Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita

A sculpture of the cat Behemoth from the novel...

We are Him.

I never, never reread books, but after the Pelevin novel and reading an interview with him, I decided to check out The Master and Margarita (in Burgin’s translation) for a second time.  Pelevin is convincing.

However, the effect of this book was really fantastic. There’s an expression “out of this world.” This book was totally out of the Soviet world. The evil magic of any totalitarian regime is based on its presumed capability to embrace and explain all the phenomena, their entire totality, because explanation is control. Hence the term totalitarian. So if there’s a book that takes you out of this totality of things explained and understood, it liberates you because it breaks the continuity of explanation and thus dispels the charms. It allows you to look in a different direction for a moment, but this moment is enough to understand that everything you saw before was a hallucination (though what you see in this different direction might well be another hallucination). The Master and Margarita was exactly this kind of book and it is very hard to explain its subtle effect to anybody who didn’t live in the USSR. Solzhenitsyn’s books were very anti-Soviet, but they didn’t liberate you, they only made you more enslaved as they explained to which degree you were a slave. The Master and Margarita didn’t even bother to be anti-Soviet yet reading this book would make you free instantly. It didn’t liberate you from some particular old ideas, but rather from the hypnotism of the entire order of things.

Ever in need of liberation, and all the more particularly now, I read the book.  Couldn’t put it down, actually: I polished it off in a week, more than once getting in bed at around 1 pm (partially depression in hindsight, I will admit…) and only getting up to make peanut butter and jelly or go to the bathroom.  It’s that good.  This, of course, is not news.  Everybody who has read it knows that.  If you haven’t read it, make it the next book on your list, or interrupt your current one.

The plot if you don’t know the book is as follows: Satan comes to Moscow in the late 1930’s for his annual ball, takes a woman named Margarita for his date.  Margarita is in love with the Master, who wrote a novel about Pontius Pilate, a topic completely out of step with Bolshevik orthodoxy, and who landed in an insane asylum as a result.  Periodically, Bulgakov intersperses chapters of the Pilate narrative into the broader Moscow narrative.

I’m not making an original point here, I know, but first-class satire, of which The Master and Margarita is one of a small number of crowning examples, is not just about being funny, or making fun of, or even about its object.  Satire is about a way of perceiving, that is, of not only its object but its subject.  To see the world through a satirical lens is joyful, and that a writer (or anyone else) can cause another person to experience that joy when subjectively gazing on a world with much suffering is an enormous act of skill and compassion.

Fundamentally, I get on this second read of the book, the novel is an act of enormous compassion on Bulgakov’s part.  Maybe I’m in a place in my life where I am more in need or open to compassion than I was when I first read it over ten years ago, but that’s what I took from the experience.  Again, for those who don’t know the book, Bulgakov was a writer who, for political reasons, couldn’t publish in the late 1920’s and 1930’s in the Soviet Union, but who did some work in theater.  Bulgakov did not have to put the bulk of his effort into a novel he knew wouldn’t be published in his lifetime, but he did.  It was an act of self-sacrifice, though not suicide, at least as far as his mental health was concerned, because though he never lost his mind properly, stress and anxiety (my friends!) were major problems for him.  He died of a congenital illness, but stress never improves health, too.  All this, and he still gave us this book.  That’s deeply loving.

That’s the most important thing about the book as far as I can tell, but it’s worth talking about technique.  I do not know of a more skilled novelist than Bulgakov.  Everything is in place: the narrative itself is absolutely compelling, the prose, which admittedly I read in translation, is beautiful, the jokes are hysterical, and the various references, literary, cultural, political, economic, are embedded in the narrative in such a way that not getting one–I took a degree in the history of this period of the USSR and I’d say I miss as many as I get–in no way impedes a reader’s connection to the book.  One experiences its detail at the level one can, but the depth of one’s experience is not contingent upon the depth of one’s knowledge of that detail.  One’s life can be changed on plot alone.  That’s literary skill.

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