I always think of Mikhail Afanasyevich Bulgakov with tenderness, as if he were my relative, and a very close and dear one at that. Mikhail Afanasyevich Bulgakov was not my relative. I was not even fortunate to know him personally—he died a few years before I was born.
Once, in a conversation with the editor of this magazine, the name Bulgakov came up. My interlocutor, who had read an English translation of The Master and Margarita, as well as some of Bulgakov’s plays, spoke of him with great respect, and then asked: “But still, why do you say that one must read Bulgakov?” This essay is my modest attempt to answer that question.
Besides that, The Master and Margarita, the novel which Bulgakov considered to be the most important thing in his life (he died in 1940 at the age of 48), which he, even gravely ill, blind, continued dictating to his wife until, literally, his last days; the novel, in which the visit of Soviet Moscow by the Spirits of Darkness intertwines with the story of Jesus of Nazareth—this novel is currently being produced at the avant-garde American Repertory Theater by the famous Soviet dissident-modernist-director (the words can be put in any order) Mr. Yuri Lyubimov. But about this later.
People who knew Bulgakovpersonally remember him as a very kind and lighthearted man. The idea that a true artistic genius cannot fail to be a good man sounds now hopelessly oldfashioned. The misanthropy of Baudelaire, the cynicism of Duchamp, the professional dishonesty of Mayakovsky, or the hooliganism of Pollock seem to be the natural attributes of contemporary genius—defying everything and everyone, concentrating exclusively on himself, his conscience or subconscience, a rebel and a loner.
But let’s pause for a moment and contemplate what, after all, artistic genius is. Michelangelo, when he said that a great sculpture already exists in a block of marble, and the task of the sculptor is simply to remove, chip away the unneeded pieces and “free” it, was not entirely joking.
And like this Michelangelo’s sculpture concealed in a block of marble, perhaps, beautiful images, divine sounds and voices, profound ideas exist around us, unseen and unheard by us—ordinary mortals. A genius, like a supersensitive antenna, picks them up, translates them into our language, embodies them into visible forms, and hands them to us.
The main impulse of a true genius is not to look into himself, with endless digging into his conscience and subconscience—as Pasternak said, “conscience is like the headlights of a car; their light directed outward illuminates the way, directed inward leads to catastrophe”—but to look out of himself And to give. And if the main impulse of your existence is the desire to give, you cannot really be a nasty character. That’s what, probably, Pushkin had in mind when he exclaimed in his Mozart and Salieri: “Genius and villainy are incompatible.”
By education Bulgakov was a physician. After graduating from the Kiev University Medical School, he went to work in a remote provincial village, and there, in that godforsaken place, far from the big cities, far from, as he wrote, “opera, street lights, comfortable operating-rooms,” being the only physician for dozens of snowy miles around, he worked without sparing himself, 12 to 14 hours a day, often without accepting a penny from his benighted peasant-patients.
By his very being, by his doctor’s hands (and not by ideas invented in big cities), trying to do for them everything he could, he, at the same time, did not entertain any idealistic illusions regarding the people, the “muzhiks.”
In his brilliant novel The White Guard, the intelligent and brave artillery captain Myshlaevsky (having spent a dreadful January night in the snow, in the trenches near Kiev, where he, with a unit of officers as idealistic as he, defended the city from the nationalist bands of ataman Petlyura) exclaims when he is asked about the fires in the city’s outskirts: ” . . . and that’s, dammit, your God-bearing people of Dostoevsky’s torching the city!”
This sober statement is Bulgakov’s answer to all the propagators of the idea of “God-bearing peoples,” as well as all the prosecutors shouting about “Murderer peoples.”
There are no “God-bearing peoples,” Bulgakov says; each nation is capable of producing the cutthroats of ataman Petlyura (or Ernst Kaltenbrunner or Pol Pot, we might add). Just as there are individual murderers but no nation murderers, there are no “God-bearing” nations, only “God-bearing” individuals.
