When God created light, the first shadow was born – tagline to the film Shadow Builder
This is a very long review so for those of you reading this in your lunch hour let me cut to the chase. The Master and Margarita can be reasonably called the greatest novel to come out of Communist Russia, a work of magical realism, a pre-apocalyptic novel, a love story, a biting political satire or simply a damn good read if you can get over the fact that most of the names are thirty-odd characters long. But even that doesn't really cover it so there's no way in this review I can do this book justice. Oh, I can hurl superlatives at it but I won't have space to back them all up. To that end at the end of this post there will be links to numerous lengthy articles (I've been reading them for the past two days solid) which underscore much of what I'm about to say. It's the kind of book you'd expect a writer to produce after working on it for eleven years. It is a book every writer should read.
There are many levels to this book and numerous interpretations. The Master and Margarita was not, however, its original title; one of its working titles was Satan in Moscow but even that is not an especially helpful title although it does set the scene. A more accurate, if unwieldy, title might have been The Master, the Master, the Master, the Master and Margarita because there are four main masters in this book, all with their own disciples. Here they are:
- the Master of the title, a historian who, when he wins a hundred-thousand rubles in a lottery connected to a state loan, quits his job to work on a book – we never learn his true name
- Jesus Christ (or Yeshua Ha-Nozri as he is known in the book), a character in the Master's novel
- Pontius Pilate, the subject of the Master's novel, the Prefect (governor) of the Roman province of Judaea from AD 26–36
Some of the disciples are Margarita, the Master's lover; Matthew Levi, the only one of Jesus' followers to take an active role in the book although he's something of an amalgam of both the apostle and the evangelist; Banga, Pilate's faithful dog, the only creature who truly loves him and Woland's small entourage: Korovyev (also known as 'Fagot'), Behemoth, Azazello, Abadona and the witch, Hella, who all serve as his proxies, an apparently typical Russian Orthodox representation of the devil.
Many of these characters have counterparts in the real world: for example, it is generally accepted that Woland represents Stalin (his parallel in the Master's book being Emperor Tiberius); Azazello is immediately recognizable as one of the chiefs of the secret police (his parallel in the Master's book is Afranius); the Master is based on Bulgakov himself – no prizes there – although he really stands for all the disenfranchised writers of the time and Margarita was inspired by his third wife, Yelena Shilovskaya, who actually put the finishing touches to the novel after Bulgakov's death in 1940 although one or two minor inconsistencies still exist.
This is not to say that these are the only significant characters, in fact the book opens with two key characters. Ivan Nikolayevich Ponyryov is a 23 year old poet who goes by the pseudonym 'Bezdomny', which means 'homeless' in Russian. Mikhaïl Alexandrovitch Berlioz is editor of "a fat literary journal" and chairman of the board of one of the major Moscow literary associations, MASSOLIT, a fictitious organisation that takes the place of the Union of Soviet Writers which, after 1934, one effectively had to be a member of in order to work as a writer.
Later in the novel MASSOLIT is attacked when Korovyev and Behemoth attempt to enter Massolit headquarters without identity cards:
"Your identification cards?" asked the citizeness in her turn.
"My lovely…" Korovyev began tenderly.
"I'm not lovely," the citizeness interrupted him.
"Oh, isn’t that a pity," said Korovyev, disenchanted, and continued: "Well, all right, if you don't wish to be lovely, which would have been most pleasant, you don't have to be. So then, to be satisfied that Dostoevsky is a writer, surely it's not necessary to ask for his identification card? Just take any five pages from any of his novels, and you'll be satisfied without any identification card that you're dealing with a writer. I actually suspect that he didn't even have an identification card."
"You're not Dostoevsky," said the citizeness, knocked out of her stride by Korovyev.
"Well, who knows, who knows?" he replied.
"Dostoevsky is dead," said the citizeness, but not very confidently somehow.
"I protest!" exclaimed Behemoth heatedly. "Dostoevsky is immortal!"
