Sympathy for the Devil

Michael Wood

In an early chapter of Mikhail Bulgakov’s funny and frightening novel, The Master and Margarita, written between 1928 and 1940 and now available in four different English translations, a character loses his head – literally. He slips on a Moscow street and is hit by a tram. His last thought is ‘Can this be?’ and his severed head then bounces away across the cobblestones. The question and the grisly performance of an answer are characteristic of this remarkable book, which Bulgakov described as his ‘sunset novel’. He was writing it, without any hope or thought of publication, in a time and place where arbitrary arrests and disappearances were a common occurrence, and yet where people managed to devise for themselves, as they had to, a fable of normality. Bulgakov confronts this fable with a further fable, registers the fantastic nature of his historical world by conflating it with inventive variants on more traditional forms of fantasy, of the kind we may associate with Hoffmann or Gogol. The man who loses his head has also met the devil an hour or so earlier – a busy day for a man described as being ‘unaccustomed to unusual happenings’. When one of the devil’s assistants says to a young woman that he has been sent to see her ‘regarding a certain small matter’, she understands him immediately, albeit wrongly. Obviously he has come to arrest her. What a relief when she learns that he hasn’t; better the devil than the secret police.

Not that the devil provides an easy option. It’s said that if we sup with him we need a long spoon, but that’s not all we need, and The Master and Margarita has plenty of hints about the nature of our further requirements. We need to be afraid of the devil, for instance, to recognise the damage he can do, and to hang onto our fear. We need to wait for his favours, rather than badger him with our requests. We need to acknowledge the despair that has brought him to us, powerless as he is to enter a world that isn’t more than ready for him. Above all, we need to rid ourselves of the rationalist, humanist superstition which holds that the devil doesn’t exist. The devil comes to those who call him, of course, preys on the credulous; but he seems to descend with a peculiar force on those who deny him, who summon him, so to speak, by claiming there is no such creature.

Bulgakov makes this point very clearly towards the middle of his novel – ‘This nonexistent being was, in fact, sitting on the bed’ – but also brilliantly and delicately plays with the idea in his opening chapters, where an argument about the non-existence of Jesus Christ conjures up Christ’s enemy, as if the devil had more to lose through atheism than God does. Dogmatic atheism is all too human, Bulgakov is suggesting, its shallowness and arrogance are all its own, an invitation to disaster. And humanism is too flaccid and too kind, too unwilling to contemplate the sheer energy of wrong. This is not to recommend a return to faith or a flirtation with the supernatural, only to remind us that there are forces we don’t understand and can’t control. Another way of saying this would be to claim, as Bulgakov implicitly does by gleefully scattering his novel with a whole set of exclamations – the devil only knows, what the devil, the devil take me, go to the devil and so on – that where an idiom has a continuing life it corresponds to some reality, not necessarily literal, but not merely, securely metaphorical either.

History would be such a reality, or such a force, and the first thing the devil does in The Master and Margarita is demonstrate that history is longer and more durable than we think. He appears, in the form of a foreign dandy called Woland, to two writers in a park in Moscow in the Thirties, strikes up a conversation, soon lets slip that he once had breakfast with Kant, and in no time at all is telling the story of the day of Christ’s execution, from the point of view of Pontius Pilate. Woland then predicts, with uncanny accuracy, the details of the tram accident and the severed head. The literal impossibility of this story in a non-fantastic world – the only coherent explanation of the presence and behaviour of this foreigner who knows so much is that he just is the devil – provokes most of the wild responses in the novel and many of its best jokes, but Woland’s memories also represent, in lurid, hyperbolic form, the entirely possible persistence of the politics of the Roman Empire in Soviet Russia. What the devil knows about Pilate is consistent with what Bulgakov suspects about his contemporaries, and even perhaps himself.

In Marlowe’s Faustus the doctor quizzes Mephistopheles about his identity and his relation to hell:

FAUSTUS: And what are you that live with Lucifer?

MEPHISTOPHELES: Unhappy spirits that fell with Lucifer,
Conspir’d against our God with Lucifer,
And are for ever damn’d with Lucifer.

FAUSTUS: Where are you damn’d?


FAUSTUS: How comes it then that thou art out of hell?

MEPHISTOPHELES: Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.

What’s breathtaking about Mephistopheles’s last reply is its revelation of Faustus’s confident glibness, his easy notion that residence in hell is a matter of tricky scholastic debate rather than terrors of the soul. Mephistopheles himself calls Faustus’s questions ‘frivolous’. Two scenes later, Faustus is still saying he thinks hell’s a fable, and Mephistopheles, starting to lose his patience, makes precisely the point that Bulgakov also makes.

But I am an instance to prove the contrary;
For I tell thee I am damn’d, and now in hell.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in