Bulgakov, as, perhaps, only Chekhov, was remarkably free from that infection which afflicted all great Russian writers—the infection of the Utopian idealization of “the muzhik.” With the clear, calm eye of a doctor he looked at this benighted, oppressed, superstitious people he loved and attended.
At that time, working as a country doctor, Bulgakov started writing. As he afterwards recalled, “One night, in the bleak autumn of 1919, traveling in a derelict train, by the light of a small candle stuck in a kerosene bottle, I wrote my first little story.”
Later, when he was a famous writer, someone asked him what one needs in order to write well. “Just two things,” Bulgakov answered, “first—you should write only what you can see vividly in your mind, and second—you must truly love your characters.”
Bulgakov is often compared with Gogol. But this is not entirely correct. Yes, his feats of imagination, surrealistic juxtaposition of episodes, even his at times hurried, slightly breathless narrator’s voice do remind one of Gogol. However, Gogol anything but loved his characters. He, indeed, loved to vivisect them. Bulgakov, on the other hand, relates to his characters passionately. But it is not the passion of Dostoevsky, one of the main ingredients of which was pity (quite often rather hysterical). One of the main ingredients of Bulgakov’s passion is respect, and the admiration for human dignity.
It was dignity that gave Captain Myshlaevsky, Colonel Nay-Turs, the Turbin family from The White Guard, the strength to live through the savage years of the civil war; it was dignity that sustained the life of Bulgakov’s favorite hero (he wrote a novel and a play about him), Jean Baptiste Poquelin de Molière; it was dignity that maintained Bulgakov’s own existence when he, as a young doctor, was struggling with what he eloquently called the “Egyptian darkness” (“No . . . I’ll fight. I shall . . . I . . . And sweet sleep envelopes me after the night’s trials. Egyptian darkness enshrouds me like a fog . . . and I’m within it . . . either with a sword, or with a stethoscope. I’m walking . . . I’m fighting . . . ” he writes in The Notes of a Young Doctor) and later, when he, as a well-known writer, was trying to survive in the ghastly Moscow of the 1930’s.
In his themes, world view, style, Bulgakov is a distinctively modern writer. Yet there is one crucial moment which separates him from the mainstream of what is commonly called modern prose and makes him a direct descendant of the great classical narrative tradition.
As David Hume said, writing should be simple, but not obvious. (What a simple but not obvious statement itself!) In the works of great writers—be it Cervantes or Swift, Balzac or Goethe, Dickens or Flaubert, Tolstoy or Chekhov—ideas, thoughts, and emotions are profound and complex (how profound and how complex depends, of course, upon the genius of the individual writer), but the style, almost without exception, is clear, direct, and simple. Sometimes, as in the case of later Tolstoy, even deliberately simplified for maximum accessibility.
One of the prominent traits of “serious” modern writing is exactly the opposite. Emotions, thoughts, ideas most often are uncomplex, banal, or even plainly stupid, but the style is contrived, tangled, and baroque. An ordinary reader is confused and perplexed. It seems to him that in order to understand it, he must have a Ph.D. in psychology and a deep experience in psychoanalysis. And frustrated, he plunges into the kind of writing where all these platitude ideas and mediocre thoughts are expressed in a style simple and obvious. Then, Love Story supplants for him The Sorrows of Young Werther, 2001: A Space Odyssey takes the place of Gulliver’s Travels, and the stories of Ann Beattie replace the stories of Anton Chekhov.
Comparing the prose of Turgenev (which he truly enjoyed) and Tolstoy, Vladimir Nabokov once observed that when you read Turgenev you continually admire his writing virtuosity, but reading Tolstoy you so entirely live in his prose that you don’t even notice his mastery, and you have to “step back” in order to appreciate his dazzling craftsmanship.
