“And They Lived Happily Ever After”–How The Master and Margarita Does it Right

Before launching into the literary subject matter at hand, I’d like to to take a moment to beg forgiveness of my esteemed reader and offer an explanation for my absence.  I’ve been doing a lot of travelling and miscellaneous adventuring. I’ve also begun to spend much of my time copyediting software engineer/dreamboat Erik Dietrich’s blog at daedtech.com. (If any of you folks dabble in things tech-y, I highly recommend the blog. Erik often draws from historical and literary sources for his software metaphors, and it’s a real pleasure to read.  That’s coming from a person who was pretty sure “C++” means “really close to being a B” and “motherboard” is the plank you walk up to get on the main flying saucer of an alien fleet.)

I’ve finally finished The Master and Margarita, and I’m just clever enough to know that there is plenty of satire afoot and just not clever enough to understand what the satire is targeting.  Maybe it requires more than a single Russian history class to understand.  I did notice wonderful hints at what Russian society is like, though.  I remember learning that Stalin was a late-to-bed, late-to-rise type and the hours of governmental operation and eventually the whole country began to mirror those hours kept by Stalin.  That explained why the literary folks at the club ate dinner near midnight. But since some of Bulgakov’s more subtle points about society were, I fear, lost on me, I will focus on that which enchanted and entertained me.  The story itself was incredibly amusing.  I loved watching Satan and his cohorts wreak havok for awhile, and I found myself wishing desperately Satan’s darling tom cat was real so he could come by and stir things up for my amusement and then go on a rampage about no one giving cats the respect they deserve.

By the the end of the novel, it struck me that I was actually rooting for the fairy tale ending–a thing which, under normal circumstances, bores me to tears.  “The poor Master and Margarita deserved to be together,” I thought near the end of the novel.  “They belong with one another, and I will throw a FIT if it doesn’t work out for them.”  Then I slapped myself, because, what,  I’m pulling for the cheesy ending?  What have I become?

But I realized that there’s a reason I can root for a happy ending to the story without feeling like it would be cliche.  After all, the two are in league with Satan, so this reader is more likely to give herself permission to cheer for romance as long it’s countered by being able to root for “evil,” too.  It’s not as sugary.  There’s balance. So, well played, Bulgakov.  I wanted your characters to be together forever.  And when they were, I was very satisfied with your ending, because, HA, it means that it pays to sacrifice your soul to Satan!  I can embrace romance and still feel edgy!

I love seeing things work in literature, and I love trying to figure out just what the author did right, making me putty in their hands (words?). I love seeing where authors fail, as well.  I thrive on the weakness of others.  Kidding, of course; figuring out where authors went wrong is very edifying to me because I’m more and more often in a position to give advice to others about their writing, and I’d like to think my advice will result in the real improvement of their creations.  Critical reading is one of those skills I aim to sharpen to an exceptionally fine point.  But, oh, perhaps you see that therein lies a real philosophical conundrum.  Just because a twist of phase, a plot device, or a directional choice doesn’t work for me doesn’t mean it that it won’t work for others.  Arguably, all taste is subjective, and what literature is good, what is bad, and even the difference between what writing is literature and what isn’t is an incredibly blurry line.  Yet, as species that has been around for awhile, we agree to keep some writers around and collectively esteem their works.  Studying them seems to be a good way to build up an idea of what is generally good and what isn’t.  But, ug, the quandries that arise when examining Hume’s expert-mimicry and the like are too great for bloggy snippets, and I’ve wandered far enough away from the topic as indicated by the title of this post.  If anyone wants to chat philosophy on these matters, I’m more than happy to dance in circles around these questions that have no answers with you.  It’s one of my favorite pastimes, and I have no resolved opinions on the matter, making me a great person to discuss things with.

The Master, Margarita, and Twin Peaks

I’m utterly convinced that David Lynch is the reincarnation of Mikhail Bulgakov.  I’m about halfway through The Master and Margarita, and everything is so surreal that I can’t tell who is crazy and who isn’t.  There are skips in time, supernatural occurrences, and people with cryptic and prescient messages (though not armed with chunks of driftwood). Like Lynch’s, sometimes Bulgakov’s story is whimsical, sometimes it’s dark.  The only difference is, with Lynch, I root for the good guys, and with Bulgakov, I’m on the side of Satan. I’m not totally sure what that says about me.  But in my defense, the trio of Satan, his, um, “manager,” and his Cheshire cat companion victimize people who are selfish, obtuse, frivolous, and generally hateable, and it’s pretty hilarious when they get manipulated.

For instance, Satan puts on a black magic show for a Moscow audience.  The crowd has seen Satan’s cat rip off the head of the master of ceremonies and reattach it.  Whether the act is an illusion or not, to the audience, it’s a portentous sign.  Most audience members are fairly shaken, especially the women.  Yet, the next “trick” is to open up a ladies’ shop onstage and invite women to come partake of the Parisian dresses, lavender shoes, and jeweled bottles of perfume, and, after a moment’s hesitation, all previously-seen violence is forgotten.  The women storm the stage, demanding all sorts of luxury items.  One woman can be heard berating her husband for his reluctance to let her join the legion of clucking hens fussing over froof onstage.  I found the scene an accurate reflection of society’s goldfish-proportioned capacity for memory.  And I was absolutely DELIGHTED to find that, when the women left the theater in their new finery, it began to disappear, leaving them on the street in their underwear.  Score one for Satan.

I think it might be interesting to examine Satan’s role in this book as an administer of justice.  Maybe that will be a task for when I finish the book.  And maybe that’s where Lynch and Bulgakov differ.  Lynch’s evil is simply chaos personified, or maybe, more accurately, an entity that thrives on the pain of decent people.  Satan in The Master and Margarita perhaps deals out harsher punishments than people really deserved (the ladies in the theater get off by far the easiest, as far as TMATM punishments go), but I will tentatively say that all the people who suffer are greedy, pompous, or just horribly stupid.

More later.