MIKHAIL AND MARGARITA
by Julie Lekstrom Himes
Europa Editions, 336 pages
Reviewed by Ryan K. Strader
Today’s Moscow has plenty for tourists who are fans of the writer Mikhail Bulgakov: museums, character statues, and guided city tours dedicated to the 20th century writer and his work, especially his most famous novel, The Master and Margarita. In 2002, I was a college student studying in Russia and Bulgakov tourism had not yet exploded; those of us with a resolute affection for all things Bulgakov had to be content to walk around Patriarch’s Ponds, a park that figures prominently in The Master and Margarita, and imagine the characters sauntering over to join us on a park bench.
I used to do just that: sitting on a bench, I would imagine Professor Woland walking by and joining me, accompanied by Korovyov in his ugly trousers and Behemoth, the large cat who walks upright and carries a pistol. Professor Woland is, of all things, the devil, incarnate as a learned magician. Korovyov and Behemoth are his demonic minions. Perhaps the naked witch Hella would join us next on the bench…
In The Master and Margarita this unholy group easily wreaks havoc on a Moscow that denies the existence of devil or Christ, evil or good, and trusts only in the moral compass of Soviet bureaucracy. The “Master” of Bulgakov’s title is, of course, a writer, a satirist who recognizes Satan easily when he arrives in Moscow disguised as a professor. As a result of his clear sightedness, the Master has been censored out of publication in the name of Soviet decency.
I was only 20 years old at the time of these imagined Woland encounters in Moscow, but the question at the heart of my engagement with Bulgakov’s novel was about what my young self might decide to believe about good and evil and love: Would I insist, as the Muscovites of Bulgakov’s story did, that the devil wasn’t real, even if I saw him? How does one recognize Satan strolling around a park, anyway? What are the telltale signs?
And of course, some very pressing questions to a romantic-minded young woman studying Bulgakov’s works: Who the devil was the real Margarita, anyway? What about her inspired Bulgakov? What kind of private risks might she really have taken to protect Mikhail’s work? Would she make a pact with the devil, if she met him? Might she, in the USSR of the 1930s, a country tense with purges and arrests, very well have met some satanic fiends?
Julie Lekstrom Himes’ novel, Mikhail and Margarita, imagines the love affair that might have inspired The Master and Margarita. This is Himes’ first novel, following the publication of several short stories and essays. Himes is a physician in Massachusetts; interestingly, Bulgakov was also a physician. In an interview with the literary website Eye 94, Himes describes reading Bulgakov’s collection A Country Doctor’s Notebook (reflections on his early years as a doctor) and identifying with “the fear and regret and self-questioning” of a young doctor. Identifying with Bulgakov’s “voice” as a doctor encouraged Himes to try writing from his perspective, to imagine what compelled him to write one of the canonical Russian texts of the 20th century.
Like Bulgakov, Himes mixes genres easily and engagingly, meshing history, fiction and romance. While Bulgakov wrestled with the issue of Russia’s moral ambiguity and tackled the existence of Jesus Christ, Satan, and the histories we use to define good and evil, Himes’ story is motivated by the earthier questions: What had happened earlier in the day, the very first time Bulgakov sat down to write a story about the Master and the devil in Moscow? What kind of woman would have drawn Margarita from Bulgakov’s imagination? Himes pulls the existential wrestling of Bulgakov down to earth, to the story of Mikhail, a playwright, who is drawn to the secretive and generous Margarita, a young woman who habitually develops romantic attachments to writers.
Himes opens her story in 1933, with Mikhail and the poet Osip Mandelstam sharing dinner at a restaurant. It is a seemingly mundane evening, with Mikhail failing to attend to everything the politically disgruntled Osip says. “Only in this country is poetry respected,” Osip declares. “There’s no place where more people are killed for it.” Osip’s comments presage his coming arrest and sentence to internal exile, as a result of his irreverent poetry about Stalin. Mikhail is unable to intervene on his friend’s behalf; grief at losing Osip brings Mikhail together with Osip’s young ex-lover, the lovely Margarita Nikolayevna.
In Osip and Mikhail’s circle of friends, Himes depicts numerous writers and artists of that time, including the director Stanislawski, and the poet Anna Akhmatova. Himes is skilled in developing her characters not as historical cameos but as very human beings trying to balance their consciences against the harsh demands of censors, all while lacking the moral advantage of our historical hindsight. Osip’s friends wonder if he might have done something to deserve arrest—surely there is some reason for what is happening?—and Mikhail fears for his own publication future even as he is desperate to help his imprisoned friend. These are not model dissidents or trained activists, but artists dazedly struggling to understand government betrayal. Margarita’s affection for Mikhail is founded on how he responds to Osip’s arrest: “I think what you’re doing is—well, it’s brave. You’re not pretending that there wasn’t a crime committed here.” Margarita has faith that speaking the truth is a powerful and meaningful act, and this faith is the foundation of her attraction to writers in general and Mikhail in particular.
