Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Master and Margarita

Not being much of a literature-in-translation reader, until this winter I had somehow managed to miss a novel many call a modern classic, Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita (written from 1928 until 1940 and published in 1966). I got interested in it after seeing it mentioned as a book everyone should have read in Corey Redekop's novel Shelf Monkey and hearing its praises sung by Matt at A Guy's Moleskine Notebook. I began listening to it as an audiobook, and found myself playing the first cd again before I went on to the next one; the story seemed disjointed at first. Eventually, though, I began to make sense of how the storylines come together, and then I went out and found a copy, Burgin and O'Connor's new translation (1995), with the afterword that calls the narrator "wildly unreliable."

In fact, the process of reading The Master and Margarita involves figuring out exactly from what kind of perspective the reader is being shown the characters. Reading is a test, just as the actions taken by the characters are a test, of who can read--or live--while suspending absolute judgment, who can resist an easy solution in favor of continuing to sort through countless tiny details to find a more accurate picture of the world. The world in this book is not black and white; it's not always easy to tell the difference between good and evil, despite stories about Pilate judging Yeshua, who bears a passing resemblance to Jesus, and the tricks of a supernatural character called Woland, who bears some resemblance to the traditional devil, although he is more of a hanging judge for liars than a father to them.

The details of the story are delightfully absurd, from the very first time that Woland (initially identified as a foreigner, a professor, a black magician, the devil, and a madman) accurately predicts the exact moment and manner of a man's gruesome death. One of my favorite parts is Woland's magic show, in which he makes money rain down on the audience, invites ladies to try on and take home marvelous shoes and dresses, and cruelly reveals the infidelity of a man who dares to question him. Since the epigraph of the novel is from Goethe's Faust, what happens to the money and the shoes and dresses after the show is predictable.

When the bartender from the theater comes to Woland the next day to complain that the ten-ruble notes that had rained down on the audience had all turned to worthless paper in his pocket, Woland says to him
"'you are a poor man--aren't you?'
The bartender drew his head into his shoulders, so that it would become obvious that he was a poor man.
'How much do you have in savings?'
Although the question was asked sympathetically, it was impossible not to view a question like that as indelicate. The bartender squirmed.
'Two hundred and forty-nine thousand rubles in five separate savings accounts,' came a cracked voice from the next room. 'And two hundred ten-ruble gold pieces under the floor at home.'
The bartender seemed to be riveted to his stool.
'Well, that isn't so large a sum, of course,' said Woland indulgently to his guest. 'Although, strictly speaking, it is of no use to you. When will you die?'
Here the bartender became indignant.
'Nobody know that and it's nobody's business.' he replied.
'True, nobody knows,' came the same noxious voice from the study, 'but it's hardly Newton's binomial theorem! He'll die in nine months, that is, next February, from cancer of the liver, in the First Moscow State University Clinic, Ward No. 4.'
The bartender's face turned yellow.
'Nine months,' Woland calculated thoughtfully. '290,000...In round numbers that comes out to 27,000 a month, isn't that right? Not a lot, but enough if one lives modestly...And there's still the gold rubles...'
'He won't manage to cash those in,' broke in the same voice, sending a chill through the bartender's heart. "After Andrei Fokich dies, they'll tear down the house right away and the gold rubles will be sent to the State Bank.'
'And I wouldn't advise you to go to the clinic, either, [Woland] continued. 'What point is there in dying in a ward, listening to the moans and rasps of the terminally ill? Wouldn't it be better to spend the twenty-seven thousand on a banquet, then, after taking poison, depart for the other world to the sound of violins, surrounded by intoxicated beautiful women and dashing friends?'"

Less predictable than the turning of the money to scraps of worthless paper is the effect of the cream one of Woland's associates gives to Margarita (introduced late enough to make me wonder about her prominence in the title). Rather than having some kind of unfortunate Faustian effect, the cream makes her young, beautiful, and able to fly on a broomstick, and her willingness to at least attempt to treat each guest as graciously as the last makes her the Queen of "Satan's Grand Ball," an affair at which the guests appear from the fireplace:
"suddenly there was a loud crash in the enormous fireplace at the bottom of the stairs, and out popped a gallows with a dangling corpse half turned to dust. This dust shook itself off the noose, fell to the ground, and out jumped a handsome black-haired fellow in tails and patent-leather shoes. Out of the fireplace slid a small, semi-rotted coffin, its top flew off, and another clump of dust formed itself into a fidgety, naked woman in black evening slippers, with black feathers on her head, and then both the man and the woman began hurrying up the staircase" where Margarita and one of Woland's associates greet them.

Margarita is the only character I know of in literature who, when she is offered the chance to make a wish, not only takes it, but makes a good enough wish that the spirit of it is granted. She wishes to be reunited with the Master, a writer who has been driven crazy by taking too much to heart what a literary critic says about his published writing, and she gets what she wants.

I think that the reader essentially passes the test set by this book, no matter how much of the satire has gone over her head, if she can appreciate the pathos/humor in the epilogue--which includes (among other things) a fairly lengthy description of cat persecution in the wake of the antics of Woland's shape-shifting cat associate Behemoth. One cat, whose troubles are described at length, "was untied and returned to its owner, after, it's true, having gotten a taste of trouble first hand--a practical lesson in the meaning of mistaken identity and slander." As if no one has any more responsibility for being targeted for persecution than a cat, who might look "furtive. (So what can be done if that's the way cats look? It's not because they're guilty, but because they fear that creatures stronger than they--dogs or people--will harm them in some way. And that's not hard to do, but it's nothing to be proud of, I assure you. No, not at all!)"

Actually, trying to read this immensely clever Soviet-era satire makes even one of the jokes about "Soviet Russia" that have recently been popular around my household seem to come true: "In Soviet Russia, books read YOU!"


Anonymous said...

I read this 30 years ago and loved it, and recently N was carrying it around. I'm going to have to read it again -- I hope she didn't take it with her. Thanks!

Jenny said...

Everyone seems to love this book SO MUCH! I think the premise is great and everything I've read about it makes it sound amazing, but the one time I tried to read it I couldn't get into it. Can I blame the translator? What translation did you read?

Jeanne said...

Jenny, I listened to an audiobook translated by Michael Karpelson, and then got the copy translated by Burgin and O'Connor.

Jackie (Farm Lane Books) said...

This has to be the most complex book I've ever read. I enjoyed it, but felt there was so much that went over my head. I've just got a copy of the graphic novel, so will be interested to see how it compares. I'm pleased to see that you enjoyed it and I'm sure Matt will be pleased to see he's influenced another person to pick up his favourite book!

Diane said...

What an excellent review; thanks. I have this on my 2010 read list.

BTW...your blog is new to me and I'm enjoying it; thanks.

Corey Redekop said...

Someone actually listened to me? Wow, I'd better savour this moment. Mmmmm....tastes like buttered chicken.

Jeanne said...

Jackie, It really is complex. I had trouble representing it enough to give the right flavor even though my reviews are almost always based on my idiosyncratic response.

Diane, glad to hear I've influenced you!

Corey, authors sometimes underestimate their influence.

Nymeth said...

I need to get over my fear of the Russians and just read this already. It sounds so amazing.

Jeanne said...

Nymeth, It is an experience. I don't think I'd read a Russian novel since I devoured them all at the age of 17.

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