Monday, October 3, 2016

Master and Margaritalong I

I've read the first eight chapters of The Master and Margarita, and it's pretty much just as deranged as when I read it the first time, but then that's the whole point.  Here we go--

Some background first: Bulgakov started it early on in his career, in the late 1920s, but never expected to publish his novel during his lifetime.  It was dangerous even to write these thoughts down, and at one point he burned most of the manuscript.  Over the years, he wrote and rewrote the story, continuing to make changes right up until his death in 1940.  Bulgakov had a difficult writing career and was officially marginalized; in 1930 he took the rather dramatic step of asking to either emigrate or be given a job in the theater.  This tactic actually worked, and he was given a job at the Moscow Art Theater, but even so, he rarely succeeded in putting on a play.

Master and Margarita has two plots: first, the devil comes to Moscow and wreaks havoc among a standardized, repressed people.  Then in several interspersed chapters, Pontius Pilate faces off with Yeshua Ha-Nozri (Jesus of Nazareth).  It's not supposed to be historical; Bulgakov tweaks things here and there.  The novel contains Bulgakov's reactions to Soviet repression and his feelings of revulsion at the Soviet attempt to eradicate religion.  It's also the place where he tries to work out his feelings about his own compromises with the state.  He did not feel that he had always acted with integrity, and the character of the master is where he judges and finds himself wanting.   On to our story---

The head of Massolit*, Berlioz, and an avant-garde poet, Ivan Homeless**, meet at Patriarch's Ponds*** and meet a foreign professor type who leads them into conversation.  First he predicts Berlioz' death and some other things, and then argues about whether or not Jesus existed.  They say not, but the professor says yes--he was there, after all...and he tells them a story, or gives them a vision, about Pontius Pilate, who had to question a young preacher and confirm his death sentence.  Pilate can't decide if he wants the man to stay (can he cure this awful pain?) or die, but he doesn't want to go against the leader of the Sanhedrin, so he goes along with the program.

The two men, somewhat dazed by the memory-vision, leave the (insane?) professor, and Berlioz is promptly killed in an accident, in just the way the professor predicted.  Poor Ivan tries to give chase, but the professor leaves with a weird tall guy and a black cat, walking on its hind legs.  Ivan can't seem to catch up, but he runs all over town, certain that he knows where to go.  He dives into the river, winds up with someone else's clothes, and finally fetches up, babbling incoherently, at Massolit.  Everyone there thinks Ivan's gone mad (well, he quite possibly has) and they have him taken to a clinic, where he fails to convince anyone of his sanity.  For one thing, nobody is at all prepared to believe that the devil has come to town.  Riukhin, a mediocre poet who escorted Ivan to the clinic, heads back to Massolit to get as drunk as he can (incidentally, Massolit's fancy restaurant appears to be run by a fellow who is transforming into a pirate).

In the morning, Styopa Likhodeev, who shares Berlioz' apartment, has an unexpected visitor.  The professor, who introduces himself as Woland (a German name for the devil), claims that they met yesterday and set up a theater run--Woland being a professor of black magic and a performer.   Poor Styopa is utterly confounded; he can't remember a thing about this, but his boss seems to know all about it.  Woland demands the apartment for himself, and the next thing Styopa knows, he's sitting on the shore of the Black Sea.  At the same time, Ivan Homeless wakes up at the clinic.  He's calmer now, but still obsessed with catching the mysterious figures who caused Berlioz' death, so he's diagnosed with schizophrenia.

*Massolit is a made-up contraction for a Moscow literary association.  Perfectly Stalinist, isn't it?
** As we know from Gorky, some Soviet writers used pseudonyms like Bitter or Hungry.  It got to be a popular thing.
*** Watch out for Moscow locations that are former religious landmarks, now turned to Soviet purposes.  They show up a lot, and they make things happen. 


Red said...

So since you've read this before, you'll be able to help us lost souls (like me, so lost) figure out what is happening, right? Or at least what we need to pay attention to vs. what will be dropped so just ignore.

Ivan really doesn't do much to convince people that he is sane and that here's a crazy guy who predicted Berlioz's death. Telling everyone the literal devil has shown up is a big pill to swallow and Ivan's providing no water or anything to help it go down.

Reading Rambo said...

Omg I'm so glad you know things about it, because clearly none of us knows ANYTHING.

Jean said...

Nope, poor old Ivan is pretty incoherent, fixating on Pilate all the time. Pretty much anybody who comes in contact with this Woland guy comes to a sticky end!

Well, I first read M&M in about 1994, in college (comp lit FTW!) but that was an awfully long time ago. Did a re-read a few years ago, here's the link: I don't know how helpful I'll be, so don't count on anything. It's such a chaotic book that it's hard for me to keep it straight in my head. Though I do have the small advantage of not getting mixed up over names quite as easily.

Nancy Leek said...

I'm reading along too, but not posting it on my blog, which is all about northern California history, not about what I'm reading.

I read this book when I was in college eons ago -- like 1968 -- but I read the Mirra Ginsburg translation, which was based on the expurgated Soviet text, so it doesn't count. Besides, I didn't get it at all. I am now reading the Michael Glenny translation.

Somebody (Jean? Someone else?) wrote a note in the margin on the first page that Bezdomny means "homeless" so that's how I knew. It made me wonder if any of the other names mean anything. In the chapter set at Griboyedov there is the trio of Deniskin, Glukharyov and Quant, plus other oddball writers' names. Do they signify anything?

Here's a line I liked in the first chapter. Berlioz is explaining about how Jesus never lived at all: "Mikhail Alexandrovich picked his way around the sort of pitfalls that can only be negotiated by a highly educated man . . " I've met a few of those.

Chris bookarama said...

So, Ivan is homeless? I know the editor has a roommate. I'm wondering what this all means and where is it going.

Jean said...

No, Ivan is an avant-garde Soviet poet belonging to Massolit, so comparatively speaking he probably has a pretty nice life. He calls himself Homeless because that's the trend in Soviet writing, to have a name that makes you sound cool and desperate and proletariat, like Hungry, or Barefoot, or Bitter (Gorky). Just like Lenin and Stalin called themselves things.

Jean said...

And I haven't seen anything about other writers' names meaning things. Several characters are named after composers, like Berlioz, but that doesn't actually seem to mean anything that anybody knows of.

Jean said...

Oh, also I have a cool theory about how Ivan, having voluntarily denied reason in his willingness to write poetry that denies reality (that is, that denies the historical existence of Jesus) in service of the state, is appropriately punished by having his reason taken away, at least temporarily. I hope he recovers. It's downright Dante-esque, though. I'm wondering--does everybody who crosses Woland's path end up in some hideous trouble, whether they're innocent or guilty, or is it going to be particular punishments for particular people? Could be both.

Since the USSR is in the business of denying truth and reality on a regular basis, we might expect to find the whole thing thrown into chaos....

Jean said...

I should clarify: Lenin's name was really Ulyanov, and he chose to call himself Lenin after the river Lena. Stalin was born Dzhugashvili and named himself after steel.