Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:
The Master and Margarita – by Mikhail Bulgakov.
I finally read this great great novel last fall as part of a blog-reading challenge – I wrote a big thing about it here.
The book terrifies. The devil comes to Moscow in the 1930s. He is more of a shit-disturber than anything else. A practical joker. But what happens when the devil appears in a city that doesn’t believe in God? Or the devil, for that matter? The book is, of course, an extended metaphor about life under Stalin – this book was not allowed to be published in Russia at the time. Bulgakov felt it was too dangerous to even have the manuscript lying around so he destroyed it … and later re-created it from memory. Unbelievable.
The book opens with the devil appearing to two men (two writers) on a hot day in Moscow. Stalin’s name is never mentioned, communism is never mentioned, socialism – but the sense of the ominous-ness of this culture is palpable. Who is this gentleman talking to them? Is he a foreigner? Pontius Pilate comes up (he’s a very important theme throughout the book) … and at the end of the third chapter a tragedy occurs. A tragedy with decidedly occult overtones. It seems that “devilry” is afoot – and also … a huge black cat has been seen, walking on its hind legs (shiver – that freakin’ cat) … and now … someone’s head has been severed. Ivan – the poet – who witnesses all of this – tries to tell people what has happened. Naturally, he is not believed. He gets more and more frantic. Something is not right. Something evil has arrived in Moscow! He is finally put into a mental institution. That’s the excerpt below. He is asked to write down everything that happened that day … and watch what happens. The chapter is called “Ivan is Split In Two”. If you remember the culture, and the year, and what was going on in Russia in the 30s … this chapter takes on decidedly terrifying meaning. How people themselves must always be ‘split in two’ in a totalitarian society. What you see is NOT really what you see … and you cannot EVER have an opinion on what you see …. you must keep your mouth shut … even if you DO see a massive cat riding the streetcar … Nope. You didn’t really see that. You didn’t really see that. In order to survive this …. one must split in two. Ivan was near hysteria when he was brought to the hospital. Things were urgent. The devil himself was loose! We must act quickly! Why won’t anyone listen to me?? And slowly …. his attitude changes …
This chapter scared me. There are times in life when confusion, hysteria, grappling with an issue openly – rather than coming to a concrete decision, emotion, response, reaction … are appropriate and not to be feared. Certain people (and certain cultures) want to cut all that off. The ideal is an obedient populace. A populace who will swallow ANYthing, even the devil walking around a pond in a public park. And so anyone who says, “You know what? This isn’t right!” is seen as a threat, or as just flat out stupid or crazy. The doctor comes in – and Ivan is hysterical – and rightly so … but the doctor gives him a shot … and says, as though this is the highest good – that “all will be forgotten”.
You want to scream at Ivan – “No! Don’t let them make you forget! Don’t let them give you that shot! Remember! Remember!”
But the society as a whole has a vested interest in shutting Ivan and his loud-mouth down.
This chapter is phenomenal in describing that process. And watch … watch how eventually Ivan has internalized the voices of others. This is the split. He begins to doubt himself. He begins to doubt that he saw what he really saw.
Once that happens – the culture has won. It has made him obedient.
The book is a masterpiece, one of the greatest books of the 20th century.
Excerpt from The Master and Margarita – by Mikhail Bulgakov.
The poet’s attempts to compose a report on the terrible consultant had come to nothing. As soon as he received a pencil stub and some paper from the stout nurse, whose name was Praskovya Fyodorovna, he had rubbed his hands together in a businesslike fashion and hastily set to work at the bedside table. He had dashed off a smart beginning, “To the police. From Ivan Nikolayevich Bezdomny, member of MASSOLIT. Report. Yesterday evening I arrived at Petrarch’s Ponds with the deceased Berlioz …”
And the poet immediately became confused, largely due to the word “deceased”. It made everything sound absurd from the start: how could he have arrived somewhere with the deceased? Dead men don’t walk! They really will think I’m a madman!
Such thoughts made him start revising. The second version came out as follows, “… with Berlioz, later deceased …” That didn’t satisfy the author either. He had to write a third version, and that came out even worse than the other two, ” … with Berlioz, who fell under a streetcar …” What was irksome here was the obscure composer who was Berlioz’s namesake; he felt compelled to add, “… not the composer …”
Tormented by these two Berliozes, Ivan crossed everything out and decided to begin with a strong opening that would immediately get the reader’s attention. He began with a description of the cat boarding the streetcar, and then went back to the episode of the severed head. The head and the consultant’s prediction made him think of Pontius Pilate, and in order to make the report more convincing, he decided to include the whole story about the procurator, starting with the moment when he came out onto the colonnade of Herod’s palace dressed in a white robe with a blood-red lining.
