Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Master, Margarita, and Me

This is a brief lecture I gave to the Friends of the Albany Public Library in September of 2014. I thank them for the opportunity to talk about one of my favourite pieces of literature, Mikhail Bulgakov's Master i Margarita, a book that, in my opinion, ranks with the finest in world literature and deserves, as a result, to be much better known than it is.

If you asked me to name my favourite novel I wouldn't have to hesitate. My favourite book is the Soviet novel The Master and Margarita. Many of you might be surprised by this answer since next to the great Russian realist novels of War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment, and The Brothers Karamazov, The Master and Margarita is little known. And compared to well-known Russian writers like Lev Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky the author of The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Afanasyevich Bulgakov, is little known.

I well remember the day I first discovered The Master and Margarita. It was in the mid-1970s when I was briefly a student at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. It was a classmate of mine named Mark Rose who introduced me to the many joys of Bulgakov’s magical--in one of the novel's threads the devil in the form of Woland, and the devil's retinue, which includes a vodka swilling and gun toting black cat named Behemoth (Begemot), come to Moscow, the capital of atheism, during Stalin's reign where they raise all sorts of hilarious havoc--realist--the second thread of the novel is an intensely naturalistic retelling of the Pilate and Yeshua (Jesus) story--and romantic--this thread tells of Margarita's love for The Master, the author, as we learn, of the Pilate and Yeshua tale (this thread is generally thought to be based on Bulgakov and his third wife Yelena Shilovskaya who kept Bulgakov's legacy alive after his death--book. All three of these threads intersect and come together to produce one of the great humane and compassionate endings in the history of literature at The Master and Margarita's end. Amongst the many themes of the book is that art does not and cannot die even in the face of oppression, brutality, and the seeming triumph of "artistic" mediocrity. Manuscrpts, as Woland makes clear in the book, do not burn.

I next read The Master and Margarita while I was living in Moscow in the late 1990s. It came alive for me as I found my way to the Patriarch’s Pond where the novel opens, as I found my way, with a little help from my Russian relatives, to the apartment on the Sadovaya where Woland, the Devil of the fantastic Faust inspired thread of The Master and Margarita and his retinue set up house, and as, I found my way, again thanks to relatives, to the house with the basement that was the model of the Master’s house in the book. The second time around, thanks to a great education from Indiana University and cultural anthropology and history postgraduate degrees, I was better able to understand the Russian literary and Soviet historical and cultural backgrounds of The Master and Margarita, all of which made this wonderful book even more meaningful to me.

The life of Mikhail Bulgakov and the writing of The Master and Margarita is itself as dramatic and tragic as The Master and Margarita itself. Bulgakov, who was born in Kiev to an educated family on 3 May 1891 by the old calendar, 15 May by the new one, trained to be a doctor and served as such in the Russian sticks. He wanted, however, more than anything else to be a writer. In the early 1920s Bulgakov moved to Moscow to become just that.

During his lifetime Bulgakov was better known for his plays, particularly his theatrical adaptation of his partially published novel White Guard (1929) renamed Day of the Turbins (1925), a play Stalin, for some reason, loved. Before he became known as a writer of plays, however, Bulgakov published a series of journalistic sketches between 1920 and 1922 later collected in the unpublished Notes on Shirt Cuffs, published a novella, the Wellsian dystopian satire The Fatal Eggs, about a well meaning scientific experiment gone awry thanks to scientific arrogance and government interference, a favourite theme of Bulgakov, in 1925, published several short stories based on his experiences as a doctor in medical journals between 1925 and 1927 (later collected in A Young Doctors Notebook), and published a collection of short stories under the title Diaboliad (1925) (the title story had been published in 1924 while another, "The Adventures of Chichikov", reveals Bulgakov's clear debt to Gogol very directly as the character Chichikov was the protagonist in Gogol's Dead Souls). Criticism of Bulgakov’s work by leading Bolshevik bureaucrats, however, inhibited him from publishing further stories and novellas including his wonderful 1925 satire A Dog's Heart/Heart of a Dog in which a scientist transplants the testes and glands of a man into a dog creating, in the process, the new Soviet man, leading Bulgakov to ask Stalin to let him leave the Soviet Union in 1928 since none of his work was allowed to be published making it impossible for him to make a living.

