Absurdism, Books

On Bulgakov

Mikhail Bulgakov was a Ukrainian doctor who gave up medicine in 1921 at the aged of thirty and, living in Moscow, devoted himself to literature. He wrote absurdist, fantastical, grotesque comic plays, and novels such as  A Dog’s Heart and The Fatal Eggs. He mocked the Soviet belief that science would solve all human problems and that society could progress to utopia and showed a magnificent disdain for this ethos of certainty. He deployed a prose style of boisterous nonsense to confront the new dour utilitarianism.

But Bulgakov’s absurdism was a deviation from the party line. The range of his rumbustious stories was expanding just at the moment Soviet culture was contracting to dogma and decree. By 1928 the secret police raided his apartment and confiscated his diary and the manuscript of A Dog’s Heart, The Fatal Eggs was banned, his plays were removed from the stage and publication of his fiction refused. His brand of comic irony found no favour, “every satirist in the USSR infringes on Soviet society” he wrote. In 1932 all the independent writer’s unions were abolished and a single Writer’s Union was formed that over the following years formulated socialist realism. It was only because he was so serious an artist that Bulgakov wrote comedy. Less serious artists obeyed the prescriptive tenets of the new obligatory literary method and their careers flourished in conformism and cant. The stories of progression towards socialism depicted by these writers were to assist in the development of the new Soviet ethos. Bulgakov found his work out of favour. He wrote to Maxim Gorky in 1930 “All my plays have been banned, not a line of mine is in print. I have no work ready, and not a kopek of royalties is coming in from any source. Not a single institution, not a single individual will reply to my applications. And, briefly, everything that I have written in the USSR has been destroyed. All that is left is for the last remaining thing to be destroyed – me.”

Stalin conferred an immunity upon Bulgakov while other writers were receiving midnight visits from the secret police. Stalin endorsed the ban on many of Bulgakov’s works, did not allow him to travel abroad, but nevertheless permitted no harm to come to the writer himself. He was thus trapped. A writer without access to his readers; an artist denied permission to leave; a comic denied the laughter of an audience. Why did Stalin spare Bulgakov while exterminating lesser offenders? Bulgakov’s The Day of the Turbins was said to be Stalin’s favourite play (even though he had it banned in 1929) and Stalin arranged for him to be given a job in 1931 at the Moscow Arts Theatre, under suitable Soviet supervision. Stalin was a cat playing with a mouse. Bulgakov settled down to a period of play writing, but this position did not improve matters and there were a series of painful blows. His plays were commissioned, rehearsed and banned. Molière went un-staged in 1929; Adam and Eve was rejected in 1931; his altered version of Molière was cancelled in Leningrad in 1931 after a critic, Vishensky, denounced it in an article; he was refused accommodation in a block built for writers; a prose biography of Molière was rejected by publishers in 1933 as the tone was wrong – too playful, too witty; Ivan the Terrible was axed in 1936 when an official of the Official Party Central Committee attended the dress rehearsal and banned it on the spot; his Pushkin play was considered as a libretto for an opera by Shostakovich and Prokofiev but not taken up; on 9th March 1936 his altered, altered Molière play (back on stage) was savaged in Pravda as “superficial glitter and false content”; a stage version of Don Quixote in 1938 went un-staged in his lifetime. All this was against the background of the bleakest period of Soviet history after the murder of Kirov was engineered by Stalin in 1934 then used by him over the next few years as an excuse to root out the supposed threat to his rule.  Wave after wave of artists and intellectuals fell from their positions. Bulgakov’s play Batum (1939) about Stalin’s early life found no backers, perhaps unsurprisingly, and he and his wife sat in their apartment awaiting an arrest that never came. Bulgakov remained both untouchable and unpublishable. He was unable to write and unable not to write “for me, the impossibility of writing is equivalent to being buried alive”. This series of blows in these wretched years were felt as grievous bereavements, and nearly broke his health. And all through this period he worked surreptitiously on a comic novel, The Master and Margarita, the manuscript of which he did not allow to leave his apartment and he read parts to only a few trusted friends and allies. It was a clandestine work.

