Exhibit 18.24

The Master and Margarita

With the exception of The Good Soldier, no book seems to get mentioned quite as often as Bulgakov’s masterwork when writers of a certain sort–my sort–talk about their favorite novels. The particulars are all on its side: banned and untranslated for decades, published posthumously with sections censored, several translations competing to handle all of the puns and allusions. In other words, even if it weren’t such a funny, strange read, there would still be plenty to talk about.

The story of the devil causing chaos in Stalinist Moscow, the novel initially seems to present itself as a rebuke to Soviet atheism as the head of a state-backed literary organization argues that Jesus never existed. A strange foreigner proves that he exists by telling him the story of Pontius Pilate–one of several times and several guises that Pilate’s story takes over the novel–which he knows because he was there. It’s odd seeing the devil stick up for the existence of Christ, but subverting our conceptions of good and evil is what the novel does best. Most notably, the devil is the hero here, at least a kind of hero. He argues convincingly that the world needs shadows as much as it needs light and that, to do away with darkness, you’d have to level everything and live with flat and boring.

But it’s hard to see Bulgakov as being much interested in the actual theistic considerations here. Rather, his is a satire of those who claim absolute truth without cause or curiosity. It’s a form of cowardice–which Pilate calls the greatest vice–to stake a claim without allowing objections. Its an argument Bulgakov makes personal in the character of The Master, a writer relegated to an asylum after his novel–about Pilate, naturally–is not only rejected but condemned by writers and publishers in league with the corrupt literary union. Even with what little I know of Bulgakov’s life, it’s easy to read the author’s plight into the story of The Master, an artist persecuted and ignored for daring to make art that challenges (or, in other words, actual art). Soviet bureaucracy gets hit hard here, but the bulk of the damage done by the devil is directed at the elite writers and critics who are more interested in food and comfortable apartments than in writing.

Pontius Pilate serves as the novel’s centerpiece and for good reason. Even in the Bible he’s a fascinating and complex character–Nietzsche seemed to think he was the only one worth listening to in the New Testament–and given his own narrative here his story seems even more complicated. He’s certainly not a good man, but he’s not a bad man either. Ultimately, for all his faults of personality, what he’s mostly guilty of is the cowardice he rails against, realizing too late that being brave doesn’t always come with a sword. As the character most uniquely situated in between good and evil–he’s a sinner yet acutely aware of his sin and repentant–he’s also the most human. In the end, he’s saved, but only when The Master’s novel redeems his humanity in the eyes of both the devil and the lord. Man’s art, in Bulgakov’s world, has insight that even Christ lacks.

(Which is why it seems certain that Bulgakov cares little about organized religion and a whole lot about art).

Just like The Good Soldier, it’s a fantastic book that deserves its reputation among writers. I’m really at a loss to say much else. A passionate, rational defense of the bravery and necessity of doubt and insurgency and art? A hilarious, sympathetic portrayal of the devil befuddling communists? A book some critics have called the Red Dawn of the literary world? Okay, so no critics have said that last one, but you count me as a fan in any case.

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