The Master and Margarita had, as you can imagine, a hell of a time getting published in Russia, even after the death of Stalin, so it was quite an achievement when on 19th December 2005 some 80 million Russians sat down to watch the first episode of an almost 10-hour long television adaptation of the novel which is more than tuned into The Ed Sullivan Show to watch The Beatles (73.3 million). That is astounding when you consider that most of the first episode consists of three blokes talking on a bench. In between that we have a couple of guys talking in a colonnade; the only real action takes place in the last few seconds – CSI it is not. The significance of this book to Russians cannot be minimised, especially to those who grew up in the former USSR; they understand the analogies, know who is symbolic of whom, and can relate to the emotions, motivations, and weaknesses of the characters.
Does this mean that if you are unfamiliar with Soviet history, Russian culture, or the fact that this is a satire you won't appreciate the book? The Master and Margarita has been described as Solzhenitsyn crossed with Lewis Carroll – now, are Carroll's Alice books simply children's stories or a satire on the ordered, earnest world of Victorian England? Bulgakov's novel works just fine as a plain ol' story with a beginning, middle and an end. When I first read it thirty years ago my knowledge of Russian history was sketchy at best and I treated it simply as a fantasy novel, in fact the blurb on the back of my copy, which I still own, has this quote:
The fantastic scenes are done with terrific verve and the nonsense is sometimes reminiscent of Lewis Carroll . . . on another level. Bulgakov's intentions are mystically serious. You need not catch them all to appreciate his great imaginative power and ingenuity. – Sunday Times
The key word here is 'fantastic' and what is interesting is that it is the supposed real world of 1930s Moscow that contains all the fantastical elements whereas the chapters set in Judea in the first century are presented as cold, hard facts: Bulgakov has turned everything on its head. Bulgakov's Yeshua Ha-Nozri is quite unlike the Jesus of the gospels, sometimes funny, sometimes cowardly, manipulative even – very human. The same can be said for Bulgakov's Woland. In that respect the cover of the latest translation by Hugh Aplin, published by Oneworld Classics, is misleading. This is not how the devil appears in the book, even at the end when he sheds his 'Woland' persona. He's certainly not evil incarnate in fact he seems more interested in making the lives of bad people more miserable rather than rewarding them for keeping the faith.
Bulgakov's Satan seeks out the essence of each individual life and sees to it that each is transformed into an eternal form of that essence. He is the embodiment of merciless truth, the kind of truth which does not allow for questions of mercy, compassion, or forgiveness. […] Like the artist, Satan discerns the essence of a life and transforms it into its pure form.
He is actually capable of benevolence. He is far more subtle and sophisticated than the biblical Devil; "he acts more as a counterpart to God rather than his opponent."
We get to meet Woland in the very first chapter of the novel. He is walking through the Patriarch's Ponds area of Moscow one hot evening in May (one might say 'devilishly hot') when he chances upon Bezdomny and Berlioz sitting on a bench engrossed in a heated discussion regarding the existence, historically at least, of Jesus Christ. Eyewitness accounts vary but the narrator of the novel describes the stranger as follows:
First of all: the person described did not limp on either leg, and was neither small nor enormous in stature, but simply tall. As far as his teeth are concerned, on the left side he had platinum crowns, and on the right gold ones. He wore an expensive grey suit and foreign shoes the same colour as the suit. He had his grey beret cocked jauntily over one ear, and under his arm he carried a walking stick with a black handle in the shape of a poodle's head. To look at, he was about forty plus. Mouth a bit crooked. Clean-shaven. Dark-haired. The right eye black, the left for some reason green. Eyebrows black, but one higher than the other. In short – a foreigner.
Just before this Berlioz was witness to what he thought was a hallucination but what actually turned out to be a semi-transparent Korovyev which he describes as follows:
On his head a jockey's peaked cap, I little checked jacket, tight and airy too… A citizen almost seven feet tall, but narrow at the shoulders, unbelievably thin, and a physiognomy, I beg you to note, that was mocking.