Realism is unfit for reality, trivial comedies are for serious people. Bulgakov thought it his greatest novel, it might be thought the greatest novel of the twentieth century.

In The Master and Magarita the devil comes to Moscow and unleashes chaos. In the opening scene he meets in a park two Muscovites: one loses his head and the other loses his mind. In the form of a foreign dandy called Woland, this devil brings his motley crew of diabolic loons to town. Azazello is a fanged assassin, Behemoth a wise-cracking, cigar-chomping, vodka-drinking black cat, Koroviev a former knight condemned to hell for making an unfortunate pun, and Hella a naked witch. This satanic crew are a force of nature before which all the residents of the city are hapless and helpless. By the time they leave town the asylums are full, citizens have been decapitated or turned into pigs or dispatched to Yalta or Leningrad or the Crimea, at least four buildings have been burnt to ash and several murderers and rapists have been given a celebratory ball in a ballroom with a brandy-filled swimming pool, accompanied by accordion-playing polar bears. This is a mad version of Moscow where the unaccountable wield unpredictable power and citizens are summarily dispatched to their fates on a whim.

Most of the novel is set in thirties Moscow and tells the satirical story of Woland and the havoc he bring to the craven, idiot members of Moscow’s intellectual community. These random scattered episodic events are told in the style of a fairy tale depicting the magical, fantastic, surreal, antic behaviour. By contrast four interspersed chapters, realistic in style, quiet in tone and poetic in language re-tell the story in Jerusalem of Jesus and his condemnation by Pontius Pilate. In the Jerusalem chapters mystery has been stripped away and psychological realism and human cause and effect prevail. Present day Moscow is where the magical reigns. Late in the novel in return for selling her soul to Woland Margarita is reunited with her lost lover the Master and he with his previously burned novel re-telling the story of Pilate and Jesus. The novel has therefore a number of narrative strands that have an intricate and complex interrelation.

Berlioz is a lick-spittle, pettifogging, yes-man who heads MASSOLIT the writers union that promotes not artistic talent but backbiting and the second rate. This is where the tightly controlled official doctrine of writing is laid down. When he and a young poet, Ivan, meet the devil in a Moscow park they both openly question the devil’s existence and Woland to prove he exists predicts Berlioz’s head will soon after fall off: “Berlioz vanished from sight under the tramcar and a round dark object rolled across the cobbles, over the kerbstone and bounced along the pavement. It was a severed head.” Ivan runs off screaming and is sectioned in an asylum. Berlioz’s empty flat is then commandeered by his killers after the chairman of the flat’s tenants association, Bosoi, is despatched after $400 is discovered wrapped in newspaper and hidden in the ventilation shaft of his lavatory. As Koroviev and Azamov perform black magic and card tricks at the Moscow Variety Theatre the cat, Behemoth, digs his claws into the compere’s glossy hair and with a screech twists his head clean off. The audience are showered with banknotes dropping from the air which by the next morning have become worthless pieces of paper. On leaving the theatre several members of the audience find themselves suddenly wearing nothing but their underwear. The office workers of the Theatre Commission under mass hypnosis cannot stop singing the Volga Boat Song and are driven away in lorry loads to a clinic, all still warbling. The critic and editor Latunsky who had rejected for publication the Master’s Pilate novel and then denounced it in an article in the press (which led to the Master burning it) has his apartment in the exclusive writers union members block of flats damaged by a flying witch on her broomstick. She breaks his piano, puts water in his desk and ink in his double bed, smashes his mirror and flower vases and slashes with a knife his sheets. This is a world in which pigs do fly. At the Spring Ball of the Full Moon thrown by Woland for the denizens of hell, through a chimney at midnight fly three hundred and two attendees including murderers, poisoners, pimps, free-thinkers and Caligula and Johann Strauss. In a chapter called The Final Adventure the MASSOLIT headquarters at Griboyedov House (where there are ludicrous names for the literary sections such as One-day Creative Trips and Fishing and Vacation) is entered by Koroviev and Behomoth with a Primus stove full of paraffin, they are handed a match and the whole place is burnt to the ground.

