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  • Writer's pictureLisa Madsen Rubilar

Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita: A Devilishly Grand Swim in a Choppy Sea During a Hurricane

            Some books are like sliding into a hot tub. Others are like wading into a cold swimming pool.  And a few are like being tossed off a cruise ship into a tempestuous sea. Such a book—at least for me—is The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (first published in the U.S. in 1965, republished by Penguin Books in 2017, translated from Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky). My playwright brother, Christopher Madsen, and his wife, Susan Wilson-Madsen, gave me the book as a gift, the implication being that it would be worth reading. Let me say at the outset that it is, a thousand times over. But it required some strenuous sea-swimming.  This is not a book to read now and again while stirring a pot on the stove; not a book to pick up when one’s head is already on the pillow. I tried that, and by the time I reached the middle, I realized I had little idea what was happening, to whom, or why. Because I trust Chris and Susan’s judgment, I started over. This time I concentrated. I jotted down the name of each character I met, as well as their various pseudonyms (like most Russian novels I’ve encountered, every character is referred to be several names). I also wrote a brief summary of each chapter as I completed it.  I referred frequently to these notes as I proceeded through the book, but by the end, I cast the notes aside and read on with abandon.             

The Master and Margarita  may not be a beach read, but it’s a masterpiece.            

I can honestly make that claim having arrived at the novel with no preconceptions. Others probably know that the book is canonical in Russia, in the way that Catch-22 or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest are in America.  In fact I’ve since learned that two phrases from the book have become Russian axioms. One is, “Manuscripts don’t burn.” (Bulgakov himself literally burned an early section of his manuscript out of fear that it would be discovered by Soviet authorities; yet the novel burned in his mind until he resurrected it.) The other phrase is “Cowardice is the most terrible of vices.” In fact, it took unbelievable courage for Bulgakov to write his novel, and then to keep it among his possessions until his death in 1940. The very existence of The Master and Margarita put him at risk of “disappearance” by Stalin’s secret police.  It wasn’t published until 26 years after his death, in 1964, the same year that Joseph Brodsky was sentenced to five years’ hard labor for the “parasitism” of being a poet. How The Master and Margarita made it past the Soviet censors of the day is a mystery, but it was greeted with rapturous amazement by Russians thirsty for originality, humor, irreverence, truth and hope.  By turns hilarious and horrifying, the novel is a satire of a totalitarian society, in which Evil is everywhere present but nowhere acknowledged.            

Spoilers follow; stop reading here if you plan to read the book soon.           

According to Richard Pevear, one of the book’s translator’s, Bulgakov began his novel in response to the outrage he felt at the way Christ was represented in Soviet anti-religious propaganda. In his novel, the apologist for Jesus Christ is—oddly—Satan, who has decided to visit Moscow with his minions. Satan  meets two vapid writers discussing the unreality of Jesus, to whom he then shows a vision of Christ’s appearance before Pontius Pilate. Apparently, Satan feels that he can best prove his own existence by proving his antithesis. One writer is shortly beheaded in a tram accident, which Satan had prophesied, while the other poet (pen-named Homeless) wanders around blithering about a foreign agent and Pontius Pilate—until he’s carted off to the insane asylum. There, Homeless meets the unnamed “Master,” who has also been committed after having been tortured by the secret police, an event implied but never shown. The Master—it turns out—has written an unpublished but much-excoriated novel about Pontius Pilate.  This novel is word-for-word the vision that Homeless received from Satan. The circular nature of Bulgakov’s plot is disorienting, and its structure suggests  the surrealism of a society where received truth is conditional and most often turned on its head.             

As Homeless and the Master languish in the asylum, Satan and his cohorts (including a giant black cat named Behemoth) sow a blizzard of mischief, mischance and abomination around Moscow: at the literary salon, at the theatre, at the boarding house, at the tenant association’s meeting, at the bank, in highbrow drawing rooms, in the streets  and in the offices of the Spectacles Commission, where a headless suit presides over the daily drudgery of keeping theatrical offerings acceptable. With verve and deadly wit, Bulgakov paints the absurdity and horrors of group-think, apathy, vanity, self-satisfied intellectualism, and bureaucratic barbarity.           

Paradoxically, the most admirable character in the novel is Margarita, the Master’s adulterous lover.  To rescue the Master from his imprisonment in the insane asylum, Margarita makes a pact with Satan to become the queen of his ball. Bulgakov states explicitly that Margarita doesn’t fall captive to Satan’s lies because she turns and faces him directly, eyes open. She enters Hell itself to save her Love.            

At the end of the book, the tables turn once again. It becomes clear that Satan is somehow in the employ of God, who keeps tabs on his actions, and asks him to give the Master and Margarita the peace that they deserve. Satan works within and is subject to a power larger than himself, and is in some way necessary to that power. One of the novel’s most powerful themes is that Freedom is rife with the possibility of evil. Yet any earthly government or human system that insists on absolute purity is bound to descend into its opposite: chaos, violence and despair.             While I was previously unfamiliar with The Master and Margarita, I now seem to hear about it on every street corner. Apparently the novel has recently been made into a movie, which must be a real doozy. However, I suggest that you read the novel first to get a taste of the pages for which Bulgakov risked his freedom and his life. Dive right in with pencil and notebook in hand. The tidal waves are fine.

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