Bulgakov: When The Devil Comes to Town

The Prince of Darkness and Co. in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita

Picture this. At sunset on a warm spring day, you are sitting on a park bench with a friend, when, seemingly out of nowhere, a mysterious stranger materializes and injects himself into your conversation. He is a bizarre figure to say the least, sporting a black cloak, a foreign name, and a pair of mismatched eyes. There is indeed something unearthly and darkly familiar about the stranger, an impression that only grows stronger until, finally, he predicts your imminent death.

So begins “The Master and Margarita,” a novel by Russian author and playwright Mikhail Bulgakov ( May 3 1891 – 10 March 1940). “Whimsy” is not the first adjective that comes to mind when thinking of Russian literature, which one usually associates with the stark realism of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and other great authors of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Yet “whimsical,” “fantastical,” and even delightful are more than fitting descriptions of Bulgakov’s masterpiece, in which Satan and his entourage of demonic rascals arrive unannounced in Stalinist-era Moscow to wreak havoc on the city’s cultural and literary elite. Although Bulgakov began writing The Master and Margarita in 1928, the book did not see the light of day until a censored version was finally printed in Moskva magazine around 1967, more than twenty years after the author had died. The complete version, while circulated through dissident underground self-publishing, or Samizdat, was not available in full in Russia until 1973. This censorship is hardly surprising, given the irreverent and subversive nature of the text, which takes aim at both snobbish literati and artistic censorship, with the powerful and unforgettable message, “Manuscripts don’t burn.” That this message comes courtesy of the Devil himself, operating under the alias “Professor Woland,” provides ample food for thought.

Physically at least, Bulgakov’s Woland bears a close enough resemblance to the dapper Luciferian figure one might expect from countless media depictions. Morally, however, he and his comrades are somewhat harder to pin down. Throughout the book, Woland and his retinue, which includes a Vampiric assassin, Azzazello, and Behemoth, a giant talking black cat, function more as likeable cosmic pranksters than the beings of darkness and malevolence one might expect. One of their most memorable and shocking antics involves publicly detaching a Master of Ceremonies from his (still-living) head, though he is soon put back together, shaken but not too much the worse for wear. As the introduction to my copy of the book notes, despite being about the Devil, the Master and Margarita does not evoke the sense of “active evil.” There is little in the way of bloodshed, for example, and the harm the characters suffer is mostly psychological, as the hapless victims of Woland and co. soon begin filling up the wards of a local mental hospital. Today, we might describe this as “gaslighting.” Woland can also be seen as at least somewhat benevolent in his treatment of the titular characters, the unnamed Master and his estranged lover, Margarita, leading to a bittersweet conclusion. The structural ambition of the novel is also noteworthy, as Bulgakov presents a story-within-the-story framework through a novel written by The Master, focusing on the trial of Jesus of Nazareth. Bulgakov’s depiction of Jesus, and other events recounted in the Christian Bible, differ very strongly from tradition. Though the Master’s Jesus is brought down to decidedly human proportions, he is made out to be a largely sympathetic figure.

The Master and Margarita’s anticipation of magic realism is also striking. A scene in which Margarita enjoys a moonlight ride on her broomstick after gaining the powers of a witch is one of the most exhilarating I’ve ever read:

“Invisible and free! Reaching the end of her street, Margarita turned sharp right and flew on down a long, crooked street with its plane trees and its patched roadway, its oil-shop with a warped door where they sold kerosene by the jugful and the bottled juice of parasites. Here Margarita discovered that although she was invisible, free as air and thoroughly enjoying herself, she still had to take care. Stopping herself by a miracle she just avoided a lethal collison with an old, crooked lamp-post. As she swerved away from it, Margarita gripped her broomstick harder and flew on more slowly, glancing at the passing signboards and electric cables.”

Hopefully this small sample will give you some sense of the spirit of The Master and Margarita, which is by turns warm-hearted, mischievous, imaginative, surreal, and a celebration of art, passion, and life. Perhaps that is why those in service of tyrants were so desperate to stamp it out. But Bulgakov’s masterpiece is with us now, a manuscript that indeed, has not burned, but whose spirit still burns brightly after more than half a century. If there’s another Russian novel, or any novel, out there like this one, please let me know. I’d love to read it.

Published by menachemrephun

A published author and journalist, Menachem Rephun lives and breathes movies, books, music, videogames, and pop culture. His reviews have been published online and in the literary journal of Fairleigh Dickinson University, where he majored in English and creative writing, graduating in 2015.

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