trials and temptations

July 19th, 2009

Another installment in my reading of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita:

Note: Unless otherwise stated, all references are to The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, Penguin Classics, 1997.

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread,” But he answered, “It is written,

‘One does not live by bread alone,

But by every word that comes from the

mouth of God.'”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written,

‘He will command his angels concerning you,’

and, ‘On their hands they will bear you up,

so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test,'”

Again the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,

‘Worship the Lord your God,

and serve only him.'”

Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Matthew 4: 1 -11, NRSV

Bulgakov’s Muscovites did not have quite the same strength of will.

Woland- and the translators kindly note that Woland is “A German name for Satan, which appears in several variants in the old Faust legends (Valand, Woland, Faland, Wieland).” (p 403)- having made his first appearance at the Patriarch’s Ponds, disposing of Berlioz and thoroughly upending Ivan Homeless, is settling in to Moscow and beginning his mission. And what, precisely, is the Devil doing in Stalin’s Moscow?

He and his crew seem to be very well attuned to the particular desires of each of their victims and also at thoroughly subverting those desires. A thoroughly hungover Styopa Likhodeev, director of the Variety Theatre, wakes up to be shown the contract he had signed with Woland the day before, a contract of which he has no memory at all. He is, in fact, convinced that he’s never seen Woland before. But within minutes a perfect hangover breakfast is before him-

“…sliced white bread, pressed caviar in a little bowl, pickled mushrooms on a dish, something in a saucepan, and, finally, vodka in a roomy decanter belonging to the jeweller’s wife. What struck Styopa especially was that the decanter was frosty with cold. This, however, was understandable: it was sitting in a bowl packed with ice. In short, the service was neat, efficient.” (p 79)

And so Woland has played his cards perfectly, as always: Struck with a sudden need to fix his hangover in very short order and the constant need to conceal his drunkenness and incompetence, and such a suave guest and perfect service, Styopa subtly checks up on this Woland’s claims, then plays along…. and is then suddenly spun off to Yalta.

And then there’s the chairman of the tenants’ association of Styopa’s building, Nikanor Ivanovich Bosoy, whose acquiescence is needed for Woland to stay in the apartment Berlioz and Styopa have been suddenly and forcefully vacated from: A substantial bribe and tickets to Woland’s black magic performance backed up with assurance that this foreigner has official permission to stay in a private apartment instead of the Metropol hotel do the trick. And just to make certain, a denunciation of Bosoy for currency speculation. What works superbly here is that the large stash of roubles he thought he got suddenly turning into four hundred US dollars sends Bosoy nicely round the bend, and the police end up taking him to the rapidly-filling psychiatric hospital.

But this is mere setting of the scene. The fun doesn’t really start until Woland’s act, the promised Black Magic and its Exposure, at the Variety Theatre that evening. The theatre is packed to the gunnels in anticipation of this foreign professor’s act, but for one it’s a case of last man standing: With Likhodeev having been spun off to Yalta, and Varenukha, administrator of the Variety, having disappeared in the attempt to clear up just how Likhodeev could be sending panicked telegrams from Yalta within minutes of his disappearance from Moscow, Grigory Danilovich Rimsky finds himself as the last of the Variety’s leadership on board for the evening’s performance, and the day’s events have left him on edge.

After a flat-fallen introduction by the pompous MC Georges Bengalsky, Woland and his retinue- the “checkered one” named either Koroviev or Fagott, and Behemoth the tomcat- appear on stage. They bear no props, no equipment, but just order up whatever they need out of thin air. Woland, having ordered up an armchair, asks The Question:

‘Tell me my gentle Fagott,’ Woland inquired of the checkered clown, who evidently had another appellation than Koroviev, ‘what do you think, the Moscow populace has changed significantly, hasn’t it?’


‘That it has, Messire,’ Fagott-Koroviev replied in a low voice.

