BEHIND THE IRONIC CURTAIN: ‘Mikhail and Margarita’ by Julia Lekstrom Himes
Julia Lekstrom Himes, Mikhail and Margarita (Europa Editions, 2017)
By Henry King
“The unacknowledged legislators of the world”, remarked W.H. Auden, in a rebuke to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s romanticism, “describes the secret police, not the poets.” Auden was humble about the power of art to solve the world’s problems; he was also lucky, and aware of his luck: poets of his generation born in Germany or Russia – to take only the obvious examples – faced a choice between working with a totalitarian state, or living and writing in conditions of suspicion, isolation, and the possibility of disappearance and death.
The fate of the artist under totalitarianism is the subject of Julie Lekstrom Himes’ debut novel, Mikhail and Margarita. Its title refracts the hugely popular The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, whose life during the 1930s Lekstrom Himes fictionalises, and suggests the complex interplay of fiction and reality running between Bulgakov’s story, Lekstrom Himes’, and the historical record of the period (itself not always easy to establish).
In Bulgakov’s novel, the titular Master is an unnamed inmate of a mental hospital on the outskirts of Moscow, hounded there by the Soviet literati for writing a novel about Pontius Pilate and his meeting with Jesus of Nazareth, which the Master subsequently burned. This sets up a Russian-doll effect, by which chapters of the Pilate novel make up chapters of The Master, while the story of the Master’s persecution, despair, and sustaining love of his muse Margarita obliquely reflects Bulgakov’s experience of persecution and his decades-long struggle to compose his masterpiece. This is not to mention the other main thread of the novel, the antics Satan and his retinue get up to while visiting Moscow for a few days. The Master, it would seem from Satan’s corroboration, has somehow written a truer version of Jesus’ death than those presented in the Gospels; yet the very mundanity of his account frightens the authorities more than a declaration of orthodox belief. Bulgakov’s novel, then, is deeply concerned with the relationship between historical fact and imaginative insight—a relationship that Lekstrom Himes explores through Bulgakov.
Although Mikhail and Margarita mostly follows the conventions of realism, it’s enlivened, for the reader familiar with The Master, by frequent allusions: some small, like the apricot juice that gives two characters hiccups at the beginning of The Master, which Margarita drinks in Mikhail; others larger, like the second-rate, bickering authors of the MASSOLIT writers’ union in whom Bulgakov caricatured the official literary culture of Soviet Russia, who are carried over into Mikhail, names unchanged, to mix with real-life authors like Anna Akhmatova. Other details from the historical record are given a similar fictional transposition: in life, Bulgakov and his contemporary Osip Mandelstam moved in similar circles (both knew Akhmatova) but were not acquainted; Lekstrom Himes has Mandelstam as Bulgakov’s friend and champion. In Mikhail, Bulgakov reluctantly writes a letter to Stalin suggesting that Mandelstam be allowed to emigrate; in fact, Bulgakov wrote on his own behalf. Lekstrom Himes also alludes to one of Bulgakov’s sources, Goethe’s Faust: the climax of the novel sees Bulgakov attempting to free Margarita from the prison camp to which she has been sentenced, just as Faust tries to spring Margaret from her dungeon. Like Faust, Bulgakov fails; but Lekstrom Himes has Margarita freed, instead, by the officer of the secret police responsible for her arrest, who has also fallen in love with her.
The title suggests that this novel will be about the relationship between the author and his muse, but in fact it is the triangle between Bulgakov, Margarita and this secret police officer, Ilya Ivanovich, that drives the story, as the men’s hostile relationship as hunter and quarry evolves into sexual rivalry, then a haphazard alliance. If anything, this has the effect of turning Bulgakov’s Margarita, who is proud and courageous, back into a more traditional damsel in distress, dependent on men to save her.
But there is another, more disturbing dimension to this symmetry between author and secret police officer. In a pivotal scene, Ilya questions Bulgakov (who trained as a doctor):
“I feel we have this in common,” he said. “I too pose such questions to the world—questions of what if. […] what if a physician of comfortable means, bourgeoisie means, was faced with the loss of these luxuries at the hands of an invading proletariat army? What then—would he enlist in a failing Nationalist cause in order to protect the old ways? Would he betray his country’s destiny? That should be a fine plot for a story.”
Bulgakov’s mouth went dry. “It sounds rather flat, actually.”