So the devil seems to have been tasked by Bulgakov with enacting his retribution. It is the theatre managers, writers union members, censors, literary critics, and chairmen of tenants associations who come off worst when Woland hits town. These members of Moscow’s intellectual circle are revealed as a bunch of ambitious, second rate, narrow-minded, censorious, money loving, status seeking, self-loathing cowards and nonentities. Taking aim at those who destroyed his literary career, settling current and old scores, this novel is in part a revenge comedy.

There is no direct mention of Stalin or secret police or the gulag. The tone is all bright, effervescent, joyful and absurd with a total absence of malice and dread. This is murder, arson and destruction as comedy. There are however, submerged in the narrative, laconic references to the purges and conditions in the USSR as Woland and his band go about their crazy business. A man is described wearing his underwear but carrying a suitcase “for some reason”. The wife of an man taken away shouts “Confess Nikanor, they’ll reduce your sentence if you do” A police report is deemed necessary after a magic show at the theatre. Denouncements in newspapers go under headlines such as “The enemy makes a sortie”. Characters verbally double over not to be heard contradicting anyone about anything. A man called Rimsky answers a telephone line that goes dead and immediately feels gooseflesh spreading over his skin and he stares at a tree in the strong grip of fear. The Master surmises that Ivan has been arrested only because of the absence of buttons on his coat. One man on being discovered with foreign currency falls to the floor pleading “I’ll do anything you like to make you believe that I did not take the stuff”. One man denounces another to the authorities for writing illegal literature purely because he wants to supplant him in his flat. Berlioz thinks Woland is an émigré spy and is suspicious that his devil-wheeze is some sort of official trap. One chapter depicts a man’s dream of a dialogue between a cheerful prosecutor and his audience of would-be criminals. People are continually found to be disappearing from a flat and from the theatre. Even so, Moscow’s citizens bend all these fables to normality desperately rationalising all the supernaturalism as the facts are forced to fit a different ideological template. Moscow ought to function in accordance with a materialist, rationalist explanation and the educated and cultured people find a reason for everything slotting all the madness into a narrative “but facts, as they say, are facts and they could not be brushed aside without some explanation: someone had come to Moscow”. Once Woland has left town the frantic police soon arrest one Wollman, a Wolper, three Woldemars, a Wallach nine Korovins, four Korovkins, and two Karavaevs and a chemist called Vetchinkevich. One man is taken off the Sebastopol train in handcuffs for having tried to amuse his fellow passengers with a card trick.

The four chapters set in Jerusalem two thousand years before and are from the Master’s burned novel. Unlike the contemporary scenes which are surreal, comic, rumbustious and grotesque, the story of Jesus is told in realist prose. Pontius Pilate, the procurator of Judea, is struggling to make sense of Jesus on the day his death sentence is to be confirmed. Pilate is examined in depth as a man greatly sympathetic to Jesus but unable to save him. Jesus is depicted as a wise simpleton, a fool who is mysteriously serious, an ordinary man whose words have been misinterpreted and Pilate is fascinated by him. “Why should a tramp like you upset the crowd in the bazaar by talking about truth, something of which you have no conception? What is truth?” Jesus is an itinerant philosopher who displays the paradox of the strength of the weak. This is a non-canonical retelling of the story of the Jesus of the New Testament. Jesus does not ride into Jerusalem on a donkey. The only disciple is an hysterical Matthew who heretically records Jesus’s sayings and later cuts down his body from the cross. Jesus complains about this scribe following him around who, he says, is always writing things down on a goatskin parchment and always getting everything wrong. Jesus’s last words on the cross are not of God but about Pilate. Judas is not a disciple of Jesus but a petty informer hired to lure Jesus into making statements against the Roman authorities. After receiving his payment Judas feels no guilt and so does not commit suicide but instead is murdered on Pilate’s orders. On one reading, impressed by Jesus’s wisdom and bearing at the interrogation, Pilate arranges for the murder of the man who had betrayed him. This act is can be seen as a secretive state murder with a concocted cover up or an act of atonement. This, of course, is a wholly different elucidation of the washing of Pilate’s hands of the burden of Jesus’s death to that described by Matthew (27 v24). The Master’s novel is not just an heterodox re-imagining but something far more radical: he is rewriting the Gospel of St. Matthew and thereby altering the word of God.

