Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Master and Margarita

Earlier this year I read once again The Master and Margarita. Mikhail Bulgakov's masterpiece is considered by many to be a major 20th century novel and a seminal work of a genre loosely defined as magical realism. However, it's not always an easy novel to read in either its volume or thematic scope. Because of its many-facted nature, Bulgakov's masterpiece is both a metaphysical fantasy and a satire upon life in 1930's Soviet Russia, which alternates between comic and profound, mystical and satirical with seamless ease. It’s also a novel which inter-twines history with politics and religion, as well as a testament to the triumph of artistic self-expression in the face of State censorship and oppression.

Mikhail Bulgakov (May 15th 1891-1940) studied medicine and travelled extensively throughout Russia before settling in Moscow as a theatre director and writer. He worked on and developed, never quite completing his masterpiece right up until his death in 1940. Due to censorship and the controversial nature of his subject-matter, his novel was not published in its entirety until 1967. Its recorded that Bulgakov spoke personally to Joseph Stalin on the telephone requesting permission to travel, a request which was inevitably refused. Given the Zeitgeist of 1930's censorship in the Soviet Union it was also inevitable that Bulgakov's out-spoken attack on the bureaucracy of Stalinist Russia would not see light until decades later. As the Soviet composer Dimitri Shostakovitch also discovered when Joseph Stalin visited the theatre to hear his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District the Soviet dictator was the supreme State censor of the arts.

The Master and Margarita describes the visit of a mysterious character named Woland accompanied by a bizarre entourage who play tricks upon Moscow's citizens. The irony being the Devil and his entourage's conjuring of pranks in what was once the world capital of State-endorsed atheism. The novel's comedy is supplied by the antics of a walking, talking, fat, cigar-smoking cat who accompanies his master Woland and much of the satire is centred upon Woland's exposing the greed, lust, vanity and pride of Moscow's citizens. The novel's rapid action is set in a theatre, both on-stage and back-stage, a psychiatric hospital and the apartments of ordinary Moscow folk and interspersed in the narrative are episodes transporting the reader to Roman-occupied Jerusalem during the trial and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. These are told from the perspective of Pontius Pilate and his tormented conscience. Not least among the novel's triple and inter-related story-lines is the love story of the Master and his redeemer, Margarita.

The Master and Margarita  is prefaced with an epigram from Goethe’s Faust-

                                         ‘…who are you, then?’
‘I am part of that power which eternally wills evil and eternally works good’.

The myth of the scholar who barters his soul to the devil for knowledge has a peculiar place in the Western psyche, representing as it does, inverted questions of the individual’s relationship to God. Bulgakov's novel is in many ways a development and variation upon the Faustian legend which various playwrights have been attracted to, including the Elizabethan dramatist Christopher Marlowe, author of The Tragicall History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus (1604). Several historical persons in the esoteric tradition have been proposed as a prototype of Faust. In the British esoteric tradition the Elizabethan magus John Dee is often proposed. A more likely figure from the country of the legend’s origin would be the Renaissance figure of Paracelsus.

The medieval legend of the questing scholar who barters his soul to the Devil was developed by the German genius and polymath Goethe in Faust I and II. The figure of Faust in Goethe’s drama, his gambling his soul with the Devil at risk of losing it, was of particular interest to the Swiss psychologist C.G. Jung. In fact, there’s sufficient material in Jung’s collected writings for a full-length essay on his interpretation of Goethe’s drama. Digressing slightly, I cannot resist quoting Jung's summarizing of the Faustian spirit and it's relevance to modern-day man -

It was from the spirit of alchemy that Goethe wrought the figure of the “superman” Faust, and this superman led Nietzsche’s Zarathustra to declare that God was dead and to proclaim the will to give birth to the superman, ‘to create a god for yourself out of your seven devils”. Here we find the true roots, the prepatory processes deep in the psyche, which unleashed the forces at work in the world today. Science and technology have indeed conquered the world, but whether the psyche has gained anything is another matter.  -CW 13: 163

As in Goethe's Faust Mikhail Bulgakov in The Master and Margarita asks questions on individual destiny, fate and redemption. Crucially, Bulgakov raises the relevance of the Faustian myth in his novel to modern times, holding up a mirror to the responses and moral choices available to the individual when faced with the temptation of evil when living under stifling State bureaucracy, censorship and economic hard times.