The same may, in a way, be said about Bulgakov’s prose. I cannot resist quoting here an excerpt—describing a birth on the bank of a stream—from The Notes of a Young Doctor. Early one spring morning, when the doctor-narrator is in his bedroom shaving, the hospital janitor Yegorych, wearing big battered boots, charges in and announces that “a birth is taking place in the bushes above the stream.”
I remember wiping my left cheek with a towel and dashing off with Yegorych. And the three of us running to the stream, which was muddy and swollen among naked clumps of willow—the midwife with her forceps, a bundle of gauze and a jar of iodine; I, my eyes popping out of my head, and behind us, Yegorych.
Every five steps he squatted down on the ground and, cursing, tugged at his left boot: its sole had torn loose. The wind flew into our faces, the sweet, savage wind of the Russian spring; the midwife Pelageya Ivanovna’s comb fell from her hair, her bun came loose and flapped against her shoulder.
“Why the devil do you drink away all your money?” I muttered at Yegorych as we ran. “It’s disgusting. You’re a hospital janitor, yet you go around like a bum.”
“What kind of money is that?” Yegorych snarled back at me, “for twenty rubles a month putting myself through all this torment . . . Oh, damn this thing!” He was beating his foot against the ground like a mad horse. “Money . . . I don’t even get enough for food-drink . . . “
“Sure, drink especially,” I panted hoarsely, “that’s why you slouch around like a tramp . . . “
A faint, doleful cry came from near the little rotting bridge, and faded away. We ran up and saw a disheveled woman, writhing in pain. Her kerchief had slipped off, her hair had stuck to her sweaty forehead; she was rolling her eyes in agony, tearing at her sheepskin with her nails. Bright fresh blood had spattered the first thin, pale-green grass, just broken through the rich, waterlogged soil.
“She didn’t make it, she didn’t make it,” Pelageya Ivanovna, bareheaded, looking like a witch, kept saying, unwrapping the gauze.
And there, to the cheerful roar of water rushing through the blackened timber piers of the bridge, Pelageya Ivanovna and I delivered a baby of the male sex. We delivered him alive and saved the mother. Then two nurses and Yegorych—his left foot bare, he had finally freed himself from the detested rotten sole—carried the mother to the hospital on a stretcher.
Later, when she was lying there under the bedclothes, quiet and pale, when her baby was lying beside her in a cradle, and everything was calm, I asked her:
“Couldn’t you find a better place to give birth than the bridge, mother? Why didn’t you get a horse-cart?”
“My father-in-law wouldn’t give me a horse. It’s only five versts, he said, you can walk it. You’re a healthy lass. There’s no point in tiring a horse . . . “
“Your father-in-law is a fool and a swine,” I replied.
The striking description of the turbid, swollen stream amid the naked clumps of willow, the water rushing through the darkened mouth of the bridge, almost physically describes childbirth. Yet, the description is remarkably uncontrived. Besides, Bulgakov’s pantheistic sense of Nature, his high piercing lyricism are never sentimental. Humor, interwoven into the narration, removes from it the slightest tint of sentimentality.
But Bulgakov’s humor is not always kind and lighthearted. A slight twist and it turns into the sharpest satire. This satire is directed against general human follies and against much more specific ones, those that he saw multiplying with such devilish speed in the new Soviet Russia.
Thus the Utopian concept of remaking the world through purely scientific means was embodied in his novella The Fatal Eggs. Its hero, a quiet scientist. Professor Persikov (Peachman), discovers in his laboratory a certain “Ray of Life.” The professor’s discovery is immediately confiscated and by the directive of the energetic government is put to practice. The best chickens’ eggs are brought from the West in order to zap them with this Soviet “Ray of Life” so that unprecedented, gigantic Socialist chickens will hatch out. However, as a result of someone’s carelessness, the boxes with the eggs are mixed up, and not chickens’ but snake eggs get under the “Ray of Life,” which produces snakes of enormous size. It is impossible to destroy them, and they crawl all over Moscow. Bulgakov was one of the first writers (among those not emigrating after the Revolution) who also clearly saw what was going to happen with literature in the new Soviet state. How the soon-to-be established Union of Writers would become the main executioner (literally) of its members and the chief responsibility of the Union chairman would be to supply the KGB with the names of writers to be shot or shipped off to the Gulag.
