I’ve written before about how I often lament the fact that I can no longer read with an open heart, without judging and analysing every aspect of what I am reading. I’ve become ultra-sensitive, overly-critical, and, I worry, perhaps somewhat joyless. I wish, sometimes, that I could somehow go back to being sixteen years old, when I enjoyed pretty much any book I picked up on its own terms, without thinking too much about why and certainly without mercilessly probing the text for weaknesses. However, after rereading The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov’s famous novel about Satan’s visit to Moscow – I have been reminded that being an older [relatively speaking] and more experienced reader can have its benefits too.
[One of the sketches for an unrealised animated feature based on Bulgakov’s novel by Sergei Alimov]
The first time I read this novel I liked it, but I did not get as much from it as I did on this occasion. That is, of course, on me. More specifically, it is due to the age I was and, consequently, how unsophisticated my reading was at that point in my life. I’ve always loved Russian literature, but my knowledge of Russian culture and history, particularly the period during which Joseph Stalin was in power, is much more comprehensive these days. And so there are things in the text that, yes, as a teenager I may have simply taken on face value, but which, due to my ignorance, may therefore have struck me as frivolous or meaningless. However, what I found as I came to reread the book is that, with more experience and with more knowledge, the things that I would have smiled gormlessly at before I am now able to properly appreciate.
For example, The Master and Margarita begins with two men, two literary types, at Patriarch’s Ponds. While having a conversation about the non-existence of Jesus, they are approached by a peculiar gentleman [Woland-Satan] whom they take to be ‘a foreigner’ and perhaps a ‘spy.’ This isn’t, of course, mere silliness, but is a sardonic wink at Soviet paranoia and the very real fear that one might, by talking to someone one shouldn’t, end up being arrested. Likewise, the conversation about Jesus, the pride the two men take in their atheism, is a reference to Communism’s drive to discredit religious belief [the rationale, I imagine, being that one cannot have something – a belief in a divinity – that in a sense supersedes the authority of the dictator].
If you are at all interested in Communism and Stalin, one will be aware of what were the consequences of not toeing the Party line, or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or saying what could be construed as the wrong thing i.e. you were arrested, interrogated, maybe killed, or shipped off to Siberia. In relation to this, it was apparent to me this time that The Master and Margarita, especially in the early chapters, is full of denunciations and sudden disappearances [it is worth noting that when someone suddenly disappears we often say that it was ‘as if by magic,’ while the disappearances in the text are, of course, literally the result of magic].
“And it was two years ago that inexplicable things started happening in the apartment: people started disappearing without a trace.”
The book is, then, very obviously a political satire, one that trades in often complex allegory. Perhaps the most well developed example is the second chapter dealing with Jesus and Pontius Pilate. Bulgakov’s Jesus is also arrested for saying the wrong thing[s], is, in effect, denounced by various people, and therefore ends up being interrogated and executed. Likewise, in the opening chapter, Berlioz wants to inform on Woland; and another character, Styopa, is essentially exiled to Yalta.
Of course, fear and paranoia, exile and denunciation, were only part of the Soviet experience during the period that Bulgakov was working on the novel [1928-1940]. Throughout, he touches on a variety of other subjects [the housing crisis, being one], and attacks various types, or sections of society, that he considered to be avaricious or corrupt.
“Everyone knows how hard it is to acquire money; obstacles to that can always be found. But not once in his thirty years of experience had the bookkeeper ever found anyone, whether an official or a private citizen, who had difficulty accepting money.”
