Essay & Book Review: Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita

 (Subtitled: Evidence of the Fatal Crack in Soviet Power.)

The Master and Margarita

Reading Ages: 18+*
Category: Classical Fiction
Overall Rating: ★★★★★
(*NB.
Not suitable for younger readers.)

The Master and Margarita, written during one of the darkest decades of the twentieth century, is what many critics claim to be Mikhail Bulgakov’s crowning publication. However, for twenty-six years, it remained out of print, impossible to be published in times of strict Soviet literary politics – and for good reason. It is a devastating satire of Soviet life, especially within the literary world of that time. The novel’s audacious portrayal of Christ and Pontius Pilate and especially that of Satan seems to combine into a sense of freedom: a rare thing in the Great Terror of the thirties in Russia. This, all contained within Bulgakov’s shimmering, risqué tone, would have certainly brought about the prompt but permanent disappearance of The Master and Margarita‘s author, had the manuscript come to the knowledge of Stalin’s police. The very language of it was electrifying and thrilling in comparison to the wooden style imposed upon writers of his time. It is the much-quoted line, ‘Manuscripts don’t burn,’ which truly encompasses Mikhail Bulgakov’s drive for the triumph of the creative arts (imagination and the free word) over the oppression and terror it faced. In every way, The Master and Margarita strove to rebel against the very forces which shaded it from public eyes for more than a quarter of a century.

Bulgakov himself was under much the same suppression as the novel when he began work on it in 1929. It was revised, burned and resurrected countless many times, even as he struggled with the greatest time of suffering for his people; Russia’s peasantry was decimated, its agriculture destroyed and every breath was scrutinised by the secret police. Only a year after The Master and Margarita‘s conception, its author felt so constrained by the political whirlwind that filled every corner of every life in the state that he was no longer able to publish his work at all, forthrightly controversial or not. In a moment of staggering confidence, he sent a letter to the central government enclosing a request for emigration, so as to live his life in a less hostile literary climate. Not granted freedom, he was instead permitted employment at a theatre “as a titular director,” by Stalin himself at the Moscow Art Theatre. However, he only succeeded in completing two productions, neither of which were his own work, and the nature of The Master and Margarita – with its constantly evolving characters and mood – reflected the struggles in his own life to a great extent.

This range within the narrative voice is what really solidifies the novel into something more than just a verbal construction; containing undertones of Biblical, Epic Poetic and satirical language, he constrains the many tones into one personal narrative, the continuity of which is emphasised through repeated phrases, echoed through ages and characters, preserves its stylistic unity. Bulgakov addresses his “duty as a writer” with impassioned intensity to “struggle against censorship”, and he does so with almost terrifyingly bold impunity.

A must-read.

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