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Behemoth the Cat

Lo and behold, my new Behemoth t-shirt, a belated birthday present! I have never been a cat person. Cats seem distant and outlandishly independent. My only liaison with one is when I stopped by my friend’s house to feed a grey tabby while she was out-of-town. Kiyata would sit on my lap after she ate. Then there was capricious Owen, the residence orange tabby at a local indie where he scratched me for no reason. But one of the most memorable characters in literature is a cat named Behemoth in The Master and Margarita. The gun-happy, fast-talking cat is seen drinking vodka and riding the trolley in the novel. He is a member of the retinue of magician Professor Wolen who pays Moscow a visit and wrecks a havoc. Behemoth is a giant cat, extremely evil and font of firearms, who finds demonic pleasure in challenging people and putting everything in a blaze with a primus stove. Throughout the novel, he executes the most violent punishments, cuts off heads and is unbeatable with a browning in his hands. And when he gets accidentally hit by a bullet, he just needs a sip of gasoline to regain his strength. The chapter detailing the final adventure of this cat reads: “The stout cat-person tucked his primus under his arm, took the uppermost tangerine off the pyramid, ate it whole, skin and all, and took another.”

According to this this site, the name Behemoth has a biblical origin. In Job 40:10-19 is a description of a huge monster, in Hebrew called Behemoth. Bible translators didn’t know which way to go with this word for a long time because they didn’t know any beast with “a tail like a cedar and an enormous power in his abdominal muscles and loins”. Some chose for an elephant, others for an hippopotamus but they all knew that neither of these could be accurate. That’s why English translators leave the word Behemoth as it is. бегемот (begemot) is also Russian for hippopotamus. And the pretty Anna Richardovna, the secretary of Prosha Prochor Petrovoch, described Behemoth as “a tomcat, black, a colossus as an hippopotamus”. In circles of devil experts Behemoth is the devil of the desires of the stomach. It could explain why he’s so interested in the food at the currency store Torgsin. During my trip to Moscow in 2006, in the Bulgakov house at Bolshaya Sadovaya lazed this cat Stepan. The museum employees pretended not to know where he came from. I didn’t think it was a coincidence. A toast to Stepan and Behemoth!

30/30 Day Book Meme: The One Book

Day 30: Favorite book of all time

Longtime readers and followers of this blog would know right away that it is The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. I might have challenge my readers’ patience with an overload of the book’s publicity campaign. Set in the iron curtain of a society that is Soviet Union in 1930s, The Master and Margarita, banned in Bulgakov’s lifetime, is his response to this fear-struck, panic-stricken era. Despite the atmosphere of terror that deepened all through the years he was working on the novel, the book takes on a surprisingly light tone, one of multifaceted humor, without compromising its philosophical depth. It is Bulgakov’s embittered and sarcastic response (and indictment) to his era’s denial of imagination and its wish to strip the world of divine qualities.

I own all the current/in-print editions in English, which are translated by various scholars. I have read the novel six times, with the seventh reading due in early next year. I have always recommended this book to friends and book bloggers with no reservation. It’s not a difficult book but it does require careful effort and patience. It contemplates on the ever-ending philosophical question about the duality of good vs. evil. Highly allegorical, with humorous, surreal, and religious nuances galore, the book is a product of reconciliation of the absolute opposites: how would anyone ever conceive a world in which God and Satan work toward the same end, and that good is not necessarily better than evil? This is only possible through Bulgakov’s enduring experiences during the remarkable era that powerfully affected his perspectives on politics and life. I cannot say it’s the all-time favorite of every person to whom I have recommended, but it’s a consensus that people felt they should have read it sooner.

22/30 Day Book Meme: Treasure

Day 22: Favorite book I own

I own all my favorites. Without hesitation my favorite book in the collection is a beautiful, hardbound, illustrated copy of The Master and Margarita published by The Folio Society. As you might have recognized, it is my all-time favorite novel. It is absorbing, brilliant slapstick, and looks deep into the heart of fantasy and longing. The beautiful illustrations by Illustrated by Peter Suart and buckram bound with a pique touch certainly do this classic justice. The translation of this edition is by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, a minor foible. It was gifted to me by a very special friend with whom I share common reading interests. Bulgakov wrote this 20th century classic in secret between 1928 and 1940. Smuggled past the censors, its subversive message, dark humor and lyrical force combined to make it an instant success and a beacon of optimism and freedom that spread through Russia and the world.