‘You’re right. The city folk have changed greatly… externally, that is… as has the city itself, incidentally… Not to mention their clothing, these… what do you call them… trams, automobiles… have appeared…’

(p 122)

Externally. But Woland is not here to assess superficial change. What of any internal change?

Woland, through all of this, does not play a terribly active role, but just sits in his armchair observing. His assistants Fagott and Behemoth are the ones who do the work, causing freshly-minted ten rouble notes to fall from the ceiling- and so inspiring bedlam as each member of the audience rushes to catch as many for him/herself as possible.

Upon another ill-informed intervention by the pompous Bengalsky, Fagott asks the audience what should be done with the MC. And so, following an ill-advised shout from the audience, Bengalsky’s head is torn off, his body slumps on the stage spurting blood from his neck, and his still-living head is told just what he can do with his pomposity. The audience, of course, having had its request fulfilled, realises that this is not what they really wanted to happen. Bengalsky, naturally, does not appreciate being decapitated, finding it an altogether terrifying experience. And so his head is reattached and he is dispatched to the increasingly crowded psychiatric hospital.

But this is all mere child’s play. Now Fagott opens a ladies’ shop on the stage. The stage is covered in carpets, mirrors appear, and dresses, hats, shoes, handbags, perfume and lipstick, all the latest Parisian fashions. Of course, it always takes one brave soul to take the first step, but the female half of the audience, good Soviet citizens all, quickly overcomes her initial shyness and the stage is mobbed. With the announcement that the store will close in one minute, “mobbed” becomes “stormed” as women grab whatever of these luxuries they can.

Temptations three, the same number Jesus was subject to in the first 11 verses of Matthew chapter four. But our Muscovites have proved themselves rather weak-willed, and yet is there anything unusual about them? Transported to any other theatre anywhere else in the world at any point in time, would not this exhibition of black magic have produced the same results.

But Woland’s crew (Woland having disappeared from the stage in the midst of all this) has one last trick to pull. One Arkady Apollonovich Sempleyarov, chairman of the Acoustics Commission of Moscow theatres demands the promised exposure, and the exposure is delivered: An exposure of his own adultery.

And so the quality of the Muscovites is revealed.

Oh, and don’t worry, nobody but Woland and his crew profit from this caper: Citizens find useless scraps of paper or even insects where the 10 rouble notes they had collected at the Variety were, and on the way home from the theatre, hundreds of Moscow ladies who had been wearing beutiful Parisian dresses find themselves standing in their underwear out on the streets.

But what has happened to our hero, Ivan Homeless, Bezdomny? This very excitable young man in his early 20s was knocked thoroughly off-balance by his encounter with Woland. In the course of a madcap pursuit through Moscow, he inexplicably takes a dip in the Moscow River, after which he is left with nothing more than a pair of drawers, a Tolstoy blouse, a lighted candle in a candlestick, and an icon, and it is thus adorned that he storms into Griboedov’s, home of Massolit, the literary organisation to which he belongs, raving incoherently about the foreign professor who killed Berlioz. And so he is packed off to the psychiatric hospital- indeed, the first of Woland’s victims to be sent in that direction- where the masterful Professor Stravinsky persuades him that he is, indeed, not normal and in need of care. A broken man begins what could be a recovery.

But was he the first of Woland’s victims to appear in this psychiatric hospital? The Master appears, and with him Bulgakov himself. The Master, who has acquired a set of keys from a forgetful nurse, steals into Homeless’ room at night and the two strike up a conversation. For the first time since the incident at the Patriarch’s Ponds, Homeless finds himself with a sympathetic listener. Sympathetic? No. The Master fills him in on certain key details: Woland is Satan, and despite the Soviet propaganda, he really does exist, really was at Pilate’s place to witness Yeshua’s trial, and really did have breakfast with Kant.

The Master knows, you see, because having come into some money he quit his job, took a cozy basement flat, and began writing a novel about Pontius Pilate. Having fled his wife, he met an equally lonely soul, and the two began an affair in this basement flat, and she encouraged him in his writing and spurred him on when he was rejected by publishers and attacked in the press. In utter despair, the Master throws his manuscript in the fire, but his lover rescues the last notebook. He gives her the last of his money. He’s arrested, and after his release, pennyless, despondent, he checks into the psychiatric hospital apparently only a few months before Homeless finds himself there.