Mikhail is chosen to draft a letter to the government arguing for Mandelstam’s release. In the letter, he argues that, “Writers by their nature love their country but if their countrymen no longer have affection for them, then perhaps the better answer is to allow them to emigrate.” Stretched between his national identity and his role as a writer, Mikhail cannot shake the conviction that writers belong to their country and their country needs them. He doesn’t want to emigrate; the suggestion is made to highlight how badly Russia needs its writers. This concern with the relationship between writers and their country is a peculiarly Russian theme. The task of a country’s writers is to define those words that frame the social experience: imagination, individuality. Such words describe the concepts by which human beings know themselves, and are the foundation for thinking about national and individual identity. (For this reason, Mikhail Bulgakov, writing to Stalin in 1930, describes himself as a “satirist” and asks, “Am I thinkable in the USSR?” The question assumes a correlation between his identity as a Russian writer and the Russian public’s imagination.) In Himes’ novel, this tension between national and artistic identity is maintained by the alternating choices Mikhail and Margarita make that affect each other and Mikhail’s future as a writer. Mikhail wavers between Margarita’s belief in his truthfulness and his need to preserve his reputation; he likes being a well known playwright. “To disappear is my freedom; for you, my dearest, it would be your prison,” chides Margarita.
The story is dramatically complicated when Ilya Ivanovich, a powerful member of the secret police, also falls for Margarita. None of Himes’ characters are one-dimensional; Ilya is conflicted by his own capacity to destroy others and his desire to protect Margarita. When Margarita is questioned for her association with writers and sent to a labor camp, both men must try to save her. Margarita’s negotiation between Mikhail, the man she loves and the writer she wants to protects, and Ilya, the man who has power over Mikhail, provides the Faustian drama for the novel.
Himes claims Goethe, Marlowe, and Bulgakov, of course, as her literary progenitors. I am strongly reminded of the dissident novelist Vassily Aksyonov, as well. This influence is particularly legible in Himes’ description of the fictional meetings between Mikhail and Stalin. Stalin is believably narcissistic, powerful and childish, by turns. He has Mikhail brought to him in a garage where he is working on a convertible, with sleeves rolled up and grease on his hands. He urges Mikhail to go for a ride in the convertible with him, and enjoys explaining mechanical particulars of the engines. To Mikhail he says:
“You getting this, Playwright? It’s a matter of how we push the earth away.” He nodded. It was he who moved the world; he liked that idea. “You know nothing of cars do you? You’ve heard of Piaquin? The painter? No? Well you won’t now, either, I suppose. Piaquin was like you.”
And yet, Stalin likes Mikhail’s plays: “You make me feel smart,” he explains to the nervous and distressed Mikhail. Just as in real life, Stalin’s capriciousness could mean inexplicable protection.
Each year another author produces a work of fiction that explores the story of an iconic text or writer, albeit rarely one that addresses a Russian text or writer. Mikhail and Margarita is unique because it deals with a text that is not widely read in America, but is undeniably iconic in Russia. It is a work of “historical invention,” because it is both a carefully researched historical portrayal of the social circumstances under which Bulgakov wrote, and it is a fictional romance. Of works in this genre, Himes’ novel is less in the mode of those, like The Meursault Investigation (by Kamel Daoud), which re-tell a canonical story from a new perspective, and more like The Secret of Costaguana (Juan Gabriel Vasquez), which speculates on the origins of a Joseph Conrad novel.
Himes’ novel is lovely and stands on its own for a reader who has no prior experience with Bulgakov’s work or Russian literature. But for the reader who is familiar Himes has woven in references and details that are delightful: Ilya purchasing warm apricot juice for Margarita, or Bulgakov’s observation of Margarita standing by a window as if “she might actually fly from it, revealing herself to be an entirely different creature than the one he knew.” Such details evoke the atmosphere of The Master and Margarita, but in Himes story none of them are incidental, they each carry their own meaning for Mikhail and Margarita. I recognize Himes’ book as both a compelling work in its own right, and a love letter to Bulgakov’s novel.
Ryan Strader earned a B.A. in Russian Literature from George Mason University, and an M.A.T. from Clayton State University. She is currently an instructional designer and researcher. Her most recent instructional design project is the development of a class in writing and qualitative research methods at Georgia State University, where she is also a doctoral student. Her most recent publication is an upcoming book chapter on populism in young adult novels. She lives and works in the Atlanta area.
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