[323] The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov

5th Review/Translated by Diane Burgin and Katherine O’Connor

” All sorts of stories can be told! Not all of them have to be believed. ” [8:77]

Set in the iron curtain of a society that is Soviet Union in 1930s, The Master and Margarita, banned in Bulgakov’s lifetime, is his response to this fear-struck, panic-stricken era. Despite the atmosphere of terror that deepened all through the years he was working on the novel, the book takes on a surprisingly light tone, one of multifaceted humor, without compromising its philosophical depth. It is Bulgakov’s embittered and sarcastic response (and indictment) to his era’s denial of imagination and its wish to strip the world of divine qualities.

[Satan said] Excuse my persistence, but did I understand you to say that you don’t believe in God either? I swear I won’t tell anyone. [1:7]

…all of those proofs are worthless, and mankind has long since consigned them to oblivion. Surely you would agree that reason dictates that there can be no proof of God’s existence. [1:8]

Not God, but His anti-being quickly springs to defense, in the disguise of a magician. One hot spring, devil arrives in Moscow, accompanied by a retinue that includes a beautiful naked witch and a talking black cat with a fondness for chess and vodka. That the city is so rooted in its atheist conviction renders it an easy target of the visitors’ hypnotic trickery and blatant criminality. The source of all mysteriously muddled events that culminate in the disappearance of the entire staff of Variety Theatre, where Woland enthralls an audience of couple thousands with black magic, is the accident at Patriarch’s Ponds. It is where Berlioz, a prominent editor and chairman of literary association, throws himself under a street-car in a hypnotic trance. His companion and the only witness, Ivan the poet, runs berserk after the tragedy and ends up at the mental clinic, where he meets the Master, a writer pilloried for daring to write a novel about Christ and Pontius Pilate. The Master’s writings contribute to the narrative on the events leading to Christ’s crucifixion in the novel. Satan of course bridges the gap of time as well as the two intertwined narratives in the book because he was right there when Pilate, fearing to ruin his career, sent the innocent man to death.

But would you kindly ponder this question: What would your good do if evil didn’t exist, and what would the earth look like if all the shadows disappeared? After all, shadows are cast by things and people. [29:305]

The one who cares more about the Master’s fate than her own is Margarita, who is literally willing to go to hell for him. To Woland and his power she turns for salvation. Unfazed by memories of her time at Satan’s ball, Margarita’s soul is made perfect and her love for the Master fully sealed. Her deeds (as opposed to that of Levi and Pilate toward Christ’s death) leads to the philosophical enlightenment in which the division of humanity into good and evil is no longer useful. Highly allegorical, with humorous, surreal, and religious nuances galore,  The Master and Margarita is a product of reconciliation of the absolute opposites: how would anyone ever conceive a world in which God and Satan work toward the same end, and that good is not necessarily better than evil? This is only possible through Bulgakov’s enduring experiences during the remarkable era that powerfully affected his perspectives on politics and life.

372 pp. Vintage Trade paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Mikhail Bulgakov

A few days ago the discussion on my reader’s profile raised the question of the different translations on The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. To the best of my knowledge, you may find seven current editions of this modern Russian classics at the bookstores: [Top from left] Penguin Classics, Vintage Classics, Oneworld Classics and Penguin Red Classics editions, and the [Second row] Picador, Avalon and Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics editions..

BulgakovThe Vintage Classics edition is my first choice for the novel. Translated by Professor Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O’Conno, the 1995 edition is by far the best, especially if one is interested in studying what Bulgakov really wrote. They have the advantage of some 30 years of Bulgakov scholarship, which they take into consideration in their translation, and thus affords the most punctilious details. The endnotes, provided by the Bulgakov scholar Ellendea Proffer, are also invaluable. The Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics edition, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, is almost as good as the Diane Burgin translation.

The Picador edition, translated by Mirra Ginsburg, was first published in 1967. It’s an alternative choice choice for the novel if you cannot find the two above. Ginsburg’s translation is lively and entertaining, but it was unfortunately made from the 1967 Soviet text without the advantage of the censored sections. As a result, it mirrors the censored version, including deletion of passages about the actions of the secret police and most of Nikanor Ivanovich’s dream. Depending on how you view this deletion as a caveat, this translation is worth a read.

A brilliant blend of magical and realistic elements, grotesque situations, and major ethical issues, The Master and Margarita combines two distinct yet interwoven parts, one set in contemporary Moscow, the other in ancient Jerusalem. Brimming with historical references, religious imagery, storms, witchcraft, and romance, Bulgakov’s novel is impossible to categorize: Its story lies between parable and reality; its tone varies from satire to unguarded vulnerability. Its publication represents the triumph of imagination over politics.

