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.
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.
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.