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  • Depicting the Divine. Mikhail Bulgakov and Thomas Mann by Olga G. Voronina
  • Thomas Seifrid (bio)
Depicting the Divine. Mikhail Bulgakov and Thomas Mann. Studies in Comparative Literature 47. By Olga G. Voronina. Cambridge, UK: Legenda, 2019. xii + 135 pp. $99, €85.

Olga G. Voronina's careful comparative study brings to light many of the parallel narrative strategies in Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita and Thomas Mann's Joseph and His Brothers. Both are modernist polemics with a biblical text (the Gospels and their account of the passion of Christ, in Bulgakov's case; the Old Testament account of Joseph's captivity in Egypt, in Mann's). Both works, despite their retrospective cast, engage in dialog with their contemporary political context. For Bulgakov, this is the Stalinist police state, whose atmosphere, as Voronina notes, is ironically displaced in his novel from the chapters depicting life in contemporary Moscow to those in Yershalaim (Jerusalem) at the time of the passion. For Mann, it is Nazi efforts to de-Judaize Christianity, flaunted in his novel by the doubting but also exuberantly inventive Abrahamic tradition of questioning the nature of God.

In Chapters 1–3, devoted to Bulgakov's novel, Voronina shows how Bulgakov's desacralizing engagement with the narrative of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ (which, in keeping with the tradition of historicizing criticism of the New Testament, portrays him as a mere human) is [End Page 559] complicated by the deeply ambivalent portrayal of official atheism in its chapters set in Stalinist Moscow (whose denizens' disbelief turns out to be ideological rote rather than conviction). The result is a "fragmented and polyphonic" representation of scripture (32). As Voronina shows, the divinity of "Yeshua" (Bulgakov's Hebraicizing variant for "Jesus") also turns out to be ambivalent in the novel because, although it is denied in the emphatically realist and unfantastic Yershalaim chapters, it returns in the "text" of the Master's novel about Pontius Pilate—the novel-within-the-novel whose fate is the real subject of The Master and Margarita—in suggestions that Yeshua has survived his death, can grant mercy to mortals, and can converse for eternity in an ill-defined afterlife with Pilate. In Voronina's account, the actual centrality to Bulgakov's aims of Pilate rather than Christ motivates the novel's commentary on self-compromise in an authoritarian society.

The discussion of Mann's Joseph and His Brothers in Chapters 4–6 brings to light an equally complex and ambivalent engagement with a scriptural antecedent. Voronina shows how Mann at once demythologizes God and shows him to persist as a supernatural being. On the one hand, Mann subjects the bedrock narrative of Judeo-Christianity to severe skepticism by portraying Abraham as an itinerant doubter who possibly invents the notion of God; yet on the other hand, the novel continues to suggest that God transcends creation and guides human lives. Mann's metafictional imagery is, if anything, even more complex than Bulgakov's: Joseph's tutor Eliezer, who is something of a narrative trickster in the overall economy of meanings in Mann's novel, has a tongue that forks in the very act of speaking; and Mann recurringly uses the symbol of a rolling sphere, on whose surface events can appear earthly, human, and literal; or celestial, divine, and metaphorical—or vice versa.

As Voronina convincingly argues, in both novels the "divine and the supernatural is also the metafictional" (110) and in both the "notions of Aporia and the divine are linked to the question of the ultimate creating authority behind the text" (113). Contrary to her statement that these two novels "represent unique literary phenomena in their contemporary culture" (118), both in fact partake of a widespread modernist myth of the transcendent nature of art. In the case of Bulgakov's novel, this is the point behind the figure of Levi Mattvei—that is, the disciple Matthew—whose version of events Yeshua disavows in the present of the Yershalaim chapters but which we, as implied readers in Bulgakov's twentieth century, know became a sacred text foundational to an entire religion and civilization. Entire worlds are thus created out of erratic scribblings...