The star of revolution shall rise high above the streets of Moscow, from a sea of blood and fire, and shall become a cynosure for the freedom of mankind
- Bakunin, 1848
An adulterous writer has written a novel about Pontius Pilate, but is pilloried by the Soviet establishment, causing his own mental breakdown; his lover is desperate to regain him; the Devil himself comes down to Moscow, to visit chaos upon her people for their many sins. I’ve been meaning to read Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita for some time now; it is without a skilfull and striking book; I was disappointed by it.
Satan descends on Moscow, and through illusions and thaumaturgy wreaks havoc, with the assistance of a band of malicious and jocular demons, often for no apparent reason than chaos itself. Their target is the decadent population of Moscow, and primarily the literary elites – they seem to have the traditional power granted Satan to punish the sinful, and time and again they encounter Muscovites afflicted with greed, pride, gluttony and lust, and lay them low, sending many to the lunatic asylums. His project intersects with the quest of Margarita to regain her lost love, the Master, at any cost – and throughout both tales is interspersed as a descant the half-real half-novelistic tale of Pontius Pilate, and his execution of a mad vagrant preacher named Yeshua.
Bulgakov is clearly good at his job; throughout the novel, I had the sense of being in good hands, who knew where they were taking me; and yet I felt I never really went anywhere. I’m surprised and dejected to be so unmoved by what is frequently named one of the greatest novels of the century.
Addressing each level in turn: to begin with, the prose. I cannot read Russian, unfortunately, and so the issue of translation was bound to get in the way – to an unknowable amount. The translation is read was that of Glenny, supposedly the most natural and authentic translation, albeit not the most precise and literal – if this is so, I pity people who read the LESS natural versions. The prose, barring one or two infelicities, was not bad, only stilted and uninspiring – occasionally a beautiful passage slips through, but far too rarely for my liking. For an ordinary book, this would be a tolerably, occasionally impressive, and at any rate interesting prose style; for a book attempting to be a highlight of the century, it was below par. At the same time, some depth of symbolism is likely to be lost by the less literal translation, which perhaps reduced the power of the novel for me.
The novel is also, alledgedly, funny, and I can see why people might think it so – much of it (almost the entire first half) is a riotious satire packed with wit and slapstick. But there’s only so much humour in slapstick, particularly where we do not care about the characters. The character of Behemoth continually amused me with hs wit and duplicity, but in the sense of provoking smiles, not the sense of outright laughter. The satire was biting – but in my mind too biting to really be funny. The tone of the book is negative to the point of malignancy – there is a viciousness, a hatred, in the downfall of the literary snobs who failed to recognise Bulgakov’s transcendent genius (the autobiographical elements are obvious to any reader) that makes it unpleasant to enjoy. In addition, I found the portrayals of women (always adjuncts to their men, divided into young sex objects and aging harpies, always petty, constantly going naked or being stripped naked by men) and non-Europeans (who feature only as servile ‘Negros’ in Satan’s retinue, and demoniacal jazz musicians who are themselves replaced, with no harm to the ‘music’, by gorillas and chimpanzees), somewhat off-putting.
Moreover, too much of the novel was too distant from my experience – while the general point of undermining a decadent society is universally approachable, the details of the Soviet system Bulgakov attacks is, while known to me in outline, not as immediately visceral in my imagination as would be required to make the satire powerful. He spends too little time detailing his setting – because, we can assume, he was writing for an audience to whom the terrors and depressions of Stalinism were so familiar that they need not be reiterated. Nonetheless, there is something a little incongruous in a novel so clearly written for posterity and for alterity (in addition to the thematic references in the novel itself, there is the extraneous biographical fact that he only hurried to complete the book when he knew that he was dying) that makes so little effort to be accessible outside its own times.
Regarding the central love affair – I found myself unmoved. The two characters are both unsympathetic (I would naturally sympathise with the man, but found him increasingly passive, and frankly whinging; the woman was odious from beginning to end); their love began unrealistically and uninterestingly; their love was put in peril in a way that is, with knowledge of the era, understandable, but adumbrated far too briefly and softly to bear the dramatic weight placed upon it; their love-story makes its way to its conclusion with very little actual imput from the characters themselves, primarily through reliance on God and Satan.
This reflects a wider problem with the novel – every single character is, by design, unsympathetic, and even those who have a glimmer of charisma spend hardly any time before the camera. What we have instead, particularly in the first half, is a procession of venal, personality-denuded apparatchiks stumbling into a succession of unpleasant fates through the untrammelled fiat of Satan himself, who fails entirely to take the usual poetic measures, or to give his enemies any way of saving themselves, but instead simply visits his omnipotence on them one by one. Things do improve somewhat in the second half, which is more directed, and more focused on the character of Margarita herself, but it is never really possible to care too deeply about anything that happens.
