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The text in question is Mikhail Bulgakov “The Master and Margarita”.  Gary Rosenshield has called this novel  “a brilliant example of literary postmodernism, a model, as it were, of purposeful discontinuity, in which the work’s seemingly disjointed narrative planes fit into a larger plan to frustrate (if not mock) the reader’s desire for determinate meanings (transcendental signifiers) and integrated, overarching master-narratives?” The presented work aims to support Rosenshield’s statement.

Even in the Stalin era, when opposition to official socialist realist doctrine could mean persecution, imprisonment, or even death, critical works of high artistic quality were nevertheless being written, such as Bulgakov “The Master and Margarita”. This book is probably the best-loved Soviet novel, as popular in the satellite countries as it was in the USSR. It begun in 1928and worked on until its author’s death in 1940, this is a novel whose own history seems to underwrite the validity of the truths it professes. Its sudden appearance in the most inauspicious of times  and the most inauspicious of places interpretation as confirmation of its most famous line, the assertion that great literary works, whatever the obstacles placed in their way, will always out: ‘manuscripts don’t burn’.

“The Master and Margarita” was published in two issues of the journal Moskva in 1966 (no. II) and in 1967 (no. I) in a censored version with cuts. In 1967 it appeared in two translated versions with slight differences. The full text version in Russian appeared only in 1973. Bulgakov himself did not prepare a text of “The Master and Margarita” for publication; he died when the process of its revision was not completed. Thus there are problems of establishing the original text. Author’s long period of work on the novel produced many variants, was preserved in his archive. “The Master and Margarita” is a book that tells the tale of its own composition. From the beginning it contained the story of Jesus and Pontius Pilate. The themes of “the Master” and Margarita enter the variants much later. The first manuscript was burnt by Bulgakov in 1930.

The texture and structure of Bulgakov’s extraordinary of the novel are very unlike of modernistic writings. It contains elements of political satire that place it firmly in the period following modernism. It is more like Huxley than like Joyce. Nevertheless, it adopts a Dostoyevskyan multiple narrative, splicing together in an open-ended way a religious story based on Scripture, and attributed to its hero “The Master,” with powerful components of fantasy and surreal improvisations, and its radical experimentalism is certainly postmodernist.

Narrative planes in the novel are intentionally disjointed – Rosenshield was absolutely right. The story of takes place on three planes, each one provides a commentary on the others (Milne 1977). The first narrative set in ancient Jerusalem, where Pontius Pilate chooses what he should do with the “vagrant philosopher” – Joshua. Pilate dreams of a walk along a moonbeam: “He was walking with Banga and the vagrant philosopher beside him. They were arguing about a weighty and complex problem, over which neither could gain the upper hand. They disagreed entirely, which made their argument all the more absorbing and interminable” (Bulgakov 1996, 310).

Another narrative set in Moscow, where the unnamed writer wrote a novel about Pontius Pilate. The third narrative plane is that of the fantastic, introduced by the figure of Woland. At the first page of the novel the author explains a core of his identity by quoting the lines from Goethe’s “Faust”  in which Mephistopheles introduces himself: “I am part of the power which forever wills evil and forever works good” (Bulgakov 1996, 1). Postmodernist fiction itself has close affinities with the genre of the fantastic, much as it has affinities with the science-fiction genre. The fantastic narrative operates on two levels. It satirizes the contemporary Moscow and creates the possibility for the true writer to escape into realm of poetry (Milne 1977).

The events of “The Master and Margarita” weave together parallel stories involving Christ, the Devil, the Master, and the poet Ivan Bezdomny, all inhabiting worlds which are marginally compatible and interrelated, but radically dissimilar. Into the comfortable but corrupt world of Moscow men of letters comes a demonic presence masquerading as con man and conjurer, accompanied by his familiars. His intervention precipitates a string of bizarre events which land Ivan Bezdomny in a mental hospital where the boundaries of fantasy and reality are tested:

Spokesmen for the investigating commission and expert psychiatrists established that the members of the criminal gang were hypnotists of extraordinary power. … They were able to remove from the field of vision things or people who were in fact within that field of vision. … And so almost everything was explained, and the investigation came to an end, as everything in life comes to an end. (Bulgakov 1996, 165)

Ivan Bezdomny is left at the end sadder and wiser as a consequence of his “lunacy;” maybe it was all a dream, but there is no way of resolving the question of how reality and fantasy accommodate each other, at least not in Russia.

The topic of the illusory “freedom” serves as a controlling metaphor for the whole fantasy narrative in which the unhappy wife Margarita acquires a new identity as the naked demonic accomplice of “the Master,” who is the author of the Christ-narrative embedded in a tale of belief and disbelief encompassing a series of time-loops (under the Devil’s control) in which characters with the unlikely (musical) names of Berlioz, Rimsky, and Stravinsky are tossed about in a Witches’ Sabbath (or carnival) of madness, degradation, and death. The Master tells Woland that he burned the novel he wrote on Pontius Pilate. But Woland refutes the Master: “That cannot be. Manuscripts don’t burn” (Bulgakov 1996, 245) – and retrieves the text at that moment.

