A love triangle involving Mikhail Bulgakov, famed author of The Master and Margarita, an agent of Stalin’s secret police, and the bewitching Margarita has inescapable consequences for all three in 1930s Russia.
Don’t miss out: Julie Lekstrom Himes will be at the City of Asylum Bookstore at Alphabet City on May 15th!
During her event at City of Asylum, Himes will be in conversation with Karla Boos, artistic director of the Quantum Theater, whose recent production of the play Collaborators presented another fictional version of the relationship between Mikhail Bulgakov and Josef Stalin.
From the Publisher: “Ranging from the homes of Moscow’s literary elite to the Siberian Gulag, Mikhail and Margarita tells the story of a passionate love triangle enmeshed in that of a country whose peerless literary tradition is at odds with its brutal dictatorship. Even the fierce love of two very different men cannot protect Margarita, a strong, idealistic woman, from the machinations of a regime hungry for human sacrifice.
Debut novelist Julie Lekstrom Himes launches a rousing defense of art and the artist during a time of systematic oppression, and movingly portrays the subversive effects of love on one of history’s most towering literary figures. Mikhail and Margarita is an ambitious, detailed fresco about life in Soviet Russia, with all the atmospheric specificity of A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles and characters as compelling as Marie-Laure LeBlanc and Werner Pfenning in Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See.”
“Adeptly details brutality and betrayal as well as creativity and the uncertainties of censorship…” — Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
“An incredibly important read in an era of uncertainty and populism across the globe, but it’s also entertainment in its purest form as it draws the reader in through the emotional resonance of love and loss while retaining a sense of ‘it could happen to you.'” — Newsweek
Enter the Hero
History came late to Russia. Geography isolated her and isolation defined her. In the ninth century, pagan Vikings discovered her from the north; Muslim Khazars ruled her from the south. The Cyrillic alphabet, which was to craft her story, made its way across the Carpathian Mountains on the backs of Macedonian monks only in the winding years of the tenth century. Even nine centuries later, Pushkin and Tolstoy were yet inventing those words which in Russian did not exist: gesture and sympathy, impulse and imagination, individuality.
It would be the task of her subsequent writers to try to define them.
Mikhail Afanasievich Bulgakov sat with his back to an open window in the richly appointed restaurant of Moscow’s All-Soviets Writers Union. It was late spring of 1933. His friend Osip Mandelstam leaned across their small table to emphasize a point, but Bulgakov wasn’t listening. He was thinking instead of his friend’s young lover, imagining how he might steal her from him.The day preceding had been blisteringly hot. By midday the waitstaff had tied back the heavy damask curtains and pushed open the high, triple casing windows that encircled the polygonal room. A series of French doors opened onto a wide verandah that was likewise arranged with tables and chairs for dining. Repeatedly, the restaurant manager stood in the dining room, then on the painted planking of the verandah, then back again, considering the temperature and ventilation of each space. Finally, by late afternoon, he set the staff to move half a dozen additional tables from inside, through the open doors, and onto the already crowded verandah. He went from table to table with his meter-stick, measuring and ordering adjustments and measuring again. Shortly before dusk, dense green-grey clouds filled the sky and opened themselves upon the streets of Moscow. The heavy drapes floated up in the wind and slapped down against the window moldings. Enormous raindrops like errant birds flew through the open windows and between the broad porch columns, spotting the tablecloths and napkins and puddling on the polished wood floor. The sun returned only to dip below the darkening outlines of buildings, steam rose from the sizzled streets, and frantic waitstaff hustled about, blotting and wiping and mopping. By the time the restaurant opened at ten that night everything that needed to be dried or replaced had been considered, save one—not a single grain of salt could be coaxed from its shaker. After the second request for fresh salt, it was clear there was no more to be found either in the back storage closets or in the basement, and the manager sent one of the younger dishwashers out to procure some from a nearby restaurant with an extra ten-ruble note to pay for the speed of a cab. Not a block from the restaurant the dishwasher discharged the driver with a few kopeks and pocketed the rest. When the first did not return, the manager sent a second dishwasher on the same errand, only now, two washers short, dirty plates and glasses began to accumulate and service noticeably slowed. With the continuing requests, he set two of the waitstaff to dump several shakers’ worth into a pestle and grind the grains apart, but the clumps reformed almost immediately. Meanwhile, the manager went from table to table apologizing and offering assurance they were only minutes from acquiring new salt that would be swiftly and equitably distributed. In any case, he told them, he hoped their meals were prepared to their satisfaction.
