The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov is a novel that is working on various different levels but regardless of that it is a book you will never forget and lingers on as you unravel the story in your mind trying to work out what it all means.
Bearing in mind the book was written against a background of Stalin’s Russia, where people would disappear in the middle of the night, friends would denounce each other and the Gulag system was at its height this conveys the sense of reality being distorted. Things that shouldn’t happen are happening in real life so the idea that people would wear clothes that then leave the naked after they vanish is no more stupid than the thought that people would change their ideas just to survive the purges.
The book starts with two atheists sitting in a park in Moscow talking about how Jesus didn’t exist when the Devil, a character under different names but mainly described as Woland, walks up and says he knows Jesus lived because he was there. There then unfolds the story of Pontius Pilate putting to death a man he knows is innocent told through a book that is being written by the character called the Master; a story of the Devil (Woland) running rampant through 1930s Moscow performing all sorts of acts in the guise of a magician with his henchmen; plus the love story of the Master and Margarita who leaves her life of bored luxury to follow the writer to the end.
Is it well written?
Some of the scenes will never be forgotten but and it is a challenge to get through what is clearly not a normal story. But it transmits the feeling of fear, oppression and topsy turvy decisions that must have been the norm in Stalin’s time. The Christ story is told in a way that is more narratively engaging than the traditional biblical story and the actions of Woland leave you sometimes bemused and at other points horrified. But as a satire on Modern Russia the only comparison that I have read, I’m sure there are plenty of others, is Animal Farm by George Orwell.
Should it be read?
The book is so well known that it would be odd if it was not consumed at some point by a reader and it deserves to be because rather than hide in the past and produce pastoral stories that implied the peasants needed a revolution, like some modern Russian authors, this is set clearly in modern Moscow. The other benefit of reading this is that it gives you a chilling insight into the power of the regime, as portrayed by Woland to literally erase or move people from their lives.
More Bulgakov, although as already posted The White Guard is very different in style, Animal Farm by Orwell or some of the non-fiction titles about life in Stalin’s Russia, In the Court of the Red Tsar is particularly good example by Simon Sebag-Montefiore.
Version read – Penguin modern classics paperback
For most people the name Mikhail Bulgakov is linked with the Master and Margarita, a book that is very different in style from The White Guard (I will post a review of the Master… later) so it is good to come to this with an open mind.
This book is on a par with other war time novels including All Quiet on the Western Front in describing what people feel under fire. The difference is that the setting is not trenches or woodland but on the streets of Kiev.
But not only is it a book about war but is also about revolution and impact of fluid and brutal politics on normal people trying to work out where their loyalties should lie.
The central focus of the story is the Turbin family – Alexei, Elena and Nikolka – and the City of Kiev. The year is 1918 and the Tsar’s regime has collapsed and the Germans are still in the Ukraine and those who fought for Russia or were cadets on their way to becoming officers sit and ponder what happens next. Events start to develop with the Germans, now a defeated nation , pulling out from the City and as the Cossack army advances each individual has to decide whether to fight or to melt into the background. Alexei is wounded and almost dies, Nikolka fights then runs but in so doing become a man and Elena loses a husband into exile but sees her brothers safe.
Is it well written?
It captures the fear and the inner turmoil of people facing the decision to fight or run and also the tension in the city. You want the main characters to survive and come out intact and Bulgakov makes sure that you are left worrying about them until the end and even then with the hint of more trouble to come you are left wondering just what becomes of them. This story is timeless because it is fundamentally about human nature and in terms of showing a host of emotions ranging from cowardice to bravery and grief and joy then the White Guard has real depth.
Should it be read?
What might prevent more people from reading this is not interest but availability and the problem with being able to see beyond the Master and Margarita. This is an engaging read that drags you in and despite its difficult subject is absorbing page turner that really gets you to care for the people inside number 13 St Andrew’s Hill and for the City itself as the guns are aimed at its heart from the armoured train waiting to crawl into Kiev and start the killing all over again.
In a way although it might lead to more Bulgakov the sort of books that are in a similar vein are All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque and Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane.
