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  Philologica 6 (1999/2000)  
   
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A. E. SKVORCOV

LEV TOLSTOJ IN THE DISTORTING MIRROR
OF “THE MASTER AND MARGARITA”
(Supplement to a Motif Analysis of Bulgakov’s Novel)

 
 
 



 

Summary

It is accepted that the name and works of Lev Tolstoj are “irrelevant” for the literary context of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita (B. M. Gasparov). However, this thesis is quite open to question.

There is at least one accurate quotation from Tolstoj in Bulgakov’s novel: “Everything was upset in the Oblonskij household, as the famous writer Lev Tolstoj justly said” (ch. 18). In Bulgakov’s cultural value system, such expressions as the writer Lev Tolstoj or the poet Pushkin are semantically redundant (the importance of Pushkin and Tolstoj is so great that their names do not need any modifiers). For the characters of the “Moscow” chapters of The Master and Margarita, it is not like that. One might say that, in Bulgakov, a textbook quotation from Anna Karenina is presented using skaz à la Zoshchenko, as if the narrator adapts his speech to the intellectual outlook of an uneducated “homo soveticus”.

A closer reading detects other “traces” of Lev Tolstoj in the text of Bulgakov’s novel. Let us look at the Chairman of the House Committee of 302-bis Sadovaia, Nikanor Ivanovich Bosoj. What links this character and Tolstoj?

First and foremost, their surnames. These are disyllabic adjectives with the stressed ending -oj: BosojTolstoj. The Chairman’s surname means ‘barefoot’ and hints at a peculiar feature of the great writer who, in the eyes of his contemporaries, often appeared barefoot (one such photo is mentioned in Bulgakov’s Notes of the Deceased). And, in reverse, Tolstoj’s surname means ‘fat’ and corresponds to a distinctive trait of the Chairman: if Tolstoj is barefoot, then Bosoj is fat.

In the early wordings of The Master and Margarita, the arrest of Bosoj was stylized in the easily recognizable manner of the late Tolstoj, and one could discern Tolstoj himself under the mask of Bosoj. In the later text of the novel, however, the most obvious indications of affinity between Bosoj and Tolstoj were either removed or occluded. Nevertheless, one indication remained: their dislike for poetry and the theatre.

In his dream Bosoj finds himself in a theatre where he is forced to listen to “fragments from The Covetous Knight by the poet Pushkin” (ch. 15). In this chapter Tolstoj is parodied twice: firstly, the device which, in his analysis of the description of the theatre in War and Peace Viktor Shklovskij termed ostranenie (‘defamiliarization, making strange’); secondly, the evaluation of the performance, which is made from the point of view of Bosoj: the actor speaks “in an unnatural voice” and wears “an affected smile”. These epithets are used in Tolstoj’s account of Natasha Rostova’s impressions of stage acting (War and Peace, vol. 2, pt. 5, ch. 9).

The appearance of Pushkin in such a context should not surprise us. The Master’s words about Bosoj, “He is abusing Pushkin left and right”, could easily be readdressed to Tolstoj. In his treatise, What is Art?, Pushkin’s poetry is attacked both from the author’s point of view and that of “a man of the people” who is not corrupted by false civilization. But, if for Tolstoj culture and civilization are opposites, for Bulgakov, they are synonyms. The ignorant Bosoj can be considered as a parody of both Tolstoj himself and his idealized “man of the people”; at the very least, Bosoj came to the same end-point as they did: hatred of the theatre and of Pushkin (see the epilogue of The Master and Margarita).

The “Pushkin” theme in Bulgakov’s novel is paradoxically yoked with the Tolstojan. Tolstoj’s rebukes to Pushkin are picked up by another character, the poet Riuxin (ch. 6). In his monologue a line from Pushkin’s Winter Evening (“The storm with darkness covers the heavens...”) deserves special attention, for it is a leitmotiv which runs through Bulgakov’s entire oeuvre. Thus, his play Last Days (Aleksandr Pushkin, 1935) begins and ends with the Winter Evening quotation; moreover, Pushkin’s poem is heard and then repeated by “a man of the people” (the paid agent of the Third Department, who accompanies Pushkin’s coffin from Petersburg to Sviatogorskij monastery during a night-time snowstorm). The symbolism of the play is mediated by the artistic experience of Tolstoj, in whose story The Master and the Labourer, a peasant recites Pushkin’s Winter Evening during a winter night-time snowstorm.

Tolstoj’s and Bulgakov’s snowstorms should be perceived against the background of Pushkin’s storms: they are not only symbols, but a literary allusion. At this point, however, our research goes beyond the framework of the stated topic, dealing as it does with wider questions of the “poetics of intertextuality” in Russian literature of the late nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century.

 



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