And so reality acquires another layer.

And so Mikhail Afanasyevich spins his web. The Master has only written a novel about Pontius Pilate, a novel that was never published and whose manuscript and notes were burned, all save the last notebook, so how does he recognise Woland and his true identity from Homeless’ story? And this shouldn’t need to be pointed out, but sometimes the obvious is better stated than not: The novel the Master burnt is the very one we are reading, the Master is Bulgakov. And isn’t the Master’s novel the very same story Woland told Homeless and Berlioz at the Patriarch’s Ponds of Yeshua’s trial? Or so it would seem….

But first, back to Grigory Danilovich Rimsky, findirector of the Variety.

Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. A servant-girl came to him and said, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean,”But he denied it before all of them, saying, “I do not know what you are talking about.” When he went out to the porch, another servant-girl saw him, and she said to the bystanders, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” Again he denied it with an oath, “I do not know the man.” After a little while they bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly you are also one of them, for your accent betrays you.” Then he began to curse and he swore an oath, “I do not know the man!” At that moment the cock crowed. Then Peter remembered that Jesus had said: “Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.

Matthew 26: 69 – 75

And Rimsky, after Woland’s performance, finds himself locked away in his office, alone in the building, shaken to the very core. Outside is chaos as those ladies find themselves in their underwear instead of the beautiful Parisian dresses they thought they were wearing. Varenukha, the administrator who had disappeared in search of Likhodeev, returns, but suspicious, beaten about, and devoid of shadow. A naked red-headed woman appears at the window, reaching in through the vent to undo the latches and let herself in, her arm showing patches of green as it stretches, more rot showing on her breast. These two demons move in on Rimsky menacingly. A cock crows, startling the two demons. A second time, a third time, and the two demons flee. Rimsky, having escaped death only to be turned into a quivering wreck of an old man, arrives at the railway station just in time to catch the express to Leningrad.

And with this odd little inversion Bulgakov reminds us that he just can’t stay away from the Bible.

Which takes us back to Yeshua, whose execution is as different from the biblical Jesus’ as was his trial. The condemned are taken out to Bald Hill on a cart in a convoy, the citizens of Yershalaim chasing along despite the suffocating heat and dust of this city Pilate loathes so much. A double cordon is formed, with the spectators allowed within the first but not beyond the second. The condemned are hoisted onto their crosses. The heat is such that even the soldiers, all but Mark Ratslayer, are wilting, and the crowd eventually disperses, all but one lonely man. Matthew Levi, Yeshua’s only disciple, who through his crazily wrong writings of Yeshua’s teachings had his master condemned, after a mad sprint along with the convoy, a crazy sprint back to steal a knife with an insane view to breaking the cordon and leaping onto the cart to stab Yeshua, saving him the agony of a crucifixion, is forced to settle for finding a possie between the two cordons with all the other plebs. He contents himself with a gully on the northern slope from which he has the worst view of proceedings possible and sets to his scribbling. And what? Does this guy work for AP?

‘The minutes run on, and I, Matthew Levi, am here on Bald Mountain, and still no death!’


‘The sun is sinking, but no death.’

(p 175)

But death comes, as the storm approaches, at the Hegemon’s, Pilate’s mercy, as sponges are lifted on spear tips for each of the condemned to drink from before they are stabbed through the heart. And once the guard has dispersed and the torrential storm that dwarfs anything Beijing can throw up in the summer has played out, Matthew Levi, who has so far displayed a mania rarely seen in this world, cuts his master down from the cross, and then the two robbers hung on either side.

And I wonder: Is this Yeshua a relative of Monty Python’s Brian?

And now that I’ve given you most of the stories: What is one to make of all this?

We have the Devil, Woland, playing his old role as tempter.

