Gleb Struve. [Review of "The Master and Margarita" by Mikhail Bulgakov]

There are at least two novel and striking features in the Soviet literature of the post-Stalin period. One of them is what could be described as “émigré books by non-émigré writers.” The best known example of such books is, of course, Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, but they include also Akhmatova’s Requiem, Lydia Chukovskaya’s The Deserted House, Evtushenko’s Precocious Autobiography, Brodsky’s poems, Valery Tarsis’ first three novels (Tarsis became an “émigré” after their publication abroad), and some others. In the past there had been only one such major work, viz. Zamyatin’s We, and Zamyatin did end by emigrating.

The other novel feature is what someone (I think it was Max Hayward) has aptly called “the submerged literature” – works written under Stalin, but banned, withheld, secreted away, or never even taken out of their author’s desk-drawer, and now “resurrected.” The existence of such “desk-drawer” literature was mentioned soon after World War II by Alexander Werth. In some cases, the two categories overlap (this is true, for instance, of both Requiem and The Deserted House). One can easily imagine some of those works being destroyed by their authors during the Zhdanov period and then restored from memory (such was apparently the case with Requiem). Bulgakov was no longer alive when Zhdanov launched his witch-hunt, and his submerged work has survived and is now coming to the surface. The Master and Margarita is an outstanding example of this submerged literature. I first heard of its existence, and of it being a masterpiece, in 1962, but five years passed before it was published.

Until recently Bulgakov was little known in the West outside the circle of those who took a special interest in Soviet literature. His excellent satirical story “The Fatal Eggs” was first published in English in 1965, in a volume of satirical works by different Soviet writers. Those who had heard of Bulgakov knew him best perhaps by his play The Days of the Turbins, based on his own Civil War novel The White Guard (now also published in the Soviet Union): it was produced by the Moscow Art Theater, and, except for a short interval when it was decided to ban it, enjoyed a great success. Some of his other plays (Zoyka’s Apartment, The Purple Island) were also banned, either outright or after a short run, and were never published. His literary rehabilitation came after Stalin’s death when a volume of his plays, including another Civil War play, Beg (Flight) as well as plays about Moliere and Don Quixote, was published with an introduction by the well-known Soviet drama scholar Pavel Markov. Bulgakov himself had never been “repressed” in the sense in which so many other Soviet writers were repressed. Until his death in 1940 he worked as a literary consultant for the Moscow Art Theater, for which he dramatized Gogol’s Dead Souls. But he was literally hounded out of literature. And when, following the example of Zamyatin, he applied to Stalin for permission to leave the Soviet Union, this was refused.

In recent years, the volume of plays was followed by Memoirs of a Doctor (Bulgakov had been a physician by his original profession) and by The Theatrical Novel, a rather scathing satire on the Moscow Art Theater and its bigwigs. The play Ivan Vasilievich, published abroad in 1964, has since appeared in another version and under a different title in one of the peripheral Soviet magazines (Zvezda Vostoka in Tashkent). In that play Bulgakov mixes fantasy and reality by bringing Ivan the Terrible into the Soviet literary, theatrical, and cinematographic milieu of the thirties, just as in one of his earlier satirical stories he made fun of certain aspects of the Soviet regime by bringing Chichikov from Gogol’s Dead Souls into the Russia of the N<ew> E<conomic> P<olicy>.

There is something of this device in The Master and Margarita. As both the title and the motto (From Goethe’s Faust) suggest it is conceived as a modern paraphrase of the Faust legend. One of its main protagonists, next to the nameless Master and his younger lover, is Mephistopheles in the guise of a foreign magician named Wolland, who arrives in the Soviet Moscow of the late twenties or early thirties and creates veritable havoc among its inhabitants. One American critic (Raymond Rosenthal in The New Leader) has described him as Bulgakov’s “sentimental devil.” The chapters dealing with Wolland’s activities in Moscow (there is even a counterpart of the Walpurgis Nacht), written with great verve, enable Bulgakov to give free rein to his rich satirical gift, his fertile imagination, and his keen sense of the grotesque.

But there is more than this in Bulgakov’s novel. It is built on three levels, and, besides the biting satire on Soviet everyday life, there are also a romantic story of the Master (Bulgakov himself? Or a synthetic image of a creative artist?) and his lover and a novel within the novel. This latter is being written by the Master (but is it not also told by Bulgakov’s Devil?), and its principal character is Pontius Pilate, with Jesus Christ, Matthew the Levite, and Judas also playing a part in it. This story of Pilate and Christ (it occupies pages 16-39, 169-180, and 297-328 in the Glenny version) departs in many essential respects from the Gospel story. This has not prevented Archbishop John (Shakhovskoi), the head of the Russian-Orthodox diocese of the West Coast in the United States, who wrote the introduction to the separate Russian edition published in Paris, from saying that the “revolutionary” character of Bulgakov’s novel has to do with Christ and that Bulgakov was the first in Soviet Literature to speak “seriously” of Him “as of a reality present in the depths of the world.” Incidentally, it is Bulgakov’s Devil who, at the very beginning of the novel, in a conversation with two Soviet citizens, to whom he later demonstrates his magic powers by causing the “accidental” death of one of them, asserts unequivocally the existence (though not the divinity) of Christ. It is, however, Pilate, and not Christ, who is the central figure in the Master’s (or the Devil’s) story. And the main problem is his obsession with his sin, which is that of cowardice.

