Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The Master and Margarita: Absurdity and Writing

The characters in Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita live in an obviously absurd world. The extremity of that absurdity is such that instead of creating a rich tapestry of fantasy or magic realism, it instead renders the plot—such that it is—annoying to many readers. And yet, I don't think that annoyance is truly rooted in an utterly unrecognizable heft of absurdity permeating the plot, characters, and setting; rather, the absurdity in the novel is vexing because it echoes a fear we have about our own existences: our world is also absurd, and if it isn't as profoundly absurd, it is at least persistently absurd. There is an uncomfortable resonance there, which is why the narrative chafes.

Many of the characters in the novel attempt to make sense of the absurdity that surrounds them in a way that is recognizable to many of us: they attempt to write their way toward sense, order, and understanding of the world around them. Take Ivan, the poet, as an example:

'The poet’s attempts to compose a report on the terrible consultant had come to nothing. As soon as he received a pencil stub and some paper from the stout nurse, whose name was Praskovya Fyodorovna, he had rubbed his hands together in a businesslike fashion and hastily set to work at the bedside table. He had dashed off a smart beginning, “To the police. From Ivan Nikolayevich Bezdomny, member of MASSOLIT. Report. Yesterday evening I arrived at Patriarch’s Ponds with the deceased Berlioz …”

And the poet immediately became confused, largely due to the word “deceased.” It made everything sound absurd from the start: how could he have arrived somewhere with the deceased? Dead men don’t walk! They really will think I’m a madman!

Such thoughts made him start revising. The second version came out as follows, “ …with Berlioz, later deceased …” That didn’t satisfy the author either. He had to write a third version, and that came out even worse than the other two, “… with Berlioz, who fell under a streetcar …” What was irksome here was the obscure composer who was Berlioz’s namesake; he felt compelled to add, “ …not the composer …”' (Chapter XI: Ivan is Split in Two).

Even those most comforting pastimes and passions of the intelligent and creative—writing, words, literature, art—fail to give sufficient structure or stability to a world seething with nonsense, surreality, coincidence, and chaos. Words might comfort us, but in the end they don't work; language becomes so slippery and imprecise that even Ivan's third draft of his account refuses to give a definite shape to his experience.

So it goes with all of us, but perhaps writers feel this failure more keenly. Bulgakov certainly does: the novel is brimming with writers and other creatives who turn to writing or storytelling as a bulwark against an uncertain world, only to have a chance for greater meaning slip away into the tumult of a world that cannot be tamed by words alone. Ivan feels this, as does the Master, as does Margarita, as does anyone connected to MASSOLIT, as does Pontius Pilate and Levi Matvei as they witness The Story of Stories unfolding. Does Bulgakov? I'm terrifyingly certain he did.