Chess and Literature. Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita
DISCLAIMER: Read at your own risk because (1) eruptions of imagination in this excerpt from one of the best novels of the 20th century may cause disruptions in logical pathways of your brain disabling for a while your down-to-earth rational thinking, (2) this post is a bit longer than normally so you may not want to waste your precious time.
Any decision you make, you are at a loss, either of your time, or pleasure of reading and getting to know about one of the most fascinating descriptions in literature of what playing the Devil may look like.
Playing chess with the Devil
In this excerpt from Master and Margarita Woland and his monstrous black cat, Behemoth, play a chess game as Margarita is being introduced to Satan and his entourage.
Bulgakov’s imagination reaches some of its greatest heights here. For example, with his king in check, Behemoths makes it walk off the board by winking and making all sorts of faces at it, bishop taking the king’s place… Enjoy!
The door opened into a small room. Margarita saw a wide oak bed covered in dirty, rumpled bedclothes and pillows. In front of the bed was a table with carved oaken legs bearing a candelabra whose sockets were made in the shape of birds’ claws. Seven fat wax candles burned in their grasp. On the table there was also a large chessboard set with elaborately carved pieces. A low bench stood on the small, worn carpet. There was one more table laden with golden beakers and another candelabra with arms fashioned like snakes. The room smelled of damp and tar. Shadows thrown by the candlelight criss-crossed on the floor.
Among the people in the room Margarita at once recognized Azazello who gave her a most gallant bow.
The naked witch, Hella, was sitting on the floor by the bed and stirring some concoction in a saucepan which gave off a sulphurous vapor. Besides these, there was an enormous black cat sitting on a stool in front of the chessboard and holding a knight in its right paw.
Hella stood up and bowed to Margarita. The cat jumped down from its stool and did likewise, but making a flourish it dropped the knight and had to crawl under the bed after it.
Faint with terror, Margarita blinked at this candlelit pantomime. Her glance was drawn to the bed. Two eyes bored into Margarita’s face. In the depths of the right eye was a golden spark that could pierce any soul to its core; the left eye was as empty and black as a small black diamond, as the mouth of a bottomless well of dark and shadow. Woland’s face was tilted to one side, the right-hand corner of his mouth pulled downward and deep furrows marked his forehead parallel to his eyebrows. The skin of his face seemed burned by timeless sunshine.
Woland was lying sprawled on the bed, dressed only in a long, dirty black nightshirt, patched on the left shoulder. One bare leg was tucked up beneath him, the other stretched out on the bench. Hella was massaging his knees with a steaming ointment.
On Woland’s bare, hairless chest Margarita noticed a scarab on a gold chain, intricately carved out of black stone and marked on its back with an arcane script. Near Woland was a strange globe, lit from one side, which seemed almost alive.
The silence lasted for several seconds. ‘ He is studying me,’ thought Margarita and by an effort of will tried to stop her legs from trembling.
At last Woland spoke. He smiled, causing his one sparkling eye to flash.
‘ Greetings, my queen. Please excuse my homely garb.’
Woland’s voice was so low-pitched that on certain syllables it faded off into a mere growl.
Woland picked up a long sword from the bed, bent over, poked it under the bed and said :
‘ Come out: now. The game’s over. Our guest has arrived.’
‘ Please …’ Koroviev whispered anxiously into Margarita’s ear like a prompter.
‘ Please …’ began Margarita.
‘ Messire …’ breathed Koroviev.
‘ Please, messire,’ Margarita went on quietly but firmly: ‘ I beg you not to interrupt your game. I am sure the chess journals would pay a fortune to be allowed to print it.’
Azazello gave a slight croak of approval and Woland, staring intently at Margarita, murmured to himself:
‘ Yes, Koroviev was right. The result can be amazing when you shuffle the pack. Blood will tell.’
He stretched out his arm and beckoned Margarita.
She walked up to him, feeling no ground under her bare feet. Woland placed his hand–as heavy as stone and as hot as fire–on Margarita’s shoulder, pulled her towards him and sat her down on the bed by his side.
‘ Since you are so charming and kind,’ he said, ‘ which was no more than I expected, we shan’t stand on ceremony.’ He leaned over the edge of the bed again and shouted : ‘ How much longer is this performance under the bed going to last? Come on out! ‘
‘ I can’t find the knight,’ replied the cat in a mumed falsetto from beneath the bed. ‘ It’s galloped off somewhere and there’s a frog here instead.’
‘ Where do you think you are–on a fairground? ‘ asked Woland, pretending to be angry. ‘ There’s no frog under the bed! Save those cheap tricks for the Variety! If you don’t come out at once we’ll begin to think you’ve gone over to the enemy, you deserter! ‘
‘ Never, messire! ‘ howled the cat, crawling out with the knight in its paw.
‘ Allow me to introduce to you . . .’ Woland began, then interrupted himself. ‘ No, really, he looks too ridiculous! Just look what he’s done to himself while he was under the bed!’
The cat, covered in dust and standing on its hind legs, bowed to Margarita. Round its neck it was now wearing a made-up white bow tie on an elastic band, with a pair of ladies’ mother-of-pearl binoculars hanging on a cord. It had also gilded its whiskers.
