Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Woland's Variety Theatre Black Magic Show

The Master & Margarita - Bulgakov's wondrous masterpiece-of-a-novel thick with allegory - ties together three separate plots: the first being the return of Satan to 1930s Moscow (in the guise of a witty and sarcastic gentleman known as Woland) and his mischief-making entourage (including a huge Cheshire-like cat) ostensibly to organize a Reunion Midnight Ball to be attended by all of history's great miscreants fresh from the Gates of Hell; the second consisting of the mental travails of an embittered young writer and unlikely hero (The Master") and amorous affair with his inspiration and only champion, Margarita; whilst the third sub-plot takes place in the Jerusalem of Pontius Pilate, where we are a privileged fly-on-the-wall observer to Mr Pilate's meetings with Jesus, and his subsequent ruminations about the man, and the people conspiring against him, which, is woven together with the first two since this [Pilate & Jesus] incidentally is the subject of The Master's tortured literary work.

Whew.

Sounds convoluted, but it is utterly mesmerizing, and survives the test of time incredibly well. This is a particular achievement for an allegory lampooning something as remote as the early post-revolutionary USSR, but it certainly stands up on its own as an insightful an entertaining read.

It's continued relevance may have as much to with the universality of man's follies, or the ability of good satire to transcend time. But perhaps, it may be because the bizarreness of 1920s USSR (idiosyncracies aside) may not be that remote from the absurdities of our own modernity, albeit on the opposite tail of political and financial possibility.

I must admit that it has been some years since I had the pleasure of reading the book, but one reader was kind enough to recently remind me of a chapter that he/she thought particularly germane to the unfolding of current day financial events. In it, Woland, who most would find an eminently likable fellow, and his retinue (who also possess an assortment of captivating qualities), have arrived and begun making plans for their Reunion Ball, under the cover of putting on a series of Black Magic Performances at The Variety Theatre, in order to alledgedly expose its "machinations". But that's not the way the Show turns turns out, as you will see from the eNotes synopsis of the Chapter below:

(from eNotes)
The show begins with Koroviev [Woland's assistant who looks like a choirmaster] and the cat [called Behemoth] flipping a deck of cards back and forth, and Koroviev swallowing the cards as they are returned to him by the cat. The deck is then found on a citizen named Parchevsky, after which a heckler claims the deck was planted on Parchevsky. Koroviev tells the heckler he now has the deck. This heckler finds ten-ruble bills in his pocket instead of the deck, and when a fat man in the stalls asks "to play with the same kind of deck," Koroviev shoots his pistol up at the ceiling, and money begins raining down. The audience starts grabbing the bills, but Koroviev stops the rain of money by blowing into the air. Bengalsky steps in to declare that the rain of cash was merely a trick of mass hypnosis and asks Woland to make the notes disappear, but Koroviev and the audience do not like this idea. Someone in the gallery calls for tearing Bengalsky's head off. Koroviev says he likes this idea, and the cat jumps upon Bengalsky and tears his head off with two twists of his paws. An outraged audience asks for the head to be put back on Bengalsky, and the cat puts it back. A crowd rushes to help Bengalsky after he starts moaning, and he is taken away by ambulance. Meanwhile, Woland disappears, and as he does, Koroviev displays ladies' dresses, hats, shoes, and accessories from Paris. After he offers the women in the audience the chance to exchange their dresses and shoes for the Parisian dresses and shoes, one brunette takes up the offer. After she receives a pair of shoes and a dress, women rush the stage to get their new dresses and shoes. When Sempleyarov, the chairman of the Acoustics Commission of the Moscow theatres, calls for the trickery to end, Koroviev exposes his affair with his mistress, "an actress from a traveling theatre. Sempleyarov's wife defends him and, amidst the continuing chaos, Koroviev and the cat, now called Behemoth, vanish from the stage...

Sounding familiar?

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

My next job is to re-read this masterpiece. Hard to choose a favorite scene, between jerusalem and the Variety Theatre. Hope some of your readers are inspired to do same.

OldVet said...

I found Behemoth, am still looking for Koroviev, will send evidence shortly.

MTC said...

cassandra -

Off topic, but I believe you have a right to feel some pleasure at a list posted over at Bradford DeLong's blog:

http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2008/01/more-things-to.html

Congratulations!

"Cassandra" said...

Thanks MTC....

Prof DeLong was the hook that initially piqued my interest in reading & exchanging ideas on-line. And his source, Steve Randy Waldman (Interfluidity Blog)is a fine thinker and adept writer too.

kristiina said...

There's a tv series made about the book by Vladimir Bortko that's surprisingly good.

One of the reasons the book has not lost any of its appeal is the character of Woland. He is a devil of the Faustian lineage. In this Goethe's play Mefistofeles introduces himself to Faust as "Part of that Power which would The Evil ever do, and ever does the Good." This strange version of evil challenges pretty much all of christianity and also presents the evaryday drama of human life in a totally different light. The fight of good versus evil is good education for teenagers, but grown-ups should know better. There's a message in that book that still has not reached wider consciousness. Jung (another fan of Goethe's Faust) pointed out the issue: what is evil and how can we cope with it? Seems humanity has made no progress on this question after Bulgakov. So, this book, as is Goethe's Faust, is as timely as ever. Thank you for reminding!

"Cassandra" said...

Kristiina - Thank YOU for your thoughts, and introducing me to Bortko's work. I watched a couple of clips on youtube (from Heart of A Dog"), and would be keen to see his 1990 film on Afghanistan, for art and the essentially untold perspective - especially timely given the recent release of "Charlie Wilson's War" (fascinating read if only for an insight into the morass that passes for Policy creation).

But back to topic, I've often thought about the practical difficulties of translating the novel to screen. So much of importance is psychologically internal, self-dialogue, or detached 3rd party observation. How to achieve it? Voice-over's?? A narrator? It seemed such a herculean task, I've never taken its realization seriously for fear see a bad realization would spoil by pleasant memories. And with so much imbued in it, and Bulgakov not able to speak for himself, it screams out for mediated intelligent discussion to further illuminate for feeble readers like me, opening yet more fascinating avenues. Having seen a glimpse of Bortko's work and passion, I will give it a try if I can find it, and thank you again. I saw your musings BTW in finnish (or estonian??). Do you write in English?

kristiina said...

Bortko's series ran here (in Finland) on tv. I would have bought it on dvd but have not been able to locate any seller. I don't want to build up any unjustified expectations - novel favourites are such sensitive creatures. Maybe you get a chance to check for yourself wether the filming does justice to Bulgakov or not. And if not, you still have the real thing...

As you see, i don't write in english ;)