As you see, I’ve been on a campaign to promote this great novel, cajoling, encouraging, and canvassing those who have yet experienced this literary journal. Eclectic this book might sound, it is probably the most widely read book in 20th century Russia (former Soviet Union). Kindly approach a Russian and ask about the book, you will be assured of the novel’s significance and popularity. This is the one book that I always tell people to read, and I have made many of my friends read.

My Other Coverages:
The Master and Margarita (2006)
The Master and Margarita, Revisited (2006)
The Master and Margarita (2007)
The Master and Margarita (2008)

[144] The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov (Fourth Review)

Disclaimer: You might wish to read previous reviews and articles on this novel prior to this discourse for better understanding. See links below.

“You pronounced your words as if you refuse to acknowledge the existence of either shadows or evil. But would you kindly ponder this question: What would your good do if evil didn’t exist, and what would the earth look like if all the shadows disappeared? After all, shadows are cast by things and people.” [305]

This reading of the modern Russian landmark novel in the 1920s again breathes some freshness to the experience. The plot is simple although it does not appear to be some straight-forward. The bundles do tie at the end, very seamlessly in fact. Satan in the literal sense disguised as a magician comes to Moscow and wreaks a havoc, but he does perform a good deed in the end—to offer the Master and his lover, Margarita, something better than what they asked for and what Jesus requests for them. Eternal peace and refuge. Perspicacious reader would know that the Pontius Pilate, the second one in the Moscow narrative which most don’t expect it coming, is the work of the Master, who does not make his appearance until Chapter 13, at the mental asylum, when he confirms that the poet Ivan has indeed met the Devil at Patriach Pond. This parallelism will become very crucial in Part 2, when the narrative shifts its focus to Margarita and how she is tested by the Devil. Underneath the humor, the magical maneuvers, the fantasy, and deep lyrical sadness, is this philosophical structure.

The Pilate chapters are strategically arranged in a way that Part 1 of the book assumes a concentric structure, for the execution and burial chapter is placed at second to the end of this narrative. Pivoting over the Moscow narrative is Wolan’s black magic expose at the Variety Theater, the show that holds a sway over thousands of (skeptical and unbelieving) Moscovites and is made possible by hypnotizing some of the theater’s officers while making others disappear. So it’s obvious that the Pilate chapters are included within Part 1 for a reason, and there are certainly many stylistic and thematic parallels between them, but we are at first unable to see the connection.

The opening chapter affords clues to Bulgakov’s intentions of telling the story of Jesus and Pilate, as suggested by the conversation on existence of good and evil between Woland, Berlioz and Ivan. But the Pilate story is not Bulgakov’s but the Master’s novel. With the majestic rhetoric and almost transcendental irony, it dawns on us that Yeshua in the Pilate chapter is not that Jesus, just as this Woland is not that Satan. The Master has simply taken what is normally perceived as religious material and breathes in it a social context—one that is characterized by unseen forces of politics and morality—the very things that cripple his life. So Jesus is not messianic nor is the Pilate story gospel-like, owing to the incorporation of apocryphal material. The Master’s story is stripped of last suppers, baptisms or twelve disciples. But these motifs are all to be found in parodic form in the Moscow strand. For example, Satan’s grand ball is reminiscent of the last supper, Margarita’s basking in pleasures of a night swim resonates baptism and the number of Moscovites tricked by Woland accounts to the number of disciples. Pilate’s using of the spy to kill Judas is in a sense retribution, just like Margarita’s naughty escapade of destroying the literary critic’s apartment. But these parallelism only paves for what is the most significant theme: Transcendence of the need for retribution is more important than division of humanity into good and evil. The fantastic, whimsical nature of The Master and Margarita itself is Bulgakov’s answer to his era’s denial of imagination and its wish to strip the world of divine qualities.

Further reading:
The Master and Margarita: It’s a Comedy?
The Master, Novel Within Novel
Never Talk To Strangers
[70] The Master and Margarita: Book Review
The Master and Margarita: Revisited
[12] The Master and Margarita: Review

The Master and Margarita: It’s a Comedy?

