When reading Bulgakov’s literary masterpiece The Master and Margarita, I always wondered why Professor Woland (Satan himself) needed to find a lady called Margarita to act as hostess for his satanic ball, an event that occurs every one hundred years.
It always seemed such an odd, yet crucial detail. And now I have worked out the answer.
Bulgakov was writing fan fiction.
The Master and Margarita is widely believed to be one of the finest books of modern Russian literature. It is a stunner. Surreal but weirdly plausible. A pioneer of magical realism before the South American masters truly established the genre. It contains the first known literary depiction of M-space. And all this brilliance was written under the harshest of intellectual repressions during the Stalinist purges of the 1930s. Perhaps Satan did pay Moscow a visit.
Recently, I found out by accident and a stunning ignorance of the artform of opera, that an older story about the price paid for forbidden knowledge also centres around a woman called Marguerite: Goethe’s Faust.
It seems that Bulgakov was a Goethe fanboy who reused all the elements of Faust in his retelling: the magnificent elixir of youth, a very human portrait of the devil, and humans seeking knowledge that damns them.
When I was watching Charles Gounod’s opera version of Faust, Marguerite is the embodiment of virtue and innocence that Mephistopheles and Faust compete for the favour of. But things don’t go well for Marguerite. Seduced, pregnant, and abandoned she kills Faust’s infant in despair and is imprisoned for it.
At Professor Woland’s satanic ball, one of the guests is a nameless woman who had been raped and had murdered the child. On the night of the satanic ball, the nameless woman had been released for a single day from her eternal punishment. To wake each morning next to the handkerchief she used to smother her baby.
As a reward to Margarita for hosting the satanic ball, Professor Woland offers to grant her deepest wish. Instead of requesting her lover The Master to be restored to sanity and returned to her, Margarita asks for the nameless woman to be freed from her eternal torment.
I am certain that the nameless woman is Goethe’s Marguerite and Bulgakov is giving a better ending to a tortured heroine in an older tale.
Fan fiction. Don’t diss it. There are some surprising success stories.
Personally, I’ve never sullied my eyeballs with 50 Shades of Grey and I was surprised to hear that it started its wonderfully successful life as a fan fiction of yet another blockbuster I’ve never sullied my eyeballs with – Twilight.
Who knew that fan fiction had such an extraordinary pedigree?