Monday, October 05, 2015

Magical Realism and Satire

The Master and MargaritaThe Master and Margarita 

by Mikhail Bulgakov

“Follow me, reader! Who told you that there is no true, faithful, eternal love in this world! May the liar's vile tongue be cut out! Follow me, my reader, and me alone, and I will show you such a love!”  ― Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita

I have read this novel several times, most recently with our Thursday evening book group. With its complex construction including three major story lines and fantastic elements including the presence of Satan and a large black cat as two major characters it certainly warrants rereading. And it rewards that rereading with a wonderful depth of meaning. The story is set in Moscow in the nineteen thirties when literature is controlled by the state. The reality of Soviet state suppression is one of the primary story lines and this is displayed with a flair for satire. The major state literary association is chaired by a bureaucrat named Berlioz. One of the main reasons I liked the book was its fundamental literary foundation with strong influence of the Faust story and the work of Russians, particularly Gogol and Pushkin.

The style seems dreamlike one moment and yet suddenly becomes very realistic. For example at one point Ivan Ponyrev, the "homeless" poet, is involved in a fantastic chase with the large black cat by his side as they jump from street to street until, with the beginning of a new paragraph, he is in a very dingy apartment building that is described in realistic detail. There is also the whimsy of naming several of the characters after famous composers, Berlioz and Rimsky [Korsakoff] for two examples. This appealed to my musical interests while the literary references abound as seen by this excerpt:
“You're not Dostoevsky,' said the citizeness, who was getting muddled by Koroviev. Well, who knows, who knows,' he replied.
'Dostoevsky's dead,' said the citizeness, but somehow not very confidently.
'I protest!' Behemoth exclaimed hotly. 'Dostoevsky is immortal!”

Satan, referred to as Woland and appearing as an old professor, with his familiar, a cat called Behemoth, prepares a fantastic ball (compare to Walpurgisnacht).  At the ball the cat with the help of demons creates a scene of mayhem and ferocious comedy. I came to appreciate the humor even more after seeing a dramatic adaptation of it performed by a small theater company some time ago. The imagination displayed by the adaptation expanded my own horizons upon a subsequent rereading.

The satire becomes more apparent after rereading the novel while other humor includes slapstick episodes and the sheer insanity of the story. Another primary story line is religious as it is depicted through an inserted tale of Pontius Pilate and Christ as written by the poet known as the Master. With his mistress, Margarita, the Master leads the novel into a final phase that continues the fantastic elements of the story. I found the new translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky excellent as all their Russian translations have been. For those readers interested in magic and supernaturalism, Satan and Pontius Pilate with a beauty and a poet, this is the novel for you. This is certainly a twentieth century masterpiece.

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Brian Joseph said...

Great commentary James. I have wanted to read this book for awhile.

I know that Pevear and Volokhonsky are a little controversial and that some folks do not like their translations at all. However, I read their translation of The Brothers Karamazov a few years ago and I found it to be excellent.

James said...


Thanks for your comment. This is a real literary delight in many ways.
As for the translation, my first reading was an earlier translation but the Pevear and Volokhonsky is an improvement. A friend of mine who knows the Russian language said that the P & V translation of Brothers Karamazov is the best that he has read. Based on that and my own readings I trust their translations of all the Russian authors.