The novelThe Master and Margarita was written byMikhaíl Afanasyevich Bulgakov during Stalin’s dictatorial regime and therefore, Moscow banned and destroyed it. However, the Ukrainian-born author rewrote it afterwards from memory –“I know it by heart!” – thus making the novel one of the best in universal literature.
It took Mikhaíl Bulgakov (1891-1940) almost four decades to write and publish The Master and Margarita. Bulgakov started working on the novel in 1930 and finished it ten years later just before his death, but only after another twenty six years would his work be published. Yet, behind this simple chronology lays the history of the book which is full of events inspired by the author’s life.
The New York Times appreciated Bulgakov’s book as“one of the best Russian novels of the 20thcentury.”The author was inspired by:the love story with his third wife Elena Sergeevna Shilovskaya who was also the muse for Margarita’s character;the gruesome life he led during Stalin’s Communist regime and his corrupt world and also, by the author’s serious health problems.
The Three Realities of the Novel
In its final and uncensored version published after 1990, Bulgakov’s novel consists of two parts which come together in three levels. The set of the main story is 1930s Russia where the Devil as professor Woland arrives with his assistants, in order to trick everybody whom they meet through the aid of black magic. The second level of the book is a travel back in time to the moment when Yeshua Ha-Nazri – Jesus Christ – was judged by Pontius Pilate. Even though, apparently, the two realities are not closely related-since a connection between Pontius Pilate and interwar life in Moscow cannot be easily found-the third level makes all the other realities combine and alternate in the love story between the Master and Margarita.
Bulgakov – persecuted as well as appreciated by Stalin
Mikhaíl Bulgakov’s career as a writer began around his 30thbirthday when he gave up his day job as doctor for writing and cultural activities. He moved from Kiev to Moscow before the Second World War and in his diary, the capital of the USSR seemed to be a “magical swamp”. He started writing plays which were considered by the authorities “satirical to the contemporary life” and this was reason enough for his works to be confiscated. Moreover, he was prohibited from releasing new plays with an anti-regime character.
Bulgakov wrote on numerous occasions to Stalin and the Soviet Government and asked them to be expelled from the USSR:“Everything is forbidden to me, I am ruined, poisoned, I am in a state of complete solitude. Why would you keep a writer in a country where his works cannot exist? I beg of you to take a humane decision to release me.”However, his appeal was ignored and he was not allowed to publish, thus the persecution against him continued. Yet, he managed to find a job at the theatre. It seemed that even though Stalin opposed Bulgakov’s work, the Soviet leader was impressed by some of his books and the realist style of “The White Guard”which was staged as a play under the name “The Day of the Turbins”.
Faust – a Source of Inspiration
Through characters such as magician Woland, the super humans Azazello and Koroviev and the human cat Behemoth, Bulgakov used in his novel fantastical elements, in order to satirize the corruption and greed of the USSR during the Stalinist dictatorship. Stalin’s regime aimed at controlling people’s actions and perceptions of reality. The author used the “pact with the Devil”-a major theme from Goethe’s Faust where a woman had to be involved and in Bulgakov’s novel, the woman was Margarita.
The Manuscripts are set on fire, but they do not burn
In 1930, when Bulgakov first started working on “The Master and Margarita”, he entitled the book “The Novel about the Devil”, however, he changed its name several times during the years with “The Black Magician”or “The Prince of Darkness”.
During the ten years in which Bulgakov wrote the novel, he felt haunted by his manuscripts – “in my mind, there is my Margarita, the tomcat, all kinds of flights”– they were either burnt or considered dangerous, either lost or very hardly retrieved. Therefore, the expression “manuscripts do not burn”became one of the key phrases of the novel The Master and the Margarita.
Bulgakov wrote all these dark thoughts in his journals, which would later be published in the book “Correspondence. Journals”, translated into Romanian by Ana-Maria Brezuleanu. He also wrote about the authorities’ persecutions which did not scare him, but made him even more determined to continue his novel by rewriting the destroyed pages from his memory. “I know it by heart”, he said in a defying tone of voice.
A 26-year Wait
In the last two years of his life, when Bulgakov worked more intensely for his novel, “like a martyr”, he was very much weakened by the nephrosclerosis he inherited from his father. Bulgakov was subjected to excruciating migraines and gradually lost his sight, until he became blind. The author spent his days in bed not being able to see, but he was helped to finish the novel by his wife Elena Sergeevna Shilovskaya to whom he dictated the last retouches to the story.
In his diary, the author talks about the “old lady with the scythe”and he even had the courage to say that:“as it is known, the only decent way to die is by a gunshot, however, sadly, I do not own such a weapon.”The bravery and love did not save him and on March 10th, 1940, Bulgakov ended his life and book. He was unable to see his novel published during his lifetime, yet it would be released in a censored form to the general public 26 years later in Khrushchev’s era.
Elena, wife, muse and typist, “the vigour of my weak heart”
Bulgakov was married three times during his short life of 49 years. He met his last wife, the Russian Elena Sergeevna Shilovskaya on February 28th, 1929. And just like that, they both fell in love immediately! Even though Elena was married at the time and had two sons, Evgeny and Sergey, as she confessed in her memoirs, she could not forget or ignore that coup de foudrewith the talented Bulgakov.
After almost two years, Elena became his wife, muse for Margarita’s character, fan, typist, “my girlfriend, my force and the vigour of my weak heart.” In the letters Bulgakov sent to her, he nicknamed her lovingly – “Mîsea“, “Liusenka“, “Kupik“, “Ku“, “Liusi“, “Dorolin“.
Margaret or Margarita?
The name of the novel’s heroine, Margarita, created dissensions among the literary critics. The historian Vladimir Bulat states in Ruxandra Cesereanu’s book “Gourmet:Céline, Bulgakov, Cortázar, Rushdie”that the translation Margaret instead of Margarita from the Russian original version is wrong. He is of the opinion that the character’s name should be Margarita, because Bulgakov chose it intentionally, since both Margaret and Margarita can be found as first names in the Russian language.
An explanation for the translation of Margarita is the fact that in the 22ndchapter of the novel, Koroviev (a character close to the magician Woland) explains to his guest that there has been established a tradition of naming the queen of Satan’s ball only and only Margarita. Koroviev also states that the heroine was chosen from the other 121 Margaritas who lived at the time in Moscow.
In the same chapter, Koroviev names Margarita and invokes her with “Oh, queen!”. Koroviev proceeds to explain to Margarita that in the 16thcentury there lived a queen called Marguerite of Navarre (1492-1549) who would have been very proud to know that he presented to her great-great-granddaughter the rooms at the ball held in Satan’s honour in Moscow.
The “Sympathy” for Pontius Pilate
In his last years of life, the fact that Mikhaíl Bulgakov felt his illness very intensely is not only evident from his diaries, but, apparently, from the sufferings of one of his characters, namely Pontius Pilate, as well. A group of neuroscientists from the Brown University of Providence, USA published a study entitled “The Sympathy for Pontius Pilate.Hemicrania in M. A. Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita”.
The purpose of the study was to demonstrate that Bulgakov based his detailed description of Pilate’s migraines on his personal experience. According to the researchers, “in the novel, there is a very thorough explanation of the symptoms of a migraine attack and an extensive description of osmophobia(fear of odours;usually people who suffer from migraines, also have osmophobia).” In order to confirm this hypothesis, the American scientists studied the author’s biography, his medical history as well as his and his wife’s journal entries about this condition.