Version read – Fontana modern classics paperback
At the end of the Fontana paperback version of the White Guard I am reading there is an epilogue in the form of an article by Victor Nekrasov, written for a Moscow literary journal in 1967, who sets out to find the locations described in the book and eventually finds the house of the Turbins at 13 St Andrews Hill and manages to visit the people living there. In a piece, which is saved from just being simple hero worship because of its interest, he discovers that the Bulgakov family lived in the house and most of the content of the book is autobiographical.
The most interesting things he discovers are that as a consequence of describing the owner of the flat downstairs as a money hoarder the authorities thought there might be some truth in it and made his life difficult. That he did have a brother Nikolai and he died in exile in Paris. But the interesting thing that this topographer cannot explain is the most important two streets in the book – where the Turbins live and where the woman who saves Alexei lives – have their names changed while everything else stays the same.
The final thing that you have to remember is that the book followed a play The Days of the Turbins, which Stalin liked so much he saw 15 times and when Bulgakov found the censorship and life in Russia so hard he pleaded to be allowed to go into exile it was Stalin who telephoned him and made him stay – not someone you could really argue with.
“When you come to Kiev I invite you to walk down the steep slope of St Andrews’s Hill to No. 13, to glance into the backyard (be sure to notice the steps on the left, under the verandah, for it was just there that a shiver ran down poor Vasilisa’s belly when he caught sight of Yavdokha, the beautiful milkmaid), and then to go uphill, cross the ‘mediaeval’ courtyard of Richard the Lionheart’s Castle, and to go up on to the hilltop, sit down on the edge of it, light a cigarette if you like, and admire the City which, even though he never came back to it, Bulgakov loved so much.”
If you read the post earlier you will know that this book is being consumed with a smile on the face and eyes keenly scanning each word and it is a real shame that it has come to an end.
Anyway enough of the premature review and the gushing comments about Bulagov’s writing and onto the highlights of today’s reading.
Bullet points between pages 180 – 270
* The blanks are filled in with the story of what happened to Alexei after the story left him ripping off his epaulettes and when he stumbled through the front door injured and it involves him being chased by the Reds and then saved by a woman who takes pity on him
* Back in the Turbin’s home the old faces start to reassemble and there are arguments about being betrayed by the leadership but a truce of sorts is called because fears turn to thoughts of being raided
* Thieves raid the neighbour downstairs and as a result they agree a system of alarm bells to warn each other of trouble but discover that the thieves took the guns that Nikolka had hidden so carefully in the gap between buildings
* The population of the City has no idea what is going on but turns out at the cathedral to greet Petlyura, without any idea of what he looks like or even what he stands for, and cheer on an independent Ukraine
* Things then come to a climax with Alexei’s illness and it seems as if he is going to die from Typhus and there is a moment when the doctor tells Elena, his sister that there is no hope and she starts to pray
* You can feel the rhythmic intensity of her kneeling and kissing the floor in front of the icon as she pleads for her brother to be spared and makes a deal (slightly similar to the End of the Affair deal in Greene’s novel) that she will lose her husband to save her brother
* In a moving passage she is called from her room and her brother has pulled through and not too long afterwards she gets news that her husband has gone into exile in France and is divorcing her so the deal made in the prayers is balanced out
* Carrying out a promise Nikolka made to the colonel who was killed fighting with him he goes to his family and tells them of his death and then helps find the corpse and give him a proper burial
* Alexei returns to practicing medicine and as things become slightly more normal the independent Ukrainian forces disappear and the next stage of the Civil War is ushered in with no one knowing quite what it means for the City or the people who live in it
A full review will appear tomorrow…
It must be a real challenge for writers trying to describe the impact of a war on individuals and a city, a bit like painters trying to capture the sea in a storm, but Bulgakov manages to do it.
Over and over he manages to capture the sense of uncertainty, fear and cowardice that the soldiers of all ranks display in front of the enemy or possibility of combat
Bullet points between pages 110 – 179
* The Reds appear to have a coherent plan that tries to draw resistance out of the City in one direction while the attacks comes in the other but it quickly becomes clear that there is going to be sporadic and limited resistance
* The focus turns back to the city and chaos reigns as leaders succumb to fear and exhaustion and either flee or become so ineffective they might as well have left the field of battle
* There is a sequence focusing on the troop of men that are responsible for the running of four armoured cars that sums up the attitude of the White troops to the prospect of fighting the Reds
“By ten o’clock Pleshko was looking paler than ever. Two of his gunlayers, two drivers and one machine-gunner had vanished without trace. Every effort to get the three armoured cars moving proved fruitless. Shchur, who had been ordered out on a mission by Captain Pleshko, never returned. Needless to say his motor-cycle disappeared with him. The voices on the field-telephones grew threatening. The brighter grew the morning, the stranger the things that happened at the armoured-car troop; two gunners, Duvamn and Maltsev, also vanished, together with a couple more machine-gunners. The vehicles themselves took on a forlorn, abandoned look as they stood there like three useless juggernauts, surrounded by a litter of spanners, jacks and buckets.