The manager paused from his rounds and stood in the doorway between the dining room and the verandah, scanning the guests. He recognized Mandelstam; otherwise there was no one of terrific consequence; the night could not be counted an utter disaster.
The air outside smelled of ozone, and, slightly cooled by the evening rain, it floated through the window behind Bulgakov. The squat alcohol lamps on each table were protected by small translucent shades and did not flicker. Other patrons, sweating in the dim light, moved little. The edges of conversations were muted as well. Several tables away, a young woman in a crumpled orange dress fed caviar to an older man with a poorly dyed goatee. To their right, another man, a minor poet, argued with his two companions, jabbing his finger into his palm, yet even this seemed vague and lacking conviction. Near the doors to the verandah, a band played a low and drifting melody.
Mandelstam sat back as though he’d made his point. The light from the lamp bloomed between them. Mandelstam’s thinning dark hair ringed his scalp in an untidy damp fringe. His face was pale and moist in the heat. He was forty-two, only a year older than Bulgakov, yet he seemed more aged as if he’d lived in a different time or under more difficult circumstances. How he’d been able to attract the much younger Margarita Nikoveyena had occupied Bulgakov’s thoughts on not a few occasions before this evening.
Bulgakov glanced over the room. Beyond the doors leading to the veranda there was the turn of a pale gown; a flicker of bare shoulders. A slender neck, then gone. Could she be here this evening? “Who the devil is that?” he murmured.
“You’re not listening,” said Mandelstam. It seemed more a weary reflection than an accusation. He maintained what Bulgakov would consider a too-generous gaze.
“That’s true.” Bulgakov smiled a little with this admission. He felt some guilt about this. They met infrequently these days. Their friendship had evolved from a mentorship of sorts, begun over a decade earlier when Bulgakov had moved to Moscow and started writing. Years later and now with some success of his own, their friendship had dwindled rather than strengthened. Bulgakov blamed himself generally. Their dinner tonight had been Mandelstam’s suggestion. Bulgakov could not remember another meeting that had come at the poet’s request. Even so, he had almost declined at the last moment, for no better reasons than the poor weather and the mediocre meal which was to be expected midweek at the Writers’ Union. As he’d come across the room, unreasonably late and with an excuse forming, Mandelstam’s gaunt face was so at odds with the room’s richness that his first words were not a request for pardon but a pointed inquiry into the state of his health. Mandelstam assured him that he was fine, and yet it was the pleasure he showed at Bulgakov’s arrival, and his willingness to set aside the annoyance he must have felt for being made to wait, which caused Bulgakov to consider that there was something Mandelstam required from him. This was the first time Bulgakov had ever thought such a thing.
Mandelstam’s interest turned to Bulgakov’s well-being.
“Why don’t you get away? Go to Peredelkino—it’s quite nice this time of year,” said Mandelstam.
Six dachas—parceled out amongst three thousand writers. The privilege of Union membership for the politically connected. Bulgakov pretended this was a serious suggestion. “I’ve not had a turn.”
“I’ve been a number of times.” Bulgakov’s reluctance to engage in Union politics was an old conversation. “It’s not impossible. Who do you go to?”
Bulgakov laughed. “Who would have me?” His self-deprecation was false, but he had no desire for patronage. He preferred to remain in some way invisible. Not his work, of course, but for himself, this was fine; perhaps even best.
Mandelstam shook his head. “Everyone goes to someone. You don’t have to live in that place of yours. You could do better. Committee members, they love writers—makes them feel cultured. I could introduce you.”
