As a consequence of the lockdown due to the coronavarius pandemic, the Monthly Book Group met via video conferencing to discuss the month’s book. The proposer first read the book many years ago. He had no knowledge of Bulgakov but read the book in order to pass the time of day as he recovered from a hip operation. He found it a bit silly but quite amusing in an odd sort of way.
He was reminded of this recently when the group read “ The Man Who Was Thursday” by G.K.Chesterton, which was described as a “phantasmagorical romp through London”. and was considered diabolic in a clever and entertaining way. The similarity with Bulgakov inspired him to re-read “The Master and Margarita again and to recommend it to the Group. On the second reading he became much more engaged in the substance of the novel, and the messages and meanings behind the storyline. At one level it is simply absurd, funny and ridiculous but at another it reflects the angst and frustration of a great talent living in constant fear of being “found out”
Bulgakov was born in 1891. His mother was a teacher and his father was a priest. (Both his grandfathers were clergymen in the Russian Orthodox Church).This family history of religious belief might partly explain the quasi-religious storyline. He studied medicine at Kiev University and on graduating became a physician at Kiev Military Hospital.
At the outbreak of the First World War he was sent to the front where he was badly injured. As a result of these injuries and the pain associated with them he became addicted to morphine. He overcame this addiction in 1918 but in 1919 he fell seriously ill with Typhus. Recovering from this illness he abandoned his medical practice to pursue a writing career. Despite some success he found his work increasingly criticised and subject to the control of the state.
The novel was written between 1928 and 1940. Bulgakov recognised the danger of publishing the book in his lifetime and continued to edit it right unto his death in 1940. The book was eventually published in 1966/7 thanks to the persistence of his widow. In 1929 his writing career was all but ruined when government censorship stopped the publication of any of his work. In despair he wrote to Stalin who provided him with work but, more importantly protected him from arrest and execution.
The proposer obtained much greater insight into the circumstances which informed the writing of the book through reading “Manuscripts Don’t Burn” Mikhail Bulgakov: A Life in Letters and Diaries. by J.A.E, Curtis. This book details the precariousness of life during the Stalinist purges and provides an understanding of the day to day existence of a man grappling with persecution.
It is against this background that Bulgakov creates a twilight world where nothing is as it seems and the fantastical, paranormal and downright evil are treated as every day occurrences. People lie routinely and are unjustifiably rewarded. Bulgakov’s characters are in a sort of living hell but remain able to find amusement in what is happening around them. Survival depends on the human spirit’s ability to make sense of the absurd to rationalise and to detect humour in the diabolic.
It is a hugely complex novel which the proposer has now come to appreciate, having initially discounted it as being too frivolous to warrant the scrutiny of the Monthly Group Group.
The overall response of members was to praise the choice. It was much enjoyed as a funny, likeable, sparkling, deeply serious and often baffling unpredictable satirical tour-de-force. There were quite distinctive styles of the different parts of the book. The different styles and worlds both contradicted and reinforced each other. The Devil is in Moscow but God has no role in Jerusalem.
Members appreciated different aspects of the novel. The beginning was superb with lots of the detail of living in a Stalin-era apartment and the scenes at the Writers’ Club, the psychiatric hospital and theatre. The interweaving of Pontius Pilate within the two/three juxtaposed stories was mysteriously fascinating, well written and convincing.
Others liked the satanic party in the second part. though one thought there was too much witchery, tomcat, devil’s sabbath etc. Woland and his entourage were strong characters.
The religious aspects of the book were noted. The epigraph at the front of the book from Goethe’s Faust was significant: ‘That Power I serve which wills forever evil yet does forever good’. Two members pointed out that Mick Jagger had been reading M&M when the Rolling Stones had recorded ‘Beggars Banquet’, probably their best record, and the Bulgakov influence was noticeable, particularly on ‘Sympathy for the Devil’.
One of our number reminded us that when it came out it was a real sensation in Russia, opening for younger writers the possibility of a kind of wild, non-Socialist-Realism way of writing.
There were some difficulties with the novel. As ever in Russian novels the names with their patronymics were not easy to differentiate. Many of the allusions were not easy to understand given the remoteness of the time and culture. Despite the Communist context, the culture was clearly very Russian, both Tsarist and now. The point was made though that great satire needed to stand on its own, eg Gulliver’s Travels, and the Master and Margarita passed this test.
The Master, based on Bulgakov, only appeared briefly in the first part of the book and Margarita , based on his third wife, did not appear until Book 2. The book had been revised many times over the years when publication was not possible and it was perhaps over revised. As ever translations were compared, Michael Glenny being the most in use.