"Well I'll be damned!" he exclaims. Now, that's the kind of thing we all say without thinking about it along with expressions like 'devilish business', 'the devil knows where', 'go to the devil' and 'what the devil for' – we never think twice about them but you start to notice these more and more in this book. Everyone calls on the devil. Why else would the devil appear? He was invited.
Woland's discussion with the two men focused on two areas, their atheism – and resultant belief that, assuming there is no God, they are somehow in control over their own destinies – and the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth. The latter he 'proves' by describing in detail the conversation between Jesus and Pilate prior to Jesus being sentenced saying that he had witnessed it personally; the former he proves by telling Berlioz that he would miss an appointment later in the day, that the professor intended staying in Berlioz's flat and finally by foretelling the manner of his death (that he would be beheaded by a woman) although this proof is lost on Berlioz, at least until later in the book. Slipping on spilled sunflower oil at the end of chapter three (which Woland had mentioned in passing in the first chapter), Berlioz falls onto the rails of an oncoming tram-car, which severs his head.
The question one needs to answer is: did the devil make that happen? I don't believe he did. He was simply at the right place, at the right time to relate what was just about to happen. Of note is the novel's epigraph, from Goethe's Faust:
"...so who are you in the end?"
"I am part of that power which eternally
desires evil and eternally works good."
How can Berlioz's death do anyone good? Well it starts a sequence of events that sends his companion into an asylum where he meets the Master who has been an inmate there for four months. This is an experience that ultimately changes the course of his life perhaps more than his encounter with Woland. As for Berlioz, we will meet him again later, in parts.
I mentioned that the Master winds up in an asylum. The breaking point for him has been an inability to get his novel about Pilate published. The editorial board reject it leaving the editorial secretary Lapshennikova, "a girl whose eyes were crossed towards her nose from constant lying", to inform him that the publisher already has sufficient material for two years ahead, and therefore the question of printing the novel, as she put it, "did not arise".
The final straw, however, is that, even though they have rejected his manuscript, members of the board – one in particular, the critic Latunsky – attack him in the press. The name Latunsky is probably a contraction of the names of two real critics, who were rather hostile to Bulgakov. The first one was Osaf Semenovich Litovsky who was the head of the Central Committee for Repertoires from 1930 to 1937, and who had coined the term Bulgakovism after the first performances of The Days of the Turbins. The second is the critic Alexander Robertovich Orlinsky, who preached resistance against Bulgakovism. In this respect the Master is not an especially heroic figure in the way he keels over, so easily it seems, after a bit of bad press. Bulgakov is much more of a hero. In the book's Appendix we have extracts from some of letters and diary entries:
Letter – 28th March 1930 – A very long letter, to the Soviet Government asking once again whether he could either be expelled, or at least be permitted to find gainful employment in the theatrical world:
"…when I carried out an analysis of my albums of press cuttings, I discovered that there had been 301 references to me in the Soviet press during my ten years in the field of literature, of these, three were complimentary, 298 were hostile and abusive."
We don't get to meet Margarita Nikolaevna until 221 pages into the novel. She is oblivious to the Master's whereabouts or even if he's alive or dead; in fact all she has of him is a fragment of the manuscript which she has saved from being burned which she reads over and over to try and find some comfort in it. While sitting on one of the benches beneath the Kremlin she hears "the approaching beats of a drum and the sounds of trumpets, a little out of tune" – it's a funeral procession, the late Mikhaïl Alexandrovitch Berlioz's as it happens, sans head as it also happens though, of course, she could not be aware of that at the time. We’ll catch up with his head later.
Margarita's eyes followed the procession, and she listened to the doleful bass drum producing that same repeated "boom boom boom" as it faded into the distance, and she thought: "What a strange funeral! And how depressing that 'boom' is. Oh, I’d truly pawn my soul to the Devil just to find out if he's alive or not! I winder who that is they’re burying?" (italics mine)
She doesn't have to wait long for an answer. A "somewhat nasal male voice" from behind her tells her: "Berlioz, Mikhaïl Alexandrovitch . . . the chairman of MASSOLIT." This time it's not Woland, it's one of his retinue, Azazello with an offer. Yes, you've guessed it.