The Master and Margarita Series 3
Despite the philosophical nature and themes—fate, existence of God and the Devil—the novel is considered a comedy. We might not full grasp all the scholarly and social in-jokes, but it is irrefutably a hilarious attack on the hypocrisy of early Soviet Moscow. In part two of the narrative, Margarita is said to carry out the comedy of destroying Latunsky’s apartment. Couple passages that never fail to make me laugh out loud:

Poplavsky, the opportunistic uncle of the dead author Berlioz, came into Moscow to claim his nephew’s apartment. The unlucky visitor was greeted by Woland’s retinue at the accursed Apartment 50.

“The he pulled out two pair of underwear, (Is this just me, the Russians are really obsessed with underwear?) a razor strop, a book, and a case and kicked everything except the chicken down the stairs. The empty suitcase was also sent flying. Judging by the sound it made when it crashed below, its top had come off. Next the red-haired thug grabbed the chicken by its leg and slammed it so roughly and savagely across Poplavsky’s neck that the carcass flew apart, leaving Azazello with only the drumstick in his hand.” [169]

Another passage is Margarita’s violent and vengeful escapade at the new apartment of the critic who turned down the Master’s novel and published a fragment of it under his name. To say that she wreaks a havoc at Latunsky’s abode is only an understatement. But I derive much pleasure reading about her crime.

“After smashing the mirror on the wardrobe door, she pulled out one of the critic’s suits, and submerged it in the bathtub. She poured an inkwell full of ink, taken from the study, onto the luxurious fluffed-up double bed in Latunsky’s bedroom. The destruction she was causing gave Margarita intense pleasure, but the whole time it seemed to her that the damage she was causing was too slight. Therefore, she began striking out at random.” [204]

Further reading:
The Master, Novel Within Novel
Never Talk To Strangers
In-depth Book Review
The Master and Margarita: Review

The Master, Novel Within Novel

The Master and Margarita Series 2
As I have expected (because I asked the same question myself in my first couple readings of the book), a couple important questions come to my students’ mind when reading the novel. Why is the novel called The Master and Margarita when those two characters arrive very late in the narrative? What’s the purpose of Woland (the Devil) in Moscow, and what does this have to do with Pontius Pilate? Obviously the change of style from the opening chapter to the second chapter, about Pontius Pilate, is a subtle hint that the narrator is unreliable and it might be a completely narrator altogether. The entry of the Master in Chapter 13 confirms this hypothesis. The Master realizes that Pontius Pilate is the reason why he and Ivan are in the mental asylum. The Master is barely characterized, his attitude to himself is sadly ironic, and his novel (about Pontius Pilate) is the only remarkable thing about him. It is the justification of his existence, and more importantly, the justification that Pontius chapter is part of the Moscow narrative (Part I) of the novel. After this crucial entry, the Pilate “novel” is revealed in many different ways and through different consciousness, as if it were an ur-text waiting to be discovered; but it is clearly the Master’s work, and meant to be understood as such, no matter how it is presented. That said, we have to understand that Jesus here is not that Jesus, just as this Woland is not that Satan. Even though Bulgakov sprinkles parodistic echoes from the gospels (crow of the rooster, the flood, etc), the Pilate chapters are not messianic or mythic at all. The reader’s consciousness must provide the coherence between widely spaced sections (of the biblical innuendos and Pontius novel), remembering details, and, most of all, wanting to know how this story will develop.

Never Talk To Strangers

The Master and Margarita Series 1
…is the heading of the first chapter of The Master and Margarita. This might as well be some of the most intriguing opening chapters in any novels—a good example of the playwright at work. Readers will realize that Bulgakov is playing a very sophisticated trick as they flip the page to the second chapter—on Pontius Pilate, from the gospel, which I’ll defer until later. Bulgakov’s narrator at first seems to promise a conventional story, but this narrator turns out to be a very unreliable one. His style is misleading. When Berlioz, Ivan and Woland (the Devil) meet on the park bench, the major worlds of this novel meet. The discussion about theology which appears merely to be a pretext for Woland to make fun of the atheism of the two Soviet writers is, in fact, filled with clues to Bulgakov’s intentions when telling the story of Pontius Pilate, but like Berlioz and Ivan themselves, we are unable to discern these clues until he has finished the novel. The themes touched on in this opening chapter—fate, atheism, the existence of God and the Devil, and humanizing Jesus Christ—are part of the overture. Obviously, the transition from this chapter to the next, which is really the novel the Master is writing, is what makes Bulgakov so brilliant a writer who possesses a remarkable ability to combine seemingly disparate elements, especially language levels, in such a way that we as readers accept the whole as coherent. More about the Pilate chapter tomorrow.

[70] The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov (Third Review)

master.jpgThis fifth reading of my #1 pick in literature breathes new meaning.