Bulgakov glanced away again. “Is that Likovoyev? I haven’t seen him in months.”
“He’s been at Peredelkino.”
Of course. Bulgakov smiled. “And I thought he’d died.”
Mandelstam lowered his head, whether from the heat or the conversation, it was difficult to say. He seemed disinclined to pursue other old topics: the necessity of placating critics, of transforming editors and directors and producers into advocates. Bulgakov was grateful, though he considered that in this, and possibly in other ways, too, he’d plumbed the limits of a friend’s fortitude.
“Perhaps you should write poetry,” said Mandelstam.
“Aren’t you concerned I’d give you competition?” Bulgakov had intended this to be funny. He downed what remained of his vodka.
Mandelstam waited for his attention. “Only in this country is poetry respected,” he said. “There’s no place where more people are killed for it.”
He was prone to speak in such a manner. Bulgakov found it tiresome; he did not share his friend’s political discontent. This was not so much a stance, he told himself, as a lack of interest. He barely read the papers; he listened to the radio for its music. Yet because of this edge in Mandelstam a certain wariness was necessary, a constant recalibration of the space of their relationship. That was what was tiresome. He noticed that the poet had acquired a spot on his shirt since the start of their dinner. He was often careless, and Bulgakov found himself further annoyed by this. “One might argue, then, that writing poetry would not be such a good idea.”
Mandelstam smiled. Perhaps this was so, he agreed.
Likovoyev moved from table to table, clasping hands as each patron rose from his seat. Only brief exchanges, and Bulgakov observed with mild interest as shifts in the Union’s hierarchy were revealed. Likovoyev went next to the Art Theater’s new librettist; then bent low to ingratiate himself with the man’s young wife, a former countess, holding her hand for too long, ignoring her husband until she looked away, embarrassed. He was stork-like in his maneuverings; his awkwardness made him even more comedic. Bulgakov’s lips parted.
“What is it?” said Mandelstam.
“Our beloved critic,” said Bulgakov. “Among his many crimes, he is an appalling flirt.”
“My wife seems to be immune to his advances.”
“You are fortunate.”
“In some ways, Nadya is like a nun. How is your Tatiana?”
The waiter appeared and replaced his drink. Bulgakov waited until he’d receded. “She’s moved in with her sister and her husband.”
Mandelstam seemed to check his surprise. It occurred to Bulgakov that this was already common knowledge. Their wives had been friends of a sort, sharing the burden of writer-husbands.
“Their apartment is larger,” said Bulgakov. “And—they have a private bath.”
Mandelstam nodded in feigned support of the wife. “I would leave you, too.”
Likovoyev moved on from the librettist and was embracing a young poet. Bulgakov emptied his glass again. He remembered the precise moment he had fallen out of love with his wife. An acquaintance had introduced them at Bulgakov’s request. For weeks she’d gently rebuffed his advances with teasing words he’d found endearing, then one evening, without explanation, she’d stayed. He remembered her sitting on the edge of his bed, the pearl-shaped buttons of her blouse between her fingers, undressing for him; he remembered the low angle of orange sunlight through the dirty window. He remembered watching his desire fall away as the chemise dropped from her shoulders. If only she would leave, he thought. Perhaps if she had, his desire would have returned; but she’d remained.
He’d married her anyway. He felt their lovemaking had been a kind of agreement to this. And he felt sorry for her, for being unloved. And she was fine, really. They got along well. She left him alone to write and was sufficiently distracting when the loneliness turned on him.
Likovoyev was standing by their table. Startled, Bulgakov laughed aloud. “I thought you were the waiter,” said Bulgakov, lifting his empty glass.
Likovoyev bared his teeth in what might be called a smile.
Mandelstam interceded. “You look remarkable. Your time at Peredelkino served you well.”
“It did,” said the critic. “I banished all thoughts of this place, I must say, all—except—inexplicably, you.” He nodded to Bulgakov.