Relationship between the Master and his beloved woman Margarita makes another topic of the novel. The Master tells Bezdomny about how they felt when they first met: “We talked as if we had parted only the day before, as if we had known each other for many years” (Bulgakov 1996, 117). The Master describes Margarita: “She was carrying some hideous, disturbing yellow flowers. These flowers stood out against her black spring coat” (Bulgakov 1996, 115). She has everything for happiness, but she seeks out the Master: “She saw only me and she gave me a look that was not merely anxious, but even pained. And I was struck not so much by her beauty as by the extraordinary, incomparable loneliness in her eyes!” (Bulgakov 1996, 115). And for the Master Margarita agrees to Woland: “I agree to everything. I agree to play out this whole comedy with the cream, I agree to go to the devil and back!” (Bulgakov 1996, 194). For the Master Margarita became a witch, flying naked over Moscow:

She began striking at random. She broke the pots of ficus plants in the room where the piano was. Before finishing that, she went back to the bedroom, slashed the sheets with a kitchen knife, and broke the glass-covered photographs. She did not feel in the least bit tired, and the sweat poured off her in streams. (Bulgakov 1996, 204)

Bulgakov’s sprawling novel is full of space-time paradoxes, expansions, and contractions, a parody of the Book of Revelation. Balasubramanian states, “as if to reaffirm the divinity of the devil, Bulgakov parallels Woland’s stay in Moscow with Christ’s passion during Holy Week in Jerusalem, thus compressing the centuries elapsed between the time of Jesus’ life and 1930s Moscow“(Balasubramanian 2001, 88). One of the heroes is a man named Yeshua (the Aramaic name for Jesus), and the time of the narrative is Holy Week preceding Easter. The sense of impending Apocalypse permeates the book (Ericson 1991). In the final chapter of the novel the only thing that the Master asks from Woland is for a little house, where by candlelight, near Magarita, the Master can write his life’s work about the life of Christ. Here is Mikhail Bulgakov’s vision of earthly paradise:

A divan here and a divan opposite, and a little table in between, with a wonderful reading-lamp on it, and closer to the window a row of books, and in the main room — a huge room, 14 metres square–books, and more books, and a stove . . . [Margarita] would arrive and put on an apron, and they would light the paraffin stove in the narrow hall . . . and prepare a meal and set it out in the main room on the oval table . . . Then the man who called himself ‘the master’ would work, and she, sticking her slender fingers with their nails filed to points into her hair, would read what he had written, and when she had read it, would go on embroidering his little cap. (Bulgakov 1996, 553)

The opposition of the great writer and great literature to their hack counterparts is another novel’s principal concern. In its portrayal of Soviet writers as careerists whose sole concern is their status and the perquisites brought by membership of the organization MASSOLIT, the novel offers a devastating indictment of the infighting, compromises, and corruption endemic in the organization on which MASSOLIT is based, the Moscowbranch of RAPP, and, by extension, in the Soviet Writers’ Union. It is small wonder that the Writers’ Union building is set on fire in Bulgakov’s satire novel. Standing out against this background is the master, justly described by the visiting Devil Woland as ‘thrice romantic’: for the master writing is a calling, not a profession; he is a seeker after truth, and a visionary; and he deliberately sets himself apart from the world, and is persecuted for his difference, driven to the despairing (and supremely romantic) gesture of burning the manuscript of his unpublishable novel about Christ. The fact that his novel survives this burning to be returned to him by Woland suggests that it, like its author, transcends the time and place of its making, belongs in the tradition of perennially valuable literature to which other writers in the novel can never aspire.

There can be little doubt that this reassertion of a literary tradition, and set of literary values, denied by Soviet literary politics is what “The Master and Margarita” sets out to achieve. ‘Socialist realism’ produced a monotone literature devoid of real conflict. Yet the novel, unremitting in its critique of the institutional consequences of that politics, consistently undermines its own proffered solution. The master’s romantic credentials are treated ironically. But the greatest irony accompanies the most powerful assertion of his place in the Russian literary tradition, his association with Pushkin. There is no getting away from Pushkin, who functions as a natural, omnipresent literary — and, indissociably from this, moral -reference-point. But the single most important reference to Pushkin is the ‘peace’ or ‘rest’ (pokoi) with which the master is finally rewarded by Woland, acting at the behest of Ieshua as transmitted by Matthew the Levite: ‘”He has not earned light, he has earned rest” (Bulgakov 1996, 406). None of this is meant to imply that the tribulations of the master, or of his author Bulgakov, should be belittled. On the contrary: the complex narrative structure and intertextual affiliations of “The Master and Margarita” steer us away from the danger of subscribing to simplistic ideas that would not do justice to the tragedy of either character or author. The Pushkinian opposition of inspiration which is not for sale and a manuscript which is requires a careful consideration of the nature and limits of autonomy, which can be understood in two ways: freedom from direction from above, from political tutelage and censorship; and freedom from ties to one’s time, as well as from the marketplace in which all cultural products, high or low, must circulate. These two senses of autonomy are too often conflated.

“The Master and Magrarita” is widely acknowledged as one of the most important texts of modern Russian literature (Booker 1995, 39). It juxtaposed to the vision of a corrupt 1920s Moscow, disrupted by Satan, a ‘humanized’ version of Jesus Christ as socially impotent ‘holy fool’, moving through a Jerusalem that has uncanny resemblances to the Moscow of the late 1930s. And the novel’s epilogue allowed the final word to Bulgakov’s version of Mephisto who voiced a code of moral relativism in which ‘good’ and ‘evil’ were associated with ‘light’ and ‘dark’ in the physical world, both being seen as necessary in a life without sensual monotony.

Reference List

Balasubramanian, Radha. “Reading Bulgakov’s the Master and Margarita from the Perspective of Hinduism.” International Fiction Review, 2001.

Booker, Keith. Bakhtin, Stalin, and Modern Russian Fiction: Carnival, Dialogism, and History. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995.

Bulgakov, Mikhail.  The Master and Margarita. Translated by Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O’Connor. New York: Vintage Books, 1996.

Ericson, Edward. The Apocalyptic Vision of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. New York: Edwin Mellen, 1991.

Milne, Lesley. The Master and Margarita: A Comedy of Victory. Birmingham: Birmingham Slavonic Monographs, 1977.


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