By noon, the troop commander, Captain Pleshko himself, had disappeared too.” pg125
* Among the various stories across the front Nikolka is highlighted leading a troop of men out onto the streets to fight and Alexi reports to an abandoned school and has to go back to headquarters to discover the papers being burnt and defeatism set in before he really understands what is going on
* Nikolka barely escapes with his life after encountering the Reds and heads home in a state of shock where he sleeps and wakes to find a stranger in the house and his brother seriously wounded
* The family rally round to try and save Alexi but he has a bad wound in his arm and is delirious and suffering from fever for most of the time contrasting with Lariosik who with his clumsy ways and desperation to please is a bit of a comic character
More of this brilliant book tomorrow…
The blurb on the dust jacket of the book praises the description of Kiev describing it as the main character in the book but it takes until page 50 for it to be really introduced
Bullet points between pages 50 – 110
* Kiev is described in 1918 with a real love for the city coming through the description as well as a placing in a historical context with the German occupation, then the influx of Russian refugees following the revolution and also the opposition the city feels towards what was happening in Moscow
* Then there are a series of omens that indicate things are changing with firstly the ammunition dump on the top of Bare Mountain (remember Mussorgsky?) explodes, then the Germans release a communist insurgent Petlyura who starts to organise against them and then the Germans start to lose on the Western Front
“Only someone who has been defeated knows the real meaning of that word. It is like a party in a house where the electric light has failed; it is like a room in which green mould, alive and malignant, is crawling over the wallpaper; it is like the wasted bodies of rachitic children, it is like rancid cooking oil, like the sounds of women’s voices shouting obscene abuse in the dark. It is, in short, like death” pg65.
* The Germans start to pull out and those including Alexei and Nikolka who go off to do their duty, which they expect will be to garrison the town then march on Moscow when the White Army of Denikin arrives
* The recruits meet at their old school and are handed uniforms and get ready for potential action and all seem keen enough to emulate the troops at Borodino who repulsed Napoleon under the leadership of Tsar Nicholas I
* But things change overnight and the Hetman and their generals abandon them to 100,000 Red Army troops so the troops are dismissed and told to head back to their homes and forget about trying to fight against superior numbers
* The story then switches to take up the point of view of the communists who have moved troops up in a circle around the city and have started bombarding it with artillery
More to come…
The First World War and revolution are such deep wells to draw on to provide inspiration for events and characters that it is almost impossible not to feel the fear of approaching violence from the very first pages of Bulgakov’s book
It is the perfect book to follow Taras Bulba because again the location is the Ukraine and again the backdrop is war.
Bullet points between pages 3 – 50
* You are introduced to Kiev in the last month of 1918 and a family of three – Elena, Alexei and Nikolka – who are burying their mother and are left all alone in their second floor apartment to live and defend for themselves
* The eldest son Alexei is studying to be a doctor, Elena is married to a solider Talberg and Nikolka is 17 and they are surviving the cold winter burning wood on the stove when they hear the distant sound of artillery fire
* The sound is put in context with the city being occupied by the Germans but being attacked by the communists and Elena is worried because her husband Talberg has yet to return home
* The door bell rings but it is an old friend come from the shambles of the front and he scares them with his talk of frostbite, machine gun fire and the chaotic state of headquarters
* Talberg does return but reveals that the Germans are pulling out and he is a marked man and so is going to go with them into hiding and try to link up with General Denikin’s troops in the South and return with that army
* Two more old friends and soldiers arrive and they start discussing the war and show their loyalty to the Tsar, which frightens the neighbour below who has acted as a metaphor for the fear the townsfolk are feeling about the rise of communism
More tomorrow and the final parts of the Odyssey tonight…