Authors: Mikhail Bulgakov
Tags: #Europe, #Classics, #Action & Adventure, #Russia & the Former Soviet Union, #Jerusalem, #Moscow (Russia), #Fiction, #Mental Illness, #Devil, #History, #Soviet Union
Translated and with Notes by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
Penguin Books 1997
With an Introduction by Richard Pevear
Mikhail Bulgakov worked on this luminous book throughout one of the darkest decades of the century. His last revisions were dictated to his wife a few weeks before his death in 1940 at the age of forty-nine. For him, there was never any question of publishing the novel. The mere existence of the manuscript, had it come to the knowledge of Stalin’s police, would almost certainly have led to the permanent disappearance of its author. Yet the book was of great importance to him, and he clearly believed that a time would come when it could be published. Another twenty-six years had to pass before events bore out that belief and
The Master and Margarita,
by what seems a surprising oversight in Soviet literary politics, finally appeared in print. The effect was electrifying.
The monthly magazine
otherwise a rather cautious and quiet publication, carried the first part of
The Master and Margarita
in its November 1966 issue. The 150,000 copies sold out within hours. In the weeks that followed, group readings were held, people meeting each other would quote and compare favourite passages, there was talk of little else. Certain sentences from the novel immediately became proverbial. The very language of the novel was a contradiction of everything wooden, official, imposed. It was a joy to speak.
When the second part appeared in the January 1967 issue of
it was greeted with the same enthusiasm. Yet this was not the excitement caused by the emergence of a new writer, as when Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
appeared in the magazine Novy Mir in 1962.
Bulgakov was neither unknown nor forgotten. His plays had begun to be revived in theatres during the late fifties and were published in 1962. His superb
Life of Monsieur de Molière
came out in that same year. His early stories were reprinted. Then, in 1965, came the
based on his years of experience with Stanislavsky’s renowned Moscow Art Theatre. And finally in 1966 a volume
of Selected Prose
was published, containing the complete text of Bulgakov’s first novel
The White Guard,
written in the twenties and dealing with nearly contemporary events of the Russian civil war in his native Kiev and the Ukraine, a book which in its clear-sighted portrayal of human courage and weakness ranks among the truest depictions of war in all of literature.
Bulgakov was known well enough, then. But, outside a very small group, the existence of
The Master and Margarita
was completely unsuspected. That certainly accounts for some of the amazement caused by its publication. It was thought that virtually all of Bulgakov had found its way into print. And here was not some minor literary remains but a major novel, the author’s crowning work. Then there were the qualities of the novel itself— its formal originality, its devastating satire of Soviet life, and of Soviet literary life in particular, its “theatrical” rendering of the Great Terror of the thirties, the audacity of its portrayal of Jesus Christ and Pontius Pilate, not to mention Satan. But, above all, the novel breathed an air of freedom, artistic and spiritual, which had become rare indeed, not only in Soviet Russia. We sense it in the special tone of Bulgakov’s writing, a combination of laughter (satire, caricature, buffoonery) and the most unguarded vulnerability. Two aphorisms detachable from the novel may suggest something of the complex nature of this freedom and how it may have struck the novel’s first readers. One is the much-quoted “Manuscripts don’t burn”, which seems to express an absolute trust in the triumph of poetry, imagination, the free word, over terror and oppression, and could thus become a watchword of the intelligentsia. The publication of
The Master and Margarita
was taken as a proof of the assertion. In fact, during a moment of fear early in his work on the novel, Bulgakov did burn what he had written.
And yet, as we see, it refused to stay burned. This moment of fear, however, brings me to the second aphorism – “Cowardice is the most terrible of vices” – which is repeated with slight variations several times in the novel. More penetrating than the defiant “Manuscripts don’t burn”, this word touched the inner experience of generations of Russians. To portray that experience with such candour required another sort of freedom and a love for something more than “culture”. Gratitude for such perfect expression of this other, deeper freedom must surely have been part of the enthusiastic response of readers to the novel’s first appearance.
And then there was the sheer unlikeliness of its publication. By 1966 the “thaw” that had followed Stalin’s death was over and a new freeze was coming. The hopes awakened by the publication of
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,
the first public acknowledgement of the existence of the Gulag, had been disappointed. In 1964 came the notorious trial of the poet Joseph Brodsky, and a year later the trial of the writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel, both sentenced to terms in that same Gulag. Solzhenitsyn saw a new Stalinization approaching, made worse by the terrible sense of repetition, stagnation and helplessness. Such was the monotonously grim atmosphere of the Brezhnev era. And in the midst of it there suddenly burst
The Master and Margarita,
not only an anomaly but an impossibility, a sort of cosmic error, evidence of some hidden but fatal crack in the system of Soviet power. People kept asking, how could they have let it happen?
