22 August 2012

The Master and Margarita

In part three of the Manchester Book Club catch up reviews I tackle Mikhail Bulgakov's masterpiece; The Master and Margarita, thoughtfully selected by Alex in Leeds for June/July's 2012 reading. She certainly didn't let the group down. After spending an entire month carefully devouring and endeavoring to understand each and every 'scene' of this classic, I finally (just about!) feel ready to commit my thoughts to the blogosphere....

The premise for Bulgakov's novel lies around two main story lines that very cleverly intertwine. The first tells the tale of Woland; otherwise known as Satan, who is paying a much belated visit to a deeply atheistic Moscow and, along with a madcap band of freakish sidekicks, is reeking complete havoc on the lives of its largely unattractive inhabitants. The second takes us all the way back to the Jerusalem of Pontius Pilate and plays out the brief period leading up to the crucifiction of Yeshua Ha-Nostri - Jesus of Nazareth and the inner turmoil Pilate battles with as a result of this pivotal event. Expertly weaved in with these two narratives, though much more involved with Woland and his extraordinary allure, comes the love story of the Master and his Margarita, a relationship between two individuals stifled by circumstance; Margarita by a stale marriage and the Master by the rejection of what has become his life's work - a narrative of Pontius Pilate's life.

Bulgakov's writing of this seminal book was, in the style Woland & Co, fraught with trouble. Like The Master of his imagination, the author became deeply troubled and stifled by the Soviet Union and its strict control over any creative output. Famously burning his first manuscript, it took decades of draft upon redraft for an eventually heavily edited manuscript to make it into the literary underworld. This early censorship, along with the pure surrealism and complex political satire, makes the various translations out there all the more significant, lending particular weight to Alex's suggestion that we read the version above, translated by Diane Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O'Connor. Although this is by no means the 'prettiest' edition available, my language student-geekiness came to the fore whilst comparing the first paragraph of this with Daddy Relish's Penguin edition. The more natural style and clarity of the Picador copy is obvious and helps the reader make sense of what is, essentially, a difficult read.

The curtain opens (as this novel seems very much at times to be laid out in theater 'scenes' or circus performances rather than your bog-standard chapter) onto academic Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz and poet Ivan Nikolayevich Ponyryov laying out a spiritual discussion for themselves. Is God real? Is man in control of his own destiny or are we all at the mercy of fate? Enter Woland, disguised as a 'foreign gentleman' to argue against their atheistic viewpoints and, along with our first portion of Pontius Pilate's story, begin a bewildering, fast-paced tale, dripping with symbolism and themes that are frankly too hot to handle. Truth, freedom, love, history, faith, good and evil all get a look in here, and that's just in the first two pages....

Flitting between Moscow and Jerusalem, I accepted after the first few chapters that this was a book that, although I can recognise its beauty now, will certainly need a good re-read in 20 years' time; when portions of text I could only enjoy for the simplest of satires/political points and the sheer theatricality can be returned to with a bit of life experience, in a much more considered, well-informed way. For now, Bulgakov's unflattering, often slapstick portraits of the bureaucrats and self-important elite of the day proved to be both hilarious and timeless. Burlesque, fantastical scenes such as Satan's ball and Margarita's escape into the night on an enchanted broomstick (don't ask!) whisked me away from reality completely, perhaps reflecting the escapist ideals of the the author himself:

'Margarita bent the bristle of the broom downward...The earth was moving toward her, and Margarita was already bathed in the scent of the greening forests. She was flying over the very mists of a dewy meadow, then over a pond. A chorus of frogs sang beneath Margarita, and from somewhere in the distance came the inexplicably heart-rending wail of a train....After overtaking it, Margarita passed over another watery mirror, in which a second moon floated by beneath her feet.  Descending even lower, she flew along with her feet nearly grazing the tops of enormous pines.' 
p. 207

The Relish family's very own Behemoth
With a sophistication rarely found in the novels we read day in day out, The Master and Margarita can clearly be appreciated on various different levels and, this being my very first read and with a limited understanding of Russian politics, history and cultural peculiarities, I found myself focusing quite happily on character and colour alone. Gone were any concerns of who was who (Russian names all appearing to be very long, complicated and similar) along with any concerns for grasping the deepest meaning from the text. Hurrah.

Bulgakov has undoubtedly created a masterpiece, a word I hesitate to use for fear of cliché, though there simply is no other that can be used. Despite certain concepts/jokes/cultural nuances potentially becoming lost in translation this book clearly contains some of the most fundamental assertions about human existence ever to be seen in literary fiction and it has, as a result, been a review that I have approached both with trepidation and, no doubt, much inadequacy. A re-read is already on the cards for 2032.  I never re-read books.   


  1. I adore this book. It is one of my all-time favourites even though, like you, I will definitely need to re-read it at some point in the future. I must make a note of the translation you recommend as I never realised it could make such a difference!


    1. Oh absolutely. Two translations can sometimes be like completely different books depending on how the translator interprets things....especially the bizarre world of Bulgakov I reckon!! :-) It's an amazing book.

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