Mikhail Bulgakov penned his most highly regarded work, The Master and Margarita, sometime between the late 1920s and the 1930s. The book was not to be published until long after his death because it was literally too dangerous to stray so wildly outside the orthodoxy of state-dictated merit known as Socialist Realism. Joseph Stalin would have been apoplectic that a Russian writer would ever dare to write such a novel. Many who tried were made to disappear. For the rest of us, the book is a bold and original feast.
The distinctive voice of The Master and Margarita is perfectly off-hand in an immortally bemused tone. An all-seeing narrator both delivers up a scene and gives us our reaction to it. “The basement window was open and if anybody had looked into it he would have been struck by the odd appearance of the two people.” The next paragraph begins, “The room, too, looked strange and it was hard to discern any order beneath the chaos (409)”. I enjoy the effect of having my attitude toward a scene given to me. There’s nothing very strongly dissonant in Bulgakov’s handling of readers in this way, but there’s potential here for dramatically wrenching a reader with benign images and foreboding commentary. I’m guessing that Murakami made a study of Bulgakov’s technique, and I’m tempted to run with this idea. I imagine a passage telling readers that, “The idyllic scene of the cottage, surrounded as it is by an ecstatic profusion of wildflowers, puts us at our ease. The freshness of the cool and fragrant air lightens the spirits, . . .except that there is something terribly wrong. It’s too clean. Perversely clean and orderly.” It’s a fun way to write.
Another curious quality of Bulgakov’s novel is that the energy of the prose keeps the story tumbling giddily along, much of the time without any clear sense of direction. The roving narrator carries us intimately into the experience of a large number of characters. The protagonist is a writer named Berlioz, then it’s Pontius Pilate, then Berlioz is dead and it’s Ivan Nicoleyich, but no . . . and as events become more darkly surreal it’s clear that there’s an unmentioned antagonist running beneath the scenes, and that’s the nascent Soviet state and its infamous Chekka or secret police. Stepping back from the novel at this still-early point my appreciation for the breadth of Bulgakov’s undertaking really took form, though–as I said earlier- I had no idea where this story might be going. The novel is a social critique, a political diatribe, and an exploration of morality. As a story line emerges the surreal resolves into a fantasy beginning with the introduction of the protagonist, Margarita, on page 243. “FOLLOW me reader!” Bulgakov writes, as he embarks on a supernatural love story.
Like so many before me, I’m a fan. I happily follow. More than that, I aspire to imitate.
Bulgakov, Mikhail. The Master and Margarita. New York: Harper and Row, 1967.