Master and Margarita

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, a book from the 1930’s Stalinist CCCP, is a surreal Faustian tale dealing with the different faces of good and evil, if they are really different. The book skewers the characters’ foibles, is generally sympathetic to their common despair, yet harsh on those who give up on themselves entirely. The author is inspired by the surreal life of the Muscovites under this regime, and plays on this ‘strangeitude’ by use of commonplace phrases and notions of that time such as ‘no documents, no person’, ‘never talk to strangers’, ‘where is your foreign currency’, ‘persons seem to disappear’, and ‘the omnipresent orchestra,’ a reference to the single available radio station in Moscow apartments.

All this is accomplished in the context of a supernatural tale of deviltry and black magic, into which is woven a historical drama, cast as a modern novel about Pilate and his role in Jesus’ execution, which serves in the end to release Pilate from a netherworld where perhaps he has waited for 2000 years for some sort of absolution for his deed or his conscience.

And, true to the title, it is the love story of the Master and Margarita. But wait, there’s more. It is fundamentally a philosophical treatise, dealing with larger than life issues: questions of the existence of God, the secularization of ethics, separating message from messenger, how we perceive what is real, and on and on. I checked my copy out of the library, but it seems like a necessary acquisition.

Thanks to Ben and Zhanna for recommending this novel, which they are able to read in its original Russian. They selected it for their book club and told the family about it. Even with the best available translation, much of the cleverness of this novel must be lost to non-Russian speakers. But the major effects in the large come through, the narrator who drifts in and out of the story, the endless stream of long confusing names, the rapid shifts of context, the ironies of life in a society run by bureaucrats, the book within the novel, a standard literary device whereby the reader comes to question which is the book and which is the novel, perhaps reflective of the state of mind of Stalinist Muscovites as they tried to maintain a mental grasp of what is real.

In an endnote the translator attempts to analyze the basis for the characters, in real life or literature. Korovyov the choirmaster is speculated to have been a composite of different characters, possibly including E. T. A. Hoffman’s Kapellmeister Kreisler. This struck a chord with me, since the young Brahms referred to himself as the Young Kreisler, and E. T. A. Hoffman was perhaps a source of inspiration to him also. Two such references convinces me to acquaint myself with Hoffman and also become inspired.

Brahms and Bulgakov are related by their common approach to their art, which I consider craft-centric. Very few artists have gotten more meaning down on each page than did these two B’s. As is the nature of the craftsman, both men were compulsive about continuous improvement and rework of their creations, perhaps reluctantly releasing them to the publisher. Yet they are wildly different in their inspiration. Bulgakov paints in the large, with sweeping, larger than life themes, yet weaving in an amazing level of detail. Brahms was a minimalist, possessed perhaps of what we now consider a Zen aesthetic, developing small themes into much larger musical concepts via continuous variation. Both artists’ works demand revisiting.


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