The Soviet idea of creating a “New Man” is depicted by Bulgakov in his novella A Dog’s Heart, in which a wealthy, well-known and well-groomed doctor in an azure gown, Phillip Phillipych, conducts a medical experiment on a stray dog—transplants into him a human cerebellum and some endocrine glands—the result of which is that the scruffy, hungry, but good-natured dog Sharik (a very typical Russian dog’s name) is transformed into a man—the shortish, bandy-legged, meanspirited lumpen proletarian Sharikov (a fairly common Russian surname). This Sharikov immediately makes skillful use of all the Soviet slogans, joins first a society for the annihilation of stray cats, then the GPU (former name of the KGB) tries to throw his creator (the doctor) out of his own apartment, writes reports denouncing him to the authorities, and demands that he be arrested. If it were not for the patronage of some party dignitaries who need Phillip Phillipych—he performs operations of sexual rejuvenation on them—the doctor in the azure gown would have been hauled off to the Gulag. Phillip Phillipych eventually succeeds in luring Sharikov into the operating room, where he transplants back into him his dog’s cerebellum and endocrine glands. Besides its apparent metaphysical meaning, A Dog’s Heart hilariously describes the absurdities and havoc of Soviet postrevolutionary life when people, in Bulgakov’s words, “start pissing past the toilet bowl.”
In its merciless satire this novella can be compared to Orwell’s Animal Farm, with Bulgakov’s piece being, in my view, more biting. Such works left no doubt about Bulgakov’s attitude toward the new regime. It wasn’t even the Aesopian language, so widespread in Communist countries—Bulgakov expressed his disgust openly.
The surprising and paradoxical thing about all this was that the writer who dared to do it was not sent to the Gulag. The party hacks, of course, came down on him. He was called “a bourgeois flunkey,” “a literary pest.” After 1927 he practically couldn’t publish his works, but he was never arrested. He died his own death in his own bed. Mikhail Afanasyevich Bulgakov was not even exiled from Moscow.
This happened because of the personal and rather puzzling attitude toward Bulgakov of one man—Joseph Stalin.
The brutal dictator who had a barbaric taste in the visual arts and a tin ear in music had a peculiar attitude toward matters of literature. He, of course, vigorously implanted dead and wooden socialist realism into literature, as he did in all other arts, but that was for the masses. There is strong reason to believe that he could (however paradoxical it sounds) distinguish great writing and personally valued it.
While Stalin was alive, Pasternak was never seriously persecuted, although he never wrote anything glorifying Stalin. (As a matter of fact, glorifying him didn’t save many mediocre poets from being deported to the Gulag.) Mandelstam was deported, but only after he wrote such a devastatingly stinging poem insulting Stalin personally that any other poet would have been shot on the spot for writing it.
And then, Bulgakov. After his novel The White Guard was published in the literary journal Rossiya (subsequently closed down), it attracted the attention of the celebrated Moscow Art Theater, whose head, Stanislavsky, proposed to Bulgakov that he write a play based on his novel.
In 1926, when Bulgakov’s works were published less and less, and he was under constant attack from the party critics, his play The Days of the Turbins, based on his novel, was produced at the Art Theater. Not only were White officers walking on the stage of Russia’s most renowned theater, which in itself was unheard of, these White officers were portrayed with profound sympathy. The critics now openly called for Bulgakov to be shot and the theater to be shut down. The mildest accusation was this (typically Soviet) one: “He yielded the rostrum to the enemy!”
Despite these howls, however, Bulgakov was not shot, the theater was not closed down, and the play was not banned. The fact was, Stalin was coming to the theater regularly to see it. From his personal loge, hidden from other viewers behind a slightly drawn curtain, he, according to the Art Theater’s archives, saw The Days of the Turbins at least 15 times.
