Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (continued)

English > The novel > Interpretations > Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (continued)

These three stories, in form as well as content, embrace virtually all that was excluded from official Soviet ideology and its literature. But if the confines of 'socialist realism' are utterly exploded, so are the confines of more traditional novelistic realism. The Master and Margarita as a whole is a consistently free verbal construction which, true to its own premises, can re-create ancient Jerusalem in the smallest physical detail, but can also alter the specifics of the New Testament and play variations on its principal figures, can combine the realities of Moscow life with witchcraft, vampirism, the tearing off and replacing of heads, can describe for several pages the sensation of flight on a broomstick or the gathering of the infamous dead at Satan's annual spring ball, can combine the most acute sense of the fragility of human life with confidence in its indestructibility. Bulgakov underscores the continuity of this verbal world by having certain phrases - «Oh, gods, my gods», «Bring me poison», «Even by moonlight I have no peace» - migrate from one character to another, or to the narrator. A more conspicuous case is the Pilate story itself, successive parts of which are told by Woland, dreamed by the poet Homeless, written by the master, and read by Margarita, while the whole preserves its stylistic unity. Narrow notions of the 'imitation of reality' break down here. But The Master and Margarita is true to the broader sense of the novel as a freely developing form embodied in the works of Dostoevsky and Gogol, of Swift and Sterne, of Cervantes, Rabelais and Apuleius. The mobile but personal narrative voice of the novel, the closest model for which Bulgakov may have found in Gogol's Dead Souls, is the perfect medium for this continuous verbal construction. There is no multiplicity of narrators in the novel. The voice is always the same. But it has unusual range, picking up, parodying, or ironically undercutting the tones of the novel's many characters, with undertones of lyric and epic poetry and old popular tales.

Bulgakov always loved clowning and agreed with E. T. A. Hoffmann that irony and buffoonery are expressions of «'the deepest contemplation of life in all its conditionality». It is not by chance that his stage adaptations of the comic masterpieces of Gogol and Cervantes coincided with the writing of The Master and Margarita. Behind such specific «influences» stands the age-old tradition of folk humour with its carnivalized world-view, its reversals and dethronings, its relativizing of worldly absolutes -- a tradition that was the subject of a monumental study by Bulgakov's countryman and contemporary Mikhail Bakhtin. Bakhtin's Rabelais and His World, which in its way was as much an explosion of Soviet reality as Bulgakov's novel, appeared in 1965, a year before The Master and Margarita. The coincidence was not lost on Russian readers. Commenting on it, Bulgakov's wife noted that, while there had never been any direct link between the two men, they were both responding to the same historical situation from the same cultural basis.

Many observations from Bakhtin's study seem to be aimed directly at Bulgakov's intentions, none more so than his comment on Rabelais's travesty of the «hidden meaning», the «secret», the «terrifying mysteries» of religion, politics and economics: «Laughter must liberate the gay truth of the world from the veils of gloomy lies spun by the seriousness of fear, suffering, and violence». The settling of scores is also part of the tradition of carnival laughter. Perhaps the most pure example is the Testament of the poet Francois Villon, who in the liveliest verse handed out appropriate «legacies» to all his enemies, thus entering into tradition and even earning himself a place in the fourth book of Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel. So, too, Bakhtin says of Rabelais: «In his novel ... he uses the popular-festive system of images with its charter of freedoms consecrated by many centuries; and he uses it to inflict a severe punishment upon his foe, the Gothic age...» In this setting of consecrated rights Rabelais attacks the fundamental dogmas and sacraments, the holy of holies of medieval ideology.

And he comments further on the broad nature of this tradition: «For thousands of years the people have used these festive comic images to express their criticism, their deep distrust of official truth, and their highest hopes and aspirations». Freedom was not so much an exterior right as it was the inner content of these images. It was the thousand-year-old language of feariessness, a language with no reservations and omissions, about the world and about power.

Bulgakov drew on this same source in settling his scores with the custodians of official literature and official reality.

The novel's form excludes psychological analysis and historical commentary. Hence the quickness and pungency of Bulgakov's writing. At the same time, it allows Bulgakov to exploit all the theatricality of its great scenes - storms, flight, the attack of vampires, all the antics of the demons Koroviev and Behemoth, the seance in the Variety theatre, the ball at Satan's, but also the meeting of Pilate and Yeshua, the crucifixion as witnessed by Matthew Levi, the murder of Judas in the moonlit garden of Gethsemane.

Bulgakov's treatment of Gospel figures is the most controversial aspect of The Master and Margarita and has met with the greatest incomprehension. Yet his premises are made clear in the very first pages of the novel, in the dialogue between Woland and the atheist Berlioz. By the deepest irony of all, the 'prince of this world' stands as guarantor of the 'other' world. It exists, since he exists. But he says nothing directly about it. Apart from divine revelation, the only language able to speak of the 'other' world is the language of parable. Of this language Kafka wrote, in his parable On Parables: «Many complain that the words of the wise are always merely parables and of no use in daily life, which is the only life we have. When the sage says: 'Go over,' he does not mean that we should cross to some actual place, which we could do anyhow if it was worth the trouble; he means some fabulous yonder, something unknown to us, something, too, that he cannot designate more precisely, and therefore cannot help us here in the least. All these parables really set out to say simply that the incomprehensible is incomprehensible, and we know that already. But the cares we have to struggle with every day: that is a different matter».

Concerning this a man once said: «Why such reluctance? If you only followed the parables, you yourselves would become parables and with that nd of all your daily cares». Another said: «I bet that is also a parable». The first said: «You win». The second said: «But unfortunately only in parable». The first said: «No, in reality. In parable you lose».