In his 1997 introduction Richard Peaver stated no-one has ever been able to explain why several minor characters in The Master and Margarita share the names of famous composers.  In  what may be a world first, I believe I can in fact explain why Bulgakov's minor characters are named after composers.

The Master and Margarita opens with a literary professor named Berlioz meeting the Devilish trickster Woland one evening shortly before being decapitated by a tram, slipping under its wheels from spilt sunflower oil, just as Woland predicts. The psychiatric hospital in which the Master is a voluntary resident and where several victims of Woland's diabolic tricks end up insane from their disbelief from encountering the Devil, is maintained by a suitably cold and clinical doctor named Stravinsky. The theatre where Woland first performs magical tricks upon an astounded Moscow audience is run by a much harassed director named Rimsky-Korsakov.

Quite simply, all three of these characters are named after composers who wrote music in which the Devil is prominent. The Romantic composer Hector Berlioz wrote a free-form oratorio entitled The Damnation of Faust. Igor Stravinsky in 1918 wrote a jazz-style chamber work The Soldier's Tale in which a soldier trades his fiddle to the devil for a book which predicts the future of the economy. The Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov famously re-arranged and orchestrated Modest Mussorgsky's tone-poem A Night on a Bare Mountain a musical portrait of a mid-summer Walpurgis Nacht and witches sabbath, as also occurs in a central chapter of The Master and Margarita.

The British author Salman Rushdie once stated that The Master and Margarita was an inspiration for his own novel of magical realism The Satanic Verses (1989). Twenty-three years since first reading Bulgakov's love-story fantasy I recognise echoes of my own life's love-history to certain characters of the novel; my first copy of it was a birthday present given in 1989 from someone special to my heart over decades. Every time I read Bulgakov's landmark novel of magical realism another meaning within its comic and tragic pages illuminates my understanding of my own progress in life. Bulgakov's masterpiece is capable of striking a deep chord on the themes of individual destiny and the relationship between creativity, love and mental illness.

The Master and Margarita has been served well in translation since its first publication in 1967. It's also been a rich source of inspiration to numerous artists, attracted to its strong characters and magical scenes. I've chosen only two images from a wide variety of art available on-line. There are also several Russian productions of The Master and Margarita on Youtube which are well worth checking out.

Harvill Press 1967 translated by Michael Glenny
Collins Havill 1988 reprinted (twice)
Picador 1997  translated by Diana Burgin and Katherine O’Connor
Penguin 1997 reprint 2000 trans.Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

Also recommended
Mikhail Bulgakov -  Heart of a Dog (1925) first published 1968
A novella/long short story equally comic and profound. 
Wiki-links -  The Master and Margarita     Mikhail Bulgakov


Osie said...

A great review to match one of the world’s best novels. Behemoth the Cat has got to be one of the most memorable characters ever written.

I think you may have figured out the meaning behind the names. The context is appropriate and makes sense. Of course, we’ll never know for sure, but I don’t think that there could be a more appropriate connection between the composers than what you’ve discovered.

I caught a few of the scenes of the Russian movie on you tube; they seem to have stayed pretty true to the book and did a pretty good job in bringing it to film. Didn’t watch the whole thing because I have a hard time watching anything on a computer for too long at a time, but what I saw of it was good.


Thanks for that Osie, especially for your approval of the composer connection. I also find it difficult to view for extended time on a lap-top, the secret perhaps is to purchase a not-so-cheap cable to TV wire, worth it... just.

Nick said...

That was a great review. You've really made me want to read the book now.