The novel appeared first in two issues (November 1966 and January 1967) of the Soviet magazine Moskva. It was then published in Italian translation and Russian by the YMCA Press in Paris. The American version by Mirra Ginsburg was in the press when it became known that the editors of Moskva had made considerable cuts in Bulgakov’s text. At a suggestion emanating from Moscow these cuts were obtained (allegedly with the official blessing) by an Italian publisher and printed as a separate booklet in Switzerland. They were then incorporated in a new Italian edition and Michael Glenny’s British version, which is thus the more complete of the two English ones. The story sounds almost too good to be true. One can imagine Bulgakov himself enjoying it immensely: it reads like something out of his own fiction.

There has since been a controversy about the significance of those cuts. Moskva, allegedly, made them for reasons of space, but made no mention of them whatever. They amounted in all, to 23,000 words, spread mostly over Part Two of the novel. There are many cuts of between 10 and 100 words, but there are also seventeen censored-out passages of no less than 200 words, and two quite big chunks, one of 1,750 words (at the beginning of the chapter describing the burning of the Griboedov House) and one of 3,225 words (a very amusing satirical passage, presented as a dream of Nikanor Ivanovich). In the novel about Pilate there are fewer cuts (a total of about 1,600 words, the biggest single passage amounting to ca. 700 words), but those cuts are quite important and include several sentences persistently stressing Pilate’s sin of cowardice and his obsession with it. While it is difficult to discern a clear pattern in those cuts, there is no justification for Mirra Ginsburg’s opinion that they may have been dictated by considerations of literary quality. Some of them, as those in the Pilate story, are obviously significant, others undoubtedly would have helped to intensify the satirical intent of the novel.

There has also been a controversy about the literary merits and the accuracy of the two English versions (see the exchange of letters in the New York Times Book Review for January 14 between Mirra Ginsburg, Patricia Blake – who wrote the original review of the novel for the N.Y.T. Book Review and described both versions as “excellent” – and Michael Glenny). Suffice it to say that, while the British version has the indisputable advantage of being unexcised and reads quite well (perhaps a trifle too smoothly), Mirra Ginsburg’s charge of gross mistranslations in it is well substantiated (the present reviewer became suspicious of Mr. Glenny’s accuracy when on p. 8 he found the word figural’no rendered as “numerical expressions” – instead of “figuratively” – and then began to detect more and more such howlers). There is also a strange omission of some thirteen lines in Mr. Glenny’s version on p. 6. There may be some inaccuracies – and a few words left out here and there – in Mirra Ginsburg’s translation, but as far as I was able to check they are quite venial.

The novel, with its three interlocking planes, is too complex to do it justice and analyze it in depth with a short review. No doubt it will continue to be discussed and interpreted. It is certainly something that stands apart from the bulk of Soviet literature, not only of the thirties when it was written, but also of the post-Stalin period. It may turn out to be Bulgakov’s magnum opus (there are now, however, reports of another, and better, novel of his being on the way). But is it a great novel, as some people seem to think? My feeling is that somehow Bulgakov has failed to integrate the three levels of the novel, and this is its main shortcoming. The picture of Soviet Moscow and of various Muscovites, most of whom bear such amusing names, ranging from Berlioz and Rimsky to Varenukha and Mogarych, and the story of their confrontation with the Devil and his funny companions, is the best Bulgakov in his grotesque, Gogolian vein. The story of Pontius Pilate, written in a different key and written very well (this shows us a new “face” of Bulgakov), is very interesting and has a significance of its own, though the purport of distorting the Gospel story remains unclear. But the story of The Master and Margarita and of their relationship, which should be central to the novel, somehow does not come off. Nor does it quite tie in with the other two components. And the ultimate significance in Bulgakov’s Satan, his Mr. Wolland, escapes the reader. Is he meant to be not only “sentimental,” as Mr. Rosenthal has said, but also kind and charitable? Is he the embodiment of Evil in the world? Or must he and his grotesque henchmen be contrasted with the evilness of the real world? There is a hint at this in one of the censored-out passages in the description of Wolland’s music-hall show.

It has been said that Bulgakov never quite finished his novel; that, having begun it in 1928, he worked on it until his death in 1940 and might have gone on revising and retouching it if he had not died then. The following question also arises: If Moskva, for reasons unstated and never explained, decided to make substantial cuts in the novel, what guarantee do we have that the 23,000 words represent all the cuts made? Perhaps one day we shall find this out and – who knows? – the remaining part of this submerged iceberg may then float up to the surface.

Source: The Russian Review 27: 3 (July 1968), 338-343. Text prepared by Samantha Bodamer.