Mikhail Bulgakov died in 1940 at the age of 48, unsung and virtually unknown. As was the case with so many of the brightest stars of early Soviet art and literature, his works — short stories, the novel “The White Guard” (1925), several plays — had been suppressed under the tightening Stalinist regime as not conforming to the ideals and strictures of Soviet realism. During the late nineteen-twenties he came under increasing attack from party-line critics and censors, and by 1930 he was completely barred from publication. In 1932, Bulgakov requested permission to emigrate, which Stalin personally refused; he was then allowed to work as a literary consultant to Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theater. In secret he continued writing the novel he had begun in 1928, completing it shortly before his death. Last winter, more than a quarter-century later, this novel was finally published in Russia. It appeared, in slightly censored from, in two issues of the literary magazine Moskva. It was immediately recognized as a masterpiece, and though complete literary freedom in the Soviet Union is still problematical, to say the least, Bulgakov’s posthumous resurrection seems assured, both at home and abroad. In this country two editions of the novel are being published simultaneously; the differences between them I shall get to anon.
Natural and Supernatural
“The Master and Margarita” is a rich, funny, moving and bitter novel in a tradition of fantastical satire that runs in Russian literature from Gogol to Tertz. It is, in fact, two novels – possibly three – in one. The cast is large, the events tumultuous, both natural and supernatural, the plotting intricate, and no brief summary can do it justice. The outside story, or layer, has to do with the arrival of the devil and his entourage (which includes a foul-mouthed cat named Behemoth who smokes cigars and is a dead shot with a Browning automatic) in Moscow in the nineteen-twenties and the incredible havoc they cause.
Inside of this, there is another, Faustian story, about the Master, who is trying to write a novel and is incarcerated in a mental institution, and his beloved Margarita, who does the Devil’s bidding in order to save the Master and their love. And inside of this is the novel the Master is writing, a powerful and moving interpretation of Pontius Pilate and the passion of Yeshua Ha-Nozri (Jesus) in Yerushalayim (Jerusalem).
Each of these layers illuminates and enriches the others; each has its own mood, ranging from hilarity to somber bitterness. The most obvious targets are the idiocies and cruelties that attend an eagerly totalitarian culture; but the overriding theme is the eternal battle of good and evil against a backdrop of general human frailty – the willingness of people to be corrupted, to be cowards, to accept satisfaction from doing knowing harm – and of occasional human strength, the power of love and personal integrity, here symbolized by Margarita and the Master, their dedication to each other and his dedication to his work and art.
Absorbing and Important
“The Master and Margarita” is obviously an important book; it is also an absorbing one, at once a vast and boisterous entertainment and an ironically mordant exploration of the contradiction in human nature. On the matter of the two American editions, both translations are excellent, though I find Mirra Ginsburg’s (Grove) slightly more relaxed in style. The Grove edition is also by far the more readably and (excepting jacket) handsomely designed. Yet the Harper & Row edition is slightly to be preferred because it contains approximately 23.000 words that were deleted in the Moskva printing.
Harper & Row supplied this column with the master proofs, so I was able to see exactly what these deletions were. None is crucial to the novel, though they were clearly the result of continuing ideological, political and puritanical censorship, or nervousness, or going through the motions. Most of the [c]uts have to do with the police, civil liberties and sensual abandon; what is fascinating is that the ridicule and display of same are endemic in the total work, so that the knit-picking censorship that was done really changes nothing. Still, the complete novel, as Bulgakov wrote it and as it appears in the Harper & Row edition, is preferable to a version we know was tampered with for at least bureaucratic reasons.