people arrive and mingle as though it were perfectly natural.  Another memorable moment comes when Behemoth reproduces the Master's destroyed novel, saying quite simply and famously, "Manuscripts don't burn."  Having virtually abandoned all literary limits, Bulgakov creatively produces a bizarre text that is nevertheless full of meaning, layers, and wisdom.

The satire of this work is intricately crafted and the literary references are abundant.  The primary allusion is to Goethe's Faust, the story of a man who sold his soul to the devil.  The heroine is Gretchen, (aka Margarita), who is seduced by Faust to the "dark side" but ultimately redeemed.  Bulgakov's heroine of the same name likewise succumbs to the devil but is somewhat redeemed by her innate goodness.  But the allusions don't stop there.  I can also see bits of Gogol, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy weaved in the story.  It was well-known that Bulgakov admired Gogol, and their narrative styles are quite similar, though Bulgakov brings in the magical realism.  And the atheist and intellectual character Ivan who appears at the beginning of The Master and Margarita seems to me to be a direct connection to Ivan Karamzov, from Dostoevsky's final masterpiece.  Moreover, I cannot read the Pontius Pilot  and Jesus story in Master without connecting it to the most famous chapter of The Brothers Karamazov, "The Grand Inquisitor."  Bulgakov even slips in a nod to Anna Karenina, with a comment about the jumbled "Oblonsky household."

It is so interesting to me that Bulgakov fills his work with so many allusions, especially because I know his contemporary, Solzhenitsyn, did as well.  I think that it must have been important to Russians during the reign of the USSR to maintain their sense of nationalism through admiration of the great literature of the past.  I just have a sense that this held particular meaning to them as they struggled in the tension of Stalin's rule.  I also want to note that Bulgakov must have been a great admirer of classical music, because his musical references are numerous.  Some of my favorite composers slip in there as characters, such as Berlioz and Stravinsky.  With allusions to Tchaikovsky, Verdi, and others, I think all that is missing is a somewhat oppressed character named Shostakovich to appear. 

Although I've written a lot, I have hardly scratched the surface of this book.  I feel like this may be the most confusing and disorganized post I've written yet, but I'm not sure how else to discuss it.  I thought about setting up links to my earlier blog posts each time I mentioned an author I've already discussed, just to add to the confusion with my references within his references of references within this post!  I decided to spare you, though.  I hope you were able to follow it for the most part, and I'd love to hear whatever you want to add to it. 


IngridLola said...

I recently read this book too! I'm like you - I'm not usually a fan of magical realism but I think it worked beautifully in this book. I'm a huge fan of Goethe's Faust so I really loved those allusions as well.

Anonymous said...

Bulgakov is one of my favorite authors. M&M is a fantastic book. Another novel of his, Heart of a Dog, is also really good and very funny.

Amy said...

Hm, good to know. I'll have to add that to my list!