Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Mikhail Bulgakov

February, 2011: In the absence of a new book to read, I've taken to rereading the books on my shelf about which I think, "That was good! But that's all I can remember about it." I used to read books too quickly. When I read a book too quickly, not only do I not remember it later, but I also paraphrase it into my own words and ideas, without taking the trouble find out what the author is really trying to say; as in those dialogues where one person says, "I had such and such and experience," and the other says, "That's like when I did such and such." No, it's not! Slow down and listen. So from my bookshelf, I selected The Master And The Margarita (1938; first published in 1966-7, published in full 1973) by Mikhail Bulgakov, which Mumma and Errol gave me for my 20th birthday, and which I have been meaning to reread since I read an extract of it in Clarence Brown's excellent Portable Twentieth-Century Russian Reader.

I've been trying to figure out why The Master and Margarita is so wonderful. I like novels that are more-or-less realistic (though that doesn't mean "depresso-realism" à la Raymond Carver and all those he spawned), and as I read of Margarita's night at Satan's Ball, where she shook hands with headless corpses and various other guests who spilled out of coffins, or the chaos wrought by Woland and his henchmen (including a giant black cat and a naked redheaded woman) on the streets of Moscow, I thought, "But isn't all this colour and fantasy meaningless? Why do I look forward so much to reading the next installment?" I knew it wasn't meaningless. In some ways, it's a fairy story - hypocrites and other villains are punished, while Margarita, fearless and good-hearted, is duly rewarded. Here's how Margarita describes herself to a little boy:

"Once upon a time there was a lady...she had no children and was never happy. At first she just used to cry, then one day she felt very naughty..."

But it's a novel, not a fairy story. The whole work is a concerted effort to evoke an emotion: breaking free, into a life where truth and love, and other nice, simple things, can exist. Every vignette is a breaking-free, in some way or another, which helps to make sense of the dozens of characters, each one with several different names, Russian style. The accumulation of mayhem, and freedom snatched during disorder, is exhilarating.

The ending (beware: I'm about to give it away) reminds me of the ending of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon - the only way for the story's lovers, the Master and Margarita, to be truly together, is for them to die. The only true breaking-free is death.

Also, it's very funny. The humour adds to the exhilaration. The authorial voice is theatrical and anecdotal rather than restrained; Bulgakov would prefer something to be exaggerated and outlandish, than to be overlooked by the reader. Though maybe in the original Russian all those adverbs aren't quite so obtrusive:

"Just reassure me - you're not violent, are you?"

"Yesterday in a restaurant I clouted a fellow across the snout," the poet confessed manfully.

"What for?" asked the visitor disapprovingly.

"For no reason at all, I must admit," replied Ivan, embarrassed.

"Disgraceful," said the visitor reproachfully and added: "And I don't care for that expression of yours - clouted him across the snout...People have faces, not snouts. So I suppose you mean you punched him in the face...No, you must give up doing that sort of thing."

I also am guilty of using that expression (not the Russian expression, whatever it was, but Michael Glenny's translation). I won't in future.

One thing that I don't really understand, though I enjoyed reading it, is the vivid account of Pontius Pilate's meeting with Jesus (the Master is writing a book about it, and we are privy to various extracts from it). Being non-religious, and also living in a society where everyone is allowed to hold whatever beliefs they please (unlike in communist Russia), I know there is a significance to the Pontius and Jesus passages that I have missed.