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Depicting the Divine: Mikhail Bulgakov and Thomas Mann by Olga G. Voronina

Reviewed by Sarah Fengler, University of Oxford

Depicting the Divine: Mikhail Bulgakov and Thomas Mann, Olga G. Voronina. Cambridge: Legenda, 2019. £75. ISBN 9781781885468.


In twentieth-century Europe, literary adaptations of biblical stories were by no means extinct. The novel The Master and Margarita (1967, ‘Macтep и Mapapитa’), written by the Soviet writer Mikhail Bulgakov, is mainly set in Moscow, but contains several chapters on the last hours of Jesus Christ before his death in Jerusalem. While Bulgakov draws on the Gospels, the German writer Thomas Mann, in his tetralogy of novels, Joseph and His Brothers (1933–1943, ‘Joseph und seine Brüder’), adapts the Old Testament story of Joseph, with recourse to Abraham and other biblical patriarchs. What The Master and Margarita and Joseph and His Brothers have in common is not only the biblical subject, but also that both works were being written under regimes that sought to suppress religion. This raises the following questions: which narrative strategies do Bulgakov and Mann use in their novels, how do they represent Jewish and Christian faith, and to what extent do they endow the biblical stories with a political dimension?

            Olga G. Voronina’s monograph, Depicting the Divine: Mikhail Bulgakov and Thomas Mann, is the first comparative study of The Master and Margarita and Joseph and His Brothers, and is an important and original contribution to research on Bulgakov’s and Mann’s novels as well as on biblical literature in more general terms. Both novels, Voronina argues, polemicise the biblical stories they adapt—for example the Passion of Jesus or the story of Joseph—by offering their own versions in the form of literature. Voronina’s research objective is therefore to examine Bulgakov’s and Mann’s specific narrative strategies and to capture the political dimension of their novels. Her study contains six chapters with in-depth readings that also consider the broader historical and cultural context, with the first three chapters dedicated to The Master and Margarita and the other three to Joseph and His Brothers.

            The basis of comparison for Voronina’s study is the hypothesis that The Master and Margarita and Joseph and His Brothers have a similar relationship to the Bible. Both novels, Voronina convincingly argues, adapt biblical narratives in a demythologising way that deviates from the mainstream Bible interpretations at the time. In The Master and Margarita, for instance, Bulgakov makes profound changes to the Gospels by telling the Passion of Jesus in the so-called Yershalaim chapters in Jerusalem from Pontius Pilate’s perspective, and by omitting the resurrection of Jesus after his conviction. Voronina points out that Joseph and His Brothers, in turn, offers competing narratives within the tetralogy itself: Eliezer, for instance, Jacob’s half-brother and Joseph’s tutor, tells several deviating stories about the relationship between Abraham and God, and questions whether it has been shaped by faith or doubt. Mann draws also on other sources than the Old Testament, for example on Jewish folklore or Gnostic myths.

            The biblical basis of the novels poses the question how The Master and Margarita and Joseph and His Brothers present the religious and the supernatural. Voronina gives ample space to this problem and shows that Bulgakov and Mann again employ similar strategies to depict the divine. Both writers, she argues, secularise the biblical narratives and portray Jesus or God as rather profane than divine. In The Master and Margarita, Jesus, who is called Yeshua in the Yershalaim chapters, is depicted as a human, not the son of God. His one wondrous deed—to heal Pilate from a headache—is neither explained nor considered important by the other characters. In the Moscow chapters, only the existence of Voland, the devil, indicates the existence of God. Similarly, in Joseph and His Brothers, Yahweh is mainly presented as a psychological construct without external proof. Jacob, for example, conceives God as an inner voice that endows his life with meaning, including the disappearance of his beloved son Joseph. Similarly, Joseph himself believes that Yahweh inspires his dreams, and thus begins to interpret the recent events of his life as part of a divine plan. As a character, however, God, or Yahweh, is absent in both Joseph and His Brothers and The Master and Margarita.

            Voronina also highlights the significance of meta levels in The Master and Margarita and Joseph and His Brothers. In Bulgakov’s novel, she states, this feature is first and foremost evident from the fact that there is virtually a novel within the novel. Even though the relationship between the Yershalaim chapters and the Moscow chapters is not always clear, the Yershalaim narrative is framed as a meta level of the latter, be it as Voland’s report or as the Master’s novel. Yeshua transcends this meta level by appearing in Moscow after his death in Yershalaim. In Joseph and His Brothers, the conception of meta levels is tied to the figure of Eliezer: Joseph’s tutor functions as a narrator within the narration, and his narratives—for instance on biblical patriarchs like Abraham—are in turn commented on by the narrator of the novel. Voronina shows plausibly how these meta levels reinforce the ambiguity and incoherencies of competing narratives in Bulgakov’s and Mann’s novels.

            The political dimension of The Master and Margarita and Joseph and His Brothers, Voronina argues, is linked to the historical and cultural context of Bulgakov’s and Mann’s literary work. In The Master and Margarita, only the chapters on Yeshua and Pilate are set in Jerusalem, while the other chapters are set in Moscow. It is especially in these Moscow chapters that the political dimension of the novel becomes apparent: the cultural elite in Moscow is committed to atheism, and this imperative is reinforced by Soviet control. Literature, in this context, is supposed to serve atheist purposes. However, Voronina demonstrates that also in the Yershalaim chapters, the narrative on Yeshua serves the ideology of the authorities, here represented by Pilate and his perspective on the events surrounding the conviction and death of Yeshua. In Joseph and His Brothers, there are no profane chapters that resemble the Moscow chapters in The Master and Margarita as the entire novel is based on the story of Joseph. The political dimension is therefore more strongly linked with external historical events, such as the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany.

            The Master and Margarita and Joseph and His Brothers, Voronina concludes, are unparalleled within their respective cultural context. She convincingly demonstrates that both novels detect gaps in the Old Testament and the Gospels, and these gaps are being filled with fiction or supplemented with other mythological or historical sources. Human creativity is therefore key in the novels, both as a motif and a narrative strategy, while the authority of the Bible is continuously called into question. Voronina infers against this background that The Master and Margarita and Joseph and His Brothers do have a political dimension, but the novels should by no means be reduced to this dimension. On the contrary, Voronina shows that The Master and Margarita and Joseph and His Brothers are not merely political metaphors or literary adaptations of the Bible, but have literary value of their own. The chief accomplishment of her excellent study is therefore that it reveals the elaborate narrative strategies Mann and Bulgakov employ in the way they retell biblical narratives.

            One of Voronina’s final remarks is that ‘[t]he divine provides a framework for the elucidation of the human’ (118). This is not only true of The Master and Margarita and Joseph and His Brothers, but also of Voronina’s monograph itself and the way she uses the divine as a prompt for comparison. Her analysis of how Bulgakov and Mann use certain narrative strategies to depict the relationship between the human and the divine illustrates the great benefits of this approach. But what remains unclear is the significance of the different textual sources on which the novels are based—Bulgakov draws on the New Testament, Mann on the Old Testament. Voronina’s findings therefore encourage further research into the impact that the choice of narratives either from the Old or the New Testament might have on the way they can be adapted for literature, not only in relation to The Master and Margarita and Joseph and His Brothers, but also in other twentieth-century novels based on biblical stories or inspired by them.