“Then you must return, immediately, and try again,” said Bulgakov. “I will petition the Union Chairman on your behalf, first thing tomorrow.”
Likovoyev ignored this. “I understand you have a new play under production at the MAT. All is going smoothly, I pray?”
“We open at the end of the month.” Bulgakov didn’t bother to restrain a bit of swagger.
“So glad to hear. I’d heard mention of a delay.” Likovoyev hesitated as though he might say more, then changed his mind. “I was obviously misinformed.”
This was unexpected. “No,” said Bulgakov, rather too quickly. “No. Not at all.” Likovoyev looked again at Mandelstam as if for some sort of verification.
Bulgakov wanted to say that the play was progressing well, ahead of schedule, in fact, though this wasn’t true. They were behind, but not irrevocably. Perhaps seven or eight days; certainly no more than two weeks. But the delay wasn’t entirely his concern. The director, Stanislawski, had seemed to be avoiding him of late, locking himself in his office for hours until Bulgakov would bully his assistant to open it, only then to find that the director had somehow slipped away. Bulgakov had convinced himself this was all his imagining but now his worries bloomed afresh. He wanted to question Likovoyev further, but the other was already speaking.
“Frivolous gossip, then, no doubt. I knew it was nothing to heed.”
“Stanislawski has made no mention—” Bulgakov began. Mandelstam frowned.
“Yes? I am so relieved,” said Likovoyev. “And thankful to have spoken with you.” He nodded. “I will look forward to Moliere’s opening—and to my humble review.”
“Yes—to your review,” Bulgakov echoed. Some part of him vaguely wished the critic would stay. For the first time, he looked forward to a Likovoyev review.
“I won’t keep you from your meal.” Likovoyev seemed more jovial than when he’d arrived, as though he’d extracted the better part of their good mood. “Please give my regards to your lovely wives.” He bowed and turned away. Bulgakov watched him recede.
Mandelstam leaned forward. “He’s not the reason for your—for Tatiana’s—”
Bulgakov shook his head. “No, that was my fault.” The critic was already several tables away. He bent low, to address some other writer’s wife. At the woman’s words, he dropped his head to the side, his eyes boring into hers. Bulgakov recognized the harmless gestures. Now he could almost forgive him for them.
He turned to Mandelstam. “What about a delay? Have you heard such rumors? Have you?”
Mandelstam was poking the remains of his dinner with his fork. “You’ve spoken with Stanislawski yourself. All is fine.”
“Yes, we’ve spoken.” Bulgakov tried to remember the last time they had. “I must speak with him again.” He needed this production. Other recent efforts had been poorly received and short-lived.
“I’m surprised he’s not here tonight,” said Mandelstam. He considered a nondescript piece of meat. “Of course, it is a Tuesday.”
Likovoyev kissed the hand of the writer’s wife. Bulgakov watched him straighten and bow to her, then to the husband, helpless beside her. The woman lifted her eyes to the critic in a kind of wonderment; a combination of mild loathing and speculation. Bulgakov looked away.
He’d thought nothing of Likovoyev’s flirtations with his wife. Nothing whatsoever, except some faint gratitude that the critic provided something which Bulgakov lacked all interest in supplying. That Likovoyev’s stilted affectations might satisfy her in some small way. They, he and Tatiana, had laughed about him, yet perhaps, she had laughed not as much. He’d considered her secret satisfaction with the critic’s attentions a kind of naïveté that should not have been surprising. He wasn’t surprised and hadn’t begrudged her those small pleasures.
There was no crime, no clandestine tryst that had come between them. Nothing save the briefest reluctance, the sparest of pauses, one afternoon as he’d stuttered through his regular tirade about him. For the first time she had not immediately agreed. For the first time she’d been quiet. And in that silence he saw her consideration for the critic, her alliance with him, and realized that this Likovoyev, though incapable of comprehending even the most lucid of writing, could nonetheless reveal in his boorish maneuverings a desolation in her far greater than some naïveté. Bulgakov turned to her for some explanation. She pressed her lips together and looked away as if something had passed their window.