Bulgakov began work on the first version of the novel early in 1929, or possibly at the end of 1928. It was abandoned, taken up again, burned, resurrected, recast and revised many times. It accompanied Bulgakov through the period of greatest suffering for his people — the period of forced collectivization and the first five-year plan, which decimated Russia’s peasantry and destroyed her agriculture, the period of expansion of the system of “corrective labour camps”, of the penetration of the secret police into all areas of life, of the liquidation of the intelligentsia, of vast party purges and the Moscow ‘show trials”. In literature the same struggle went on in miniature, and with the same results. Bulgakov was not arrested, but by 1930 he found himself so far excluded that he could no longer publish or produce his work. In an extraordinarily forthright letter to the central government, he asked for permission to emigrate, since the hostility of the literary powers made it impossible for him to live. If emigration was not permitted, “and if I am condemned to keep silent in the Soviet Union for the rest of my days, then I ask the Soviet government to give me a job in my speciality and assign me to a theatre as a titular director.” Stalin himself answered this letter by telephone on 17 April, and shortly afterwards the Moscow Art Theatre hired Bulgakov as an assistant director and literary consultant. However, during the thirties only his stage adaptations of Gogol’s
were granted a normal run. His own plays either were not staged at all or were quickly withdrawn, and his
Life of Monsieur de Moliere,
written in 1932—5 for the collection Lives of Illustrious Men, was rejected by the publisher. These circumstances are everywhere present in
The Master and Margarita,
which was in part Bulgakov’s challenge to the rule of terror in literature. The successive stages of his work on the novel, his changing evaluations of the nature of the book and its characters, reflect events in his life and his deepening grasp of what was at stake in the struggle. I will briefly sketch what the study of his archives has made known of this process.
The novel in its definitive version is composed of two distinct but interwoven parts, one set in contemporary Moscow, the other in ancient Jerusalem (called Yershalaim). Its central characters are Woland (Satan) and his retinue, the poet Ivan Homeless, Pontius Pilate, an unnamed writer known as “the master”, and Margarita. The Pilate story is condensed into four chapters and focused on four or five large-scale figures. The Moscow story includes a whole array of minor characters. The Pilate story, which passes through a succession of narrators, finally joins the Moscow story at the end, when the fates of Pilate and the master are simultaneously decided. The earliest version, narrated by a first-person “chronicler” and entitled
The Engineer’s Hoof,
was written in the first few months of 1929. It contained no trace of Margarita and only a faint hint of the master in a minor character representing the old intelligentsia. The Pilate story was confined to a single chapter. This version included the essentials of the Moscow satire, which afterwards underwent only minor revisions and rearrangements.
It began in much the same way as the definitive version, with a dialogue between a people’s poet and an editor (here of an anti-religious magazine
on the correct portrayal of Christ as an exploiter of the proletariat. A stranger (Woland) appears and, surprised at their unbelief, astounds them with an eyewitness account of Christ’s crucifixion. This account forms the second chapter, entitled “The Gospel of Woland”.
Clearly, what first spurred Bulgakov to write the novel was his outrage at the portrayals of Christ in Soviet anti-religious propaganda
was an actual monthly magazine of atheism, published from 1922 to 1940). His response was based on a simple reversal — a vivid circumstantial narrative of what was thought to be a “myth” invented by the ruling class, and a breaking down of the self-evident reality of Moscow life by the intrusion of the ‘stranger”. This device, fundamental to the novel, would be more fully elaborated in its final form. Literary satire was also present from the start. The fifth chapter of the definitive version, entitled There were Doings at Griboedov’s”, already appeared intact in this earliest draft, where it was entitled “Mania Furibunda”. In May of 1929, Bulgakov sent this chapter to a publisher, who rejected it. This was his only attempt to publish anything from the novel.
The second version, from later in the same year, was a reworking of the first four chapters, filling out certain episodes and adding the death of Judas to the second chapter, which also began to detach itself from Woland and become a more autonomous narrative. According to the author’s wife, Elena Sergeevna, Bulgakov partially destroyed these two versions in the spring of 1930 — “threw them in the fire”, in the writer’s own words. What survived were two large notebooks with many pages torn out. This was at the height of the attacks on Bulgakov . in the press, the moment of his letter to the government.
After that came some scattered notes in two notebooks, kept intermittently over the next two years, which was a very difficult time for Bulgakov. In the upper-right-hand corner of the second, he wrote: “Lord, help me to finish my novel, 1931.” In a fragment of a later chapter, entitled “Woland’s Flight”, there is a reference to someone addressed familiarly as
who is told that he “will meet with Schubert and clear mornings”. This is obviously the master, though he is not called so.
There is also the first mention of the name of Margarita. In Bulgakov’s mind, the main outlines of a new conception of the novel were evidently already clear.
This new version he began to write in earnest in October of 1932, during a visit to Leningrad with Elena Sergeevna, whom he had just married. (The “model” for Margarita, who had now entered the composition, she was previously married to a high-ranking military official, who for some time opposed her wish to leave him for the writer, leading Bulgakov to think he would never see her again.) His wife was surprised that he could set to work without having any notes or earlier drafts with him, but Bulgakov explained, “I know it by heart.” He continued working, not without long interruptions, until 1936. Various new tides occurred to him, all still referring to Satan as the central figure — The Great Chancellor, Satan, Here I Am, The Black Theologian, He Has Come, The Hoofed Consultant. As in the earliest version, the time of the action is 24— 5 June, the feast of St John, traditionally a time of magic enchantments (later it was moved to the time of the spring full moon). The nameless friend of Margarita is called “Faust” in some notes, though not in the text itself. He is also called “the poet”, and is made the author of a novel which corresponds to the “Gospel of Woland” from the first drafts. This historical section is now broken up and moved to a later place in the novel, coming closer to what would be the arrangement in the final version.
Bulgakov laboured especially over the conclusion of the novel and what reward to give the master. The ending appears for the first time in a chapter entitled “Last Flight”, dating from July 1956. It differs little from the final version. In it, however, the master is told explicitly and directly: The house on Sadovaya and the horrible Bosoy will vanish from your memory, but with them will go Ha-Nozri and the forgiven hegemon. These things are not for your spirit. You will never raise yourself higher, you will not see Yeshua, you will never leave your refuge.