The Devil is in the Detail

In preparation for my annual springtime re-reading of my all-time favorite novel, The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, I delved deeper into the details of its creation. I began with Manuscripts Don’t Burn: Mikhail Bulgakov, a Life in Letters and Diaries, edited by J.A.E. Curtis, who had unprecedented access to Bulgakov’s letters, his diary, and the diary of his wife, Elena Sergeevna. This presented a trove of information to be mined and I took copious notes. Here is Elena’s entry on March 1, 1938:

“It looks as though Misha has now settled for the title The Master and Margarita. There is of course no hope of getting it published. Misha is now correcting it at night and is forging ahead with it, he wants to complete it during March.”

This stood out to me for two reasons: I wanted to complete my re-reading in March, which is earlier than usual (the story takes place on an Easter weekend in May), and the fact that Bulgakov set goals for a book he had no hope of seeing published. He continued to revise the novel over the next two years, but died in March 1940 without completing his corrections. The first significantly censored version was published in 1966, with more complete editions to follow.

I own the Burgin and O’Connor translation published in 1996, which includes the enlightening annotations and afterword by Ellendea Proffer (who has also written a biography of Bulgakov). To this I have added my wonderful professor’s insights, my own notations, and now the author’s (along with his most ardent advocate’s) declarations. Each additional detail, even if it be a discrepancy, adds to the majesty of The Master and Margarita. For my next re-reading I shall have to acquire the translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky published in 2001 for side-by-side comparison. My ultimate goal is to read a Russian copy that I possess.

To complete my reading I picked up Diaboliad and Other Stories, edited by Ellendea and Carl R. Proffer. I was primarily drawn to The Fatal Eggs, a science fiction escapade along the lines of H.G. Wells, but I couldn’t resist exploring the other early short fiction. Elements that would develop into full form in The Master and Margarita can be isolated, like Persikov’s red ray, in these stories inspired by Gogol (his favorite author). In this period of his career Bulgakov noted in his diary:

“As a literary figure I am making my way slowly, but I am making progress, of that I am convinced. The only problem is that I can never be clear and confident that I really have written something well.”

These early stories would have profited from keen editing, but Bulgakov was met with stinging criticism and severe censorship. The incendiary attacks drove him to despair, yet from the refiner’s fire emerged a manuscript that didn’t burn. It is the finest novel of its dreadful time, The Master and Margarita.

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