restricted access Between Two Worlds: A Critical Introduction to "The Master and Margarita", and: Style and Structure in the Prose of Isaac Babel (review)
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Reviewed by
Andrew Barratt. Between Two Worlds: A Critical Introduction to "The Master and Margarita."Oxford: Clarendon, 1987. 347 pp. $59.00.
Efraim Sicher. Style and Structure in the Prose of Isaac Babel. Columbus: Slavica, 1986. 169 pp. pb. $14.95.

Whether cause or coincidence, the social and political turbulence of postrevolutionary Russia saw the renewed vigor of fiction. Among the writers who lent distinction, however briefly, to Soviet literature, Mikhail Bulgakov and Isaac Babel represent the diversity of artistic impulses during the 1920s. Babel achieved almost immediate, if controversial, recognition for his remarkably expressive accounts of Cossack cavalry actions in the period of civil war. Bulgakov's early success also provoked political controversy but scarcely anticipated the acclaim to follow the posthumous publication of The Master and Margarita in 1966. Although impossible to trace to its inception, this work began its lengthy development in the mid 1920s and stands, in published form, as perhaps the best Russian novel of the postrevolutionary period. Equally deserving of examination for their contributions to prose, the two authors find radically different treatment in the studies under review.

A meticulously crafted and exhaustively argued analysis of the Bulgakov novel, Barratt's work establishes a benchmark that future investigations can ignore only at their peril. It has two major sections, the first providing an account of the novel's genesis as well as of the critical responses to its appearance. The overview is constructed in anticipation of Barratt's own interpretation that seeks to accommodate all the work's thematic and structural complexities to a unified artistic vision. In that endeavor, he declares himself on the side of the "monists," who find the double novel structure to offer variations on the same basic theme.

Although acknowledging the autobiographical impetus to the work, Barratt does not subscribe to the constricting equations characteristic of much of the critical literature. As he notes, there have been three externally conditioned approaches prominent in the past twenty years. Conceptions of The Master and Margarita as [End Page 307] a portrait of the artist, as a satire of life, especially literary, in the new Communist state, or as political allegory all attest to what he terms the novel's "generic instability" and "immense centrifugal force." Such partial readings are helpful in heightening our appreciation of the work's complexity and serve as preface to Barratt's attempt at a comprehensive analysis.

To explicate what he views as a "drama of understanding," Barratt gives particular attention to the enigmatic character of Woland, who defies any conventional identification with Mephistopheles. Rather, he assumes the dual role of unorthodox evangelist, responsible for bringing the story of Pilate and Ieshua to Moscow, and as an agent of deliverance, insuring salvation for the Master and Margarita. Although the implications of Ieshua's teachings are obscured by the particulars of the "embedded" narrative that Woland provides, this is in accord with the gnostic tradition informing the entire novel: "As in the gnostic tradition, what is hidden is a higher truth concerning the universal process . . . and this can neither be imparted directly nor appreciated fully even by the most blessed of mortals."

In his encounters with both the Master and Margarita, Woland has a much more critical function than previous critics have discerned. For Margarita, the "progressive unfolding of the truth" of Woland's being is coincident with her attainment of enlightenment. It comes after the conclusion of Satan's Ball, a spectacular event that Barratt convincingly shows to defy demonological tradition. Once Margarita has understood the retributive justice of the Ball's conclusion, she has attained a level at which "she herself becomes the medium through which Woland's message is conveyed." Rather than damnation, his is "the sublime principle of mercy." Although the Master is less explicitly tested, he too is effectively transformed by contact with Woland, capable of greater understanding and accomplishment after death than had been true in this world.

Following so close a reading as they do, the concluding chapters, devoted to the relationship between Bulgakov's novel and Goethe's Faust and the place of The Master and Margarita in Russian fiction, may appear slightly anticlimactic. Yet each contributes...


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