In literature Stalin’s main interests were poetry (there were rumors in Moscow that he himself wrote poetry, although his poems were never published—neither while he was alive nor after his death) and drama. Thus, he personally read every film-script that was being prepared for production, “editing” the scripts with a thick blue pencil.
What was it that attracted him so in Bulgakov’s play? Just its literary qualities? Or did he derive some pathological satisfaction from the fact that the movement he had destroyed consisted of decent people. Or maybe, deep in his heart, he despised the Bolsheviks (after all, he physically annihilated more Bolsheviks than Hitler) and, in spite of all the Marxist-Leninist demagoguery, he wanted to see himself as tsar and not as the leader of the proletariat. Interestingly enough, he soon canceled the exotically romantic uniform of the Red Army—its high pointed helmets and long, down to the heels greatcoats—and dressed Soviet officers in uniforms that were absolutely identical to those of the tsarist army.
Whatever all the motivations may have been behind Stalin’s attraction to The Days of the Turbins, they turned out to be crucial for Bulgakov.
In 1930, when his prose had not been published and all his plays, except for ø, had, one after the other, been banned, Bulgakov, on the personal order of Stalin, was appointed a producer-director of the Moscow Art Theater. This was a blessing for him since theater, from his youth, had been his passion.
“The curtain was open and the stage gaped. It was solemn, mysterious and empty. Its corners were flooded in darkness, but in the middle, gleaming faintly, stood a prancing golden horse. . . . ‘This is my world’ . . . ” whispers Bulgakov through the lips of his hero, the dramatist Maksudov.
At the Art Theater he worked on the classics, adapting great novels to the stage—Gogol’s Dead Souls, War and Peace, Don Quixote—producing them and, sometimes, even acting in them himself Thus, in his production of Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, he brilliantly played the part of the President of the Court. Bulgakov’s love for theater, for theatricality, focused on his fascination with Molière. While working as a producer-director, he wrote a biographical novel and a play about Molière, A Cabal of Hypocrites. In 1936 he staged it at the Art Theater, but after several sold-out performances, this play was also banned.
A Cabal of Hypocrites is not only a play about Molière, it is also a play about the very essence of theater (as, in a way, Fellini’s 8-1/2 is a film about the very essence of film), about the lightness of genius and the leaden heaviness of absolute power; about hypocrisy and the splendor of 17th-century Paris. But it is also a play about the 20th century, in which unintrusively, in a very subtle line, there runs a parallel: Louis-Molière and Stalin-Bulgakov.
One scene containing a conversation between Louis and Molière, in which the king gives Molière permission to stage Tartuffe in Palais Royal, conveys the atmosphere of Bulgakov’s only conversation with Stalin, when Stalin unexpectedly telephoned him in the middle of the night. (As it is known, Stalin called writers only twice. The first time was his famous call to Pasternak, when he asked Pasternak’s opinion about Mandelstram’s poetry, and the second time—to Bulgakov.)
The result of this conversation was Bulgakov’s appointment to the Art Theater. However, having done Bulgakov this favor, Stalin, at the same time, banned all his plays except The Days of the Turbins (and even this one he permitted in one theater only; again, personally enjoying the play, he was categorically against the masses seeing it), and he flatly refused Bulgakov’s numerous requests for permission to travel to Paris while he was working on his novel and play about Molière.
Many years ago, when I first came to Paris, I walked to the corner of Richelieu and Therese Streets where stands the famous statue of Molière. I stood beside it and thought of what Mikhail Afanasyevich Bulgakov would have given to be in my place. I stood beside this bronze statue of the genius dramatist and recalled the beginning of Bulgakov’s novel about him, when the author addresses an imagined mid-wife at the birth of Molière:
And so, I am wearing this kaftan with enormous pockets, and in my hand is not a steel but a quill pen. Wax candles are burning in front of me and my brain is on fire. “Madame”—I say—”please, turn this baby carefully, don’t forget that he was born prematurely. The death of this baby would be a tremendous loss for your country!”
