Thursday, 24 August 2017

Мастер и Маргарита

by Mikhail Bulgakov

Among many 50th anniversaries his year, one has a special importance for me (and, I suppose, for many millions of Russian literature lovers): 50 years since the publication of The Master and Margarita. I was first introduced to it by my mum’s friend, the late Aunty Sonia. (That’s how we called her, she wasn’t really my aunt.) Aunty Sonia taught Russian Language and Literature. She was Jewish, single (or divorced, I never asked) woman in her fifties, with beautiful eyes, unruly African hair and most amazing laughter. She lived at the edge of forest, in a log house which had a proper Russian stove and was full of books. I don’t know why Aunty Sonia took a liking to me and would ask my opinion on this or that. It might be that she couldn’t help testing me, or show off, or both.

Sonia: “Do you remember what David Samoilov (Osip Mandelstam, Boris Pasternak, etc.) said?”
I: “Er... Who is David Samoilov?”
Sonia: “A Jew. Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!”
She used to wear jeans at home (well she was not my teacher, so I can’t say whether she was wearing jeans at work too), walk barefoot on snow, and chop her own firewood. One evening, we came to visit her. The conversation steered towards Jesus Christ Superstar which we both were fond of. Auntie Sonia said that she did not believe in God but believed in Jesus as created by Bulgakov. When she mentioned the scene of Yeshua’s death from The Master and Margarita, I confessed that I had no idea what she was talking about. “What?!!” she cried, “but this is impossible!” She fetched the book, found the page: “Here, young man, read it!” (She would boss me around, as teachers do, but always in a friendly way.) I was impressed. I can’t explain why I didn’t borrow the book back then though.

Fast forward five or six years: I finally got hold of it. This was a samizdat-style, A4-size tome (each page was a photocopy of a two-page book spread). And a few years later, a “proper” book. And then, another one. Annoyingly, all post-Soviet “Made in Russia” editions suffer from embarrassing spelling and punctuation mistakes that almost make me nostalgic for the Brezhnev era.

After all these years, I decided to read it in English, just to see how much is lost in translation. Now I finished the version by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky and have to admit that it isn’t as bad as I feared. It could be that the 80-year-old Soviet realities do not translate as well as two-thousand-year old Judaean realities, but I guess most English readers won’t complain about that.

Margarita is my favourite female character of all Russian literature. Her devotion to the Master is admirable, but it was the transformation into a witch that made her my perfect heroine.

Маргарита ощутила себя свободной, свободной от всего. Кроме того, она поняла со всей ясностью, что именно случилось то, о чем утром говорило предчувствие, и что она покидает особняк и прежнюю свою жизнь навсегда. Но от этой прежней жизни все же откололась одна мысль о том, что нужно исполнить только один последний долг перед началом чего-то нового, необыкновенного, тянущего ее наверх, в воздух. И она, как была нагая, из спальни, то и дело взлетая на воздух, перебежала в кабинет мужа и, осветив его, кинулась к письменному столу. На вырванном из блокнота листе она без помарок быстро и крупно карандашом написала записку:
«Прости меня и как можно скорее забудь. Я тебя покидаю навек. Не ищи меня, это бесполезно. Я стала ведьмой от горя и бедствий, поразивших меня. Мне пора. Прощай. Маргарита».
Margarita felt herself free, free of everything. Besides, she understood with perfect clarity that what was happening was precisely what her presentiment had been telling her in the morning, and that she was leaving her house and her former life forever. But, even so, a thought split off from this former life about the need of fulfilling just one last duty before the start of something new, extraordinary, which was pulling her upwards into the air. And, naked as she was, she ran from her bedroom, flying up in the air time and again, to her husband’s study, and, turning on the light, rushed to the desk. On a page torn from a notebook, she pencilled a note quickly and in big letters, without any corrections:
Forgive me and forget me as soon as possible. I am leaving you for ever. Do not look for me, it is useless. I have become a witch from the grief and calamities that have struck me. It’s time for me to go. Farewell.
Margarita.