Afterwards, he told himself she did not matter so much; it’d been a mistake from the start and it was easier to let her go. She did not leave right away, but drifted further and further, until one day her belongings slipped away as well. He came home that afternoon to those empty spaces. He left them that way for days, hangers in the wardrobe, the place by the door where her shoes had stood. He found reasons not to fill them; he told himself, though, it was not because she might return. It was not because her things might again need a place to stay.
He found his glass and tipped it forward to pool the remaining drops. He lacked the power to maneuver the world in his favor; he could not even will the waiter to sedate him with more drink. He started to lift it but found his hand restrained.
“Talk to Stanislawski,” said Mandelstam. He nodded as if he understood the problem.
Bulgakov considered his glass. “I will,” he said. Osip relaxed his hand and Bulgakov tipped back the last drops.
The musicians had begun to play again; they took up a jazz line. Music filled the spaces between conversations. Mandelstam frowned as if he’d been interrupted. Then he looked upward. Someone was by their table.
“Good evening, my dear,” he said. He sounded slightly annoyed.
The pale gown from before was beside them. It was Margarita Nikoveyeva.
Bulgakov had seen her before, though not with the poet. They’d tried to conceal their affair although many, even Mandelstam’s wife, it was said, knew of it. There had been the time, the previous fall, at a party in this very room. He’d watched as she’d put off the advances of another man. At one point she’d looked about as though for some means of escape, and caught his gaze. Bulgakov had smiled, both sympathetic and duplicitous, and across that space they had shared an understanding. Or so he’d thought.
Tonight she was different, though. Indeed, all of her seemed unreasonably pale. Her hair pulled back in a chignon was silvery in the dim light; her ivory-colored dress, unadorned, fell in simple lines. He became aware of her breathing from its gentle motion. Her fingers rested on the edge of the tablecloth, as if to steady herself. Behind her, the band seemed muted. She nodded to both men but addressed only Mandelstam. Bulgakov expected him to compliment her appearance; the light of the room seemed to soak into her. But it wasn’t this that gave her an unworldly appearance. She had the air of the ill-fated; of one about to step from a platform onto empty tracks, the sound of a train filling the air. Not with the purpose to end her life so much as to embrace the monstrosity. He wanted to pull her to safety and at the same time to stand back and watch her proceed. He stood to give her his chair; she smiled a little, shook her head, and returned her attention to Mandelstam. He had remained seated.
When Mandelstam spoke his voice had taken an edge.
“Who are you with tonight?” He spoke as a brother might, or a father. Someone responsible for her in some way. Or as an ex-lover. Reminding her that without a Union membership, she could not have gained entrance on her own merit. But perhaps more meaningfully, he was demonstrating his right to ask that question in that manner.
An embarrassed smile fluttered across her face; she provided a name. Bulgakov didn’t recognize it, but Mandelstam nodded.
“You look well,” she said. She sounded mildly hopeful in this.
“Perhaps in this lighting I do.”
She continued with less certainty. “And Nadya?”
“She actually is quite well. But I don’t think I’ll tell her you asked.”
He was condescending to the point of contempt, Bulgakov thought. He reached for Mandelstam’s arm. She’d come to them, after all. Was there a need for this? Mandelstam moved his arm away.
“I simply wanted to say ‘hello.’” She said this without apology or defense, as if a little tired.
“And so you have,” he said flatly.
“I mean there’s no reason for us to pretend we don’t know each other,” she said. She seemed not to lose courage, but hope.
Mandelstam frowned at the cloth and swept its crumbs aside as though he no longer had patience for them. They bounced lightly off the skirt of her gown.
“You are far too willing to overlook my shortcomings, my dear,” he said. He smoothed the now-clean cloth with his hand.
Only her eyes revealed her distress, her unwillingness to believe his animosity and yet her acceptance of it. Her vulnerability was breathtaking. He wondered if Mandelstam saw this as well.
“Perhaps,” she said quickly. “That would be my shortcoming.” She turned to Bulgakov. “Please enjoy your meal,” she said.
