Question for Discussion: The Role of Music in The Master and Margarita
One of the more obvious, and delightful, elements of this story is the role of music in The Master and Margarita. Notably, many characters bear the names of famous composers: Berlioz, Rimsky, and Stravinsky, to name a few. In addition, a number of scenes feature actual music, either being played, or heard on the radio. Consequently the novel often seems to provide its own soundtrack. So what are among the ways Bulgakov uses music in this novel, and what do these say about his musical tastes?
Some things to consider include:
How does he present Jazz music, which in his time was an American phenomenon that was sweeping the globe? What are we to make of the description, during the party at Satan’s, that the jazz band and the orchestra seem to be “warring” with each other?
Does the representation of characters reflect Bulgakov’s view of the music created by a character’s namesake? For example: can the music of Berlioz be said to be “bald, and terribly eloquent”? Should the “voice” of Rimsky-Korsakov compositions be described as “sharp and unpleasant”? And could Prokofiev’s music be characterized as ebullient, and with a certain joie de vivre, like Margarita’s housekeeper Natasha Prokofievna?
Another related question concerns how Bulgakov felt about radio broadcasts, which had begun airing in Moscow only a few years before he started to write this novel. Especially notable is the music from the opera Yevgeniy Onegin, booming from radios everywhere in Moscow; out of doors, windows, rooftops, basements, courtyards . . . accompanying, and torturing, Ivan as he searches the streets of Moscow for the devious consultant, or professor. Radio makes other intriguing appearances in the novel as well.
Feel free to comment on any of these questions, and pose others in this discussion of music in The Master and Margarita.
In an earlier post—Sympathy for the Devil in Russian Literature—I compared Bulgakov’s Satan with the Devil that appears to Dostoevsky’s character Ivan, one of the Brothers Karamazov. There are many similarities. Both seem to be gentlemanly, and in Dostoevsky, Ivan is sure that this character is the product of the delirium from his own “brain fever”, in Bulgakov, when the Master first encounters the Satan character, he says, “it would, of course, be much easier to consider you the product of a hallucination.” (These are reminiscent, too, of Scrooge’s argument that the ghost of Jacob Marley may be the result of a “slight disorder of the stomach,” in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”).
In that earlier post, I was concerned mainly with the outward appearance of the Devil, as described by both authors, and his manner. But I also included some discussion of how Dostoevsky’s Devil muses on the nature of good and evil, and his place in the conflict between them. He argues to Ivan that he is not inherently evil, or even bad, but that fate had chosen him to be the representative of these things, as a counterpoint to good: Continue reading “More Sympathy for the Devil in Russian Literature”
With two dreams, one after another in Master and Margarita, Bulgakov touches on some risky subjects.
As mentioned at the beginning of my last post (“Sympathy for the Devil in Russian Literature”), my efforts to translate Chapter XV of Master and Margarita, “Nikanor Ivanovich’s Dream,” led me to become fascinated with the use of dreams as a device in Russian novels. My first avenue for delving into this topic further was Dostoevsky’s use of it in The Brother’s Karamazov, specifically the chapter titled, “The Devil. Ivan’s Nightmare.” This provided not only another example of a dream sequence, but also another depiction of the devil, so I devoted that last post to a comparison of Dostoevsky’s devil with Bulgakov’s.
More On the Strange Results from Free Online Translation Sites: Bulgakov’s “Varenukha,” A Spicy Fruit Liqueur? Or “The Blizzard Gets Stronger?”
In earlier posts I’ve hinted at my fascination with the strange and humorous forms that language sometimes takes in online translation applications (see posts-Google-translate: original Russian vs Google vs Me; Googlisms- Russian to English). These delight me on a number of levels: for the assurance I get that there is still something a human can do better than a computer, for the comedic value I see in this sort of verbal slapstick, and for the insights into the nature of language I gain from looking at how and why it can go so wrong.
Recently I discovered another free translation site that I find even more entertaining than Google or Bing (formerly Windows Live Translator); translation.babylon.com is especially notable for its greater tendency to insert proper names, often unnecessarily, and to translate a single word as an entire phrase, occasionally an English quote or idiom. I was especially struck, and remain puzzled, by its preference for rendering the name of one character from Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita–Varenukha, (Russian- Варенуха)–as the English phrase “the blizzard gets stronger.” Continue reading “The Blizzard Gets Stronger?”
Bulgakov’s A Young Doctor’s Notebook to be aired in the U.S. on the cable channel Ovation.
An article in The New York Times today (July 14, 2013) announced that the British four part mini-series of A Young Doctor’s Notebook, based on the stories of Mikhail Bulgakov and starring John Hamm and Daniel Radcliffe, will air in the U.S. this Fall on the cable channel Ovation. This is especially good news for me as I had managed to view the first episode, but have been unable to find any version, paid or free, of subsequent episodes. Hopefully I will be able to view this series from Ovation’s website, and not have to get cable TV.
Previous to hearing about this production last year, I had not read the collection of Bulgakov’s stories that inspired it—Notes of a CountryDoctor. Having decided to read an English translation of this collection before viewingA Young Doctor’s Notebook, and now having seen the first episode, I am more eager than ever to watch the rest as I am interested in how they handled Bulgakov’s unexpectedly dark, and deeply disturbing conclusion. I don’t know what to expect, really, as this production introduces the new and significant element of having the older doctor (Hamm) visiting and engaging with his younger self (Radcliffe) as he stumbles through his first assignment as “a real doctor” in a hospital in remotest rural Russia.
Who the hell is Archibald Archibaldovich? And what is with that name? The introduction of this particular character in chapter V of Master and Margarita is so clever, and fun, that I am awed by it. The process goes something like this: the name is casually dropped, and quickly forgotten; later, a rather striking figure is described, but not given a name; toward the end of the chapter the person and the name come together, and the context is surprising. Continue reading “The Dread Pirate Archibald Archibaldovich”
In chapter V of Master and Margarita, Bulgakov introduces a number of individuals, and their names present me with new translation problems, mainly concerning the translation of names for fictional characters. This chapter has brought me to consider how a writer of fiction chooses names for his/her characters: do they just pop into the writer’s head? Are they familiar names of acquaintances? Does the writer’s pet monkey leaf through a book of names and press its finger to one when needed? In some works of fiction the names seem somewhat random and unimportant, but in others the names themselves lend something to the story. I came across a review of a recently published book on the subject; Literary Names: Personal Names in English Literatureby Alastair Fowler, Oxford, September 2012. Colin Burrow writes a good review of it, on the London Review of Bookswebsite.
Names mean things. In English, last-names like Carpenter, Johnson, Smith or Taylor are common and have origins that are clear. But when translating from Russian, if I were to come across names like Plotnik, Ivanov, Kuznetzkyor Portnoy, I would probably not change them to the English equivalent of their root meanings (Carpenter, Johnson, Smith or Taylor, respectively); I would just transliterate them. But in some cases the meaning of the name is important. Continue reading “The Nature in Bulgakov’s Names”
As I was translating a passage from Master and Margarita, it dawned on me that what I was reading was the author’s own reflection on the kinds of changes that Moscow had gone through during the two decades that saw World War I, revolution, the end of Tsarism, the establishment of Communist Party rule, Civil War and the creation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Given what I know of Russian history, I found this little aside in chapter V to be enormously interesting, bold and insightful. Continue reading ““The Old-Timers in Moscow Will Remember! . .””