The legend of Faust has haunted European literature and art (see: Marlowe, Goethe, Liszt, Berlioz, Thomas Mann, Busoni, Stravinsky, Gounod, Heine). Faust was a scholar in Northern Germany who strove to know everything that could be known when suddenly Mephistopheles arrived in his study and they made a pact. Mephistopheles committed to serve Faust on earth in exchange for Faust serving the devil in hell. Faust thereby committed his soul to eternal damnation in return for power and knowledge in this life. He is the man who sells his soul to the devil for worldly gains. The Master and Margarita is in part a Faustian story. In Goethe’s Faust Voland is the devil and Faust’s lover is called Gretchen (in German short for Margarete). Hector Berlioz was the composer of The Damnation of Faust and Igor Stravinsky composed two Faustian works and in the novel is the name of the Master’s psychiatrist. Bulgakov took his epigraph from Goethe’s Faust, and then gave the devil the best tunes.

Unlike everybody else, the Master and Margarita recognise the devil for who he is and accept him without judgement. They alone remained undiminished by the personal appearance in town of evil. The Master is an inmate in an asylum and so misses most of the early rumbustious devilish action. He first appears in a later chapter called Enter the hero, a broken man, destitute, burnt out, having renounced his name after burning the only manuscripts of his Pilate novel following its rejection for publication and condemnation in the newspapers, he is the weary artist who has lost his spirit. In Christopher Marlowe’s Faustus Faust’s easy notion that residence in hell is a matter other than terrors of the soul is shattered: FAUSTUS: Where are you damn’d MEPHISTOPHELES: In hell. FAUSTUS: How comes it then that thou art out of hell? MEPHISTOPHELES: Why this is hell, nor am I out of it. The Master has procured in secret the keys to leave the asylum but choses not to. He is passive, disenfranchised and weak, “I am no one”. Margarita, on the other hand, is the most sympathetic character, who suffers in love separated from the Master but who makes sacrifices and puts others first. She is the Master’s doomed love who remains in a basement flat nursing a fantasy of longing for him. She happens to be on a bench when Berlioz’s funeral processes past and muses about the absent Master “I’d pawn my soul to the devil just to find out if he’s alive or not” when Azazello magically, silently materialises behind her. Woland offers her a deal that in exchange for becoming a witch for ever and hosting the Satanic ball she can have any wish fulfilled. Having some sympathy for the devil she agrees to the pact, rubs an ointment onto her skin that makes her ten years younger and develops magical powers. But after the ball when offered her wish, overcome with pity, she asks Woland to relieve the suffering of a young mother she has met called Frieda from eternal torment. Touched by her generosity he fulfils this wish and promptly grants her another one. Then she chooses to be reunited with the Master.

