‘The Master & Margarita’ by Mikhail Bulgakov

Master-and-margarita

Fiction – paperback; Alma Classics; 432 pages; 2012. Translated from the Russian by Hugh Aplin.

When it comes to Russian literature, I’m woefully under-read. Indeed, I’ve only ever reviewed one great on this blog — Ivan Turgenev’s First Love — and that’s really a short story, not a novel. So when my book group chose Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita — billed as one of the masterpieces of 20th century literature — to read earlier this year I was rather excited by the prospect. But the excitement, I’m sad to say, soon gave way to other, less favourable, emotions…

Two stories in one book

The Master and Margarita is a satirical fantasy composed of two intertwined narrative threads. In the first, the devil, disguised as a shape-shifting stage magician called Woland, visits Soviet Moscow and wreaks havoc on the cultural elite, punishing sinners and throwing people into prison. In the second, the story of Pontius Pilate in the days immediately before and after Jesus Christ’s crucifixion, are described in the form of a book being written by a struggling Moscow writer.

These twin storylines are filled with a cast of strange and extraordinary characters, including “the master”, who is an unnamed writer befriended by Woland, and the master’s adulterous lover, Margarita.

The book is mostly composed of truly absurd scenes — including a black cat that walks on two legs and is capable of talking — prompting me to think, rather flippantly and with tongue planted firmly in my cheek, that Bulgakov wrote it when he was off his face on vodka. And yet, despite my aversion to magic realism, of which there is quite a bit in this hefty 400-plus page novel, I quite enjoyed some of the more fantastical elements, including the section in which Margarita transforms into a witch at Satan’s Ball and has an amazing time getting people to respect her.

But I struggled with the Pontius Pilate “novel”, which seemed to interrupt the flow of the (more interesting and mischievous) devil’s narrative.

A challenging read

I read this book on and off over the course of the month (in between other reads) and found it was best to tackle it in large chunks — at least an hour at a time — instead of the usual 20-minute tube journey. Overall, I found it really hard work, certainly the first half which was “bitty” (and that second chapter, which switches from “modern” Moscow to ancient Jerusalem, really disoriented me), but I found the second half  much more enjoyable and easier to read.

That said, a lot of the biblical stuff went over my head: it’s a very ecclesiastical novel and I wasn’t raised in that tradition. I wonder if I might have identified with it more/made links if I knew the Bible much better?

All in all, it’s a novel full of surprising moments (I will never look at a black cat the same way again) and one that took me right out of my comfort zone into a crazy, inventive world the likes of which I’ve never experienced before.

Interestingly, The Master and Margarita was not published during Bulgakov’s lifetime — it was first published in 1966, almost 30 years after his death — because it satirised Soviet life and highlighted the ways in which Christianity was attacked during the communist period, or as 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die points out, it “blasted open ‘official truths’ with the force of a carnival out of control”.  You can read more about the author on his wikipedia page.

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14 thoughts on “‘The Master & Margarita’ by Mikhail Bulgakov

  1. I think the point about the two different times/locations is to draw parallels – which is not always obvious on a first reading. The persecution of The Master (based on Bulgakov’s own sufferings at the hands of Soviet bureaucrats) are reflected in the historical sufferings of the Jesus figure. The two narratives eventually dovetail a little. There’s a lot of symbolism, and it has to be borne in mind that Bulgakov wrote the book, burned it and then had to re-write it under difficult circumstances (illness, lack of money, inability to earn a living, persection by the authorities). Now I want to re-read it…. 🙂

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    • I hadn’t drawn the parallels between the two storylines, but that all makes complete sense now you’ve mentioned it. It is a rather complicated novel, and one I’m sure improves upon re-reading, and I’m absolutely positive I only picked up on a teeny-tiny fraction of the symbolism. I don’t know much about Russian history (or religion), so most of it went over my head. Not sure I want to tackle it again, though 😉

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  2. This is one of ‘those’ books – you know, the ones you feel you should have read. I’m grateful to you for your review because now I no longer feel I have to – it really doesn’t sound my thing. Thanks for suffering on my behalf!

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  3. I keep meaning to re-read this one as I loved it when I first read it. I was never sure of the significance of the connection between the two stories; I should probably read up on that before starting again. I love those crazy Russian books though – Krzhizhanovsky is probably weirder still.

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  4. I found this a difficult read as well – I listened to it as an audiobook, which helped, because the narrator changed pace and tone to denote different time periods, but it definitely still left me a bit confused at times!

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  5. Sounds challenging indeed and yet you still manage to make it somewhat enticing. Timing is important for books like these and reading with others is a good thing.

    It reminds me of when I finally got around to reading Eugene Onegin last year, I joined in a readalong which was such a good idea and was stunned by how much I enjoyed the book, all that feeling of intimidation was so inappropriate and unwarranted, it was a riot of a book!

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    • It’s challenging but it’s entertaining (in places) and I’m pleased to have read it. Unfortunately, I missed the discussion with my book group, but I take it from reports afterwards that most people enjoyed the novel.

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  6. I had this on my classics club list until a few months ago when I found a review which made me have second thoughts this was a book for me. Your review just confirmed I made the right decision.

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  7. Great post, Kim. I’ve had this book on my shelves for about four of five years so I really ought to give it a try. One for those long winter nights…

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    • I suspect you might rather like this, Jacqui. And yes, it’d be perfect for a winter read, it’s the kind you need to devote quite a bit of time to.

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