However, he seems to reserve a special kind of antipathy for artists or those involved in the artistic industry. For instance, poets, editors, and writers are routinely mocked, and, at the hands of Woland and his retinue, suffer the worst fates. One might wonder just what it was about this apparently harmless group that ground Bulgakov’s gears. If one was being uncharitable one could put it down to a kind of professional jealousy, but it would be extraordinarily petty to compose a whole novel in that frame of mind. If I had to guess at the main source of Bulgakov’s ire I would say that he disliked them for what he saw as their complicity. Consider how to be an artist in Russia at that time it was probably in your interests to self-censor, but that it was almost impossible to create something that could not be deemed controversial, and so one was always likely to face rejection or condemnation from cowardly editors and publishers and theatre managers etc. Moreover, some artists went even further and willingly produced or backed State propaganda, this despite knowing that it was, well, not only not in the public’s interest [because they deserved the truth] but that it was also bad art [it’s telling that Bezdomny admits that his poems are terrible]. Of course, you can’t ask everyone to openly and aggressively fight against the machine, some are just not up to it, but, on the other hand, one doesn’t have to oil its wheels either.
On one level, the book is a kind of revenge fantasy. If you know anything about the author’s life you will be aware that he had a personal bone to pick with many of his targets. A number of Bulgakov’s works were banned, and he struggled in vain to get this novel into print, and so having the Devil descend upon Moscow to wreak havoc and cause chaos amongst the kind of people who rejected him must have been incredibly satisfying. Indeed, an important storyline in the novel is about a failed writer, the Master, who too cannot get his manuscript published, who is denounced [there’s that word again] in the press, and who ultimately burns the script [which is also something that Bulgakov himself did with an earlier draft]. For me, one of the major themes in The Master and Margarita is freedom, both personal and creative. In this way, perhaps the most moving scene in the whole novel is Margarita’s flight through Moscow on a broomstick; there she is, naked, high above the city, absolutely free, and having the fucking time of her life.
One of the surprises for me this time was that I found the book much funnier. Everyone always comments on the humour, and I must admit that previously it had almost completely passed me by. Again, I think some of that has to do with increased knowledge. For example, Berlioz wanting to inform on Satan is not really funny unless you understand something about the climate of the time; likewise, with the immediate designation of Woland as a foreigner, and all the suspicion that this entails, and the experience of Berlioz’s uncle when he tries to appropriate the deceased’s apartment. However, there are also some scenes that don’t rely on a political subtext to amuse. My favourites were the dancing sparrow in the doctor’s office and Ivan turning up at the Greboyedov restaurant in his underwear and Behemoth gilding his whiskers. Yet, having said all that, I must admit that some of the comedy is a little tiresome. There are passages, or episodes, in the text that I felt were sloppy, or lazy, or certainly unsophisticated, where I got the impression that Bulgakov thought that the mere presence of Satan and his retinue was enough to hold your attention and provide laughs, because, let’s face it, any set-up, or situation, becomes more engrossing and amusing if you plonk the Devil or a walking and talking cat into it. A walking cat! And, uh, y’know, that’s surprising…look at how surprised that character is…his eyes all popping out of his head…and, yes, I’d smirk and keep turning the pages, but it was a guilty kind of smirk, such as one might produce if one sees someone fall over.
This also leads me onto a more serious criticism, which is that the novel, at least in the first part, is repetitive; it is pretty much the same thing over and over again. Satan or one of his retinue will befuddle some dude, who, as a result, starts to question his sanity, before disappearing or ending up in the insane asylum. It struck me that this is why I remembered so little of the book after first reading it. You will, I’m sure, have your own tolerance level where this kind of thing is concerned. Mine is pretty high; I’ve read the similarly episodic, and much longer, Don Quixote twice; but unlike Don Quixote, or Tom Jones, The Master and Margarita does not really have a central character upon which to hang these episodes, and so it does at times seem unfocussed and even more rambling. It is worth remembering, however, that Bulgakov did not finish his novel; and so, as with Kafka’s work, these criticisms seem a little mean-spirited. Besides, what saves the book, even during the longueurs, is the author’s compassion and sensitivity and way with a memorable epigram; you’ll be reading a chapter and thinking ‘Christ, this is a drag’ and then he’ll hit you with a line like:
“Punch a man on the nose, kick an old man downstairs, shoot somebody or any old thing like that, that’s my job. But argue with women in love—no thank you!”