Set in the 1930s, the novel’s vision of Soviet lifeis so painfully accurate that, for fear of political purging, it could not be published during Bulgakov’s lifetime. The truths portrayed in The Master and Margarita are inveterate in society that key phrases from the book has become common Russian speech. Two closely interwoven narratives (although not very obvious at the beginning), one concerning Moscow and the other Pontius Pilate in Jesus’ times, make up this cinematic novel, which audaciously deviates from the classic themes (family, war, judgment of mankind, exile, politics) and respects no unities of geography or time. This reading, along with thoughts evoked from the past readings, dawn in me Bulgakov’s intentions and beliefs behind writing this novel that is so rich in themes and implications. The wotk itself in unique in a sense that it doesn’t belong to a particular genre–this uncertainty of its genre, along with the mystery, ambiguity, irony and humor–render readers clueless of what to expect from the book, which makes the reading all the more intriguing.

The novel reveals Bulgakov to be a believer in the need for religious feeling, but not necessarily an admirer or diciple of organized religion itself. This is obvious from the fact that, while he showers parodistic echoes from the gospels throughout the Moscow narrative, he scrupulously strips away everything that hints of being messianic from the Pilate chapters, leaving a pitiful figure of Jesus. In understanding the historical factor by incorporating apocryphal material, through the Master’s narrative in his censored novel, Bulgakov took what normally perceived as religious material and imbued in it a social context. The novel to which the Master devoted his life writing is not about Jesus and his divinity, but about the unseen forces of politics and morality which led to the death of a historically plausible figure. This is where we finally establish the connection between Bulgakov and his character the Master, who is, his sit-in.

I don’t think Bulgakov had any desire to subvert humanism, something of which readers accuse him. In fact, to the contrary, he longs to re-establish it in a country where it was held in contempt. Introduction of theology at the beginning not only sneers at the Soviet atheism but also contrives to put humanism back in place. The themes immediately touch on in Chapter 1, as Woland, the devil, arrives in Moscow, a city that refuses to believe in either God or Satan and is yet so oblivious to the disaster to come. Berlioz is quintessential of the atheist society, whose world is rational, and feels safe and in control. Educated and intelligent, even with a touch of arrogance and obnoxiousness, he lives under the rigidly rationalist and materialist nature of the philosophical-political system that makes him unprepared to deal with even Ivan the poet’s degree of imagination of Jesus’ existence, let alone all the irrational and unconscious, unreal things the Soviet ideology denied. It is no doubt the talk of fate, existence of evil completely inundates the scholar in the person of Woland. The dramatic opening act, in addition to injecting a heavy dose of suspense, also foretells the city’s crumbling at the escapes of devil’s retinue.

While the mischievous retinue wreak havoc in the city, they also bring peace and happiness to an ill-fated, unhappy couple, the Master and his lover Margarita. The Master, who was interested in no more than the political and psychological aspect of Christ and Pilate, was pilloried for writing forbidden literature. Margarita, who is as enthralled by his writing as she is in love with the doomed author, would sell her soul to the devil if she could save the Master from his misery and mental illness. Indeed the hope that she would regain happiness makes her invincible and fearless, even when she is placed at the mercy of the devil. Throughout the book Woland gives the same test to those he encounters–that is, one must show compassion even to the worst humanity has to offer–from the hell of a dance at Griboyedov, to the hell of the criminals at Satan’s ball, to Pilate’s suffering in the relentless sun. Not only does she pass the test, she puts complete trust in Woland that in her readiness to take risk at any expense, she is the central and most active figure of the book.

As the book unfolds with further disturbance in Moscow, the characters (and most likely sharper reader)might question the purpose of telling the story of Pilate. How would the omission of it make a difference in the fate of the Master and Margarita? Clues to answer this question persist and stipple the narrative, in the form of myrial biblical motifs, and are incomprehensible until the end of the novel. While Bulgakov is not to debate about God and Satan, good and evil, but he uses parodistic echoes and facts from bible to send out his message. The point, out of all the meticulous planning and orchestration is that Woland and Jesus bring the same message, one that is only comprehensible by stripping away the conventional notion of good and evil. Whether it is taught by example or by provocation, the message is one and the same: Compassion is preferable to revenge. The parallel narratives of Pilate-Levi-Jesus and Margarita-Master-Aloisy are meant to enighten reader that the division of humanity into good and evil is no longer useful and the transcendence of the need for retribution is the goal.

Further reading:
[12] The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov
The Master and Margarita, Revisited