“We’ve finished,” said Bulgakov, correcting her. “It wasn’t particularly good.”
“Ah, well then, enjoy—” She left her sentiment unfinished, unable to come up with a better idea of what they were to delight in. She’d already turned. He watched her recede, feeling as though he’d allowed her to escape.
Mandelstam watched her as well, his expression very different from the one just moments before. There was an old affection, perhaps one that had been retired, yet nonetheless remembered, and it occurred to Bulgakov that she was the reason they’d dined here this evening. She disappeared through one of the veranda doors and Mandelstam’s gaze found his. “She should know better,” Mandelstam said.
“I think she does now.”
“I suspect not.”
The door’s opening maintained its velvety darkness. Bulgakov looked for her to reappear but it remained empty.
“We were speaking of your play,” Mandelstam said.
Bulgakov thought that perhaps he’d rather talk about Margarita.
Mandelstam and Bulgakov left the restaurant together. The streets were wet and empty; the sky was low. Bulgakov felt the hum of alcohol out to his fingertips. He felt connected to the dense warm air that rose from the glistening asphalt. He wondered where Margarita might be at that moment. He imagined her alone, perhaps on a street like this one, then remembered she was with someone else. Was she holding his hand; his arm? Had he provided her comfort? He wondered how he might see her again.
Two uniformed men stepped into the street. Mandelstam stopped then immediately moved away from Bulgakov, and the four men stood apart, the points of some ill-formed square. Bulgakov was for a moment confused.
The gold threads of the police insignia glimmered in the light of a nearby streetlamp.
“Citizens. May we see your documents?” said the taller man.
Mandelstam provided a cache of papers. Bulgakov extended his as well and they were snatched up by the shorter of the two. This one mouthed the words as he silently read them.
“The poet Mandelstam,” said the taller policeman. He sounded genuinely pleased.
“You never know who you might find roaming the streets at night,” said the poet.
The other officer continued to review Bulgakov’s papers as if disappointed he’d not caught a larger fish. “Are you together?” he asked finally. He handed the papers back.
“No,” said Mandelstam. He seemed about to add something further then stopped. The taller officer studied Bulgakov with growing interest.
Bulgakov laughed. “You are Mandelstam?” he said. “I thought he was a much younger man.” He swayed suddenly and stepped back to regain his balance. The shorter officer shined a flashlight in his face and the world disappeared in its glare. He heard, “Stand to, Citizen.” The light moved and the street reappeared, muddled with spots. The shorter officer stepped closer. To Bulgakov it seemed this one was a clown’s version of a policeman. He laughed aloud at the thought.
The shorter officer was about to speak but the other interrupted. “Comrade Poet, you give us a poem. We’d like that.”
Mandelstam shook his head. “I can’t think of one, friends. Perhaps another time.”
The taller officer didn’t move. It was clear he was unsatisfied with that answer.
“I know a poem,” said Bulgakov. “One you will like. ‘There once was a whore from Kiev.’” He paused. “No, Novgorod. Yes. ‘There once was a whore from Novgorod.’”
The officers stiffened. Bulgakov noticed this in his blur but went on.
“No, it can’t be Novgorod. The rhythm’s all wrong. I can see you gentlemen are not enthusiasts of great literature.”
Mandelstam spoke. “Enough.”
“You’re not so terribly funny,” chimed the shorter officer. “Perhaps you would like to be arrested for public drunkenness.” He hooked his thumbs onto his belt.
“Oh but I am funny,” said Bulgakov in a show of astonishment. “I am a satirist. Humor is my tool.” He lowered his voice as if conspiratorial. “It is my weapon.”
The policeman looked alarmed.
“But perhaps you think satire is a kind of fish that swims in the Volga.”
“Enough.” This time it seemed Mandelstam was speaking to the greater world. “I will give you a poem.” He touched Bulgakov’s sleeve.