Of course, quite a bit has happened between Berlioz's death and his funeral the misappropriation of his head notwithstanding (16 chapters worth). This is just before you think the entire book consists of Russian citizens being propositioned on park benches. The thing that everyone has been talking about has been a performance at the variety theatre the night before where Woland had appeared onstage with two other members of his retinue, Korovyev and Behemoth (in the guise of a large black cat), who crop up as a double act several times in the book and leave a trail of havoc in the wake. The main treats that were in store for the theatre audience were the decapitation of the compère, the distribution of new clothes and the showering of the audience with ten ruble notes. The compère gets his head back (and winds up in the cell next to Ivan in the asylum), the clothes vanish on the way home (leaving most of the audience half-naked in the street) and the money turns into bits of paper the next day (causing a furore among the city's taxi drivers for a start).
All of this Margarita is aware of. So when Azazello says that "a perfectly harmless foreigner" who is aware of the whereabouts of the Master would like to meet her she puts two and two together and realises – well Azazello states it in so many words – that this is an opportunity she can exploit. Azazello provides Margarita with some cream with instructions to cover herself in it. Later that day at the hour on which she has been instructed to she smears the cream over her body, is transformed into a witch and, following further instructions from. Azazello, proceeds to fly naked on a broom to the river for a meeting with Woland only pausing to wreck the critic Latunsky's apartment.
What the devil does Woland want with her? Quite simply to be the hostess of the Spring Ball of the Full Moon which takes place annually during Easter week. This she agrees to and this is where she finally gets to meet the rest of poor Berlioz:
The limping Woland stopped beside his raised area, and immediately Azazello was before him with a dish in his hands, and on that dish Margarita saw a man's severed head with the front teeth knocked out. The most complete silence continued to reign, and it was broken only by a bell, incomprehensible in these circumstances, which was heard once in the distance, as if from a front entrance.
"Mikhaïl Alexandrovitch," Woland addressed the head quietly, and then the eyelids of the man who had been killed were raised a little, and in the dead face Margarita saw with a shudder living eyes, full of thought and suffering. "Everything came true, didn't it?" Woland continued, gazing into the head's eyes. "Your head was cut off by a woman, the meeting didn't take place, and I'm staying in your apartment. That is fact. And fact is the most obstinate thing in the world. But now we're interested in what happens next, and not this already accomplished fact. You were always an ardent advocate of the theory that upon the severance of the head, life ceases in a man, he turns to ashes and departs into unbeing. It's pleasant for me to inform you, in the presence of my guests, although they actually serve of proof of a quite different theory, that your theory is both well-founded and witty. There is even one amongst them, whereby everyone will receive in accordance with his beliefs. Let it come to pass! You depart into unbeing, and I shall take joy in drinking to being from the goblet into which you turn.
At this point the skull shrivels up and is transformed into a goblet with a hinged lid. Berlioz has had his proof.
Berlioz is not the only person to meet his final end at the ball. The informer Baron Von Meigel is killed paralleling the murder of Yehudah, another informer, by Pilate during the feast of the Passover. Bulgakov here may have had in mind the assassination of Kirov in 1934 although this is conjecture. Suffice to say when the book was first published in 1966 this section was heavily censored.
After the ball Woland grants Margarita a wish. Interestingly she chooses to use this to end the suffering of one of the other guests at the ball rather than selfishly ask to be reunited with the Master and so Woland grants her a second wish specifically for herself; within moments the Master is returned to her and shortly thereafter the immolated manuscript is returned intact to him. "Manuscripts don't burn," Woland tells him, one of the book's key sentences.
In May 1926, Bulgakov's apartment was searched by the OGPU (precursor to the NKVD and KGB), and his diaries and the manuscript of the novel Heart of a Dog were confiscated. After repeated protests, they were returned to him. He burned the diaries, and never again kept another. Ironically, it was the OGPU that preserved the diaries for posterity, as they had made copies.
By 1929, all of Bulgakov's works had been banned. He compared his situation to "being buried alive."
