For years, the name Mikhail Bulgakov has floated around the edge of my reading; curiously, for someone who loved Russian literature in my youth, I had never made the attempt to read him. But last week, to grips with The Master and Margarita, and a chthonic struggle it was too. There was the normal difficulty with names – I often find names difficult to remember in complex plots, but in Russian novels, with the changes between the surname and the personal and patronymic, the challenge is greater – and Bulgakov piles it on with an enormous cast of characters, flying hither and yon at great speed.
The setting is theatrical, dramatic, and fast moving, but the opening gives little warning of this. Two literary characters are conducting a desultory and rather pretentious conversation, when they are joined by an odd man, who seems to know almost everything, including the existence of the devil, and the impending - and totally unexpected – death of one of them. His death, and the antics of the stranger and his companions, set off a manic chain of events across Moscow and beyond, including black magic, a witches’ sabbath, several personal disasters and embarrassments, all within a breakneck narrative which can hardly contain them.
The mysterious stranger, of course, is the Devil, and his companions include a black cat and a naked redheaded witch. One of their victims ends up in a madhouse, where he meets a man who calls himself the Master. The Master had written a novel, but had fallen into madness and despair when it could not be published (it is clearly full, like The Master and Margarita itself, of anti-Soviet satire). The Master doesn’t seem especially saintly, but his love for young woman called Margarita is the central theme of the book: through routes devious and chaotic, they earn their freedom (and happiness?) through serving the Devil – Margarita acts as the Devil’s hostess at a witches’ ball, and they are granted a long and peaceful life in a secluded cottage somewhere off inter-galactic highway 7 (Moscow to Gehenna) right at the end of the book.
So the traditional Faust story is turned on its head rather, and the chaos surrounding the Devil often doesn’t seem evil, just a case of tricks and stratagems which often punish the hypocrites and minor criminals that abounded in the fabric of everyday Soviet life. I found it very compelling, mainly through a pressing desire to know what happened next, but I did not find it either coherent or easy to follow. Nor did I find it hilarious, another common reaction: yes it was certainly often amusing, but it was for me a thing of shreds and patches, wonderful and bizarre, brilliantly satiric and bumbling slapstick, by turns. I suspect that this is a novel much better read in the original: certainly the language, as well as the plot, was sometimes tortured and difficult.