There are surprisingly many good books, some great books and of these a very few also achieve cult status. Joyce’s Ulysses is an obvious example, even if there are many readers who find it hard to connect with. A slightly less well-known example is Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita which however is hugely entertaining and a far easier read. Although written in Stalin’s Russia between 1928 and the time of Bulgakov’s death in 1940, state censorship prevented its publication in book form until 1967, and even then much of the text had been removed or altered.The 150,000 initial copies were sold out within hours.
In 1973 a complete and accurate Russian text was published. Subsequently at least three and a half million copies have been sold worldwide. There have been at least six English translations. The book has proved hugely influential. It has inspired 8 films, untold TV and theatre productions, numerous dance works and ballets, and many graphic and comic novels. Its content has provided a recurring theme of pop music; for example Mick Jagger’s Sympathy for the Devil. It has its own specialist website (www.masterandmargarita.eu/en/) and dedicated tours of Bulgakov’s Moscow take place as they do for Joyce’s Dublin.
One reason for its success is simple; it’s a very good story. The plot is based on a visit by the Devil and his entourage to Stalin’s intensely atheistic Moscow during the inter-war period. Satan arrives disguised as the curious Professor Woland (“platinum crowns on the left side of his mouth and gold on the right. .. Mouth somehow twisted … Right eye black, left – for some reason – green. “).. What chaos follows!
Woland’s visit is linked to an unpublished novel written by the eponymous Master about Christ’s trial and Crucifixion in Jerusalem (“Yershalaim”) and Pontius Pilate’s ineffectual attempts to save him. The manuscript’s rejection and vilification by the Soviet literary establishment has brought about the Master’s madness and confinement into a rather upmarket state-run lunatic asylum and his alienation from his mistress, the adorable Margarita.
The novel is divided into two parts. The first is principally a satire on human greed and vanity and in particular upon the Soviet literary establishment and Moscow’s newly rich citizens. The sycophantic writers are organised into a fictional association, Massolit. Based in a luxurious clubhouse, Griboedov’s; their every material need is catered for at very best prices. “But sterlet in a silver chafing dish, sterlet slices interlaid with crayfish tails and fresh caviar? And how did you like the fillets of thrush? With truffles? Quail a la genoise? Nine-fifty!” Massolit’s Chairman, Berlioz, is unfortunate enough to deny the historical existence of Christ to Woland, when he appears at the start of the book. Woland claims he has arrived in Moscow at the invitation of the State to expose the fraudulent nature of black magic. He then predicts, and he and his associates bring about, Berlioz’s death by decapitation from a tram
Berlioz’s sidekick, Ivan Nikolaevich “Homeless”, becomes deranged and transferred to the asylum. A theatre performance by Woland results in citizens losing their clothes, chasing after apparently convincing money and revealing the most embarrassing secrets of their private lives. Woland’s associates include a memorable and enormous black cat, Behemoth, who talks as well as making poor jokes, shoots pistols and tries to pay his tram fare with Russian money. The goings on are memorably funny and inventive with elements of slapstick, magic realism and science fiction.
The second part of the book, whilst equally imaginative and comical becomes more focussed on the ideas of love and courage. Woland and his associates have taken up residence in the flat formerly occupied by Berlioz, enlarged infinitely by the use of the “fifth dimension” into the setting of the Devil’s Walpurgis Night Ball on May Day’s Eve. Because of her love for the Master, Margarita acts as the Devil’s hostess at this spectacular event. She is transformed into a witch and flies naked through the night with her maid Natasha (not without a little far from innocent fun tormenting the Master’ critics in Massolit) before facing a parade of the great sinners of history, all revived from the dead by black magic. Her eventual reward from Woland is to join the Master in a state of blissful eternal peace while Pontius Pilate is released from a shadowy post-death hell.
Bulgakov draws on a vast variety of sources and influences to make a separate and convincing masterpiece. Goethe’s Faust and the tragedy of Man’s nature is perhaps the most central. Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, you name them, their influence can be recognised with ease. So can references to Freemasonry, the Manichean nature of the universe and the US Ambassador’s Ball of 1935! I even had fun trying to connect the antics of the Soviet police and secret agents around Woland’s apartment with memories of Edgar Allen Poe’s Murders in Rue Morgue. There just might be a connection.
In a way, none of this actually matters. The book is just a great read. It’s freely available from nearly all good booksellers and at £6.99 (Pocket Penguin edition, admittedly on rather poor paper), is cheap. So cheap it will actually cost no more from your local independent bookseller than the Internet after allowing for postage, so you can feel both virtuous and shrewd in supporting them!