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Sunday, January 5, 2014

He has appeared! Catch him at once, or he will work untold disasters!

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
The Master and Margarita is a playful, satirical romp through our darkest dreams that simultaneously examines the deepest questions of our existence and the very real presence and influence of a supernatural devil and his minions when they appear in Moscow one hot spring day. It follows a cast of characters who are manipulated and bewildered by the devil and company in strange and often hilarious fashions. The devil is painted here as a master of black magic, though the titular "Master" is a different man, one who was driven mad by learning the truth of the devil's existence in the process of writing a novel as a sort of addendum to the Bible. Margarita is his love, the wife of another man (who seems to play no role at all in this book) who falls madly for the Master and gives him the name during her idolization of his epic novel. The Master and Margarita are reunited in the end, with a little help from some supernatural friends. The rest of the cast of characters are left reexamining their lives with the now very real knowledge of the existence of dark forces on this earth.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

When I told people I was reading this book, the overwhelming response was that no one had ever heard of it. I didn't really understand why until I read the foreword in my copy. It turns out that Bulgakov was a famous author during the Stalinist regime, and therefore a large majority of his works were censored, banned, or never published at all. This also explains why I thought this was a newer book - it was published in 1967, but he wrote it between 1928 and 1940, which actually makes him a contemporary of Virginia Woolf.

I greatly enjoyed this book, though it's certainly off the wall, and therefore likely not for everyone. Also definitely not for those who are not interested in spending time mapping out which character fits which of the 7 names given to him/her throughout the novel ;) #russianlit #neveradullmoment

A few of my thoughts, in no real order:

-Censorship by Stalin/Communist regime
I generally try not to read information about a book before I've read it - I don't like it to color my perception or experience of the novel, and I find it gives away a very great deal, often without meaning to. For this reason, I firmly believe that book jackets or back-of-the-book blurbs should be offered in a small hidden envelope, or in some sort of optional medium, as opposed to right-on-the-back-where-anyone-could-read-it-by-accident-and-then-suddenly-know-all-about-the-story-before-she's-even-started-it! They also automatically divulge information that a patient reader would have to wait to earn, like the name of the main character (assuming he has one, AHEM, looking at you, Proust!) or the type of book it's going to be (This MURDER MYSTERY NOVEL - "well great, now I'm going to spend the whole book wondering who's going to die!").

That being said, I read the intro to this book *after* I read it (I took it *out* of the Tulku...) and was very glad I did, because it was highly illuminating in regards to both Bulgakov and this novel. Here's what I discovered:

Apparently, like Proust (and countless others, he's just the first one that comes to mind), Bulgakov died before this novel was published. In fact, he never even got to prepare a final version for publication, and was still making edits until the time of his death. It took 27 years for it to be published after he died, largely due to the lasting influence of Communism on the availability of literature in the USSR. Bulgakov was a prolific writer, but he was tortured by his inability to publish his works as he wrote them. He once said, "There is no hope for any of my works. They cannot exist in the USSR", a reference to both the fact that his works were kept from being published, and that the environment of the USSR at the time was not primed for satires like his. Yet, he also said, "life outside literature is inconceivable to me". Stuck in this Catch-22, Bulgakov wrote a letter to Stalin, imploring him to allow him to leave the USSR. He wrote, "the impossibility to write is tantamount to being buried alive", and he begged the government to allow him to leave, or let him work as a stager of plays, rather than suffer the constant agony of creating and withholding his greatest works.

Stalin actually wrote back, and arbitrarily decided that Bulgakov could not leave, but would be allowed to stage plays as he requested. Bulgakov, then, perhaps one of the greatest Russian writers to emerge from that generation, spent his time, not writing with every spare minute, but preparing and directing the works of others. This seems to me to be a real tragedy.

Growing up in America, I've never known what it would be like to write something (perhaps truly brilliant) and have my country and my government keep me from sharing it. Banning books is a very real problem in America, and one that is still a struggle, and keeps fantastic adventures and eye-opening classics out of the hands of children across the nation. But censorship, and an inability to write what you want and what you feel without fear of recrimination, or silencing, is not an issue here, at least on the grand scale of the era of Stalin. It leaves me wondering what else Bulgakov might have written given the opportunity, and if he'd had that chance, whether I'd still be teaching people his name today, nearly 75 years after he last set down a copy of his manuscript and added a sentence, or struck out a chapter.

-Perhaps a lunatic was simply a minority of one.
This was (at least) the 4th book on my list to feature a psychiatric hospital (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Fight Club, The Bell Jar) but what struck me was that in several of the novels, including this one, the psychiatric hospital includes both the truly mentally ill, and those that society deems as such. What, after all, defines insanity? Is the line clear? In many cases, the characters who seem the most sane actually choose to stay in the ward because it feels safe. The Master, for example, has had a set of keys to escape the ward for months, but only uses them to visit his fellow patients on the sly. 

One of my favorite characters, Ivan Nikolayevich, aka the poet Homeless, ends up in the psych ward because he meets the devil and the devil (accurately) predicts his friend Berlioz will be beheaded by a train. Naturally, his story is met with scrutiny. I loved the sarcasm in his first interaction with the doctor. It reminded me of the sassy patients in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.  