Bulgakov is supposedly erudite, and the novel contains many references and allusions; this is no doubt true, but erudition is an easy coin to find and no demarker of greatness; in any case, while the parallels with Faust are obvious, many of the more specific Russian allusions were lost upon me – I had only the vaguest notion of Pushkin’s works, and had not even heard of Griboyedov.
The story of Pontius Pilate, meanwhile, is written with a degree more eloquance, for some reason, and felt more immediate; Pilate and Yeshua are both vaguely sympathetic, I suppose, and Pilate is actually interesting now and then. Bulgakov does a good – and clever – job in this thread, creating a picture of Jesus that makes him historical and real without making him unsympathetic. Unfortunately, the story is too short, too familiar, and too devoid of a real ending (and, indeed, too disseminated throughout the novel) to have real power.
There is, it must be said, a little more too things that this. Satan does not simply punish vice, for a start – what he appears to be punishing is submission to a postmodern condition. The Muscovites have narrowed down their life to a fragile structure of laws and of rewards, in which fulfills their role to the extent that he is forced to, while continually striving for more – but what they strive for is only what they have been told to strive for. I’m reminded of Merton’s anomic deviance: the Muscovites are indulging themselves in what he calls “innovation” – the pursuit of the approved goals by unapproved methods. When Satan gives out fashionable clothing to the women of Moscow, they innovate, reaching their goal (fine dresses) but avoiding the traditional communist mechanisms for attaining them; likewise, when a housing manager exploits his position to acquire bribes, he is innovating. The problem is, the decadent Muscovites have lost sight of the real, and are lost in a fetishisation of what are properly the symbols of, or the road to, real goals: fashion becomes a goal in itself, and money is collected, even hoarded, with no hope or intent of buying anything valuable with it. The system of rules and rewards is everything; their lives rest upon it; they are eager, for instance, to assimilate the chaos of Satan by explaining him and his demons away as hypnotist conmen – because to believe in Satan would be to cause the whole atheist, materialist framework of their system to collapse. They are apparatchiks in every sense of the word – they unconsciously defend their Apparatus at all costs, while having no actual loyalty to it. They believe they are exploiting the system, when in truth the system is exploiting them. It is interesting that something so close to Merton’s critique of capitalist ideology is here directed at communism.
The apparatchiks climb upon the frame of their apparatus, but in doing so they put themselves at its mercy; Satan tears it down, and them with it. Satan is chaotic – Satan is irreconcilable. Satan is the element of disorder that seeks to destroy all that they have constructed – and Satan is also omnipotent. Satan is, perhaps, the permanent revolution; and yet, as Bakunin says, a revolution still leaves somebody at the top – and so long as there is a ruler, there is injustice. Power corrupts – absolute power corrupts absolutely; Satan is corrupt. He seeks to be an eternal force of revolution, but he leaves himself always at the top; perhaps this bankruptcy explains a part of his curious lethargy, even depression, in much of the novel? Perhaps, but it is not drawn out fully. Mostly, it seems his moods shift as the plot demands.
I hope that this has made a certain parallel obvious: one reason why the communist elite are so absent from this novel is that they are at its centre – Satan is Stalin. Around him, the citizens scurry for reward, yet are continually met with death and disgrace; they try to construct around him a latticework of rules and conventions up which they may climb to their reward – but like Leviathon he shifts his mass as he wills, and rearranges and destroys all the system built around him. He operates according to some principle of justice – but it is a principle that is unpredictable, and entirely at his own discretion, and that is particularly adept in finding reasons to punish and destroy.
The novel runs into difficulty, however, in articulating an alternative. This, we might expect, will be a Cynic retreat from convention into nature; Margarita’s choices, and Pilate’s urge to save Jesus, both call to mind the Cynics’ exhortation to ignore all rules, customs, conventions and public morals; the symbolic nudity of witches throughout the book reminds us, likewise, of Diogenes and Hypatia. And yet, the Cynics believed in defying custom not as a good in its own right, but instrumentally, as a path to a freedom that could only be obtained through reason; Bulgakov seems to discard the rational part of the equation. What we are left with is an exultation of groundedness per se, regardless of the ground, of love regardless of the loved, and of commitment, regardless of the cause. What we are left with, in other words, is a paean to fanaticism, and to obsession, as the only way to escape from insincerity and to achieve authenticity.