“My God, Madame Poquelin will have another one!”
“Madame Poquelin will never have another one like him, and no other Madame . . . will ever have one like him.”
“You amaze me. Monsieur!
Molière the mocker, author of The Cheats of Scapin; Molière the satirist of genius, author of Tartuffe; Molière the philosopher, author of The Misanthrope; these Molierian qualities were present in Bulgakov, and they were realized with remarkable force in the novel which he considered the main work of his life—The Master and Margarita.
Bulgakov worked on this novel for 12 years, from 1928 to 1940, but it was published only in 1966—26 years after the author’s death. Very few people knew about the existence of the manuscript and still fewer—only the author’s closest friends—had read it. The novel is unusual. Boundless fantasy intertwines in it with serene reality, buffoonery with profound seriousness, satire with genuine religious feeling. On the pages of the novel exist side by side Muscovites of the 1930’s and medieval witches and devils, Soviet bureaucrats, and Jesus of Nazareth (Yeshua Ha-Notsri, as Bulgakov calls him), Goethe’s Mephistopheles and “the fifth Procurator of Judea, the knight Pontius Pilate.”
And all of them whirl in the vortex of a tense, gripping plot, at the center of which is placed a love story of a contemporary man—the Master, writing a novel about Pilate—and his mistress, Margarita.
Bulgakov’s novel is distinctively modern, yet one hears in it the echoes of Greek satires and medieval mystery plays, traditions of Rabelais, Goethe, European fantastic novels of the 18th century. Actually, The Master and Margarita is a much more “European” than a “Russian” novel. However, the response it generated in the West cannot even be compared with the tremendous impact its publication created in Russia (although, as one knows, Russian readers are quite accustomed to great literature).
And it is not simply because the translations are of a very poor quality (by the way, they are, at least the English ones), but because the main layers of the novel are much closer to the contemporary Russian than to the contemporary Western reader.
Here are these layers.
The first one—Judeo-Christianity.
For Western, contemporary, pragmatic man the Judeo-Christian tradition has become so habitual that it often means nothing more to him than an old, boring ritual. It has become, in fact, so habitual to many people that it often has no meaning for them whatsoever. This largely explains the current spread in the West of all sorts of fringe religious sects—people frantically searching for “fresh” religious knowledge and excitement which, they think, the Judeo-Christian tradition cannot give them.
In the Soviet Union exactly the opposite is the case. The Christian system (as, in this regard, all religious systems) exists in the atmosphere of a dedicated annihilation—from the physical demolition of churches right after the 1917 Bolshevik seizure of power, to the ongoing penetration of church organizations by young cadres of the KGB, appropriately attired in cassocks and crosses, who, while moving up through the ranks of the priesthood, at the same time, secretly, move up through the ranks of the KGB. (As a matter of fact, observing this time-tested Soviet technique of getting inside religious organizations, a heretical thought comes to mind—could it be that some outspoken champions of Western “liberation” theology also have shoulder-straps under their cassocks?)
Well, in all this grim reality there is a comforting aspect, however, and it is that the Bolsheviks, in trying to destroy Christianity and turning it into a persecuted religion, gave it, in the Soviet Union, the strength, vitality, and appeal which can only be compared with the strength, vitality, and appeal of early Christianity of the Roman catacombs. And another thing—in Russia the Byzantine tradition of Christian mysticism makes it even more attractive and meaningful to people.
The second layer—we can call it the Faust-Mephistophelian.
This is the spiritualism which came to Russia from the West, particularly from Germany, and which was as important for the development of Europeanized Russia as, before that, the Eastern, Byzantine spiritualism was important for the development of Kievan Rus.
