You may notice a change of venue for me this month.
My quarterly review column “Read This!” is being replaced by “de•crypt•ed,” a space where guest authors revisit favorite books to decode their personal interpretations for the benefit of other readers. The recipe is a flavorful, well-seasoned stew of analysis and homage, with a dash of memoir in any influence the work has had on the author’s own. The idea is to present current critical considerations of past publications, to let you reevaluate a work you’ve read or visit it for the first time. Some books may be familiar, beloved, or loathed. Some may be surprising and new.
All will have changed a writer’s life.
“Read This!” is ending because I’m taking a sabbatical to complete the rewrite of my first draft manuscript of Past Life, my third and final vampire novel, and a short horror story for an anthology. While I am extremely grateful that I’ve been able to keep working remotely through the COVID-19 crisis, the irony is that time I expected to be bleakly empty is now filled with my “day job” instead of writing, and I’ve had to cut back on my extracurriculars to maximize the little free time I have left to complete my own work.
Twenty-two volumes of “Read This!” represents five and a half years of my life spent dealing with an assortment of personal crises in a globally turbulent time. While I have not mastered the art of nonfiction essays since my start, I was certainly given the opportunity and freedom to explore and refine that craft as I reflected on my life while examining the assorted aspects of human nature expressed in contemporary fiction. It’s been a rare pleasure to regularly read at least eight books a year that aren’t strictly for research, and to refine my humble considerations on them with my intuitive and insightful editor, Wendy N. Wagner. It has been a joyful ride but one that’s taken me far enough for it to end—after one last stop.
The Master and Margarita
Translated by Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O’Connor
Papberback / Ebook
The Overlook Press (September 28, 2021), 432 pages
For my farewell column and the debut of the new I want to share a notorious Russian novel I first read in the Michael Glenny translation, The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. Written under Stalinist rule between 1928 and 1940, an English version wasn’t published until 1967, well after the author’s death in 1940. He was painfully aware of the political danger it represented as a starkly satiric look at Soviet life and its conventions. Bulgakov lived under the rule of a Stalin with little tolerance for criticism, one whose government had already censored and even banned works far less explicit. Like Marlowe’s Faustus, a strong influence on The Master and Margarita, Bulgakov tried to burn an early copy, but as the Devil tells the novel’s titular Master after he does the same, “Manuscripts don’t burn.”
It’s a memorable and oft-quoted phrase from the book that I think alludes to the infectious nature of ideas. Once written down and read, a manuscript can’t ever truly be destroyed when it can always be rewritten, restored from memory, as Bulgakov did with his. I once heard that despite the stir Go Tell It on the Mountain caused upon its release, James Baldwin had burned what he feared was a more explicit, more dangerous, first draft. The book survived. Ideas cannot die and stories, once conceived, must be told—which is what makes them so dangerous.
Like life, they find a way.
A paperback copy of The Master and Margarita was in our home thanks to my mother, an avid reader who was usually on top of whatever was in vogue. I was twelve or thirteen when it came out in English. Thanks to extended stays with my eccentric maternal grandmother I was already hooked on reading fairy tales, classic mythology, horror, and science fiction. What attracted me to The Master and Margarita was the irresistible 1967 cover image of a winking black cat with a pistol clenched in its claws. My sister and I were used to reading my mom’s books once we’d finished whatever we’d checked out of our family’s weekly trips to the library, so it made sense that I grabbed it when I ran out of something to read.
I never forgot it and for some reason was inspired to read it again after my first novel, Bite Marks, was published. I checked out a battered library paperback of the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation from my local library. As I read, I was shocked to discover how much I remembered and how strongly I’d obviously imprinted on it. Despite what must have been a limited comprehension of the world it depicts, I had still grasped the most basic meaning behind the humor and hallucinatory imagery. In the words of nineteenth century British politician Lord Acton, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
The novel is an artful, hallucinatory swirl of satire, sorcery, Satan, and sensuality. Chapter one introduces the poet Ivan Nikolayevich Ponyryov, popularly known as Bezdomny, and his editor, Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz, in a park. Berlioz chides the poet for a piece he’s written on Jesus Christ. The fault isn’t in his representation, it is that it’s not made clear that Jesus never existed. This attracts the attention of a mysterious foreigner who seems to appear from nowhere, one who hails from farther away than they could possibly suspect.
He flashes a card with only a partial name visible, Professor W. He claims to be in Moscow by invitation as an expert in Black Magic, invited to demonstrate acts of the occult followed by real world explanations. After he assures them that Jesus of Nazareth, or Yeshua Ha-Notsri, was indeed as real as Pontus Pilate, he relates a meeting between them and claims to have overheard the conversation himself.
The Professor speaks of things that seem to make no sense, people and events he could not have seen, and offers information he has no way of knowing. When asked, he says he will be staying at Berlioz’s apartment, and that his supposed host’s life will end when he is killed by a woman. When told of Berlioz’s plans for the night, the stranger disagrees with him, saying, “Annushka has already bought the sunflower oil and not just bought it, but spilled it as well. So the meeting won’t take place.” To me, it’s one of the most chillingly resonant phrases in fiction. The first sentence is dully prosaic with no clue as to how it relates to the second.
The stranger’s meaning becomes clear all too soon when Berlioz leaves for his gathering and slips on the spilled oil to fall onto nearby tracks. He’s decapitated by an arriving train driven by a horrified female conductor and his predicted death at the hands of a woman is fulfilled.
The W stands for Woland, and the professor of Black Magic takes up residence with his retinue at the apartment all too recently occupied by Berlioz. It’s a place with a history of mysteriously vanished occupants. Berlioz shares it with Styopa Likhodeyev, the director of the Variety Theater where Woland is to appear, though he has no memory of the deal Woland says they struck for seven performances. After he confirms by phone the authorization for the show and publicity based on a contract he has no memory of writing, Woland informs him that he and his retinue need a place to stay, “which means that one of us in this apartment is superfluous. And I think that someone is—you!”