And you’ll immediately repent. Ah, I didn’t mean it, Mikhail, you’re a wonderful fucker!
Before I finish I want to say something about translation. I have it on good authority, from a number of Russian speakers/readers, that The Master and Margarita has never been successfully rendered into English. Recently an acquaintance of mine called it, in Russian, profound, and, well, I was quite shocked by that. Profound? As much as I have enjoyed the book that, profound, was one of the words furthest from my mind while I turned the pages. Now, I certainly am not scoffing at this description of the novel; in fact, I cannot even challenge it. Regardless of how we speak about translated literature – i.e. we instinctively want to say that we have read Proust, or Mann or whoever – the reality is that, unless we have access to it in its original form, we have only ever read someone’s idea of a writer or a book, and this someone is, in most cases, not a talented writer themselves.
That I am in no position to accurately judge Bulgakov, or any other foreign writer, is a source of extreme frustration to me. This frustration is made even greater by the possibility, the likelihood even, that I am missing out on something amazing, or, well, yes, profound; but, what, other than learning Russian, can you do about it? Sweet f.a., I’m afraid. Yet one has to wonder why is it not possible to capture that profundity in English, at least to some extent? One of the problems is that it is difficult to translate humour or satire, especially puns, plays on words, or words that have a double meaning, so that the richer, the more layered a work is the more likely it is that it will seem flat in English. Just consider how Ulysses might read in, say, French and how much would necessarily be lost and how, once stripped of certain layers, it might strike a French reader as no more than a tedious trawl around Dublin in the company of an ordinary bloke.
You might wonder where I am going with all this. To be honest, I’m starting to wonder myself. Am I saying that you should not read The Master and Margarita except in Russian? No, of course not; why deny yourself what is a tremendous work of fiction. I guess, more than anything, I am saying that choosing the best translation is vital, that one should always put some effort into it, because while one cannot access the real thing, or have the full experience, one should endeavour to get as close to it as possible. So which translation should you read? Ah, even this question is a tough one. Those best able to answer it will be those who have read the original and several translations. However, as this is my review I’m going to go ahead and give my opinion anyway. It is well-known by now, I imagine, that I have reservations, to say the least, about modern translations in general and the cult of the super-celebrity translator[s] in particular. This group of super-celebrity translators, which includes Michael Hofmann and Pevear and Volokhonsky, in my opinion, allow their ego to dictate how they render a work, by which I mean that each one of their translations will bear their own particular stamp, so that you, or I anyway, would be able to recognise their hand in something even without knowing who translated it. On this basis, I have never, and would never, read P&V’s version of The Master and Margarita. There are, however, numerous other versions, including the much criticised Michael Glenny, the acclaimed Mirra Ginsberg, and Burgin and O’Connor.
I first time I read the book I went for Burgin and O’Connor. My choice, at that time, was dictated by numerous reviews labelling their version the most satisfying. These days, in light of the critical success of P&V, I won’t blindly accept the prevailing opinion. For my re-read, I considered Glenny, who is thought to be the least accurate of all the translators to tackle the book, but whose version, for me, flows best in English; but he was not working from the complete text. I was drawn to the Ginsberg translation, but found, when comparing it to Burgin and O’Connor, that the differences were superficial, so, bearing in mind that Ginsberg was also working from an incomplete text, I decided to stick with my original choice. As with my first read, I found the style somewhat flat and laboured, which I am assured is not the case in Russian. In their introduction the duo claim that they tried to preserve the original word order and the length of Bulgakov’s sentences; and this, I think, explains a lot. If you try to be too literal what you end up with is inelegant, sometimes confusing English, because no two languages follow the same rules, of course. In my humble opinion, rather than pat themselves on the back for sticking so closely to the original, some translators would do better to concern themselves with the soul of the sentences. In conclusion then, the most I can say about Burgin and O’Connor’s version is that it is workman-like and readable and probably, if you want the complete text at least, the best we have at the moment.