Dr. Stravinsky: "How do you do, Ivan?"
Ivan: "Hello, saboteur!" Ivan replied loudly, with venom.

-The Master and Margarita, sitting in a tree...
Their love story is so delicately written, and I relished the tenderness of their affection. Here are a few snippets from the Master detailing their courtship to Ivan in the psych ward:
  • "What struck me then was not so much her beauty as the extraordinary loneliness in her eyes."
  • "I was tormented by the feeling that I must speak to her."
  • "He wiped away a sudden tear with his sleeve and continued. 'Love caught us suddenly, leaped at us like a murderer appearing from out of nowhere in an alley, and struck us both down at once. Like lightning, like a Finnish knife!" apparently Finnish knives are sharp! or unexpected!
  • "She said that she had come out with the yellow flowers that day so that I'd find her at last."
Here's another bit I loved: 
"During the Maytime storms, when streams of water gushed noisily past the blurred windows, threatening to flood their last refuge, the lovers would light the stove and bake potatoes. The potatoes steamed, and their charred skins blackened their fingers. There was laughter in the basement, and in the garden the trees would shed broken twigs and white clusters of flowers after the rain." This description was so tender, and so achingly beautiful. I'd like someone to steam potatoes with me during the spring rain.

The Master, to Ivan, on why he can't tell Margarita that he is in the psych ward:
"If I had written to her, she would have received a letter from the madhouse. Can letters be written from such an address/. . . A mentally ill man? . . . You are joking, my friend! Make her unhappy? No, I am incapable of that." I thought this was so cute. He won't tell her where he is because he's worried about the return address - "XO, The Master, Madhouse #2, Moscow".

-What's in a name?
So there's a whole section of plot that I basically left out because I still don't entirely understand its role, though I think it's coming to me in bits and pieces. In addition to following the present day in Moscow, the novel also tracks the story of Jesus and his crucifixion by Pontius Pilate. It took me quite some time to decipher the names that Bulgakov used. I'm not sure whether they were of his design, or are derived from a language I'm unfamiliar with. It reminded me of A Clockwork Orange, and looking for my glazzies in the morning. ;) Here are a few examples: 

Yershalayim - Jerusalem
Yeshua - Jesus
Bar-Rabban - Barabbas
Yehuda - Judah

-"The devil take you? Why not, it can be done!"
Several of the curious events that occur to the characters in the novel are plays on actual common phrases like the one above. One of my favorite scenes occurs when a man shouts "The Devil take you!" when he's been interrupted at work. 

"Behind the enormous desk with the massive inkwell sat an empty suit and with a dry pen undipped in ink traced something on a sheet of paper. The suit wore a tie; the tip of a fountain pen protruded from its pocket. But over the collar there was neither neck nor head, just as there were no hands showing from the cuffs. The suit was absorbed in work and completely oblivious of the wild confusion around it. 
  [The secretary] burst into sobs again.
"I must ask you to desist from sobbing in my office!' The hot-tempered striped suit said, flaring up, and with its sleeve it pulled over a fresh pile of papers, evidently intending to affix its resolutions to them." haghaghaghahg. Desist from sobbing in my office! I have WORK to do! Now, if I could only find my face...

-Suzy Chubsters' favorite character
I also neglected to mention one of my favorite characters, a human-sized tomcat who works for the devil. Here's a classic scene featuring him:

"'Passport!' the tom barked and held out a plump paw. 
  Understanding nothing and seeing nothing except two sparks burning in the cat's eyes, Poplavsky pulled the passport from his pocket as if it were a sword. The tom picked up a pair of glasses with thick black frames from the pier-glass table and put them on his nose, which made him even more imposing, and took the passport from Poplavsky's shaking hand."
  'Your presence at the funeral is canceled. Be kind enough to return to your place of residence!"

-OK, OK, maybe you are actually losing it. 
Several characters try to rationalize the bizarre events that keep occurring around them. I loved this: 

"Hm, calm now!' The professor said to himself. 'It flew in when I was walking away from the window. Everything is all right!' the professor told himself, feeling that everything was all wrong, mainly, of course, because of that sparrow. Taking a close look at it, the professor immediately realized that it was not quite an ordinary sparrow. The wretched bird limped on its left foot, obviously clowning and dragging it, moving in syncopation - in short, it was dancing a fox trot to the music of the phonograph like a drunk in a bar, staring at the professor as impudently and provokingly as it could."

-A scene where pigs literally fly in this novel:
"Completely naked, with tangled hair flying in the wind, she rode a fat hog. The hog was clutching a briefcase with its front hooves, while the hind ones furiously beat the air. A pair of pince-nez occasionally glinting in the moonlight, had evidently fallen off its nose and flew beside it on a cord. Its hat kept slipping down over its eyes." on a related note, I've been hearing the phrase "literally" used in the figurative sense FAR more often than I'd like lately. Example from a Biggest Loser episode I watched yesterday: "My heart was LITERALLY breaking for my dad during the challenge because his knees were hurting so much." Was it, though? Was your heart LITERALLY breaking? Because I think that would be excruciating, and that you'd also be DEAD Dead Dead. My friend Daniel-ay told me over winter break that the figurative version of the word has been added to the OED, to which I replied that I was, "NOT Amused"!

