Monday, March 16, 2015

Sympathy for the Devil

"Pah, the Devil!" exclaimed the editor.

Mikhail Bulgakov's legendary novel, The Master and Margarita, begins on a park bench in 1930s Stalin-era Russia. A literary editor, Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz, is explaining to his contributor poet, Ivan Nikolaevich, that he will have to rewrite his poem about Christ because he wasn't emphatic enough about the non-existence of Jesus. Enter a stranger, a "foreigner," who tells them not only was he present at the crucifixion, but that he, Berlioz, is to be beheaded by a woman that night. Alarmed that such a nutter was prowling Moscow, Berlioz runs off to alert the authorities, but on his way he slips on sunflower oil, stumbling over tram tracks, his head sliced off by a female conductor who can't brake the car in time. Witness to this, a terrified Ivan has a wild night that leaves him running through Moscow's streets in his underwear and eventually into a mental institution.

Such a promising beginning: this stranger, Woland, and his henchmen proceed to terrorize Moscow, most especially its theatrical arts community. Among his retinue are Fagot, an unfortunately named interpreter with cracked pince nez glasses; Azazello, a cross-eyed, single-fanged albino thug in a bowler hat; and Behemoth, a huge black tomcat that walks on hind legs and makes wisecracks. Woland performs at a "seance" exposing the materialistic greed underlying communist Russia, with hundreds of women rushing the stage to shop French wares, while thousands of ten-rouble notes floating from the rafters are lunged for avariciously by audience members (which turn out to be counterfeit). There is a long night of horror where the theater people are visited by these devils; they disappear, some into thin air, others inexplicably to other places in Russia, not unlike what must have happened to many artists, writers, and thinkers in Stalinist Russia. Woland and his bad dudes set up camp in the deceased Berlioz's opulent flat and conduct black magic on any and all parasites or authorities who venture to bother them.

The Bad Guys: Woland, Behemoth, Fagot

What begins with such promise is lost when Bulgakov brings the titular characters into it. The Master and Margarita are star-crossed lovers, the former a frustrated novelist with an unpublished manuscript about Pontus Pilate, Judea's proconsul during the crucifixion, the latter a frustrated housewife/muse. The Master is in the same madhouse as the poet Ivan Nikolaevich, while Margarita is recruited by Azazello to be the hostess at The Great Ball of Satan's (a truly weird moment in a weird book) so that she might be reunited with the Master. So, suddenly, we're in a love story, but a half-assed one, where the characters lack character. We know they love each other because Bulgakov has told us so-- but like nearly everyone in this long, diverging narrative, they aren't fully developed as sympathetic people so this reader at least did not care one way or another whether they stayed together.

How this love story fits into Stalinist Russia I was not able to figure out. Nor did I unravel the enigma of Pontus Pilate, of which passages of the Master's manuscript cover about a fifth of the book-- what the assassination of Judas and Pilate's insomnia has to do with the totalitarian Russia of the 1930s I could not quite make sense of. Nor did I understand why Margarita would champion the novel and the Master's artistic talent. The Master is hardly the type of guy a beauty like Margarita would credibly give up her worldly possessions for (she's married to a rich bureaucrat or something); he lacks confidence, money, strength of character, and, as this reviewer has noted, artistic talent. He whines and mopes while she swoons and gushes. Margarita makes a deal with the Devil, Woland, to host his silly party, detailed in a chapter containing numerous surreal passages of surprisingly dull prose: "On the stage behind the tulips, where the waltz king's orchestra had been playing, there now raged an ape jazz band. A huge gorilla with shaggy side-whiskers, a trumpet in his hand, capering heavily, was doing the conducting. Orangutans sat in a row blowing on shiny trumpets."

What a shindig. The Devil and his entourage have all the choice lines, the style, and the chutzpah, while the Muscovites, from the artists to the authorities to the peasants, are generally fearful, acquisitive, and bereft of imagination. Whether this was a sort of criticism on Soviet society I don't know, but in glorifying the Devil, Bulgakov isn't so much worshipping as suggesting evil isn't as one-dimensional as it's made out to be: "What would your good do if evil didn't exist, and what would the earth look like if all the shadows disappeared? After all, shadows are cast by things and people." This is an interesting idea for the 1930s considering that the Stalin government was murdering dissenters daily and Hitler was assembling his wartime apparatus.  Bulgakov reportedly burned his manuscript  at least once (like the Master in the novel). He died in 1940 and the novel wasn't published until 1966. But had he lived longer to witness in the papers Auschwitz and Hiroshima, would he have maintained a sympathetic feeling for the Devil? In modern times, evil had never been so one-dimensionally obvious as it was during the Second World War.

Monocled Mikhail Bulgakov

But maybe I'm missing Bulgakov's point. After all, there is still so much of the novel I couldn't really make sense of. That would be OK if for not one glaring failure. I can accept a meandering, puzzling, complicated storyline loaded with symbolism that I might not fully grasp (I'm comparatively under-read in Russian literature and history), but nearly 600 pages of mediocre prose does not make for sustainable pleasure in reading. There are moments of exquisite, absurd, humorously rendered evil when Woland and his cronies are harassing Moscow's literati, but most of the novel, especially the story of the title characters and the Jerusalem crucifixion is a slog to get through. Often, the prose is so torturously bad that reading becomes endurance rather than indulgence.  I began losing interest in the book, thinking of only of getting to the end. This is a translation, of course (a very popular edition by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky from Penguin Classics), so I cannot say for sure whether Bulgakov is good or bad as a prose stylist (I'm willing to grant him a vivid imagination). Lacking evidence, I suspect the translators. No doubt, there is a real conundrum for word handlers: how to faithfully reproduce the exact author's intentions, without aesthetically altering the text seems a formidable task. But perhaps prose should be altered more, or at least delicately edited by a poet. Not to take anything from translators, who are enormously talented in their bilingualism, but few of them are genuine writing talents, which is something altogether different from understanding how a sentence sounds in two languages. Choosing the right words, the most precise, naturalistic, fluent prose is a devilish task. Bulgakov's demonic Woland, while a mischievous cretin, is charming enough to  deserve a better English stylist than the ones he had in this edition.

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