Forum / Bulgakov's Master and Margarita and artes moriendi

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    Apr 01, 12:41am

    Had the distinct pleasure of re-reading Bulgakov's sunset novel over the last weekend of March in the Burgin-O'Connor translation, the pleasure doubled by the faithful rendering and by its being based on a more complete manuscript apparatus than earlier and initial translators had access to.

    Under prevailing circumstances, I was struck this time (for the first time) at how well the novel could be construed as a latter-day contribution to the artes moriendi (treatises on the art of dying well) common to fifteenth century Western Europe (following the visitation of the Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century). (For more particulars on the artes moriendi, see two titles by Philippe Aries: The Hour of Our Death [1981, 1991] and Western Attitudes toward Death [1974].)

    Through Bulgakov's novel, apart from and along with the title protagonists, characters greater and lesser alike are confronted with sudden death and prospects for sudden death, much of the narrative devoted to depictions of those encounters and near-encounters. (Considering what mayhem does ensue, it's a mercy so many characters emerge virtually unscathed.)

    Towards narrative's end Bulgakov's tired but not-conspicuously-brave, abused but not-at-all cowardly Master addresses his beloved: "I'm not afraid of anything, Margot," replied the Master suddenly, and he raised his head and looked just as he had when he was writing about what he had never seen but knew for certain had happened. "I'm not afraid because I've already been through everything. They frightened me too much and they can't frighten me with anything else . . ."

    Bulgakov himself, with many of his contemporaries, earned those lines with the persistence and commitment shown to that courage over the course of comparatively brief careers and much of their lives: thus with courage the overarching theme of the novel, if a functional artes moriendi treatise as well, also the overarching counsel coming from the dying Mikhail Bulgakov, to whom be memory eternal.

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    David Ackley
    Apr 02, 08:03pm

    Thanks for posting this good intro to the novel, a great one in anyone's book. I would only add a bit of context for those not familiar with the book's author, time and place. It was written, though not published, during the time of Stalin's purges, in the Soviet Union of the 1930's when Bulgakov among other Russian writers were living more or less literally under the gun, that is in fear and expectation of a bullet in the neck at the hands of what one historian of the period called STALIN'S HANGMEN.

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