The Master and the Margarita

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Master and Margarita
by Mikhail Bulgakov

To call The Master and the Margarita strange is the mother of all understatements. The novel covers everything from talking cats, a visit from Satan, an insane author and a disturbing magic show, but the crucial thing to remember when reading the book is context. The book was written in the midst of Russian civil war and it was banned from being released in Russia for more than 30 years. So it seems much of the book is written in code, because at the time authors could be thrown in prison for the slightest offense and writing a scathing review of the current political regime was suicide.

The novel is split into three basic stories. First we have Woland (aka the Devil) and his strange entourage. They visit Moscow in the 1930s and wreck havoc on individuals living there. Particularly affected by their visit are Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz, an editor, and Ivan Nikolayevich Ponyryov (pen name Bezdomny) a poet. Woland’s group includes a giant gun-wielding cal named Behemoth and an oddball named Azazello. The vodka-swigging cat is both terrifying and mesmerizing.

The second plot is about the title pair, the Master and the Margarita. The Master is an author who is thrown in prison for his writing. Margarita is his lover and is heartbroken when he disappears. She is soon caught-up with Woland and drawn into his bizarre world of balls and madness.

The final plot is a re-telling on Christ’s conviction and crucifixion by Pontius Pilate. Jesus is called Yeshua in this section we find out that this plot is actually the book that was written by the Master.

I would highly recommend the translation I read (first cover shown above.) It was translated by Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O'Connor and not only does it provide an accessible text, there’s also a detailed chapter-by-chapter commentary in the back, which explains a lot of what is being said just under the surface. There are jokes that make sense once you have a bit more knowledge of the author’s life and context of the political situation in Russia at that time.

BOTTOM LINE: Honestly, I thought I would hate this book, but there’s something about it that just sticks with you. My translation was really good and I ended up taking a lot away from it. I still don’t think I “got” everything, but the weird world Bulgakov created is sort of intoxicating. If you’re willing to just accept the absurd and go with it, I think you’ll find it an interesting read.
“My remarks are far from drivel, they are a series of neatly packaged syllogisms which would win the respect and admiration of such connoisseurs of the genre as Sextus Empiricus, Martianus Capella, or, who knows, even Aristotle himself.” – Behemoth the Cat

“What would your good do if evil didn’t exist, and what would the earth look like if all the shadows disappeared?”

"I consider it my duty to warn you that a cat is an ancient and inviolable creature." -Behemoth


AO said...

i love this strange book and have read it more than a couple of times already.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I've had this one on my TBR shelf forever. It seems a bit intimidation, but I need to try it. Thanks for sharing with us.

Jeanne said...

This is one of the few books I read solely because of blogging, and I was very glad I did!

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Ao Bibliophile - I could see getting quite a bit more from it with a second read. There's just so much to take in!

Diane - This is one of the books I've always listed as a top three intimidating book for me. I don't know why, but I was so scared of it!

Jeanne - I had this one on my TBR shelf for years before I started blogging. I'm so glad I finally got to it!

Sandy Nawrot said...

I've always wanted to read this one, primarily because Matt from A Guy's Moleskin Notebook claims it is his favorite book of all time. And he is definitely the smart guy on the block and I trust his opinion. I figured I may not be able to understand all of it, but I do have it loaded on my Kindle so I'm going to have to see about the translation.

Jenners said...

I would need Cliff Notes I think.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Sandy - I've heard quite a few people claim this as their favorite book. I was so curious about it!

Jenners - That's why I loved the translation I found. There were so many helpful notes in the back that helped me understand what was happening.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your great review!
Mine repeats things posted it by your readers: I read it because of Matt, this translation is most helpful with its notes, and I need to read it a 2nd time to really appreciate.
it's the type of book you recognize is a masterpiece, and that you need a few readings to really fully appreciate:

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

wordsandpeace - Wonderful review, thanks for sharing. I agree, it's one that I think I will appreciate even more the next time I read it.