Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

I admit it: I enjoy American Idol. And last night watching the battle between favorites Danny and Adam, I couldn't help but think the producers were trying to set this up as a good vs evil thing. There was young widower Danny dressed in white, clouds floating on a video in the background, singing "Jesus Take the Wheel" and there was Adam, fingernails painted black, flames shooting up behind him as he sang "Ring of Fire." And while I like Danny, I love Adam. I do. I love him. (Though for the record: I don't vote! I'm not that into it!)

So this might explain why I found it so much fun to be able to love the devil--and especially his trained cat--in this classic Russian novel. The Master and Margarita is a rollicking good read in which the devil, and his demonic posse, come to Moscow and wreak havoc on the elite. It's satire and I confess plenty went over my head as I'm not as informed as I should be on Stalinist (or honestly pre or post-Stalinist) Russia. But the absurdity of the actions and especially conversations that take place is really really funny. And often at the expense of writers and bureacrats who have lost their souls. Yes, this devil is punishing people for having lost their soul. Which brings me back to Adam--who seems like a sweet talented young guy who likes to costume himself and put on a show. He likes to be free. And yes, American Idol is hokey and blatantly commercial and sometimes really boring, and maybe not as democratic as it lays claim to be (there are weird moments of racism, classism and homophobia from judges and audience alike) but it's sure better than being jailed or exiled or merely unpublished for expressing your true self. It really is pretty American. Hmm, I'm pretty sure when my colleague recommended this novel, he wasn't expecting a defense of capitalist pop culture to be the result of my reading, but hey, I am what I am.

Anyway, as a writer, one of the things I most appreciated about the book was its willingness to go unexpected places. When I choose texts for students one of my goals is to show them what's possible. Even if at heart you're a realist or a minimalist or a romance writer, it's good to get out there and read things that do what you don't. Because on its own the imagination doesn't always get...well, imaginative. We repeat ourselves, we fall into comfortable habits, we copy what we've seen most often...and a novel this willing to go pretty much anywhere is a good reminder of what's possible in fiction. But one of the interesting tricks to this novel is how it uses its opening scene as an anchor.

Apparently Harry Crews tells his students that at the start of their fiction they need to declare their space. He likens this to how motorcycle riders have to drive in the middle of the lane so cars don't shove them onto the shoulder. And at the start of the novel, Bulgakov has a young poet talking with an elite journal editor when the devil (who they don't recognize, but readers will) interrupts them. The devil predicts the death (decapitation at the hand of a woman) of the editor and it soon comes to pass. The scene is presented humorously and it sets the tone for the rest of the novel. But more than that, it remains an anchor for the novel throughout. Lots of essentially unrelated plots unfold (including a second fiction following Pontius Pilate) and lots of essentially unrelated characters appear but Bulgakov periodically brings in reminders of that first scene and the two men involved...and it helps make the novel seem far less random than it could. The characters, action, or themes of the scene reappear just when readers might be losing the thread. So while this feels like a case of anything goes stylistically, it doesn't feel like random storylines thrown together into the soup. It ends up feeling very deliberate, a structure with a backbone.

1 comment:

NW. said...

thanks for the insight