Sunday, 10 February 2002

Mikhail Bulgakov: The Master and Margarita (1966)

Translation: Michael Glenny, 1967
Edition: Everyman, 1992
Review number: 1089

The approval of the authorities was a major issue for artists in the former Soviet Union, particularly during the rule of Stalin. Shostakovitch, for example, managed to keep from being banned or imprisoned despite occasional condemnation, mainly by keeping his most private thoughts for chamber music which tended not to attract the attention of the censor to such an extent (and I suspect also because of his high profile in the West). Bulgakov was not so lucky, though he at least escaped the gulag. Successful in the early twenties, he was unable to publish anything between 1927 and his death in 1940. Much of the last seven years of this period was spent working on what proved to be his masterpiece, The Master and Margarita. A censored version was finally published in 1966, and the full text only appeared in 1973.

It is obvious why the novel was unpublishable under Stalin's regime; in fact, it reads as though Bulgakov was trying to write something which would offend the authorities as much as possible. The novel adds up to a concentrated satirical attack on the Soviet state, making fun of bodies like the Union of Soviet Writers and even of the way people disappeared into the gulags and associated institutions such as mental hospitals. There is a fantastical supernatural side, as the devil visits Moscow and holds a magic show in a theatre, and everything is in some way linked to the execution of Jesus by the Romans; both of these were themes unlikely to gain approval in militantly atheist Soviet Russia. (Bulgakov indicates this ironically when he shows the authorities' reaction to a novel written by one of the characters about the execution.)

The Master and Margarita does not have a readily describable plot. Everything starts with the arrival in Moscow of the mysterious black magician Professor Woland and his companions, one a huge cat which speaks Russian and walks on its hind legs. The humour of the novel comes from the effect his actions have on the ordinary Muscovites - as he showers them with gifts which later disappear (particularly surprising to the women given the latest Parisian fashions), or tells enigmatic stories about Pontius Pilate or predicts the future - and the way state institutions react to the tales the citizens tell to try to explain what happened when his stunts get them in trouble. As a result, several scenes are set in a mental hospital in Yalta, in which the patients are also strangely concerned about Pontius Pilate.

The satirical aspect of the novel is very funny, and clearly owes a large debt to Gogol's The Government Inspector and Dead Souls. Although attempts have been made to match Bulgakov's characters to specific real world individuals, they seem to me to be intended to represent types of people, particularly the senior figures in the literary world, the bureaucrats at the theatre and the officially approved writers and critics of the writers' organisation MASSOLIT. It is more difficult to see the purpose of the Pilate episodes, but even without being understood they add something to the novel. (Even if it is just because they provide contrast, they are very effective.)

This particular translation is not made from the final full version of the manuscript (as it wasn't yet available), and is criticised in the introduction to this Everyman edition for missing a couple of subtleties; I would be interested to read a more recent version. However, enough of the original seems to come across and Glenny conveys the greatness of Bulgakov's vision, not diminished even in these post-Soviet times.

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