The heart of the book poses a paradoxical understanding of the problem of evil. The forces of good and evil are usually understood as opposed to one other, but here they are in a different relationship. This paradoxical idea is captured in the quotation from Goethe’s Faust which precedes the first chapter “I am part of that power which eternally desires evil and eternally works good”. Woland carries the complexity of the problem of evil. The world is turned upside down in troubling ways and with apparent motiveless malignancy but he is the instrument of Margarita’s kindness and generosity; his punishment seems reserved for the sinful; we see him nowhere tempting the pure to sin; he is deeply ambiguous, charming, courteous, knowledgeable; he is ruthless but his brand of devilry seems not to be too bad; those who commit petty infringements are punished, whereas those who commit sin are redeemed. To sup with this devil requires a short spoon. The victims of the devil are the corrupt who have abused their power. At worst it could be said that he makes bad people more miserable. Is Woland perpetrating evil? If so it is a curiously muted form. He does minimal damage to people’s souls and assist in redemption as much as damnation. He claims to have come that first morning from having breakfast with Kant with whom he argued about the existence of God and that he has been called to Moscow to decipher some ninth century necromancer manuscripts. The exact nature of his game, in his expensive grey suit and foreign shoes, remains a puzzle. When God created light he thereby created shadows. Woland says to Matthew “what would your good do if evil did not exist, and what would the earth look like if shadows disappeared from it?” Both the Master and Margarita recognise Woland for what he is, and by recognising evil they thereby allow good to be a possibility. This is a cosmos where good and evil must both have their jurisdiction and it is clear that the devil has as much to lose from atheism as God. He descends with particular force upon those, like Berlioz, who deny the existence of himself and Jesus. He asks “who controls the world if there is no God?” When the reply is ‘man’ Woland is contemptuous “so how, may I ask, can man be in control if he can’t even draw up a plan for a ridiculously short period of time, say, a thousand years“. He mocks the complacency of those who claim the ability to be able to predict, understand and control events. There is a sense of the shallowness of atheism and its invitation to disaster, and of humanism as too weak and unwilling to contemplate the diabolic energy of wickedness. Atheism is condemned as worse than the presence of evil as merely a vacuousness inner emptiness. Acts of goodness do not have the same signification in the absence of acts of evil. If that is so, then doesn’t the devil have a key part to play? But this novel is no recommendation of a return to faith. Christ is made to stand opposed to Soviet atheism and Orthodox Russian Christianity. Instead this is an exhilarating, imaginative novel that uses a surreal metaphysics of unorthodox irreverence to split back open the material terrestrial world.

The devil’s men’s comprehension of literary considerations exceeds the poets and novelists of the writers union. Koroviev and Behemoth stroll along to the writers’ club in Moscow musing on the talent under its roof beavering away on another Don Quixote, Faust, Dead Souls, The Government Inspector or Eugene Onegin. But once they arrive a literary functionary refuses them entry for their lack of identity cards. Koroviev: “But look here – if you wanted to make sure that Dostoevsky was a writer, would you really ask him for his membership card? Why, you only have only have to take any five pages of one of his novels and you won’t need a membership card to convince you that the man’s a writer.” “You’re not Dostoevsky.” “How do you know?” “Dostoevsky’s dead.” “I protest Dostoevsky’s immortal!” “Your membership cards please.The Master and Margarita contains several strong echoes of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

Here is the King James version of Matthew 4 (v 1-11):

“Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungred. And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread. But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God. Then the devil taketh him up into the holy city, and setteth him on a pinnacle of the temple, and saith unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone. Jesus said unto him, it is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God. Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; and saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me. Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve. Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him.”

All Dostoevsky’s major novels turn on a murder, and The Brothers Karamazov turns on the murder of a father. This novel is formed around a parricide, its investigation and then a criminal trial. The four brothers (suspects) are: Dimitri (sinful, licentious, impulsive, sensual, poetic), Ivan (intellectual, writer, agnostic), Aloysha (novice monk, novice human, message carrier) and Smerdyakov (bastard son, servant, simpleton, fool). For Ivan this is a case of double parricide: the rebellion against his father and his God. Of the devil’s three temptations in St. Matthew’s Gospel the third is surely the most alluring: the offer of complete dominion for Christ over all the kingdoms of the world and the people within, yet still Jesus rejects it. For Dostoevsky the problem of evil and the question of human liberty is profoundly joined, and Ivan Karamazov’s prose poem on the Grand Inquisitor is a powerful meditation on these matters:

