Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Devil came down to Moscow

I think there's a scene in Bergman's Seventh Seal where the knight asks the witch if she can tell him how to summon the devil, and to her question about why he would want to meet the devil, he says it's because he wants to ask him about God.

There has always been a sense in which we're more comfortable with the devil.  In Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus there's an observation that common people, at least, have a comfort level with Old Scratch that they may lack with higher powers:  "[Dem Volk] stand sogar immer die drastische, obszön humoristische Figur des Teufels näher als die obere Majestät...."

Be that as it may, I'm not here today to talk about The Seventh Seal or Doktor Faustus, but Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, which I just finished this last weekend.  It's a novel about a visit by Satan to Moscow sometime in the thirties.  That's also when it was written, but, not too surprisingly, the manuscript wasn't pulled out of hiding and published until the 1960's, in the somewhat-thawed Soviet Union of Leonid Brezhnev. 

[A Certain Young Person of my Acquaintance, of good Judgment and liberal Education, has complained of my occasional posting of untranslated non-English text, finding this somewhat rude and borderline arrogant.  And I suppose it is, even if I usually try to give the sense of such passages.  I mention this because, perhaps thankfully, I don't know a word of Russian, so there's no danger here of Cyrillic characters making an unwelcome appearance.] 

But, getting back to Bulgakov, when I finished the book it occurred to me that he had indeed taken advantage of that familiarity we feel with a devilish character, even in a subordinate role.  Satan appears in the very first scene as a mysterious foreigner who calls himself "Woland."  He brings with him to Moscow a small but fantastic entourage, most strikingly his black cat Behemoth, who smokes cigars, plays chess and packs a pistol.  Only considerably later do we meet our protagonists, the unhappy writer, called only the "master," and Margarita, who is entirely devoted to him.

Now Woland is very much like Mephistopheles, and one might expect then in the master a Faust-figure.  But that's not so.  Rather, in Margarita, we have a character who enters with relish the revelries of a Walpugisnacht (actually, a Satanic ball for the damned), but only so that she can save her beloved master from the despair into which he has fallen.

That's one main thread of the story, and it is embellished with any number of side stories, with Woland playing tricks on the greedy, small-minded inhabitants of Moscow.  There are satirical jabs at the bureaucrats who control access to the status of "writer" in a totalitarian government and at the self-satisfied atheism of officialdom.  But this is not Solzhenitsyn.  The narrative is concerned, not with great crimes, but with petty humiliations.

But that's only one thread.  Interwoven throughout is a second tale, whose protagonist is "the cruel fifth procurator of Judea, the equestrian Pontius Pilate."  The second story is familiar, the trial and execution of Jesus of Nazareth.  It veers rather significantly from the canonical account, but that shouldn't be surprising, since the first "installment" is told by Woland himself as something he witnessed (and surely we are justified in thinking Satan an "unreliable narrator" of these events).  Later, however, it happens that the master has written a novel--a novel whose manuscript he has burnt--about Pontius Pilate.  And without, I hope, giving too much away, by the end of the novel the two strands start to merge.

It's a curious book.  Woland is an orthodox-enough Satan, not an evil counterpart to God, but the negating spirit who despite his mischief brings about reconciliation and peace.   There is witchcraft and devilry, but no Christian religion, no Church.  One would be tempted to say as well, no God, except there is some small part played by Jesus, who is, after all, for Christians (obviously) God. So it's all an odd, satirical, but also touching and strangely reverent book that is rooted in, but also transcends the absurdities and cruelties of Stalin's Soviet Union.  

The illustration above is by Peter Suart, from the Folio Society edition that came out in 2010. The translators are Richard  Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky--I have their translations of Doctor Zhivago and Gogol's tales, and they seem to be running through the canon.  Their style is straightforward, almost journalistic, even when the narrative shifts into fantasy, the breaking of the extraordinary into the humdrum.  I understand that the novel remains wildly popular in Russia, and I'm embarrassed to say that I had never heard of it until Folio offered it.  Though the novel never saw the light of day during the author's lifetime, he apparently wrote a few plays that were not only performed, but which Stalin seems to have approved.  That approval was short-lived, however, and Bulgakov was at some point forbidden to write further.  He actually wrote a letter to Stalin asking if he could leave the Soviet Union, because he was broke and on the verge of starvation; he never got an answer.  We might think him lucky not to have been shot, in the circumstances, and perhaps Stalin, if he took notice of the request, thought the appropriate response to a banned and starving artist simply self-executing.        

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