Likhodeyev is magically dispatched to faraway Yalta.
One by one, any other obstacles to Woland’s plans are removed with proper paperwork, all by the book, except on the occasions when they exploit black market methods, like bribes, commonly used in this Russia to bypass the bureaucracy.
The poet, sole witness to the real reason for Berlioz’s slaughter, is institutionalized as mad, where he meets the forlorn and lovelorn Master. He’s written a novel about Christ and Pilate, the very one the Devil was reciting in the park, and despite trying to burn his own manuscript, has found himself the victim of his insistence on artistic truth under an atheist government. Madness in an asylum was better than imprisonment.
Bulgakov’s novel slides effortlessly between the preparations for Woland’s stage show, through the Master’s past and his love for the married Margarita, along with passages from his novel on Pilate that continue that tale. From a wildly chaotic opening night for Woland’s stage show that leaves the audience in tatters and terrified, to the novel’s climax that begins with Satan’s Grand Ball, the supernatural elements rise until they have overcome any semblance of reality. It leaves the humans confused and afraid. In a world gone mad, who are the madmen? Those who only admit the evidence of what they see and hear with their own eyes, or the ones who tell them everything that they believe is true is illusion?
Bezdomny, the character closest to representing the reader, is set up by Woland to seem a raving lunatic as soon he tries to explain what actually happened to Berlioz and the looming threat of the Devil’s brigade. Like many who find themselves on the wrong side of a locked ward, once you are committed no one believes a mad man when they say they are not, and one of the book’s greatest feats is using disbelief in the dangers of black magic as an apt allegory for those who defend the dominance of the Soviet state and its strictures over reason. Bulgakov’s real meaning about politics is often made clear in direct statements but is always obscured by the fantastic elements that surround them, in a daring act of literary misdirection.
Even as he criticizes the state, he does it in the words of literal monsters and the minor politicos who perpetuate the system. Woland’s crew treats Soviet laws and processes as cruel jokes even as they manipulate them to their own ends. The overall tone is one of gentle mockery, but the novel hides its harsh truths behind a telling smirk. It’s like the accurate, but almost innocuous insights of the court jester that chide rulers for their failings in a manner indirect enough to allow.
Still, history would dictate that the author was likely right to wait to publish the full and honest text until after his own demise. I think we’re all more than willing to take responsibility for our art, but few of us are willing to be martyred for it. Humor is far from a safe space. If you make the public laugh too hard at an oppressive leader, it’s harder for followers to take him or her seriously the next time the boot comes down. So it comes down with added force to stamp out even comedic opposition.
What the novel planted in me at a young age was a love of subtle satire in a realistic setting that’s slowly infiltrated and overcome by supernatural elements. With The Master and Margarita, Bulgakov codified a structural style that makes the impossible plausible, with a slow boil of a transition that transforms the everyday into a roiling mystical realm so smoothly, no one notices until it’s too late.
It’s similar to the way Mary Shelley subverted the staid literary conventions of her day to turn what begins as a manly adventure tale into a Promethean gothic nightmare. It’s how Stoker told a tale of vampiric horror in epistolary style with the most prosaic means of communication: letters, telegrams, diary entries, and newspaper clippings. Bulgakov’s subtle immersion into an unnatural environment ultimately lets him use the most bizarre situations and characters to make overt and radical statements about real social and political issues in a genre and style usually overlooked by its targets.
I could easily see its unconscious influence in Bite Marks, a depiction of life in an equally stratified 1980s New York, both socially and economically. It was an exploitative culture I saw as one that devoured its young to stay vital or even just relevant. I was able to take simple if severe observations about what I saw around me and use them to build up metaphorical masks to reveal the truth behind them, just as Bulgakov had. His work had fit so neatly into my subconscious that I didn’t even realize it was a stylistic inspiration for my own fiction until I read the book again.
Before writing this column, I read the Diana Burgin and Katherine O’Connor translation, critically favored with a smooth flow that makes it easily enjoyable. I was struck again by how quickly Bulgakov engaged me and the compelling way he moves his story forward, each step leading to the next, no event random or unnecessary. In the same way Berlioz’s death provides a base of operations for Woland, the devil incarnate, and his crew, each action taken by them sets up later consequences that accelerate the story.
It also has the distinction of transforming itself as thoroughly as the Devil transforms Moscow and the lives of its inhabitants. What begins as a grim satire slowly changes to a doleful romance with the introduction of the Master to Bezdomny at the asylum. The story of the novelist’s thwarted relationship with a soulmate married to an abusive husband takes over the story, and as the Master and Margarita live out their woes we are pulled into their love affair. The mood turns sensual, but also supernaturally surreal, as we enter a world where spells and flying witches are commonplace.
By the end we learn the fate of the Master and his Margarita, as well as that of all the supporting characters in an epilogue that is possibly the funniest portion of the book, as Moscow recovers from the experience and tries to make sense of it all in a rational world.
There was a faithful ten-part miniseries adaptation made for Russian television that captured the range of mood and intent well, and there are rumors of a Baz Luhrman film which would certainly be the most visual attempt at the material. I enjoyed his Gatsby more than I expected to and would rather like to see the erotic extravaganza he might produce from the novel. In the meantime, I enjoyed diving back into a beloved story in a new form, and will always be the boy who couldn’t forget a severed head and a pistol-packing puss. Reading it when I did helped to make me the writer I am, and I go into the rewrite of my manuscript reminded of the many lessons learned the first time I read it. They’ve worked for me so far.
And I plan to have a devilishly good time doing it.
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