Sunday, September 29, 2013

Comments on Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita



The bulk of this novel is descriptions of pranks played by Satan’s retinue (sketched above) on bureaucrats and other citizens of soviet era Moscow.  It is a little like Terry Southern's The Magic Christian.  The pranks fit in a tradition associated with the Faust legend; there are lots in Marlowe's Faust, Goethe’s Faust, and Boito's, Mephistopheles, for example.  The book has a reputation as a satire of Soviet bureaucracy in the tradition of Gogol or of Dostoyevsky’s The Double, but, while you get a sense of what it was like to be a member of one of the all-important writers organizations, to live in their quarters, to face living in overcrowded apartments, and to live in fear of institutionalization in psychiatric hospitals, it is not a satire in the sense that sharply delineates a perspective on his victims.  There are a lot of yucks in this book, but the jokes could be on the pretentious and greedy of any nation.   The prose style is inconsistent. Part of the book is taken up by several chapters of a conventional historical novel about Pontius Pilate' role in Jesus' crucifixion.  Toward the endof the novel, the prose grows more lush and romantic.  There is a witch's Sabbath, and the final ride into the darkness of eternity by Satan, his retinue, and a couple of the recently dead, has a Gothic, elegiac quality.  There are surprising hits of feminism in Margarita's enthusiastic response to becoming a witch.  Characterization is imaginative rather than deep.  There are six major characters, Satan,  his retinue , and the titular master and Margarita, who by the way, don't appear until about a third of the way through the novel.  There are dozens of minor characters, amusing little caricatures of Soviet types.  The plot is hard to follow.  The book's strengths are imagination, the wealth of secondary characters, and ingenuity of the jokes played by the retinue.

It is little hard to understand why Pontius Pilot is so prominent in this work.  Pilate embodies the conflict in early Christianity about whether Christ was killed by the Romans (a version of history preferred by early Christians who were a Jewish sect) or by the Jews (a version preferred by the Church after it become the Roman state religion) and embodies the problems inherent in the concept of predestination, that is — was Pilate personally guilty of ordering Christ's execution, or was he merely playing a necessary part in a predestined sacred drama.  But it is not clear how either conflict fits into the book as a whole.  Pilate may represent a darker version of the Soviet bureaucracy.

The novel bares an epigraph from Goethe's Faust where Mephistopheles says, "I am part of that power which eternally wills evil and eternally works good.”  This observation made a little more sense out of various parts of the book including role of Pilate. 

The book was written in fits and starts over many years during which Bulgakov suffered the alternation of favor and with dangerous disfavor many artists suffered in Stalin's time and suffered also upheavals in his personal life.  Perhaps if we understood these misfortunes better we would understand the book better.  But would that make it better?

1 comment:

  1. Excellent explanation of a hard-to-follow work. Thanks.

    ReplyDelete