I first read The Master and Margarita at Liverpool University when I was studying Russian Studies with English. My tutor Professor Arnold McMillin found my reaction slightly bizarre. as I found myself secretly crossing myself at the terrible revelation that in such a morally surreal world as Bulgakov’s Moscow, the figure of Woland( aka the devil) operates as an agent of moral cleansing rather than temptation and ‘evil.’
But I digress-as so many Russian writers do! For Bulgakov is the natural heir to Gogol and even Sterne. His narrative weaves around Woland and his entourage; the Master’s thwarted love for Margarita, Yeshua( an all too human Jesus) and Pontius Pilate, and a mental ayslum’s most balanced patient, Ivan Bezdomny. It reads like a dance, slightly reminiscent of Lewis Carroll and having one of the strongest visual aspects of any novel I have ever read.
The novel begins with a meeting and a death, in a first chapter ironically entitled ‘Never talk to strangers.’ The foreign is from the opening ‘wisely’ abjected by the mysterious narrator, as being dangerously undermining !
For this is Stalin’s Russia, though not as we know it! A conversation is taking place between a pompous literary editor Berlioz and his protegee, the young writer, Bezdomny about the latter’s most vivid depiction of Jesus Christ in a poem . The poem had been commissioned by Berlioz as a piece of anti-religious propaganda but has strangely ‘arrived’ through the poet, as if Jesus was real. This has angered the atheist Berlioz and has surprised Bezdomny too whose own atheism has been challenged by his writing. Their discussion is interrupted by the incredible ( literally) arrival of a mysterious ‘foreigner’ who manifests himself before Berlioz, out of thin air! Despite Berlioz’s pomposity -he has the seemingly irrational urge to run away and to esacpe his fear..which is we come to realsie his impending death!
It is this playful use of irony that gives the novel its wild comedy and yet its profound humanity:
But the suggestion to pack Kant off to an asylum not only did not surprise the stranger but actually delighted him.’exactly, exactly! he cried and his green left eye, turned on Berlioz, glittered. ‘That’s exactly the place for him! I said to myself that morning at breakfast…’
Rationality gets a rather strange injection of empirical ‘proof’ here from a man who has materialised out of thin air! Of course, we enjoy the delicious proof of presence and proximity here. The enigmatic figure of Woland, the ‘foreigner’ knows all about Kant’s proof, because he was there. And he was there, because he is a time traveller extraordinaire! he is the devil after all! The devil proves the existence of Jesus and vice versa…
And the chapter ends with Woland enigmatically telling Berlioz that all his future plans will come to nothing as ‘Anna’ has bought her oil and will spill it! In fact Berloiz is decapitated due to the oil casuing him to slip under a tram thus forever ruining his belief that states that ‘man rules himself.’
Just relating the story now has reduced it. It cannot be paraphrased without it becoming mad! The reading is a delight and as I said, unnerving as it is Woland who restores some sort of moral order to a very corrupt world.
‘Jesus did exist you know…It’s very simple-early in the morning on the fourteenth of the spring month of Nisan the Procurator of Judaea, Pontius Pilate, in a white cloak lined with blood -red…
How unnerving to have Woland establish the truth of Jesus and then to begin to tell his story!
One of the greatest books of the twentieth century. Read it and see !
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