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An Old Favourite Revisited: The Master and Margarita

In 1940, in Moscow, a sick writer lay dictating the final revisions to a novel upon which he had been working for the better part of twelve years. During that time, he had suffered public denunciation and private terror, and his work had consistently been denied publication. Now the novel was almost complete, but the writer’s health had begun to fail, and it seemed less likely than ever that he would live to see it published. In spite of this, some furious inner compulsion drove him to make one last set of amendments to the manuscript. He continued to believe that somewhere, someday, this novel would be brought into the public domain.

The writer was Mikhail Bulgakov, and the novel was The Master and Margarita.

Image credit: Brad Verter | Wikimedia Commons
Image credit: Brad Verter | Wikimedia Commons

Twenty-six years later, the magazine Moskva – astoundingly, given Soviet literary politics – published the novel in serialised form. It caused a sensation: the first copies sold out within hours, and it became the talk of the town. Certain phrases from the novel entered the Russian language itself, becoming proverbial. It was not so much a breath of fresh air as a hurricane. Bulgakov, it seemed, had been vindicated – but, tragically, he was no longer alive to witness his triumph.

The conditions in which the novel had been written are much in evidence in The Master and Margarita. A satire of Stalinist Russia, and particularly of its literary establishment, it is both amusing and alarming – and far too close to the bone to have been published during Stalin’s lifetime. And yet there is a sense in which it has a quite otherworldly theme, concerning no less an event than a visit by the Devil himself to 1930s Moscow. Interwoven with this modern story – the havoc wreaked by Satan and his entourage, and the heroine Margarita’s attempts to free the captive writer she loves – is the story of “the cruel fifth procurator of Judea, the equestrian Pontius Pilate.” In this novel about “the prince of this world”, the spectre of earthly power looms large, whether it be in the form of Caesar or of Stalin – who, though unnamed, casts a long shadow over the work.

Unsurprisingly, it is the literary politics of Stalinist Russia that receive Bulgakov’s fullest attention. Writers who are prepared to toe the official Soviet line typically belong to literary associations such as the absurd “Massolit” (a silly, but entirely plausible, contraction of “Moscow Association of Writers” – such abbreviations were common in the Soviet era). They are published and widely praised, despite the fact that some of them aren’t particularly talented. Those who value artistic freedom, such as the fictional master (and Bulgakov himself), generally fare worse, and typically suffer public condemnation – this, despite the fact that they stand absolutely no chance of being published. (This happened to Boris Pasternak, whose novel Dr Zhivago was publicly denounced after it was denied publication.)

Reading about the circumstances in which The Master and Margarita was composed, it’s impossible not to admire Bulgakov’s integrity. By the time he was working on the final revisions he could have been under no illusion that it would be published during his lifetime. He stood to gain precisely nothing from the novel into which he had poured such effort and passion. Nor was earthly failure the very worst that could happen: had the existence of the manuscript come to light, it would almost certainly have led to his disappearance (one of the recurring themes of The Master and Margarita is the propensity of certain characters to simply disappear, in a variety of frightening and farcical ways). Bulgakov, like the fictional master, had in fact burned an early draft of the novel, at a time when he saw no future for it – or for him – in the Soviet Union. Yet the work had taken on a life of its own: the pages upon which it was written could be destroyed, but the thing itself could not. “Manuscripts don’t burn”, according to one of the novel’s most famous and poignant phrases. The survival of The Master and Margarita seemed to bear witness to the truth of that statement.

Image credit: Ryan Junell | Wikimedia Commons
Image credit: Ryan Junell | Wikimedia Commons

Happily, in the modern west, writers are not required to act as cheerleaders for a particular ideology. We aren’t menaced by the powers that be for simply writing in line with our own truth. We have the kind of freedom that Bulgakov and his contemporaries would surely have envied. However, there is a sense in which the impressive integrity displayed by Bulgakov is as relevant as ever.

Bulgakov’s commitment to his art was pure, total, incorruptible. He did not expect to gain any particular recompense, financial, social or political, from what he wrote. Indeed, he knew that by writing as he did, he was seriously compromising his chances of ever receiving such rewards. He could have used his talent for lesser ends, and agreed to write works that would be more palatable to the Soviet system. He didn’t. Instead, he worked feverishly on the novel in which he believed so passionately, for twelve long and occasionally desperate years. He wrote, burned, rewrote, revised and refined it, aiming for perfection, regardless of the fact that he would never be able to enjoy the fruits of his labours.

None of us can be guaranteed success (however we define “success”, which is a whole different question); in fact, success is elusive. Do we chase after that unlikely dream, or do we channel our efforts into creating the best work we possibly can?

We should choose wisely, perhaps. After all, manuscripts don’t burn.

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11 thoughts on “An Old Favourite Revisited: The Master and Margarita

  1. A very enlightening post, Mari. I read that book a few years back and enjoyed it. It struck me as a very odd. I didn’t read it as an allegory but it starts to make more sense now! I knew that he’d written it in Stalinist Russia and hadn’t been a communist but I didn’t know the rest of the fascinating back story. He was indeed, then, an inspiration to all who care about literature.

