Genesis of the novel

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We may assume that Bulgakov started writing The Master and Margarita at the end of 1928, or at the beginning of 1929. It can be deducted from the fact that he presented the fourth chapter of his second version in May 1929 to the publisher Nedra. When Bulgakov continued writing sporadcally in 1931 he wrote 1929-1931 on the cover, but on the cover of the fifth version in 1937 he wrote 1928-1937.

He continued working on it until some weeks before his death in 1940. So The Master and Margarita would accompany him in the most difficult years of his life.

Bulgakov's archives have been unaccessible for many years. Moreover Bulgakov saved some of his rough drafts, but others he destroyed. The first two versions of the novel are known by two big notebooks which the writer had partly teared apart. Marietta Omarovna Chudakova (°1937) was the first Russian scholar who, in 1977, tried to reconstruct these first texts. But the genesis of the book took twelve years, with six different versions, sometimes very complex ones, and sometimes in contradiction to each other. They show many interruptions and revisions.

And there are still new discoveries. An example of which is the diary that Bulgakov held between 1921 and 1925. It had been confiscated in 1926, and showed up again only much later. The typewritten copies were only published in 1990. So it is not impossible that more sources show up offering the possibility for new surprising views on the novel and its development.

Bulgakov's sources

Bulgakov consulted many sources before starting to write The Master and Margarita. He sorted them in two columns which were respectively called God and The devil. Besides the canonical gospels his main sources were:

The Life of Christ - Farrar, Frederic [en] - 1874
Das Leben Jesu, kritisch bearbeitet - David Strauss [de] - 1835
La Vie de Jésus - Ernest Renan [fr] - 1863
Le Procurateur de Judée - Anatole France [fr] - 1892
The Gospel of Nicodemus - Nicodemus [en] - 1924
The Brockhaus-Efron encyclopaedia - Russische encyclopedie [ru] - 1906
The History of the relation of Man with the Devil - Mikhail Orlov [ru] - 1904

He made annotations of whatever he found in these sources and which found its way to the novel - or disappeared from it again.

On the original manuscript are shown different projects of titles which Bulgakov had in mind for his masterpiece: Великий канцлер (The Great Chancellor), Сатана (Satan), Вот и я (Here I am), Шляпа с пером (The Hat with the Feather), Черный богослов (The Black Theologian), Он появился (He appeared), Подкова иностранца (The Foreigner's Hoof), Он явился (There he is!), Пришествие, Черный маг (The Black Magician) and Копыто консультанта (The Hoof of the Advisor).

The title Вот и я (Here I am) refers to the exclamation "Me Voici!". With these words the devil appears to Faust in the opera by Gounod. Bulgakov had quite difficult to find a good ending for his novel, more in particular he struggled with the question what reward the Master should receive. There are manuscripts left in which Bulgakov explains the thematical relations between himself, the Master and Pilate, and between the historical scenes and the scenes in Moscow, but they would not be included in the final version.

First version (1928-1929)

The first version of the novel had sixty pages and fifteen chapters, and it was entitled Копыто инженера or The Engineer's Hoof. But the manuscript pages of the first version also showed traces of other titles Bulgakov had thought of: Черный маг or The Black Magician, Гастроль (Воланда) or The Tour (of Woland), Сын В or The son of W, and Жонглер с копытом or The Juggler with the hoof.

The meanings of these different titles are quite obvious. The hoof as to be seen here as the devil's traditional attribute. In the first version the devil is introduced as a stranger, a foreigner. These words are often related to the devil in Russian culture and in the 20's they were used as bywords for spy in the official propaganda. The word engineer refers both to a bourgeois and a foreigner. In that time there were quite some bourgeois-specialists - foreigners with a technical training - working in the Soviet Union. They had volunteered to co-operate with the soviet authorities without necessarily sharing the (entire) ideology. In the summer of 1928 the Shakhty case had started, the first of Stalin's notorious show trials, in which several prominent engineers were accused of espionage and sabotage.

The construction of the first version corresponded rather well with the final version of the novel. The Moscow story was already in it, and would only have anecdotical changes in the later versions. But the breakdown of the material, the phrasing and the structure of the text would require a lot of work.

The Engineer's Hoof starts with a preamble in which the narrator, who disappears afterwards, apologizes in the best tradition of the chroniclers for his awkwardness and his lack of professionalism. But the strange nature of the events justifies his decision to reach for his pen: “I swear on my honour, as soon as I reach for my pen to describe these monstrous events, I feel permeated by a feeling of terror. There is one thing which worries me though - because I'm not a writer, I'm afraid that I won't be able to tell everything in a coherent way”.

The story starts at Patriarch's Ponds on a hot afternoon in June – the supernatural events will take place in the night between June 24 and 25, the Saint John's Eve. The Saint John's Eve is the christian version of the primeaval Midsummer Night. In the night before the birthday of Saint John the Baptist the ghosts play their games. In order to herald a new summer people sing and dance around the Saint John's fire.

Vladimir Mironovich Berlioz, the chief editor of the journal The Godless explains to the famous poet Antokha Bezrodny that he will have to write a poem to go with a cartoon of Jesus with the appearance of an exploiter of the proletariat. Bezrodny means “without family”, later his name will change in Ivanushka Popov, Ivanushka Bezrodny and eventually Ivan Bezdomny, “homeless”. While Berlioz unfolds his arguments, Antokha is mechanically drawing a Jesus figure in the sand with the toecap of his shoe.

Than a stranger appears, a foreigner who is amazed by them being not religious and who tells them the story of the crucifixion which he saw happening. It's the second chapter, called The Gospel according to Woland. The whole Pilate story is told in this second chapter - it is not yet the autonomous text we know today.

After having finished his story, the mysterious foreigner challenges Antokha to give a proof of his atheism by wiping out the drawing of Jesus that he had made in the sand. But Bezrodny hesitates to do it, which starts a discussion followed by Berlioz' death. Antokha arrives, without knowing how it happened, in Saint Basil's Cathedral where Ivan the Terrible comes out of the doors. Next there is, in chapter 4, the scene in Griboedov and the poet bends up in the psychiatric hospital. The first title of this chapter was In the cabin of Griboedov, later it became Interlude in the cabin of Griboedov, and finally Manu Furibunda. This is the chapter which, in 1929, would be presented to the magazine Nedra, but they refused to publish it.

Click here to watch the scene with the drawing of Jesus

Berlioz' funeral takes up chapter 6 and is entitled The funeral march. It was much more grotesque than in the final version: Antokha was escaped from the hospital and he raised hell in an unequalled way at the funeral.

Some elements of the novel, like the scene at Griboedov's, will withstand the different versions without changes, but others change or even disappear. The character Stepanida Afanassyevna, for example, is a poetess from the first version who spreads the news of Berlioz' death by telephone in a chapter called In the appartment of the witch. This character will disappear later on. Another interesting character is Fessya in chapter 13, called About erudition. Fessya is a kind of precursor of the Master. When, in a later version, the Master takes his final role, Fesya disappears again.

The first version already shows the enormous efforts that Bulgakov made to find appropriate names for the characters and the locations. Styopa Likhodeev is transported to Vladikavkaz and not to Yalta, and his name is Garassy Pedulayev. His co-workers, named Rimsky and Varenukha in the final version, are here called Tsupilioty (later successively changed into Sukovsky, Bibliyeski, Robinsky and finally Rimsky) en Newton (later successively changed into Nyuton, Karton, Blagovest and finally Varenukha). The unfortunate presenter Bengalsky is called Pyotr Alekseevich Blagovest here.

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