‘ What have you done? ‘ exclaimed Woland. ‘ Why have you gilded your whiskers? And what on earth do you want with a white tie when you haven’t even got any trousers? ‘
‘ Trousers don’t suit cats, messire,’ replied the cat with great dignity. ‘ Why don’t you tell me to wear boots? Cats always wear boots in fairy tales. But have you ever seen a cat going to a ball without a tie? I don’t want to make myself look ridiculous. One likes to look as smart as one can. And that also applies to my opera-glasses, messire!’
‘ But your whiskers?’
‘ I don’t see why,’ the cat objected coldly, ‘ Azazello and Koroviev are allowed to cover themselves in powder and why powder is better than gilt. I just powdered my whiskers, that’s all. It would be a different matter if I’d shaved myself! A clean shaven cat is something monstrous, that I agree. But I see . . .’ –here the cat’s voice trembled with pique–’. . . that this is a conspiracy to be rude about my appearance. Clearly I am faced with a problem–shall I go to the ball or not? What do you say, messire?’
Outraged, the cat had so inflated itself that it looked about to explode at any second.
‘ Ah, the rogue, the sly rogue,’ said Woland shaking his head. ‘ Whenever he’s losing a game he starts a spiel like a quack-doctor at a fair. Sit down and stop all this hot air.’
‘ Very well,’ replied the cat, sitting down, ‘ but I must object. My remarks are by no means all hot air, as you so vulgarly put it, but a series of highly apposite syllogisms which would be appreciated by such connoisseurs as Sextus Empiricus, Martian Capella, even, who knows, Aristotle himself.
‘ Check,’ said Woland.
‘ Check it is,’ rejoined the cat, surveying the chessboard through his lorgnette.
‘ So,’ Woland turned to Margarita, ‘ let me introduce my retinue. That creature who has been playing the fool is the cat Behemoth. Azazello and Koroviev you have already met; this is my maid, Hella. She’s prompt, clever, and there’s no service she cannot perform for you.’
The beautiful Hella turned her green eyes on Margarita and smiled, continuing to scoop out the ointment in the palm of her hand and to rub it on Woland’s knee.
‘ Well, there they are,’ concluded Woland, wincing as Hella massaged his knee rather too hard. ‘ A charming and select little band.’ He stopped and began turning his globe, so cleverly made that the blue sea shimmered in waves and the polar cap was of real ice and snow. On the chessboard, meanwhile, confusion reigned. Distraught, the white king was stamping about on his square and waving his arms in desperation. Three white pawns, armed with halberds, were staring in bewilderment at a bishop who was waving his crozier and pointing forwards to where Woland’s black knights sat mounted on two hot-blooded horses, one pawing the ground of a white square, the other on a black square.
Margarita was fascinated by the game and amazed to see that the chessmen were alive.
Dropping its lorgnette, the cat gently nudged his king in the back, at which the wretched king covered his face in despair.
‘ You’re in trouble, my dear Behemoth,’ said Koroviev in a voice of quiet malice.
‘ The position is serious but far from hopeless,’ retorted Behemoth. ‘ What is more, I am confident of ultimate victory. All it needs is a careful analysis of the situation.’
His method of analysis took the peculiar form of pulling faces and winking at his king.
‘ That won’t do you any good,’ said Koroview. ‘ Oh! ‘ cried Behemoth, ‘ all the parrots have flown away, as I said they would.’
From far away came the sound of innumerable wings. Koroviev and Azazello rushed out of the room.
‘ You’re nothing but a pest with all your arrangements for the ball,’ grumbled Woland, preoccupied with his globe. As soon as Koroviev and Azazella had gone. Behemoth’s winking increased until at last the white king guessed what was required of him. He suddenly pulled off his cloak, dropped it on his square and walked off the board. The bishop picked up the royal cloak, threw it round his shoulders and took the king’s place.
Koroviev and Azazello returned.
‘ False alarm, as usual,’ growled Azazello.
‘ Well, I thought I heard something,’ said the cat.
‘ Come on, how much longer do you need? ‘ asked Woland. ‘ Check.’
‘ I must have mis-heard you, mon maitre,’ replied the cat. ‘ My king is not in check and cannot be.’
‘ I repeat–check.’
‘ Messire,’ rejoined the cat in a voice of mock anxiety, ‘ you must be suffering from over-strain. I am not in check! ‘
‘ The king is on square g2,’ said Woland, without looking at the board.
‘ Messire, you amaze me,’ wailed the cat, putting on an amazed face, ‘ there is no king on that square.’
‘ What? ‘ asked Woland, with a puzzled look at the board. The bishop, standing in the king’s square, turned his head away and covered his face with his hand.
‘ Aha, you rogue,’ said Woland reflectively.
‘ Messire! I appeal to the laws of logic!’ said the cat, clasping its paws to its chest, ‘ if a player says check and there is no king on the board, then the king is not in check! ‘
‘ Do you resign or not? ‘ shouted Woland in a terrible voice.
‘ Give me time to consider, please,’ said the cat meekly. It put its elbows on the table, covered its ears with its paws and began to think. Finally, having considered, it said. ‘ I resign.’
‘ He needs murdering, the obstinate beast,’ whispered Azazello.
‘ Yes, I resign,’ said the cat, ‘ but only because I find it impossible to play when I’m distracted by jealous, hostile spectators! ‘ He stood up and the chessmen ran back into their box.