Ivan worked hard, crossing out what he had written and adding new words. He even tried to do drawings of Pontius Pilate, and of the cat on its hind legs. But the drawings didn’t help either, and the more the poet worked, the more confused and incomprehensible his report became.
By the time an ominous stormcloud with smoking edges had appeared from the distance and enveloped the woods, and the wind had blown the papers off the table, Ivan felt drained of energy and unable to cope with the report. Making no effort at all to pick up the scattered pages, he burst into silent and bitter tears.
The kind-hearted nurse, Praskovya Fyodorovna, came by to check on Ivan during the storm and was upset to see him crying. She closed the blinds so that the lightning would not frighten him, picked up the papers from the floor, and ran off with them to get the doctor.
The doctor appeared, gave Ivan an injection in his arm and assured him that he would stop crying, that now everything would pass, everything would change and all would be forgotten.
The doctor turned out to be right. The wood across the river started to look as it had before. It stood out sharply, down to the last tree, beneath the sky which had been restored to its former perfect blueness, and the river grew calm. Ivan’s anguish began to diminish right after the injection, and now the poet lay peacefully, gazing at the rainbow spread across the sky.
Things stayed this way until evening, and he never even noticed when the rainbow evaporated, the sky faded and grew sad, and the world turned black.
Ivan drank some hot milk, lay down again, and was himself surprised at how his thoughts had changed. The image of the demonic, accursed cat had somehow softened in his memory, the severed head no longer frightened him, and when Ivan stopped thinking about the head, he began to reflect on how the clinic wasn’t so bad, everything considered, and how Stravinsky was a clever fellow and a celebrity and extremely pleasant to have dealings with. And, besides, the evening air was sweet and fresh after the storm.
The asylum was falling asleep. The frosted white lights in the quiet corridors went out, and in accordance with regulations, the faint blue night-lights came on, and the cautious steps of the nurses were heard less frequently on the rubber matting in the corridor outside the door.
Now Ivan lay in a state of sweet lethargy, gazing now at the shaded lamp, which cast a mellow light down from the ceiling, now at the moon, which was emerging from the black wood. He was talking to himself.
“Why did I get so upset over Berlioz falling under a streetcar?” the poet reasoned. “In the final analysis, let him rot! What am I to him, anyway, kith or kin? If we examine the question properly, it turns out that I, esentially, didn’t really know the deceased. What did I actually know about him? Nothing, except that he was bald and horribly eloquent. And so, citizen,” continued Ivan, addressing an invisible audience, “let us examine the following: explain, if you will, why I got so furious at that mysterious consultant, magician, and professor with the black, vacant eye? What was the point of that whole absurd chase, with me in my underwear, carrying a candle? And what about that grotesque scene in the restaurant?”
“But, but, but …” said the old Ivan to the new Ivan, addressing him in a stern voice from somewhere inside his head or behind his ear, “but didn’t he know in advance that Berlioz’s head would be cut off? How could you not get upset?”
“What is there to discuss, comrades!” retorted the new Ivan to the broken-down old Ivan. “Even a child can see that there is something sinister about all this. He is, no doubt about it, a mysterious and exceptional personality. But that’s what makes it so interesting! The fellow was personally acquainted with Pontius Pilate, what could be more interesting than that? And instead of making that ridiculous scene at Petrarch’s Ponds, wouldn’t it have been better to have asked him politely about what happened next to Pilate and the prisoner Ha-Notsri? But instead, I got obsessed with the devil knows what! Is it such an earth-shattering event – that an editor got run over! Does it mean the magazie will have to close down? So, what can you do? Man is mortal and, as was said so fittingly, sometimes suddenly so. Well, God rest his soul! There’ll be a new editor, and maybe he’ll be even more eloquent than the last one.”
After dozing off for awhile, the new Ivan asked the old Ivan spitefully, “So how do I look in all this?”
“Like a fool!” a bass voice pronounced distinctly, a voice which did not come from either one of the Ivans and was amazingly reminiscent of the consultant’s bass.
For some reason Ivan did not take offense at the word “fool”, but was pleasantly surprised by it, smiled, and fell into a half-sleep. Sleep was creeping up on Ivan, and he could already see a palm tree on an elephantlike trunk, and a cat went by – not a fearsome one, but a jolly one, and, in short, sleep was about to engulf him when suddenly the window grille moved aside noiselessly, and a mysterious figure, who was trying to hide from the moonlight, appeared on the balcony, and shook a warning finger at Ivan.
Not feeling the least bit afraid, Ivan raised himself in bed and saw that there was a man on the balcony. And this man pressed his finger to his lips and whispered, “Shh!”