Stalin refused to allow Bulgakov to leave the USSR instead arranging a job for him at the famous Moscow Arts Theatre home to the famous Soviet theatre directors Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko and Constantin Stanislavsky. The Moscow Arts Theatre would provide the material for Bulgakov's unfinished and unpublished satirical A Theatrical Novel (1936). Bulgakov continued to write plays, some of which were produced, others which were not. He also continued work on what would eventually become his most famous work, The Master and Margarita. Since Bulgakov knew that The Master and Margarita would be impossible to publish he wrote it for the drawer, wrote it for posterity, between 1928 and 1940. The manuscript of The Master and Margarita, by the way, underwent several revisions throughout Bulgakov's lifetime. Unfortunately the master was unable to complete the final revision of the manuscript before his death in 10 March 1940. There is thus no final authoritative text of this great novel.

Posterity proved to be The Master and Margarita’s and Bulgakov's doing. An expurgated edition of the novel was published in the Soviet literary journal Moskva in 1966 and 1967 where it caused a sensation particularly among the young. In the West, thanks to Mirra Ginzburg’s and Michal Glenny’s translations, the book became a cult favourite and remains so to this day as generation after generation discover the book and many of its readers proclaim it their favourite, among them Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe, Mad Men’s Jon Hamm, and renaissance man Steven Fry. Radcliffe and Hamm, by the way, would go on to star in Sky TV's adaptation of Bulgakov's tales of doctoring in the sticks, A Young Doctor's Notebook in 2013.

Given the cult status of Bulgakov in the English speaking world it may surprise you to know that there have been five translations of The Master and Margarita into English. The first, that of Mirra Ginzburg, was done quickly from the censored and expurgated version published in Moskva. The Moskva expurgated version did not contain parts of chapters that were clearly satirical attacks on the NKVD, the predecessor to the KGB, and so neither does Ginzburg's. The second, that of Michael Glenny, later in 1967, restores most of the missing literary fragments from the expurgated Moskva version but was done from a Russian version that was still not complete and was not based on the best textual edition. Diana Burgin's and Katherine Tiernan O'Connor's translation for Ardis/Vintage/Picador, Richard Pevear's and Larissa Volokhonsky's (the flavour of the translation month these days) translation for Penguin, Michael Karpelson’s for Lulu/Wordsworth, and Hugh Aplin’s for One World, all based on superior Russian texts, followed in 1995, 1997, 2006, and 2008 respectively. All four have excellent notes and biographical information.

A few words on these translations: I still find Mirra Ginzburg's translation, the first one I ever read (one tends to romanticise ones first), to be the translation that, in my opinion, best captures the humour, poetry, and lyricism of Bulgakov's wonderful novel. It is not complete, however. If you are looking for the complete version of the The Master and Margarita choose the Burgin/O'Connor, Pevear/Volokhonsky, Karpelson, or Aplin. All have good notes and the Burgin and O'Connor and Asplin have some excellent biographical and critical appendixes relating to Bulgakov and The Master and Margarita, additional material that is quite helpful for understanding the novel. Regardless of which translation you choose--I very much like Burgin and O'Connor--choose one because The Master and Margarita is, in my opinion, as I said earlier, one of the greatest novels ever written and anyone who loves great literature should read it.

In closing it would be remiss if I failed to mention a few of the adaptations of The Master and Margarita in other media. Mick Jagger, rumour has it, wrote “Sympathy for the Devil” after Marianne Faithful introduced him to the novel. In 1971 the noted Polish director Andrzej Wajda brought the Pilate and Jesus realist thread of The Master and Margarita to the big screen in his Pilate and Others. In 2005 director Victor Bortko brought his superb ten-part adaptation of the novel to Russian television. It has since appeared on Sky in the UK. In 2008 Andrzej Klimowski and Danusia Schejbal adapted The Master and Margarita for the graphic novel market. In 2010 actor/director Simon McBurney and the theatre company he founded, Complicite, brought his adaptation of The Master and Margarita to the London stage. In the same year Israeli director Terentij Oslyabya made an animated film that follows the first chapter of the novel word for word.

Further Reading:
The Master and Margarita
Bulgakov's Master and Margarita

29 November 2010, 20 January 2011, 26 July 2013, August 2013, March 2014

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