Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita

Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita. Translated from the Russian by Michael Glenny (Everyman’s Library, 1992)

I thought I’d show some solidarity with besieged, invaded Ukraine by reading this novel by Kiev-born Bulgakov (1891-1940). He began work on it in 1928, and worked on various drafts until just before his death. It was first published in censored form in Russia 1966-67 and in smuggled-out versions in Paris and Frankfurt over the next couple of years. The first complete Russian edition appeared in 1973. It was dangerous and futile to try to publish anything under Stalin’s murderous regime that showed even the slightest hint of anti-Soviet thinking. As a large part of this novel pokes gleeful fun at the corrupt ways of Muscovites in that era, its fate was always going to be troubled.

Bulgakov Master and Margarita cover It’s a coruscating novel teeming with surreal incident and characters in multiple storylines. At its heart is a passionate love story between the two in the title. Margarita, who doesn’t appear in person until Book 2, ch. 19, is unhappily married when she meets and falls in love with the unnamed master. His novel based on the story of Pontius Pilate’s crisis of conscience after sentencing Jesus to death has troubled him so much he burnt the manuscript. This reflexive part of the plot mirrors the struggles Bulgakov had with this novel. ‘Manuscripts don’t burn’, says the devil to the master when his MS miraculously reappears, intact. It could serve as the moral of this novel – censorship can only partially silence truth.

Margarita gets caught up in the small retinue attending on Satan on his visit to Moscow, where he causes mayhem with his trickster’s black magic and mischievous sending up of the venality and greed of its citizens. She acts as sexy hostess to his spring ball, a macabre event attended by the undead. There’s witchcraft and poison, decapitation and shape-shifting.

Interspersed is the story of Pontius Pilate and the crucifixion, then the master’s version. So it’s a novel, among other things, about writing novels: the blurred boundaries between supposed real life and fiction. No matter how fantastic and supernatural the story becomes, the narrative is always conveyed with conviction.

Just what it all means is difficult to pin down. It’s easy to see a satire on Stalin’s soviet regime – but it’s never overt or heavy-handedly done. There’s a lot of fun poked at the literary world in particular: the writers’ club members enjoy a hedonistic life while promoting artistic mediocrity, and critics attack the works of honest writers striving to say something worthwhile and original, like the master.

It seems also to show how a totalitarian regime imposes its own version of ‘truth’ on its people. What we now call fake news. It’s about morality and its opposite, or absence, good v. evil – among other things. If the state decrees you’re all atheists, what do you do when the devil shows up? If there’s no God, then how can you believe in the devil?

There’s a lot of dark humour. Particular satisfying are Satan’s attendants. Foremost among these is Behemoth, the wise-cracking, talking cat who rides the tram (and dutifully pays his fare), shows off his pistol-shooting skills (though these aren’t as good as he boasts), and relishes making fools of the police when they try to arrest him.

The humour and surrealism have a Gogolian/fantastic edge, maybe even a whiff of Lewis Carroll (though I have no idea if Bulgakov knew his work), but this is tempered by the lyrical historical-realist style of the Pilate passages.

This might all sound a bit of a dog’s dinner, but Bulgakov manipulates his material with such panache that it just about works. I did find some of the satanic antics sections went on just a little too long at times, but the overall zest of the narrative kept me turning the pages.

I gave up trying to figure out what the ultimate message might be, and just enjoyed the whole Walpurgis-night broomstick ride.

The bottom bar told me at the end of that last sentence that this post contained 666 words. I couldn’t leave it like that…

Unhappy families: Penelope Fitzgerald, The Beginning of Spring

In 1913 the journey from Moscow to Charing Cross, changing at Warsaw, cost fourteen pounds, six shillings and threepence and took two and a half days. In the March of 1913 Frank Reid’s wife Nellie started out on this journey from 22 Lipka Street in the Khamovniki district, taking the three children with her…

Penelope Fitzgerald, Offshore coverSo begins The Beginning of Spring, the third of the Penelope Fitzgerald novels I read in the Everyman trilogy. Set in Russia, significantly just before the twin catastrophes of WWI and the Revolution, it’s completely different from the other two, set in England in the recent past, and both wry comedies. This one is too, but it’s darkened and chilled by the harsh early spring of Moscow, and the Russian tendency towards tragedy and intrigue.

It’s only on a second reading that the little clues and hints as to why Nellie has left her printer/publisher husband become apparent. Here’s the first description of him, with Fitzgerald’s trademark economy with words, trusting her reader to ponder the layered significance:

Frank had been born and brought up in Moscow, and though he was quiet by nature and undemonstrative, he knew that there were times when his life had to be acted out, as though on a stage.