-What does the devil look like?
Interestingly enough, this was not the first novel on my list to feature the Devil as a main character. The Stand (Stephen King) features Randall Flagg, a spur-boots-wearing cowboy of a Satan. I think it's fascinating to see how the face of evil is imagined - it makes me think of boggarts and their many faces. Here's a description of Randall Flagg, followed by Margarita's perception of the devil:

"She never saw him; she didn't have to see him. He was a shadow passing through the corn at noon, a cold pocket of air, a gore-crow peering down at you from the phone lines. His voice called to her in all the sounds that had ever frightened her - spoken soft, it was the tick of a deathwatch beetle under the stairs, telling that someone loved would soon pass over; spoken loud it was the afternoon thunder rolling amid the clouds that came out of the west like boiling Armageddon."

"Two eyes fixed themselves on Margarita's face. The right, with a golden spark in its depths, piercing anyone it turned on to the bottom of his soul; and the left, empty and black like the narrow eye of a needle, like the opening to a bottomless well of darkness and shadows. Woland's face was twisted sideways, the right corner of his mouth was drawn down, the high bald forehead was cleft by deep lines running parallel to the pointed eye brows. The skin on Woland's face seemed to have been forever darkened by some searing heat."

-And just why shouldn't I gild my whiskers?
In adorning themselves for Satan's ball, the minions choose different ways to gussy themselves up. Hilariously, the tomcat decides to gild his whiskers, and takes some serious flack for it: 

"The tom, covered with dust and standing on his hind legs, was in the meantime bowing to Margarita. Now he had a white evening bow tie around his neck; a ladies' mother-of-pearl opera glass dangled from a ribbon on his chest. Besides, his whiskers were gilded.
   'What's this now?' cried Woland. 'Why did you gild your whiskers? And why the devil do you need a tie if you have no trousers?'
   'A cat isn't supposed to wear trousers, Messire', the tom answered with great dignity. 'You will tell me to put on boots next! . . . Have you ever seen anyone at a ball without a tie? I don't intend to make myself a laughing stock and risk being kicked out! Everyone adorns himself as best he can." haghaghahgahg. That's right, tom, if you want to gild your whiskers, you go right ahead! now, if only I could find Suzy and some liquid gold...

-Excuse me, but the dog ate my homework. 
One of the most hilarious scenes in the book happens when a louse of a man (Nikolay) gets turned into a hog (see above reference to flying pigs) and Natasha, Margarita's servant, rides him (in hog form) to Satan's ball. Not concerned about having been turned into a hog, Nikolay begs Satan's lady minion, Hella, to write him a note proving to his wife (who has concerns (rightfully, it turns out) about his fidelity) that he was turned into a pig, which is why he wasn't home on time. [Excuse me, I've been turned into a cow. May I go home, please? Yes. You're excused.]

"Before Nikolay Ivanovich knew it, the naked Hella was already sitting at a typewriter, and the tom was dictating to her.
   'Herewith we certify that the bearer of same, Nikolay Ivanovich, spent the said night at Satan's ball, having been brought there in the capacity of a transportation facility . . . in parentheses, Hella put in 'hog'. Signed, Behemoth." haghaghaghahgahhagagh. 

-Does light need darkness to shine?
Woland (aka the Devil), to a disciple of Jesus: "Give some thought to this: what would your good be doing if there were no evil, and what would the earth look like if shadows disappeared from it?"

Several of the last few books have toyed with the idea that riches require poverty to exist, or that sadness needs joy, or darkness, light. This is a tricky question, and a deeply philosophical one. What do you think? Do you think we need the negative pole to experience the positive one? What would happen if only the positives existed? Would negatives emerge on their own? I like to think we could have a world filled only with joy, but I can't honestly say I know for sure.

Passages I particularly enjoyed:
  • "You are no longer interested in anyone's destiny but your own."
  • "Could there be crooks in Moscow?"
  • at Satan's ball: "Abandoned gaiety held sway here."
  • "For a long time they flew in silence, until the land below them began to change as well. The melancholy forests drowned in the darkness of the earth, taking with them the dully glinting blades of rivers. Huge boulders began to flash below, with black gaps between them where the moonlight did not penetrate."
This has been a long post, so I'll leave you with this line from another one of Satan's minions, Azazello, to the Master and Margarita after they have been reunited:

"The storm is thundering already, do you hear? It is growing dark. The horses paw the earth, the little garden shivers. Say your farewells, hurry, hurry."

The storm thunders, the little garden shivers. I must say my farewell until next time, with Hillock. 

Join me if you care!
Join me if you dare! 


  1. Wonderful! You know so much from reading these great books - I love your inter-list references. Don't know if I'll try this one.

  2. excellent post! we must discuss more about the jesus passages, since i definitely didn't figure out their significance when i read the book.