I find this problematic not only because it is amoral – with certain characters seemingly being rewarded despite being utterly despicable – but because it is incongruous within the framework of the novel, and because it feels dramatically unjustified. It is incongruous, because the novel is so pious in its blasphemy, so carefully sacrilegious in its profanity, that we are never in any doubt that we are operating in a theistic universe laid down by a theistic, even devout, author – and yet the morals being presented appear entirely at odds with the Christian viewpoint. It is true that we are presented with a distinction between ‘peace’ (an escape from the torment of the apparatus) and ‘light’ (salvation into heaven), but the distinction is so ill-drawn and peripheral that we do not clearly see why it matters. It is also true that there are Kierkegaardian elements in the rejection of public morals as a route to a higher individuality and freedom, but Kierkegaard’s angst comes from devotion to God, not from mere devotion – Abraham agrees to murder his son because he has been commanded by God, and God is not at the centre of this novel, Satan is. If he were in this novel, Abraham would be killing his son as a way of selling his soul to the Devil; as Bulgakov gives us no reason to like or admire the devil (a feat of non-sympathy that is by itself impressive, given the usual charisma of the character), and no reason to approve of murder, it is hard to see why we are meant to applaud this.
In this light, in fact, we should remember that the love of the central pair is not strictly for each other alone, but is entangled with and fuelled by a love of the Pilate novel that the man is writing – it is hard not to see this, in this context, as a collapse into Kierkegaard’s recursive, narcissistic “aesthetic” phase. Indeed, all the most ‘grounded’, ‘authentic’ characters are obsessed not with anything truly Other but with a reflection of themselves –all of them, from Margarita to Matthew the Levite, are narcissists. Is this meant to be a refutation of Kierkegaard? It is hard to see how to piece it together as one. This, however, is a recurring feature in the novel – we are not given enough to work on. Sometimes this seems to be simple bad writing or bad translation – one character turns into a witch and back, which is meant to explain some change in her actions (the change being more a change of species than of profession – she explicitly turns back into a ‘human’), but she seems to speak and act exactly the same after the transformation as before it. In other places, we cannot tell bad structure from intentional obscurity – much of the thematic weight of the novel must rest with the conclusion of the Pilate storyline, but it simply occurs, with little explanation or build-up. Indeed, it seems to intentionally make the end another random act of power – a power, this time, which unlike Satan’s is never fully explained within the context of the novel. I have an idea about it – which I don’t dare share for fear of spoilers – but I can also see where the text refutes that idea. There’s just not enough to tell. The book gives us a puzzle – but, frustratingly, there doesn’t seem to be any reward.
Much of this rambling is me trying to find some depth to the book in the crannies of its obscurity. It’s hard to find much complexity in the light. Continuing the Pilate train of thought, the book doesn’t really address the fact that, to me at least, Pilate is the most sympathetic character, despite being the paradigm of a man who sacrifices his principles for the sake of obedience to power. I say ‘despite’ – but really he feels sympathetic BECAUSE of this. There seems more to admire (even if there is also more to condemn) in Pilate’s decision to kill an innocent man out of duty, though he completely feels it wrong, than there is in any number of childish deals with the Devil. In this respect, we see Bulgakov imitating both the Cynics and Nietzsche, agreeing with the latter when he says that things performed out of love are beyond good and evil (beyond ‘light’ and ‘dark’ in the novel), but he does not address the complexities of Nietzsche, nor his criticisms of the Cynics – in essence, he fails to address Nietzsche’s concerns about the very concept of authenticity. If it is a matter, as we might expect with a Cynical interpretation, of following nature and not man, we are given the paradox: “how can we NOT follow our natures?”; if it is a matter, with a Nietzschean expectation, of asserting our own power, isn’t there also a great show of power in a man who can deny his own morals, as Pilate does?
This point is related to the dangling objection I made earlier, that the themes do not seem thematically earned. Everything occurs because it does – in this book, the god is let loose from the machine in the first chapter, and rules everything that follows with an iron fist and a shallow whim. A more philosophical novelist would try to show us HOW this or that led to peace, or salvation, or to death or to damnation – if not through the operation of external rules, then at least through some internal logic – but Bulgakov just relies on God or the Devil to sort everything out by will. Why can authentic (alledgedly) love triumph where venality and pride cannot? Because Satan says so. As an example, a Nietzschean expectation would lead us to think that love is protecting because it is less reliant on the facts of nature that social status relies upon – this is reinforced by the fact that Satan not only has power over these facts, but actually seems ONLY to have power over these facts. But of course the straits the central characters find themselves in at the time of their (belated) entrance into the novel demonstrate that this is not the case. Because he love is for something that is both outside of her and in the material world, Margarita is just as vulnerable to Satan’s power as any other character – except by the Will of the Author.
There are a few hints here and there of an attempt to address this – Margarita is, briefly, once, not entirely narcissistic, and Pilate’s final chapter is intriguing, if only because it is so obscure – but no matter how much I wrangle with it, I cannot put things together into anything particularly innovative or provocative.