We have the Muscovites: petty, corrupt, foolish, fearful and just as blinded by money and material goods now in their Stalinist manifestation as they were under the ancien régime.

And Yeshua, preacher of the innate goodness of humanity, condemned to die alone, hounded by a madman whose twisted scribblings were what got Yeshua condemned in the first place.

And now the Master. Who is this man? Is this Bulgakov making an appearance in his own novel? And Bulgakov’s novel appearing within itself? And who, precisely, is telling Yeshua’s story? Woland, the Master, Bulgakov, or all of the above?

From the biblical account of Jesus’ temptations, one could get the feeling that in tempting Jesus, the Devil was not doing evil, but fulfilling a part of God’s plan. Is the same true here with Woland? In wreaking his merry havoc on Moscow, is he not corrupting the Muscovites and leading them into evil, but fulfilling some higher purpose? And the séance of black magic at the Variety does suggest this purpose: It seems Woland is here to put Moscow to the test, to ascertain the Muscovites’ level of morality or goodness. This seems to be a strange innovation, a new interpretation of devilry. My memory of this novel, which I last read about 7 years ago, leaves me ambivalent on this particular question, especially given the apparent ties between Woland and the Master.

And so then what is good? What is evil?

At this point in the novel we find ourselves increasingly disoriented as we are wrapped ever tighter in Bulgakov’s web. It is not Stalin’s Moscow that is being turned upside down, but ourselves and all our preconceptions. And the insanity that seems to be such a feature of the novel, must it become a part of us as we work our way deeper into this web Bulgakov weaves?

And through all of this, of course, we have Bulgakov’s constant mocking of the Stalinist state. If the constant pisstakes of Soviet abbreviations and subtle allusions to the various disappearances and arrests that happened under Stalin’s reign (not to mention the surnames of so many characters) aren’t enough, there’s Chapter 15: Nikanor Ivanovich’s Dream, in which Nikanor Ivanovich Bosoy, one-time chairman of the tenants’ association of the building in which Woland commandeers an apartment, arrested for currency speculation, finds himself, after a failed interrogation, in the same psychiatric hospital that houses the Master, Homeless and Bengalsky the MC of the Variety. In hospital, in a dream, Bosoy finds himself in a situation Kafka would’ve been proud of: His show trial of currency speculators is something akin to a gameshow- set up, of course, for 1930s Russia, so in a theatre instead of on TV. And it is an utterly absurd gameshow- one wins, of course, by admitting one’s own guilt and denouncing any others one may know are engaged in currency speculation. But just what the prize may be is not revealed. One loses, of course, through denial. But what can Bosoy do? His foreign currency was planted by Woland. And he’s not the only one who chooses denial:

Nikanor Ivanovich’s red-bearded neighbour spoke up unexpectedly, and added with a sigh: ‘Ah, if it wasn’t for my geese!… I’ve got fighting geese in Lianozovo, my dear fellow… they’ll die without me, I’m afraid. A fighting bird’s delicate, it needs care… Ah, if it wasn’t for my geese!… They won’t surprise me with Pushkin…’ (pp 168 – 169)

Indeed, because if I had fighting geese, I’d be sitting in this eternal theatre being constantly badgered to admit my crimes and yet always denying them, because the other alternative is… what? And what can you do in such a situation, in which no matter which way you turn you’re pretty much royally screwed?

And for some reason this gameshow/trial is segregated. In Bosoy’s dream, everybody in the theatre is male, yet during one lull in the proceedings, distant applause is heard. Nikanor Ivanovich’s red-bearded neighbour, him of the fighting geese, spoke up only after hearing subdued applause coming from somewhere:

‘Some little lady in the women’s theatre is turning hers over,’ (p 168)

And yet to my eyes, the constant jabs at Stalinism are only a backdrop to the theological/philosophical musings on the role of the Devil.

It grows late, the witching hour draws near, and this post must be brought to an end. There will, of course, be more to come as the novel progresses.

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