    1. Hi, Paul, and thanks for the comment. Sometimes reading about the background against which a work of art was created can deepen our understanding of it, I think. ‘The Master and Margarita’ is an example! It is full of parallels with Stalinist Russia, but they might not be immediately apparent to a non-Russian reader – they weren’t apparent to me the first time I read it, certainly. And Bulgakov is indeed an inspiration, though of course writers today have it easy compared to their counterparts in Stalin’s Russia!

      1. The first time that I read ‘Animal Farm’ I was thirteen, perhaps, and knew nothing about Stalinist Russia. It still worked brilliantly as a tale of injustice and betrayal. When I re-read it a few years later, I’d read about the Soviet Union and was confronted with a completely different book. I think that I shall have to revisit Bulgakov, in the light of your commentary, Mari.

        And, yes, Marlowe was reputed to be an atheist, a very dangerous thing to be in an absolutist state where the monarch was ‘defender of the faith’. Freedom of conscience is another of those things that we’ve taken for granted in modern Western states. That’s all set to change, I suspect…

  2. For sure, Mari, with regard to your conclusions, you won’t be one of those who compromise on artistic integrity for popular success.
    I’ve only read ‘A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch’ from that era. One of these days…
    For some reason, this puts me in mind of something I read a year or so ago about the horrid fate of the playwright Thomas Kidd, who wrote ‘The Spanish Tragedy’ which influenced Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, and how he had a visit from Christopher Marlowe (almost certainly, a government spy). Shortly afterwards, Kidd was picked up for ‘atheistic literature’ being in his rooms (he always maintained that Christopher Marlowe left it there). He was tortured and released, but subsequently died. A sinister reminder of the conditions of censorship under which the greatest playwright ever wrote…

    1. Hi, Lucinda, and thanks for the comment (and your faith in me, which I hope is not misplaced!)

      I hadn’t heard about Thomas Kidd, or read ‘The Spanish Tragedy’, but it certainly sounds like another example of social and artistic repression, though of course Elizabethan England and Stalinist Russia were poles apart in other ways. Funnily enough, I seem to remember reading that Marlowe himself was an atheist, but perhaps I’m mistaken about this?

    1. Thanks for the comment, J.D. Yes, I was thinking in part about indie publishing whilst writing the post. Bulgakov and his contemporaries found it virtually impossible to be published, and today we arguably have it almost too easy! I think, however, that in both cases integrity is key – writing to the highest standard you possibly can, however long it takes and however great a slice of the financial pie you might sacrifice in the process. (Not everyone would agree with me on this, I grant you! 🙂 )

  3. After reading The Master and Margarita, I’ve never been able to think of Jesus in any other way other than that depicted by Bulgakov. I’m not a Christian; I’m not even a theist. Yet I believe in Bulgakov’s Jesus, which is testament to the unwavering integrity of Bulgakov’s vision.

    -aniko

    PS Hope you are doing well, Mari!

    1. Aniko! Long time no speak! I hope you’re well – how’s the writing going?

      It’s interesting, isn’t it – the Jesus depicted by Bulgakov differs markedly from the figure familiar to us from the New Testament, but I think that most readers, Christian or not, would find themselves believing in Bulgakov’s Jesus whilst reading. But then, I find that the entire novel is beautifully ‘real’ to me: whether it’s flying over Moscow on a broomstick or eavesdropping on a conversation between Pontius Pilate and Christ, I actually feel like I’m there. That is a sign of true genius on the part of an author, I think.

  4. An interesting post, Mari. Bulgakov is a remarkable example of a skilled writer and playwright dedicated to his own artistic standards. Yet there is a peculiar twist to the political aspects of his work. For decades, Bulgakov actually enjoyed the personal protection of Joseph Stalin. In fact, the vicious dictator found this rebellious writer comfortable literary jobs in Moscow so he could continue with his books and plays! Many who were close to Stalin wanted Bulgakov arrested, but Stalin felt the literary merit of Bulgakov’s works warranted granting him some leeway. This did not encompass total freedom to publish and perform, obviously, but it did allow Bulgakov to *work* on what he chose without fear of joining the “vanished.” It is hard to praise a brutal man like Stalin, but he must have had a sophisticated taste for literature.

    As for the literary side of things, I live in a cold country and, while reading The White Guard and The Master and Margarita, instantly recognized the remarkable clarity of Bulgakov’s observations. For example, his description of the unique sound made by frigid tram wheels on frozen steel rails is absolutely spot on. And I still recall the entrancing image of the Master galloping across the landscape on his great steed, and then flying as his heavy black cloak billows out to become the entire night sky.

    1. Hi, Thomas, and thanks for the comments.

      Yes, I’d heard that Stalin was a great admirer of Bulgakov, which afforded the writer some protection. It’s interesting, but Stalin seemed to take a keen interest in the writers living under his regime – I still remember reading an anecdote about how he once surprised Boris Pasternak with a personal telephone call!

      It’s true that Bulgakov’s writing beautifully conjures up the setting, time, and place. I re-read the novel this summer in Ischia, beneath a fierce Italian sun, and often found myself looking up, surprised to find that I was in the Mediterranean – in my own mind, I’d just been in 1930s Moscow! Bulgakov also has an eye for a striking image: particularly memorable to me were those of the demonic black cat swinging from a chandelier waving a gun, Margarita flying above Moscow on the broomstick, and – like you said – the Master galloping through the sky.

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