Jesus returns to earth and comes to sixteenth century Seville in Spain during the Inquisition. The day before his arrival a hundred heretics on fires blazing and crackling to the Glory of God have been burnt at an auto-da-fé on the order of the ninety year old Cardinal Grand Inquisitor. Jesus is hailed by a crowd in the town square in front of the Cathedral after healing a blind man and raising a dead child from her coffin with the Aramaic words ‘talitha cumi’ (damsel arise). The Grand Inquisitor immediately orders Jesus’s arrest and detention and then visits him in his cell on a hot night fragrant with laurel and lemon. The Grand Inquisitor informs Jesus that the church has had to rectify the mistake Jesus made when he refused the temptations of the devil and in so doing bequeathed humans the intolerable curse of freedom of thought. Jesus is told that he had the chance via the third temptation to take dominion over the thoughts of all people forever in favour of God, but failed to take it instead leaving everyone free to make their own decisions. He chides Jesus who was granted an opportunity to control the entire future history of the world and humankind, and thereby resolve the (now) insoluble historical contradictions of human nature. The Grand Inquisitor, who claims to be an humanitarian with a deep love of humanity, says he has devoted his life to organising society so as to overcome freedom in order to make people happy: “people have brought us their freedom and obediently laid it at our feet”. The Grand Inquisitor stands for all authoritarian creeds and ideologies who desire to save humanity from its inability to handle freedom and fear of chaos. He demands to know why Jesus has arrived in Seville at this time and threatened the authoritarian set-up he and the Church has crafted. Jesus at the close of the prose poem, who has been silent throughout, delivers the coup de grace and simply kisses the Inquisitor on his bloodless, aged lips.

Ivan’s poem makes a strenuous case against God’s goodness and is a prescient analysis of totalitarianism. Ivan is described as having a Euclidean mind (an earthly mind that does not seek to resolve things that are not of this world) but who in his own sceptical way accepts God. “I have long since stopped thinking about whether man created God, or God created man”. Ivan is a man engrossed with western ideals (as an agnostic but not a rationalist “reason is a scoundrel”) and is in the grip of modern ideas confronting ancient preoccupations. Ivan is yearning to confront the everlasting questions. Is there a God? Is there immortality? Can humankind be transformed into a new order? Ivan understands (as shown in his prose poem) that if God were to prevent the evil of human actions the world would no longer be free. And Ivan gives voice to the view that socialism is the offshoot of a Christianity that strives to banish evil and freedom. He regards the self-elevation by humankind to become as gods as a kind of acceptance of demonic temptation that opens humankind up to a self-wrought misery. Ivan surmises that “those who love men in general hate men in particular”. Therefore Ivan’s agnosticism is no fashionable Russian flirtation with utopian socialism (this is 1880) “and those who do not believe in God, well, they will talk about socialism and anarchism, about transforming the whole of mankind according to a new order, but it’s the same damned thing, the questions are all the same, only from the other end.” Ivan adopts the dictum from Voltaire’s Epistles: if God did not exist, he would have to be invented. Ivan, who later faces the devil in a dream, faces the coexistence of belief and unbelief in all its contradictions. He says to Aloysha: “I tell you, novice, that absurdities are all too necessary on earth. The world stands on absurdities, and without them perhaps nothing at all would happen. We know what we know”

