Speaker: Victor Suchar, Member, on 15 June 1999

Mikhail Afanasievich Bulgakov was born in Kiev in 1891. He graduated as a doctor from Kiev University in 1916 but gave up the practice of medicine in 1920 to devote himself to literature. By 1923 he was a freelance journalist contributing to a wide range of newspapers, magazines, medical journals and trade union papers. The White Guard was his first major work. It was dramatised in 1926 under the title The Days of the Turbins but was later suppressed.

Bulgakov started his masterpiece, The Master and Margarita, in 1928, revised it in ten drafts and probably completed it in 1938. It was preserved by his widow, published for the first time in 1966 in Russian by Moskwa, a smaller literary magazine (first part) and 1967 (second) in an abbreviated form due to censorship. The first completed version was in English, in 1967, due to Harper's purchase of complete rights. The novel coincided with the first 10 years of Stalin's rule. Those were the years of the terror, and for Bulgakov, of unrelieved anxiety — financial, physical and emotional. He lived a double life as a writer; visibly as writing adaptations for the theatre, secretly writing his novel. He was consistently afflicted by physical ailments, developed a severe sclerosis of the kidney, went blind in 1939 and died in 1940 at the age of 49.

The novel could be called a tale of two cities: Moscow and Jerusalem. It has three strands: A satire in Moscow, a quest for the historical Jesus — an unorthodox reconstruction of the gospels, and a love story. The main characters are Wolland (the devil), Jesus, the Master, a great writer and his lover Margarita, and the Sleeper, a minor poet member of the writer's union. The Master and the Sleeper represent perhaps the two facets of Bulgakov's personality: a meek hack writer, bewildered and powerless during the day (the Sleeper) and a powerful, mature and creative writer at night (the Master).

The Master and Margarita can be read on two levels: first, as novel which belongs to the golden age of Russian literature, in line with Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoyewsky, but also influenced by Goethe's Faust. One recognises here all of the immortal characters of the great Russian classic novel: the trickster, the holy man, the seeker of truth, the lover unhappily married, the sleeper/minor official, all brought alive in new circumstances.

At the second level, after reflection, one recognises that Bulgakov wrote a profound political novel, in which he invented a way to describe in ordinary language what is unspeakable — the brutality and mindlessness behind the façade of normality of society in his time.

In the speaker's view, The Master and Margarita is one of the great novels of the 20th century.

Victor Suchar