Does this mean that Muscovites are a dramatic lot, and only histrionic behaviour will register? Or that Frank finds it difficult to engage with souls as ardent as Nellie’s (don’t be fooled by her music-hall name)? Maybe he’s just not very good at acting – in all senses of the word.

She’d left him a note to tell him she’d left him. He knows it’s a momentous message, as they rarely wrote to each other in this way:

It hadn’t been necessary – they were hardly ever apart, and in any case she talked a good deal. Not so much recently, perhaps.

 

These are Frank’s thoughts, indirectly narrated. But has he intuited that she was unhappy with her marriage? Fitzgerald is too subtle an artist to tell us. The possibility is hanging in the air somewhere in Frank’s vicinity. We are party to his perplexity and slow-dawning realisation.

He wonders how much he’ll miss her and the children:

…he couldn’t tell at the moment. He put that aside, to judge the effect later.

Fitzgerald shows this entire marriage and its fissures, this perplexed husband, his wife and their natures, in the first three pages of the novel.

What follows is an intriguing examination of Frank’s response to this crisis. It reads at time like a domestic sketch by Turgenev or Chekhov, but has an unmistakably English take on marital disaster. There’s the semi-comic figure of Frank’s Tolstoy-worshipping accountant, Selwyn, who writes soulful poems in Russian ‘about birch trees and snow’. Like his spiritual master, Selwyn delights in ‘charitable enterprise’:

With the terrible aimlessness of the benevolent, he was casting round for a new misfortune.

Frank tends to patronise him, realising much too late that he’s underestimated him. Selwyn’s selfish philanthropy is presented with deceptive lightness; he’s more dangerous than he looks here; Fitzgerald’s prose is always poised to surprise.

The children, when they mysteriously reappear in Moscow, sent back ‘like parcels’ by their bolting mother, are preternaturally astute – far more so than Frank – as they were in Offshore. Jacqui Wine has written well about this (link at the end), so I’ll refrain from doing so here.

The formidable Mrs Graham, the English chaplain in the city, is one of several brilliantly depicted characters (Nellie’s brother, Charlie, who turns up to try to help Frank in his extremity turns out to be genial but delightfully useless, is another). Frank, we are told, was not afraid of her, ‘or at least not as afraid as some people were.’  Here she is when Frank goes to seek her advice about Nellie’s desertion of him:

‘Mr Reid?’ she called out in her odd, high, lightly drawling voice. ‘This is an expected pleasure.’

‘You knew I was going to come and ask you something?’

‘Of course.’

Restless as a bird of prey which has not caught anything for several days, she nodded him towards the seat next to her.

 

Such vivid, witty characterisation is only one of this novel’s rich rewards. As in the other two novels in the Everyman edition, there are some wonderfully pithy narrative comments. Here’s one chosen at random; Frank’s children are in the kitchen, gossiping about the young woman, Lisa Ivanovna, perilously pretty and apparently fragile, who he has recruited to care for them in Nellie’s absence:

Perhaps children were better off without a sense of pity.

As ever these seem to be Frank’s thoughts we’re privy to; for once he’s probably right: they cheerfully transfer their affections from their mother to Lisa with the insouciant rapidity of youth. And these thoughts are filtered through the sensibility of the poised, non-judgemental, omniscient but reticent narrator – who prefers to withhold as much as she discloses. For that’s how are lives unravel in reality: unmediated, mysterious.

As with Offshore and Human Voices, which I wrote about last, I’d recommend this short, wise novel. It has one of the finest, most startling last sentences of any novel.

Mansky_District,_Krasnoyarsk_Krai,_Russia_-_panoramio_(6)

Mansky District, Krasnoyarsk Krai, Russia. By Александр Ромашенко, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60549878 (public domain via Wikimedia commons)

There’s one scene near the end which I found baffling, and I’d love to hear what other readers made of it if they’ve read it more successfully than I have. Lisa has unwillingly taken Dolly, Frank’s little daughter, deep into a birch forest in the country at night. In a clearing –

Dolly saw that by every birch tree, close against the trunk, stood a man or a woman. They stood separately pressing themselves each to their own tree. Then they turned their faces towards Lisa…Dolly saw now that there were many more of them, deep into the thickness of the wood.

‘I have come, but I can’t stay,’ said Lisa. ‘You came, all of you, as far as this on my account. I know that, but I can’t stay. As you see, I’ve had to bring this child with me. If she speaks about this, she won’t be believed. If she remembers it, she’ll understand in time what she’s seen.’

Then they go home.

What’s happening here? It seems like a witches’ sabbat, a mystical-spiritual meeting maybe. Or political? It seems a sort of epiphany, but for whom? Who is Lisa communing with?

As noted above, Jacqui has an excellent review of the novel at her blog.