I don’t need to tell anyone who has read it, but Mikhail Bulgakov’s masterwork, The Master and Margarita, is one of the seminal reading experiences of anyone’s life. If you think you know Russian literature…well, you don’t, unless you have read it. And if you think you have a clear idea of how fantasy and surrealism can lie down in bed with realism and produce an incestuous child of a novel, you don’t know that either, unless you have read The Master. I recommend the Vintage or Penguin editions.
At the end of this month, Overlook will release Diaboliad and other Stories by Bulgakov. From my prejudiced POV, this wicked little atom of a collection is the perfect remedy for anyone, like myself, who sometimes suffers from the very stale beer of American realism. That sort of placid realism, which as Lionel Trilling has observed, doesn’t think of our ideas as part of reality…consigning our fantasy lives to some netherworld…banning our interior dreams and nightmares from the sacred precincts of fiction. Caging the beasts and concepts of the mind doesn’t tame the mind. It makes the dark undercurrents of convention, which we try so hard to suppress, grow especially nasty.
D is a 45 page story that takes place in the 1920’s in Moscow. Comrade Korotkov works for a collective with the mind-numbing name of Macentsupmatmat. You can be confident that word didn’t make it past spellcheck. The concern produces matches of such mediocre quality that lighting one could well take your eye out. It’s great that the matches give off pungent fumes of sulphur when ignited, an early sign of the satanic powers that are about to engulf our hero.
Our friend Korotkov is a middle manager at the firm which one fine payday runs out of cash to pay its workers. So it authorizes a payment in kind. That is, it pays its workers with matches. If you’ve ever worked in an office, then you’ll recognize even the pre-cubicle office environment of Macentsupmatmat. Banks of desks with drone-like functionaries typing and filing papers. More fortunate semi-autonomous worker-types like K who have their own offices. And the Director, remote and imperious in his own restricted space. Bulgakov excels at depicting how ordinary are the settings of his horror shows.
Korotkov’s boss is replaced, always a wary time for the average office schnook. The oddity of the new director gives Bulgakov the opportunity to show how we insist on pretending that reality is normative, even when slapped in the face with the most outrageous deformities. The new director’s name is underwarr, lower case, which K misreads as underwear and misrepresents in an interoffice memo. This is one of a string of nonsensical calamities that leads to K’s dismissal.
In Bulgakov, physical deformity is a clear folklorish sign to the reader that we are in the presence of evil. underwarr is so short that he barely comes up to the level of Korotkov’s belt. Amazingly, his head is described as ovoid, like an egg laid on its side with the pointy part facing forwards. he is described as shaved blue in the face. His voice has the dark grating sound of rusty metal. Although he is extremely short, his shoulders are extremely wide. One secretary observes that he’s a weird one. This is such an understatement that it sounds absolutely absurd. Oh…and underwarr is lame in his left foot. Speaking of the old folklore, we know that the devil limps, due to his one cloven foot, I believe. So what you always suspected is true. Your boss is the devil.
One of the most interesting features of Diaboliad is how physical it is. And how it uses the most mundane props of city life to create Bulgakov’s signature style of slapstick comedy combined with horror. It’s as if the manic Three Stooges were agents of darkness. Underneath comedy, especially the older comedy, is a lot of darkness. The Stooges could be quite sadistic but we’re supposed to laugh at them. The Marx brothers were creators of anarchy. So with Bulgakov, at first you laugh and then you are chilled. The devil is The Great Disruptor. At first you think it’s funny. But then you realize it’s not so funny to have your sense of reality systematically destroyed. That’s what were afraid of, isn’t it? That reality won’t hold up under pressure?
One of my favorite bits is underwarr in an elevator with glass doors. Bulgakov employs glass doors and walls a lot, as a play to show what you desire or fear right before your eyes but unreachable nonetheless. So as underwarr descends in the elevator, he disappears in sections, first his feet, then his midsection and finally his head, though he’s still talking. He only seems to descend in elevators, never to rise in them. It’s the Ascension of Christianity in reverse, like holding the cross upside down. Christ ascends, underwarr, in contrast, sinks.
As Korothov chases after underwarr, trying to get his dismissal reversed, the story tilts off the axis of reality. It would be nearly impossible to describe what happens in this increasingly manic story, in which the worst horror is that other people become increasingly unreal. The devil doesn’t, perhaps can’t, do anything to Korothov. K has to do that to himself. Should I feel guilty that I found Diaboliad so funny? It’s hilariously funny and I don’t feel guilty. But the ending, where the meaning of such basic concepts as up and down are reversed, is as black as the ink on this page.