Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Devil Knows

The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov, Translated by Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O’Connor, Read by George Guidall, Recorded Books, LLC, 2006

Sometimes you approach a widely regarded classic with high expectations and sometimes those are met. Sometimes not. I really wanted to like Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. It’s been an inspiration to a huge number of musicians and artists and writers and is widely considered one of the best pre-World War II Soviet satires. Maybe we can blame it on the translators, but maybe you just can’t like everything. The devil knows I’ve tried.

As a secondary tip, Russian novels one has not read previously can be particularly tricky for an audiobook as they tend toward the long, the vastly populated, and the even more vastly populated by the intricacies of Russian nomenclature. When every character gets approximately three to four names and there are possibly some one hundred characters major and minor, previous familiarity is almost a must.

For me, though, one of the biggest weaknesses of Bulgakov’s novel is how much it is written for a Soviet audience; allusions abound throughout to various governing bodies, organizations, and persons that are clearly meant to be allegorical. The weight of this necessary reading undercuts the novel’s universality. Certainly we’ve all had to deal with complicated and unhelpful bureaucracies, yet the writing appears to ask for more immediate and specific identification.

Largely this could be the major factor in why it was denounced and banned. Kafka, also an absurdist who wrote of how impersonal rules and regulations can inflict torments on the soul, was likewise banned, though his faceless paper-shufflers rise above the particularities of Austro-Hungarian life in the early twentieth century. The underlying feeling of specificity to Bulgakov’s barbs left me with a cold sensation of being told a joke that was just outside my realm of understanding. Something funny is going on, but I’ll be damned if I can tell what.

Which is not to say that listening to the novel was an unpleasant experience, merely underwhelming. Written in several styles, that of Russian society is in jagged-pulse superfast style, a mirror of the embracing of fashion popular in society. When the narrative shifts to the time of Jesus, the pace becomes considerably more sedate, the prose nearly luminescent in its poetry. When the focus shifts to Margarita, there is a strange duality to the prose that slips into this early manic style, as well as a secondary remove, mirroring her flight.

And if reading that description intrigues you, perhaps I should briefly outline the plot of the novel as it is a complicated affair.

The novel begins with an absurd element of a man appearing then disappearing in a haze, then a seemingly crazed foreign professor by name of Woland tells the story of the trial of Jesus and predicts several elements of the very near future to two of Moscow’s literary types. He is later joined by his retinue including his valet Koroviev, a hitman by name of Azazello, Abadonna who kills with his eyes, and the witch Hella. Also joining the group is a large black cat named Behemoth who walks on hind legs and attempts to ride a streetcar and pay a fare. All of this is clearly meant to be taken both metaphorically and with ironic humor. The cat wishing to pay its fare for the streetcar is a good example of Bulgakov’s type of joke.

Ivan Bezdomny, an enthusiastic young poet, witnesses the arrival of this gang and gives chase, only to lose sight and to be committed to an insane asylum when he tries to explain to officials about the supernatural party. There he meets the Master, a frustrated author who has burned his manuscript about what really happened between Jesus and Pontius Pilate.

At this stage, the novel shifts to 33BCE and we are in Judea, before the Romans at a trial. When the novel moves into these scenes it is likely they are scenes from the Master’s manuscript, though it is just as likely they are merely the memories of Woland, who, it must be said, is the devil.

The novel continues with this kind of phantasmagorical satire with a man’s head torn off in a magic show then replaced on his neck to no lasting ill effects, another man is transported to Yalta from Moscow in under five minutes, and other such delirious tidbits. We are introduced to Margarita, the Master’s lover or ex-lover, depending, who makes a deal with Woland and becomes a witch, flying nakedly and invisibly through Moscow wreaking havoc on the enemies of the Master.

There is more than a little similarity to Dostoevsky in the novel, evoking good and evil, featuring the devil and demons themselves, madness, the indifference of bureaucracy, philosophical ruminations on the role of Christ, and how thin becomes the boundary between troubled dreams and the chaotic lives of the characters. One is tempted to suggest that these are particularly Russian obsessions, though Tolstoy ranks somewhat low on this insanity scale, and I fear that this is merely a simplification of the Russian character due to Dostoyevsky’s outsized place in American Literature departments.

As a kind of satire, Bulgakov avoids making one of the most elemental errors, I believe, in this genre, that is he never tries to make us overly sympathize with any particular character. Too many modern satires want us to feel some bond with the witless innocent who goes about the madcap world and in doing so they frequently cripple their abilities to truly skewer. Which is not, of course, to say that one can’t make a sympathetic protagonist in a satire. Heller does just this in Catch-22, though it remains in the minority for successful satire.

Likewise, it is not to say that Ivan is not a sympathetic character to some degree, but his actual time in the spotlight is surprisingly slender when one considers that he is often considered the novel’s protagonist. I think it likely that Christ gets just as much time in the spotlight. The book’s title for real attention hog must assuredly be a battle betwixt Woland and Behemoth. They are, at least, the two characters with staying power in the imagination, and for this reason, the book could just as likely be theirs as Ivan’s.

It is certainly possible that the novel’s weaknesses, as I see them, stem from the fact that it was never entirely and completely finished by the author. The novel’s fourth part never existed in anything more than draft form and was later “completed” after the author’s death. This sort of final say on the final draft generally leads to less than stellar representations of the writer’s will, but then again, this is the book Bulgakov is best known for in the West at least. Your mileage may differ.

George Guidall reads, and you should damn well know what that means by this stage.

1 comment:

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