Ilya went on. “And what if this physician, this traitor, seeking to hide from his past, left his home, and turning to another career, found himself still frustrated and pining for the old life—his petitions to emigrate refused again and again. What if he then took every opportunity to infuse his writings with seditious ideas, cloaking them in the guise of literature?” […]
The room seemed to collapse, losing air, until there was space only for the two of them, their faces inches apart. Bulgakov gathered his breath. “Perhaps you should be the fiction writer,” he said.
The idea Lekstrom Himes hits on here is that the writer and the secret police officer are both storytellers: the NKVD agent fabricates connections between citizens and known dissidents in order to secure conviction; likewise, an author may imagine a link between people who, in fact, had no direct contact—in this case, the friendship between Bulgakov and Mandelstam. Mandelstam certainly did write a lampoon on Stalin and recite it among friends, with the inevitable consequence that someone informed and he was arrested; but he did not, as in Mikhail and Margarita, declaim it to police officers on the street in Bulgakov’s presence; nor did Mandelstam give Bulgakov’s name to his interrogators. Lekstrom Himes seems, therefore, to exercise a similar capacity for speculation as the “unacknowledged legislator” in the novel.
Does this matter? Is it not rather beside the point? After all, the novel developed as a genre by asserting its legitimacy against accusations of promulgating false history. And Bulgakov makes the doubtfulness of anecdote an explicit theme of The Master, as when Jesus complains that his disciple Matthew has misreported his teachings, or when the narrator describes the building that houses the Soviet writers’ union:
The building was called Griboyedov House, since it was said to have belonged at one time to an aunt of the writer Alexandre Sergeyevich Griboyedov. Whether it did or did not belong to her we do not know. But if we remember rightly, it seems to us that Griboyedov had never had any such home-owning aunt. Nevertheless, this is what the building was called. In fact, a certain Moscow liar used to say that the famous writer read scenes from his Woe from Wit to this very aunt, who listened reclining on a sofa in the round hall with the yellow columns, on the second floor. But what the devil, who knows, perhaps he did read to her. That’s not the point, anyway!
But Bulgakov’s irony runs deep, and it would be naïve to overlook this kind of aside about the importance of civic memory. Stalinist Russia was, of all places, one in which people lived and died on the basis of the truth and its distortions. Survivors like Nadezhda Mandelstam, in her memoir Hope Against Hope, unleashed righteous fury against those who invented memories for their own advancement, because it had become clear that adaptability to new histories was one means by which people like her husband were turned into non-people. One might wonder, then, whether it is legitimate, or simply tactful, to postulate counterfactuals in this way.
One might also ask why Lekstrom Himes changes certain facts and relationships. Bulgakov’s mission to rescue Margarita is pure fiction, but is based on Faust, and thus resonates with Goethe as well as Bulgakov, taking on an archetypal quality. The private interview Lekstrom Himes imagines between Bulgakov and Stalin is so nightmarishly surreal that I actually hope it is a transposition of a real event. But why drag in Mandelstam? Partly because he has great lines:
“Only in this country is poetry respected,” he said. “There’s no place where more people are killed for it.”
Partly because he provides a good way to explore the theme of betrayal, and an initial narrative impetus—but this could have been achieved using a fictional poet, a synthesis of Mandelstam, Mayakovsky, Gumilev, and other victims of the regime. I suspect that another reason is that invoking Mandelstam lends instant gravitas. The comparative freedom and comfort writers in the West enjoy has often made the dramatic struggles of writers behind the Iron Curtain an attractive subject to work with (I say so, having published my own versions of Mandelstam). This isn’t automatically wrong; but what concerns me about Mikhail and Margarita is that, beyond the scene quoted above, it shows little recognition of its dubious position. When Bulgakov tells his inquisitor, “Perhaps you should be the fiction writer”, it is a good riposte; but the novel doesn’t seem aware that the observation might redound upon it. I mean that Lekstrom Himes doesn’t enfold the moral difficulty of the subject into the technical difficulty of writing the work, as Bulgakov did by fictionalising himself as the despairing Master whose incinerated manuscript Satan preserves for posterity.
If that is to say no more than that Mikhail and Margarita is not on the same level as the text it refracts, then that was a risk Lekstrom Himes was surely aware of running. Despite that, it is an enjoyable novel, with the added pleasure of reminding one and sending one back to Bulgakov’s; but it does not master the ironies in which it is entangled.