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 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 — 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, is 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 my 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 novel 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 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 because it satirised Soviet life and highlighted the ways in which Christianity was attacked during the Communist period. You can read more about the author on his Wikipedia page.
‘The Master and Margarita’ by Mikhail Bulgakov, first published in 1966 — almost 30 years after the author’s death — is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it claims the book, which “blasted open ‘official truths’ with the force of a carnival out of control”, would have resulted in Bulgakov being “disappeared” if it had been discovered during his lifetime.