The poet’s manner had a dousing effect and Bulgakov was given to the uncomfortable sense that this was something Mandelstam had intended; and even if it was not precisely intended, then perhaps it was quite simply an opportunity he would take.
The streets were empty, as if Moscow had availed them some privacy. Mandelstam’s voice rose as though he was speaking to a gathering of hundreds, as though this was his most beloved of works.
We live, deaf to the land beneath us,
Ten steps away no one hears our speeches,
All we hear is the Kremlin mountaineer,
The murderer and peasant-slayer.
His fingers are fat as grubs
And the words, final as lead weights, fall from his lips,
His cockroach whiskers leer
And his boots gleam.
Every killing is a treat
For the broad-chested Ossete.
It was the shorter officer who made a sound, a sharp sigh.
Mandelstam licked his lips, as though he’d become parched. “I think even a Bolshevik can understand that much,” he said.
With that Bulgakov staggered forward and threw his arms around Mandelstam’s shoulders. He pressed the poet’s head into his neck.
“He’s drunk, Comrades. Can’t you see? What a night we’ve had! His words—what words—I could barely understand such slurring. Can’t you see—his wife left him, truly—just today. Left him for a younger man, a bookkeeper. The poor old goat. And his daughter is pregnant.” This he added in a whisper.
“Stand away,” said the taller policeman. The baton was in his hand.
It seemed ridiculous—could this be happening? He clutched Mandelstam harder. “No, no, no—he’s drunk, I tell you. I’ll take him home. I’ll tuck him in. The headache he’ll have tomorrow. I should drive a car over his foot so he can forget the pain in his head.” He looked from one officer to the other. He maneuvered Mandelstam past.
He broke into a jog, half-dragging the poet down the street. He imagined them following. They weren’t far from the DRAMALIT house where Mandelstam shared an apartment with his wife.
He thrust them both through the front door. The street behind was silent. Only then did he release him.
“You should come by tomorrow,” said Mandelstam. “There may be an apartment made newly available. A nice place, I hear.” He appeared to enjoy his joke.
Bulgakov was shaking. “I don’t think they followed us,” he said.
Mandelstam shook his head. He seemed suddenly quite weary. “They’re upstairs.” He glanced at the ceiling. “Can you hear them? Roaches in the walls.”
“Here? They cannot be here already.”
The poet stepped back into the hall under the ceiling light. His scalp shone brightly. He looked upward. “She’s alone with them,” he said. He meant his wife. “They will have a time of it.” He sounded mildly sympathetic.
“We must get you away. We’ll go to my place. It’s not far.”
There was a distant thump, then the thinner crack of breaking wood. Mandelstam closed his eyes. “The sideboard. What we went through to haul that monstrosity up those stairs.”
Bulgakov reached for the poet’s arm. Tentatively, as if in this gesture he might disappear. “What can I do?” he said.
Mandelstam looked at him as though he’d not considered this before and Bulgakov saw in his face his sad realization: there was nothing Bulgakov could do; there was nothing anyone could do.
Mandelstam took hold of the stair rail. This slant of wood was his immediate future. He would follow it momentarily. All of his earlier passion seemed to have fled him. His face appeared to have aged even further and Bulgakov realized he was witnessing despair.
“Perhaps we’ve been fools to write.” Mandelstam seemed to speak to all of that building’s occupants. As if this was his revelation. As if they would have served better as window washers or carpet-layers. There would have been clean windows, straight carpets.
Bulgakov didn’t know how to answer. He watched him ascend. He wanted to call him back.
The single bulb overhead whined. Moments later there was a distant rumble, a deeper disturbance. He put his ear to the plaster. Nothing, then a crash, a door slam—it seemed close. What did it mean that he stood there? What did it mean that he waited, listening as some poor widowed neighbor would listen? What did it mean? The building seemed to murmur a distant chorus. Could he stand there and do nothing? He pressed his hands to the wall. He held it dear. Yes, he could.
Excerpted from Mikhail and Margarita. Copyright © 2017 by Julie Lekstrom Himes. Excerpted with permission by Europa Editions.