Baddies in books: Woland, Bulgakov’s charming devil
Two men, an editor and a poet, walk through Moscow’s Patriarch’s Ponds one afternoon in Stalinist Russia. As the editor lectures his friend on the non-existence of Jesus Christ, a foreigner appears, introducing himself as Professor W, and tells them what he insists is the true story of the meeting of Christ and Pontius Pilate. The man has one eye that is blank and completely black, another that is crazed. What happens next is a mirror of these two eyes: within minutes, the editor is dead; by morning, the poet is mad and locked in an asylum.
From the moment we meet the “enigmatic professor” Woland in The Master and Margarita, he is a disorienting figure. Witness reports of the opening accident describe his appearance in confusing, varying detail – “one says he was short, had gold teeth, and was lame in his right foot. Another says that he was hugely tall, had platinum crowns and was lame in his left foot. Yet a third notes laconically that he had no distinguishing features whatsoever.” Though we come to understand that Woland is the devil, Bulgakov is rarely explicit, preferring to use other titles, as if to feed the idea that to meet him will drive you insane. Throughout the book, Woland is “a stranger”, “a visitor”. Then, after he mysteriously acquires a gig at the Variety Theatre, he is “a visiting celebrity”, “a famous foreign artiste”, a “magician”. Only the Master, the poet’s neighbour in the asylum, sees who he truly is. “He’s unmistakeable, my friend!”
Bulgakov’s devil is no demon with a forked tail but a man with a deep tan and expensive tailoring, come to test the people of Moscow and their weaknesses. He is fond of philosophy, mentioning that he once had breakfast with Kant, who by the opening of the book has been dead by a century, and offering what he calls “the seventh proof” of his own existence. Woland is a social devil, living the lifestyle of a wealthy gentleman, and travelling with a riveting gang of cackling servants, including a talking cat and a vampire maid. While he provides pensive commentary, his underlings act out most of the mischief. It is only at Satan’s Ball that we observe the full range of Woland’s power, and see that the havoc wreaked in Moscow is petty crime compared to the precise tortures he prescribes the occupants of Hell.
In a book full of bureaucratic mortals, the devil and his crew provide some much-needed honesty. I love the vividness of Woland – his wardrobe changes, his nostalgia about the cads who have eaten at his table, and, ultimately, his strange and unerring sense of honour, which sees self-righteous citizens punished for their hypocrisy, and the cheating wife Margarita, true in her love for the Master, granted anything she wants. Of all the living characters, Margarita alone enjoys an affinity with Woland, and is instinctively kind when meeting Hell’s inhabitants, a group of “assorted kings, dukes, cavaliers, suicides, poisoners, gallows birds and procuresses, jailers and cardsharps, executioners, informers, traitors, detectives” and “corrupters of youth” who seem to be having more fun than the crashing bores of Moscow’s literary elite.
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