The Master and Margarita by Andrzej Klimowski and Danusia Schejbal

12/05/08, The Times

Censorship by the State resulted in Mikhail Bulgakov’s jetblack, wild and hilariously subversive novel, The Master and Margarita, being first published in 1966, twenty-six years after its author’s death. This story about Satan’s visit to Moscow, accompanied by a cigar-smoking cat, Behemoth, and a smaller devil, Azazello, to wreak absolute havoc everywhere runs alongside the story of the eponymous heroes: a writer, the Master, engaged in work on a radical retelling of the Cricifixion story with Pontius Pilate as the main character, and his lover, Margarita, who has utmost faith in this work, which has attracted such vicious criticism from all quarters that it has all but broken the Master. As the stories intertwine, it becomes clear that Satan has an ingenious, transtemporal plan up his sleeve for the lovers.

One cannot fillet one of the blazing masterpieces of the twentieth century – it is at once a savage anti-Stalinist satire, a love-story, and a rewriting of Matthew’s Gospel, among other things – to a 120-page graphic novel without paying a significant price: Andrzej Klimowski and Danusia Schejbal have been heroic in paying this in order to recast a rather simplified and flattened-out version of the novel in a new form for a new generation of readers. While the contemporary narrative is executed by Klimowski, in pen and ink and watercolour that has the uncluttered, poetic beauty of a black-and-white Bergman film photographed by Sven Nyqvist, the fiction-within-the-fiction sections are done in colour by Schejbal, bold gouache paintings with blue dominating the palette, as if to distill the essence of the Middle East where Christ and Pilate’s story takes place.

But what appears to be a wonderful solution of distinguishing the two strands soon reveals its problems: Klimowski’s art is a quantum leap ahead of Schejbal’s and the effect of moving from his work to hers can be one of shifting attention from Literature to My First Picture Book of the Gospel. The problem is not of wildly diverging talents – Schejbal’s colour sections of Satan’s riotous circus at the Variety Theatre are breathtakingly and allusively stylish, bringing Manet and Toulouse-Lautrec to mind – but inherent in the decision to create a faux-naïve style for the Pilate sections.

Klimowski remains one of the great illustrators of our time and this book takes him to newer territory compared with his earlier, wordless The Secret or The Depository, or the more novelistic Horace Dorlan, for here he seems to be a preternatural master of the graphic novel form in its conventional panels-with-texts-and-images configuration. The Walpurgisnacht sequence before Satan’s ball is drawn with real genius and inspired abandon while his Satan is a creature of fascination with a bilaterally asymmetrical face twisted by a permanent, feral sneer. Depending on which side you’re looking at the face from, it appears either cadaverously attractive or hideously disfigured; the metaphorical heft is made into a visual pun of real panache. Klimowski and Schejbal’s book is a rare work that manages to be both its own thing and a wonderful introduction to Bulgakov’s masterpiece.