Postmodern Bulgakov

Now I haven’t actually read all of it, but something I did notice about The Master and Margarita, besides the black magic, heads being chopped off, and the naked women, was the inclusion of literary techniques that were quite ahead of Bulgakov’s time, which added to the overall fun and joy of its plot and of reading it.  A big one was meta-fiction.  Now, as someone who used to write short stories and has read some so-called postmodern novels, I found meta-fiction to be a very fun, but also useful literary technique; one can be very indulgent in referencing their own work in itself and create many layers.  An example would be the telling of the Pontius Pilate story and how Bulgakov segues into the story after a chapter.  He always ends a chapter with the beginning line of the next part in the Pilate story and then in the next chapter (which is the actual story) begins it with the same words again and continues the narrative.  Now, this could be seen as a way to connect the modern-day chapters with the ancient chapters, but it is still highly meta-fictional; through having it begun by a character before it starts, it is shown to the reader as more as a story–maybe the events didn’t take place at all (or at least not exactly as described)!–and therefore it is a story within a story.  This becomes even more apparent when the Master tells Ivan that he was writing a book on Pilate.  Now its not just about a story, but it gets more physical; the Pilate story then can be seen as a book within a book, the book that is The Master and Margarita.  Many layers are created and we are unsure whose story the Pilate story is; is it Woland’s or Ivan’s or the Master’s?  This also shows the divide between the fictional and non-fictional.  How much of the Pilate story is real?  Woland was supposedly there, but how about what Ivan dreams or the Master writes?  This also could tie in with the magic happening in the book and people’s disbelief and shock at it and also possibly, in a political way, the role of reality and fiction in Soviet Society (Stalin’s show trials, propaganda, etc.).  The book also becomes incredibly meta-fictional with its ending line (which I glanced at), the same line that the Master tells Ivan he was going to end his own book with, “The fifth Procurator of Judea, the rider Pontius Pilate”.  Kurt Vonnegut does the same thing in his Slaughter-house Five in which he writes about writing the book and tells the reader how he will end the book, which he fulfills.  With The Master… it becomes who’s writing the story, Bulgakov or the Master?  Many times throughout the novel, the ‘narrator’ addresses the reader such as at the end of book one, “the time has come for us to go on to the second part of this truthful narrative.  Follow me, reader!”  The book itself knows its a book.  Usually a book is written to present its own reality, but of course there isn’t any reality, just a fiction.  So again, the book works between the levels of the real and unreal through meta-fiction, especially as it refers to itself as a supposedly “truthful narrative”.

1 thought on “Postmodern Bulgakov

  1. Excellent post, Brandon. Really interesting and thought-provoking. I had thought about the idea that maybe Woland himself is just written by the Master, because the Master wrote the book about Pilate but Woland claims to have been there…well, perhaps Woland himself is a character in the Master’s book. That far I had thought about before reading your post (I read it before your presentation, but only have time to go back and comment now). But I had not thought of the idea that the Master had maybe written the whole book that is The Master and Margarita. That point about the last line of the Master’s book and this one is just downright really insightful and brings up more interesting ways to think about the text than I had considered before.

    And the idea that the book both calls attention to itself as a story and claims to be “truthful” is important too (it would help in future to have a page number for quotes, in case people want to go back and see where he says “truthful narrative,” for instance!). What might this say about the relationship between truth and stories? Might it suggest that stories may contain a degree of truth and supposedly truthful narratives a degree of fiction? I’m not sure, but these are the sorts of thoughts in my head after reading your post.

    Thank you for providing some new ways to think about the text!

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