Anyway you would think that would tie everything up nicely but that's not the end of the story for the Master and Margarita, there's an interesting (and unexpected) coda. And you might have thought that we'd also seen the last of Pilate too but he appears again, no longer a character in a novel but a soul who has been trapped for nigh on two thousand years tormented in the moonlight: "Twenty-four thousand moons in penance for one moon long ago; isn't
that too much?" Margarita wants to know. Well we find out what happens to him. As for Moscow, yes, we find out too what happens in the weeks following and how the citizens cope with what they've been through by pure rationalisation. We also hear what happens to a few key characters like the poet Bezdomny who are honest enough to admit to what they've experienced. At the end of the book Woland and his retinue revert to their true forms and we see four of them on horseback fleeing the scene of their crimes; despite the fact they're all on black horses the nod to Revelation's four horsemen of the apocalypse is too tempting to miss. Although he never lived to see it, Bulgakov is calling time on Stalinism.
The book begins asking epistemological questions and it ends with one too when Woland asks Matthew Levi:
[W]hat would your good do if evil did not exist, and what would the earth look like if shadows disappeared from it? After all, shadows are cast by objects and people. There is the shadow of my sword. But there are also shadows of trees and living creatures. Would you like to denude the earth of all the trees and all living beings in order to satisfy your fantasy of rejoicing in the naked light?
Nothing is black and white in this life. The Master and Margarita is a funny book but it touches on very serious issues concerning human freedom and the nature of good and evil. Is evil all bad?
But there is still more, one final question that we are left to ponder. In chapter 13 the Master tells Ivan that he knew what the last words of his novel about Pilate would be, "The fifth Procurator of Judea, the knight Pontius Pilate," and these coincidentally are the final words of The Master and Margarita suggesting that the novel the Master actually wrote is the one we have just read, a work of metafiction on top of everything else.
Reading back on this I have to confess what a poor job I have done trying to convey the full depth of this novel. Books have been written about it and rightly so. What is so impressive about the book is that all the cleverness is a bonus. A lot of clever books are simply not very reader-friendly and apart from the long names (which you simply have to learn to cope with if you want to read any great Russian literature) it is a carefully-plotted, well-written page-turner. It can be a bit wordy at times but that's a style thing. Don't try and read the book in one sitting and you'll probably be all right. And, did I mention, it's also very funny?
Let me leave you with the first episode of that Russian adaptation covering the first three chapters of the book. The physical descriptions are a bit off but the dialogue is very accurate.
There is a ton of material on this book online. So here's some further reading you might like to have a look at:
The complete novel online - 1967 translation – by Michael Glenny
The complete novel online – 1997 translation – by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
The Master and Margarita – nice one-page summary with a lot of interesting discussion questions
Sympathy for the Devil – a 3-part article which includes a lot of personal recollections about the book from the likes of Roman Polanski who tried to get Warner Bros to make a film of the book
This new translation is available from Oneworld Classics priced at £8.99. As always with this publisher this is a nice edition on good paper supplemented by notes from the translator, a short biography and even a few black and white photographs.
 Other early titles were The Black Magician (1929), The Prince of Darkness (1930) and The Great Chancellor (1934).
 Yeshua Ha-Nozri means Jesus of Nazareth in Aramaic
 A large biblical creature mentioned in the Book of Job, 40:15-24
 In the Old Testament apocryphal Book of Enoch 8:1-3, Azazel is the fallen angel who taught people to make weapons and jewellery
 In the Old Testament, Abaddon comes to mean "place of destruction," or the realm of the dead, and is associated with Sheol (see, for instance, Job 26:6, Proverbs 15:11, Proverbs 27:20 and Psalm 88:3, among others)
 Carol Arenberg, Mythic and Daimonic Paradigms in Bulgakov's Master i Margarita
 Marc Neininger, The Gnostic devil in Bulgakov's Master and Margarita
 This sun and its light, and the moon and its, are constantly present throughout the novel, in the "Moscow" chapters as well as in the "Bible" chapters.
 Judas Iscariot