Both Bulgakov’s and Dostoevsky’s novels contain then a secular retelling of St. Matthew’s Gospel, a prose poem about Jesus, a dream about the devil, an interrogation into the paradoxes of good and evil, an investigation into authoritarian inclinations, and both quote Goethe’s famous lines from Faust. Both Bulgakov and Dostoevsky understood that utopia requires the banishment of all doubt and its adoption of the attitude that those who don’t believe in the simple methods of the cure are part of the disease. Neither shared humankind’s illusionary yearning to arrange things so that they could be universal. They both understood that the authoritarian impulse to strive to impose happiness by will is futile and guaranteed to do harm. For both novelists only imaginative fiction was capable of expressing what matters about the complexities of the human condition, and both chose to use the literary style known as comedy to approach the terrifying subject matter of the darkness of evil and human liberty. Bulgakov, then, is a moralist in the sense that Dostoevsky is. The Master and Margarita may be a book about good and evil, Christ and the devil, redemption and damnation, but ambivalence remains the norm. There are no external sources of truth, from either God or Humans, and the novel remains a combination of slapstick and metaphysics in which Bulgakov flaunts no arbitrary control.

Towards the end of The Master and Margarita Woland astonishingly returns the Master’s burnt manuscript to him unburnt after it is produced from under his cat, with the words “don’t you know that manuscripts don’t burn?” The phrase has come to signify the imperishability of art, its indestructible power and defiant integrity. In the final scenes Woland and his retinue and the Master and Margarita fly through the air to a summit of a mountain where they find Pilate who has been sitting tormented for two thousand years. The interweaving of the many narrative strands is complex. In a final act of intercession from Margarita (coinciding with a preordained decision on the part of Woland) Pontius Pilate in liberated from two thousand years of guilt. The book simultaneously combines its three plot lines which, when they merge at the end, on one reading are a complete revision of the Gospel according to Matthew. Pontius Pilate, Jesus and Matthew arrive in present day Moscow having morphed from characters in the Master’s novel, contained within Bulgakov’s novel, to become characters fully functioning in Bulgakov’s novel itself. Bulgakov has written a book, The Master and Margarita, about the process of Bulgakov writing The Master and Margarita. The Master had earlier told Ivan at the asylum of his burnt Pilate novel “I already know what the last words of the novel would be – ‘the fifth Procurator of Judea, the knight Pontius Pilate’”. The last lines of Bulgakov’s novel’s last chapter (if we exclude the epilogue) are the same “the fifth Procurator of Judea, the knight Pontius Pilate”. What is going on here, are we reading in our hands the Master’s novel or Bulgakov’s? On one reading, in a meta-fictional manoeuvre at the last, Bulgakov’s novel has actually been written by the Master himself and we are holding the very text that was burned and re-created by Woland.

This is a grotesque, rumbustious, satirical, mad masterpiece of a comedy. With an air of slapstick and the surrealism of Alice in Wonderland, this is a comic Faust, a philosophical allegory, a post-revolutionary Dostoevskian discourse, a riotous satire, an examination of guilt and cowardice, a moving retelling of the Gospel, an absurd, dark and funny work, and one of the great imaginative novels of the century. It asks troubling questions about human nature, atheism, authoritarianism and literature. What are the absurdities thrown up in a rational godless society? What is the price of accommodating evil? How should one live when the spirit is broken? How can humanity stem from its imperfections? How can artists act with integrity but without cowardice? In authoritarian times how is artistic freedom to be nurtured? How is moral agency retained? How can a separated lover retain faith in love? What happens to human existence when all references to good and evil are banished? If it is impossible to be good without the existence of evil in the world? Are good and evil opposites or codependents? Is the devil a counterpart rather than a rival to God? This is absurd fiction that manages somehow to shed light on the paradoxes of evil and tell the truth about lies. But like the paradox that forms the epigraph, only ambivalence is the norm. This is a carnival of the imagination that cannot be reduced to anything outside its own terms and what seems coherent slides into paradox. We submit to the logic of Bulgakov’s sphinx-like narrative, and the only authenticity in this feast of the forbidden stems from ambiguity and the imagination. This is an apocryphal gospel that is enchanting, comic and deeply serious. Bulgakov dictated the last corrections to his wife as he lay dying in 1940, and never saw his novel published or read. The poet Anna Akhmatova after his death said of him  ‘[you] lived so severely, and to the end you carried your magnificent disdain.’ Bulgakov was the mouse that roared.

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