The incessant German obsession—insatiable desire to get to the heart, to the first cause of all things, to understand the nature of the Lord of Darkness in all of his manifestations, carnal, eternal, metaphysical—and, at the same time, the feeling of ambiguity of this all-powerful “Spirit of Evil and Sovereign of Shadows” became a passionate Russian obsession.
“You don’t accept the existence of shadows and of evil,” Bulgakov’s Woland-Mephistopheles tells Yeshua’s disciple Matthew Levi, “but think now, think of what would your good be doing if there were no evil, and what would the earth look like if all shadows disappeared from it? . . . Do you want to strip the globe bare taking away from it all the trees and all that is alive, so that you can satisfy your desire for naked light?”
And then the third layer—Soviet everyday life, the meanness of which intertwines with such impenetrable stupidity that even the worldly Woland is sometimes lost.
For the contemporary Western reader who hasn’t experienced Soviet reality personally, a genuine understanding may well be impossible. As it is impossible, for example, to understand from without the real meaning of these celebrated Russian gatherings of intellectuals in a kitchen (gatherings about which every Western journalist who visits the Soviet Union writes with such enthusiasm), when endless quantities of vodka and tea are consumed, and conversations last till dawn about the latest work of Nabokov or the unpublished verses of Mandelstam or the newest essay on Hellenism just banned by the censors.
How different these gatherings are from the excruciatingly dull parties attended by the literati, say, in Cambridge, Massachusetts! But then, in all fairness, this intellectual excitement, this remarkable sense of camaraderie of a dozen or so people gathered in someone’s kitchen somewhere in Moscow or in Leningrad takes place not because Russian intellectuals are brighter or better than their Western counterparts, but because in the Soviet Union there exists among people this keen feeling—we and they.
We are now sitting here, in this warm, tiny kitchen, and outside the black window are they. Our very existence is entirely in their heads. The only thing they haven’t taken from us is our ability to think. In all other respects we are utterly helpless against them.
And because of that, one must be born in contemporary Russia to understand fully the emotions that envelop a Soviet citizen when he reads, for instance, a passage from The Master and Margarita, which describes how two servants of Woland-Mephistopheles—one, called Koroviev (“Cowman”), a puny imp with a nasal twang, wearing a broken pince-nez, and the other one, Azazello, a redhead with a walleye and a protruding fang—are having breakfast when suddenly they hear behind their apartment door these all-too-familiar, terrifying steps of several men coming up the stairs.
“What are those footsteps on the stairs?” asked Koroviev, fiddling with his spoon in a cup of black coffee.
“I guess they’re coming to arrest us,” answered Azazello, and downed a shot of cognac.
“Ah . . . well, well . . . ” responded Koroviev.
And the Soviet reader, his heart sinking in excitement, is waiting for the KGB with their Mausers to try to arrest two charming fiends.
Throughout the entire novel, there runs the refrain of Bulgakov’s idea that “manuscripts don’t burn.” And precisely because “manuscripts don’t burn,” when once, in a rainy autumn night the Master, frustrated by the attacks on his novel about Pilate, burns it, Margarita, appearing unexpectedly in his small basement apartment, rushes to the stove and with her bare hands snatches the half-burned notebooks from the fire.
And precisely because “manuscripts don’t burn,” those chapters of the novel that Margarita couldn’t save are returned to the Master by the all-powerful Woland. And precisely because “manuscripts don’t burn,” Bulgakov’s wife, Elena Sergeevna, in real life rescues her husband’s novel—which Bulgakov, frustrated by the attacks on him, once tried to burn—and later, after his death, protects and saves the manuscript, the same way as another woman, Nadezhda Mandelstam, saved (but in her case with just her memory) the poetry of her husband. When The Master and Margarita was first published, it astounded me. Then, for many years, I didn’t open it for fear of being disenchanted. But my fear was unwarranted. Recently I read it again. And again Bulgakov’s prose gladdened and overwhelmed me.
As cadenced and simple as before were the pages