Thursday, August 5, 2010

Literary Bite: The Master and Margarita

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For the past two weeks I've been working my way through The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. This is a classic of Russian literature (chosen by my book club) and was originally published in 1966.

I will warn you: though it may look small, this is no quick read. It's a good book, but you kinda have to study it, rather than just read it. It is based on the Faust story by Goethe. Faust makes a deal with the devil: the devil will help Faust gain infinite knowledge on earth, and in exchange Faust will serve the devil in Hell.

In my reading of The Master and Margarita, the Master is the Faust character. But the story is much more about the devil. There were chapters of this book that I really enjoyed (I liked the Pontius Pilate parts, and the Devil's Ball). But there were also parts where Bulgakov totally lost me. I'm fine reading fantasy, but when it transitions into what I call ridiculous fantasy (i.e. so far from reality and the narrative that I just don't care anymore) I get annoyed.

If you choose to read this book, I strongly recommend you read the end notes. They are absolutely necessary to understanding the story. And keep in mind this theme: "...among human vices he considered cowardice one of the first" (305).

Because it takes place in Moscow, all the character names are in Russian. There are a lot of characters, so I made a guide to help you in your reading. (For a complete list of characters and a reading guide, go here.)

Azazello - In the Old Testament apocryphal Book of Enoch 8:1-3, Azazel is the fallen angel who taught people to make weapons and jewelry. Thanks to Azazel women learned the "sinful art" of painting their faces, so it is clear why he delivers the cream which has the effect of making Margarita young again. In this story he also serves as the devil's right-hand man, the "demon killer."

Behemoth - the cat's name - means "hippopotamus" in Russian and comes from the Book of Job 40:15 and the Book of Enoch I. He is the Grand Cup-Bearer to Satan in sources on magic.

Berlioz - Berlioz is the Chairman of the Board of MASSOLIT, the literary association roughly based on the Soviet Writers' Union. He is middle-aged, paunchy, a typical representative of the intelligent hack, a good follower and inculcator of the official line. Berlioz shares his last name with Hector Berlioz, the French composer of the Symphonie Fantastique and the Damnation of Faust. Several names in the novel are connected to music.

Bezdomny (Homeless) - Bezdomny is a young poet at the beginning of the novel. His long antireligious poem is critiqued by Berlioz in the first chapter because his Jesus turned out "too alive, a Jesus who exists." Bezdomny's first name, Ivan, links him with the Russian folkloric character "Ivanushka durachok" -- Ivan the Fool, who may be stupid, but whose ineptitude wins him both success and sympathy from the Russian public. He is called Ivanushka in Chapter 30.

Korovyev (Fagot) - One of Woland's band, Korovyev usually wears a checked jacket, jockey cap, and pince-nez, which costume recalls that of the devil who appears to Ivan Karamazov in Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov. Koroviev's profession as (ex-) choirmaster connects him with E. T. A. Hoffman's character, Kapellmeister Kreisler. Fagot - Korovyev's second name means "bassoon," which connects him to the musical themes of the novel (remember that he's also a retired choirmaster).

Yeshua Ha-Notsri - The name "Yeshua" is mentioned in Brokgauz-Efron in the article on Jesus [Iisus]. Bulgakov was unclear about the birthplace of his Yeshua. In Chapter 2 he names Gamala, but in Chapter 26 it is En-Sarid, which we would identify with Nazareth.

Latunsky - The critic Latunsky, who criticized the Master's novel.

Levi Matvei (Matthew Levi) - The evangelist and a tax collector who gives up his trade to follow Christ / Yeshua.

Styopa (Stepan Bogdanovich) Likhodeyev - The Director of the Variety Theater. Likhodeyev's last name comes from an archaic form meaning roughly "Evildoer."

Margarita - Potentially based on Bulgakov's third wife. Margarita also has a literary prototype in Gretchen (Margarethe) in Faust, and historical prototypes as well: In Chapter 22, Woland refers to a 16th century French Queen--Marguerite de Valois (1553-1615). Her marriage to Henri of Navarre, the future Henri IV, started the famous Saint-Bartholomew's Day massacre of Protestant Huguenots in Paris. Because she was childless, her marriage to the king of France was annulled. Marguerite de Navarre (1492-1549), another possible prototype who did have children, was the author of the Heptameron. Both historical Marguerites patronized writers. (Marguerite de Navarre was the sister of Fran├žois I, grandfather of Marguerite de Valois. She was also herself the grandmother of Henry IV, whom the later Marguerite married. To add to the confusion, the University of Angers Library Site refers to Marguerite de Navarre as "Marguerite de Valois, reine de Navarre." No wonder Bulgakov conflated them!)

Mark Ratkiller - Mark's nickname is an ironic translation of L muricidus, "mousekiller," which was a Roman slur against cowardly soldiers.

Pontius Pilate - Pilate was the Roman procurator of the province of Judea from 26-36 AD. The procurator was the highest Roman authority in the province, subject to governor-general of the province of Syria.

Rimsky - The financial director of the Variete Theater. Rimsky's last name means "Roman," which connects him with the Pilate story, and it also reminds the reader of yet another composer, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

Stravinsky - Doctor Stravinsky runs the clinic many characters end up in. His name belongs to the musical theme: Igor' Stravinsky (1882-1971), the Russian composer, was living and working abroad when Bulgakov wrote.

Woland (the devil) - Woland is the mysterious "foreigner" and "professor" whose visit to Moscow sets the plot (among other things) rolling. His appearance and nationality are unclear. Eventually he accepts Bezdomny's conjecture that he may be German, which would connect him with the Faust theme. Woland's name itself is a variant of the name of a demon who appears in Goethe's Faust: the knight Voland or Faland. (In German, "Junker Voland kommt." Bulgakov's Russian makes it clear that it is pronounced with a "v" and spelled with a "W" [double-v] as it would be in German. As with other characters, we do not learn his name when we first meet Woland; and as with other characters, he is seldom called by his name. His band refer to him as "messire," a French honorific title meaning "sire" or "master" and given to priests, advocates, etc.

4 comments:

  1. I remember reading and enjoying that book, but your description of it, with all of the character notes, has me wondering how well I remember it.

    Next modern Russian novel to try: "We" by Zamyatin.

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  2. I really need to read this book.

    It's amazing how many great reads we miss just because we didn't know to pick them up.

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  3. I was in a play version of the master and the margarita at a movement theater called Double Edge theatre..Small world.. I love this book! but its even better as a performance piece! I was the cat wearing a black silk nighty and I had to be put in a cage!

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