I should also say that, unlike the other novel that I have felt bad about not liking enough, Dhalgren, this book had no ‘echo’ – when I finished the novel, the novel stopped being read. Great books – and even some, like Dhalgren, that are not great – have the power to possess the mind for some time after the final page, not only in conscious thoughts, but in an entire frame of mind, with the sensation of a deafeningly silent echo; I had none of that from this novel, although I concede that the conclusion was elegant and fitting.
Adrenaline: 3/5. To be honest, I feel generous giving it this, but looking back at my scores for other books it would be unfair not to. Although I feel that the book as a whole lacks effective pacing, and that it’s never that exciting, it must be admitted that Bulgakov can write certain scenes very well, creating real suspense and even minor thrills. One sequence of chapters halfway through the book even reached excitement. Overall, though, there is so much chaos and absurdity (a word I should have used a lot more above – absurdity seems to be the power of the divine, both in Jesus and in Satan) that excitement cannot build up much. “Chaos is dull.”
Emotion: 2/5. There are some vaguely real characters, and yes, I did care a bit about them. But overall, everyone is too unlikeable, and too many people appear for only a chapter before vanishing, and the central love story is too alienating, and the book is too obscure, to really take my heart along with it. It also feels strangely neutered – although terrible things happen to people, they don’t feel terrible. Perhaps this is because of the humorous tone, perhaps because there is just so much nastiness, or perhaps it is because there is an omnipotent deity in every chapter who can undo anything that happens – it just feels more as though being sent to Stravinsky’s lunatic asylum (haha, incidentally Mr Bulgakov, a composers joke, you’re so urbane) is closer to losing a ‘life’ in a computer game than a real human tragedy.
Thought: 4/5. Here I really am being generous. Perhaps it deserves more than 3 – but it was the least intellectually interesting of the books I’ve scored a 4 so far. Most of the thought is more along the lines of “what’s the point of this?”, and “is he saying anything?”, rather than “what are the consequences of what he’s saying?” But… maybe I’m just missing a bit of the point. There’s enough loose ends that maybe someone could put together more than I can.
Beauty: 3/5. No! Here I rebell against good nature! The book is… elegant. Certain phrases are striking. But the prose (a translation, I know, but that’s all I have) is, while not bad, not normally noteworthy. Some images are beautiful; others are predictable.
Craft: 3/5. Again, I make a stand. Yes, well done, he weaves three plots together, and he’s not afraid of symbolism and in-jokes. But I’ve seen it done better. Again, the prose in translation can’t stand for him. If he has a point, he doesn’t transfer it too well. He’s clearly a good writer, and it’s clearly constructed professionally. But…
Endearingness: 3/5. I think I quite liked it, disappointing though it was. A lot of that is Behemoth. And also, let’s be honest, chaos may be dull, but there is something a little exhilerating about watching a riot – something that disposes us well toward tricksters and anarchists, even when we don’t admire them, or even like them. The book has charisma. On the other hand – there’s too little happiness, too little niceness, too little engagement with any of the sordid-yet-dull characters, to make it a book I can say is more pleasant to read than most.
Originality: 5/5. Maybe not as original as San Michele, but nonetheless pretty unique, all things considered. Yes, the “devil comes down to earth” idea is not entirely original, but the whole is perplexing and unpredictable enough to make that familiar germ grow into something wholly singular.
Overall: 5/7: Good. Oh, it’s definitely a good book. I just can’t see my way to admitting that it’s great – which is what disappoints me.
I’ve been thinking, not entirely unrelatedly, about my scoring system. I think the categories are mostly adequate (I’ve been thinking of adding in a ‘memorableness’ category, but it seems superfluous), but the point I raised in this reaction was a good one – some books have an ‘impact’ or ‘echo’ on the soul, and none of the other categories manage to predict whether or not this will occur. So, I’m adding a new category – but rather than being 1-5, this will be 0-2: this should be seen as a ‘top-up’ thing, rather than a pillar of the novel as a whol. I just don’t think my reactions in this direction can be more finely gauged than ‘nothing’, ‘something’ and ‘a lot’.
This will be one of three reforms. Secondly, and connectedly, I’ll do away with the ‘composite’ I’ve been mentioning, replacing it with a sum total – this is both more intuitive and better able to cope with the ‘small’ category of Echo that I’m adding. Thirdly, I’ll be adding one additional point for ever 5 – in other words, considering a 5 as a 6. This is because I think that, as between two equally-scoring books, the ‘advantage’, as it were, should go to the book that comes closer to perfection in one direction, rather than the book that is most average. The scoring system is, after all, only a way to break down and bring out more clearly my overall reaction, and I think that the extra point will cause the sum scores to more closely reflect my overall scores.
I know, nobody cares – nobody would care even if anybody were actually reading any of this. Nonetheless, it only seems appropriate to be clear about what I’m doing – even if it’s only for my own benefit.