A similar dialogue lies at the heart of Bulgakov's novel. In it there are those who belong to parable and those who belong to reality. There are those who go over and those who do not. There are those who win in parable and become parables themselves, and there are those who win in reality. But this reality belongs to Woland. Its nature is made chillingly clear in the brief scene when he and Margarita contemplate his special globe. Woland says: «For instance, do you see this chunk of land, washed on one side by the ocean? Look, it's filling with fire. A war has started there. If you look closer, you'll see the details».

Margarita leaned towards the globe and saw the little square of land spread out, get painted in many colours, and turn as it were into a relief map. And then she saw the little ribbon of a river, and some village near it. A little house the size of a pea grew and became the size of a matchbox. Suddenly and noiselessly the roof of this house flew up along with a cloud of black smoke, and the walls collapsed, so that nothing was left of the little two-storey box except a small heap with black smoke pouring from it. Bringing her eye stffl closer, Margarita made out a small female figure lying on the ground, and next to her, in a pool of blood, a little child with outstret-ched arms.

«That's it», Woland said, smiling, «he had no time to sin. Abaddon's work is impeccable». When Margarita asks which side this Abaddon is on, Woland replies: «He is of a rare impartiality and sympathizes equally with both sides of the fight. Owing to that, the results are always the same for both sides».

There are others who dispute Woland's claim to the power of this world. They are absent or all but absent from The Master and Margarita. But the reality of the world seems to be at their disposal, to be shaped by them and to bear their imprint. Their names are Caesar and Stalin. Though absent in person, they are omnipresent. Their imposed will has become the measure of normality and self-evidence. In other words, the normality of this world is imposed terror. And, as the story of Pilate shows, this is by no means a twentieth-century phenomenon.

Once terror is identified with the world, it becomes invisible. Bulgakov's portrayal of Moscow under Stalin's terror is remarkable precisely for its weightless, circus-like theatricality and lack of pathos. It is a sub-stanceless reality, an empty suit writing at a desk. The citizens have adjusted to it and learned to play along as they always do. The mechanism of this forced adjustment is revealed in the chapter recounting Nikanor Ivanovich's Dream, in which prison, denunciation and betrayal become yet another theatre with a kindly and helpful master of ceremonies. Berlioz, the comparatist, is the spokesman for this «normal» state of affairs, which is what makes his conversation with Woland so interesting. In it he is confronted with another reality which he cannot recognize. He becomes «unexpectedly mortal». In the story of Pilate, however, a moment of recognition does come. It occurs during Pilate's conversation with Yeshua, when he sees the wandering philosopher's head float off and in its place the toothless head of the aged Tiberius Caesar. This is the pivotal moment of the novel. Pilate breaks off his dialogue with Yeshua, he does not «go over», and afterwards must sit like a stone for two thousand years waiting to continue their conversation.

Parable cuts through the normality of this world only at moments. These moments are preceded by a sense of dread, or else by a presentiment of something good. The first variation is Berlioz's meeting with Woland. The second is Pilate's meeting with Yeshua. The third is the «self-baptism» of the poet Ivan Homeless before he goes in pursuit of the mysterious stranger. The fourth is the meeting of the master and Margarita. These chance encounters have eternal consequences, depending on the response of the person, who must act without foreknowledge and then becomes the consequences of that action.

The touchstone character of the novel is Ivan Homeless, who is there at the start, is radically changed by his encounters with Woland and the master, becomes the latter's «disciple» and continues his work, is present at almost every turn of the novel's action, and appears finally in the epilogue. He remains an uneasy inhabitant of «normal» reality, as a historian who 'knows everything', but each year, with the coming of the spring full moon, he returns to the parable which for this world looks like folly.

Richard Pevear

A Note on the Text and Acknowledgements

At his death, Bulgakov left The Master and Margarita in a slightly unfinished state. It contains, for instance, certain inconsistencies - two versions of the 'departure' of the master and Margarita, two versions of Yeshua's entry into Yershalaim, two names for Yeshua's native town. His final revisions, undertaken in October of 1939, broke off near the start of Book Two. Later he dictated some additions to his wife, Elena Sergeevna, notably the opening paragraph of Chapter 32 («Gods, my gods! How sad the evening earth!»). Shortly after his death in 1940, Elena Sergeevna made a new typescript of the novel. In 1965, she prepared another typescript for publication, which differs slightly from her 1940 text. This 1965 text was published by Moskva in November 1966 and January 1967. However, the editors of the magazine made cuts in it amounting to some sixty typed pages. These cut portions immediately appeared in samizdat (unofficial Soviet «self-publishing»), were published by Scherz Verlag in Switzerland in 1967, and were then included in the Possev Verlag edition (Frankfurt-am-Main, 1969) and the YMCA-Press edition (Paris, 1969). In 1975 a new and now complete edition came out in Russia, the result of a comparison of the already published editions with materials in the Bulgakov archive. It included additions and changes taken from written corrections on other existing typescripts. The latest Russian edition (1990) has removed the most important of those additions, bringing the text close once again to Elena Sergeevna's 1965 typescript. Given the absence of a definitive authorial text, this process of revision is virtually endless. However, it involves changes that in most cases have little bearing for a translator.

The present translation has been made from the text of the original magazine publication, based on Elena Sergeevna's 1965 typescript, with all cuts restored as in the Possev and YMCA-Press editions. It is complete and unabridged.

The translators wish to express their gratitude to M. O. Chudakova for her advice on the text and to Irina Kronrod for her help in preparing the Further Reading.

Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

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