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Suppressed surreal masterpiece

07 November 2014

John Arnold on The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

JUST when it seemed that the heavy hand of Socialist Realism had crushed all literary creativity, the Russian novel was reborn in 1958 with Pasternak's Dr Zhivago, followed by the works of Solzhenitsyn, and, in 1966, by The Master and Margarita.

Its publication in the Soviet Union had been delayed for a quarter of a century by the malice and philistinism of the ruling Communist Party. A recent poll shows that it is now the most popular novel in Russia, especially among young people, well ahead of War and Peace and Crime and Punishment.

This is because, first, it is a rattling good read - unputdownable for its verve and narrative drive. Second, because it is, in the best sense of the word, escapist. It offers a way out, or rather two ways out, of everyday life in the stifling conformity of the Soviet Union and Putin's Russia.

One way is from the real to the surreal, as "imagination bodies forth the form of things unseen" (Shakespeare). It is no mere chance that it was written in the 1930s, when surrealism was challenging realism in the visual arts, too.

The other way out is by moving between home and abroad, the present and the past. This novel is set simultaneously in 20th-century Moscow and first-century Palestine, the author breaking more than one taboo by telling the story of Holy Week and Easter from the standpoint of Pontius Pilate. The novel moves between these two levels with the crazy logic of dreams, or of Alice in Wonderland. One of the characters, a homeless poet, is the elusive and gossipy narrator.

Bulgakov (photo, right), who was a Russian-speaking Ukrainian, like Gogol, was born in Kiev in 1891; and, like Chekhov, he trained as a doctor. He became a jobbing actor and a civil servant, and died of an inherited disease in 1940. Like Schubert, he produced his best work when he knew he was dying.

He is a realist, in that he writes about what he knows and has experienced himself. The novel is set in Moscow, and most of the action takes place in a house on Sadovaya Street, where he lived. He is also a satirist, writing with inside knowledge of the literary establishment, hospitals, and the stage - each of them, in the Soviet Union, a theatre of the absurd.

Bulgakov never mentions the State or the Party. He doesn't need to. Realistic descriptions of their insane bureaucracies (with their Orwellian composite nouns such as Massolit - literature for the toiling masses) and realistic dialogues come across as surrealist, as visitors to the Soviet Union testify.

A psychiatric hospital is just the place for a man to become his own double - and be diagnosed with schizophrenia. And a Palace of Varieties is the ideal setting for a mish-mash of the dramatic and the absurd, the real and the illusory, especially if the leading character is Satan masquerading as a magician.

This Satan is totally devoid of tragic or romantic grandeur. Instead, he is louche and seedy, like the devil who appeared to Ivan Karamazov. He has a retinue of pantomime grotesques, including a monstrous gun-toting, talking cat. They are morally no better and no worse than the staff of the theatre - or, indeed, most of the people in the story. There is little individualisation: all are equally venal, cowardly and corrupt.

Halfway through the novel, the beautiful and naïve Margarita appears. She is in love with a nameless author, known only as the Master, who is as devoted to truth as she is to him; and their unfailing loyalty contrasts strongly with the sleazy treacherousness of surrounding society.

Woven into the main narrative, with disconcerting effectiveness, is the Master's unpublished novel about Pontius Pilate, which parts company in several respects with the Gospels, but is still the best uncanonical version, surpassing even Pär Lagerkvist's Barabbas. The Master is semi-autobiographical (Bulgakov, too, had burnt a manuscript and rewritten it from memory); but he has little personality or character. Bulgakov both puts himself into the story and keeps himself out of it.

Margarita spends much of the novel naked; but this is neither heroic nor erotic nudity. Rather, it is an expression of vulnerability, and of freedom. (Naturism flourished in East Germany; and many found relief from the pressures of everyday Socialism by stripping off and enjoying a little fleeting liberty.) Her exhilarating, sky-clad ride through the heavens is a tour de force of narrative exuberance, as is the description of Satan's ball.

The Master ends his novel-within-a-novel with: "You are free, free. He is waiting for you." "He" is Jesus; and Bulgakov (both of whose grandfathers were priests) deliberately challenged atheist propaganda and censorship with his entrancing Nazarene. Like Dostoevsky's Idiot, this Messiah is mild and winsome; but he lacks the stature and authority of the Jesus Christ of the Gospels. Perhaps that combination of meekness and majesty is unique and unattainable now, even by the best creative writers. 

The Very Revd Dr John Arnold is a former Dean of Durham.

The Master and Margarita (translated by Michael Glenny) is published by Vintage Classics at £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.20); 978-0-099-54094-6.


The Master and Margarita - SOME QUESTIONS

The origin of the novel is Bulgakov's reaction to the scurrilous portrayal of Christ in Soviet atheist propaganda. Is this a convincing riposte? 

What are the main deviations from the Gospel story?

What other attempts have been made to present the Jesus Christ of the Gospels in fiction? Are they successful? If not, why not? 

"Manuscripts don't burn." This quotation from the novel has become a proverb in Russia. Why? 

When it comes to undermining totalitarian regimes, is the pen mightier than the sword? 

"Bulgakov both puts himself into the story and keeps himself out of it." Does he? 

How does Bulgakov manage to make such serious matters so uproariously comical? 

Why should Koroviev be described as "an ex-choirmaster"?

Why does Behemoth take the form of a cat, of all things?



In our next reading-groups page, on 5 December, we will print extra information about the next book. This is Mud, Blood and Poppycockby Gordon Corrigan. It is published by Phoenix at £9.99 (CT Bookshop £8.99); 978-0-304-36659-0.

Book notes

When Mud, Blood and Poppycock was published in 2003, Sir Hew Strachan praised it, despite its "provocative and absurd title", as "a perfectly sensible guide to the British army of the First World War and its fighting methods", while Graham Stewart described it as "pugnacious". The book challenges some of the popular myths that have grown up around the history of the conflict - particularly the widely held belief that the British military leadership was bungling and short-sighted in its approach to the war. Corrigan claims that the British casualties were in fact lighter than those of France and Germany, and that the UK did not enter the 1920s with a "lost generation". The book's publishers claim that it is "a case for the revisionist view of the First World War which is [a] devastating trial by evidence". 

Author notes

After a career with the Royal Gurkha Rifles, Gordon Corrigan (b.1942) retired from the Army in 1998 with the rank of major. Since then, he has written on military history, presented television documentaries, and conducted tours of First World War battlefields. He holds honorary research positions at the Universities of Kent and Birmingham, and teaches at the Joint Services Command and Staff College. He has published books about the First and Second World Wars, the Hundred Years War, and the Duke of Wellington. He was appointed MBE in 1995. 

Books for the next two months:

January: Against the Odds by Carmel Thomason

February: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler 

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