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[70] The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov (Third Review)

master.jpgThis fifth reading of my #1 pick in literature breathes new meaning.

Set in the 1930s, the novel’s vision of Soviet lifeis so painfully accurate that, for fear of political purging, it could not be published during Bulgakov’s lifetime. The truths portrayed in The Master and Margarita are inveterate in society that key phrases from the book has become common Russian speech. Two closely interwoven narratives (although not very obvious at the beginning), one concerning Moscow and the other Pontius Pilate in Jesus’ times, make up this cinematic novel, which audaciously deviates from the classic themes (family, war, judgment of mankind, exile, politics) and respects no unities of geography or time. This reading, along with thoughts evoked from the past readings, dawn in me Bulgakov’s intentions and beliefs behind writing this novel that is so rich in themes and implications. The wotk itself in unique in a sense that it doesn’t belong to a particular genre–this uncertainty of its genre, along with the mystery, ambiguity, irony and humor–render readers clueless of what to expect from the book, which makes the reading all the more intriguing.

The novel reveals Bulgakov to be a believer in the need for religious feeling, but not necessarily an admirer or diciple of organized religion itself. This is obvious from the fact that, while he showers parodistic echoes from the gospels throughout the Moscow narrative, he scrupulously strips away everything that hints of being messianic from the Pilate chapters, leaving a pitiful figure of Jesus. In understanding the historical factor by incorporating apocryphal material, through the Master’s narrative in his censored novel, Bulgakov took what normally perceived as religious material and imbued in it a social context. The novel to which the Master devoted his life writing is not about Jesus and his divinity, but about the unseen forces of politics and morality which led to the death of a historically plausible figure. This is where we finally establish the connection between Bulgakov and his character the Master, who is, his sit-in.

I don’t think Bulgakov had any desire to subvert humanism, something of which readers accuse him. In fact, to the contrary, he longs to re-establish it in a country where it was held in contempt. Introduction of theology at the beginning not only sneers at the Soviet atheism but also contrives to put humanism back in place. The themes immediately touch on in Chapter 1, as Woland, the devil, arrives in Moscow, a city that refuses to believe in either God or Satan and is yet so oblivious to the disaster to come. Berlioz is quintessential of the atheist society, whose world is rational, and feels safe and in control. Educated and intelligent, even with a touch of arrogance and obnoxiousness, he lives under the rigidly rationalist and materialist nature of the philosophical-political system that makes him unprepared to deal with even Ivan the poet’s degree of imagination of Jesus’ existence, let alone all the irrational and unconscious, unreal things the Soviet ideology denied. It is no doubt the talk of fate, existence of evil completely inundates the scholar in the person of Woland. The dramatic opening act, in addition to injecting a heavy dose of suspense, also foretells the city’s crumbling at the escapes of devil’s retinue.

While the mischievous retinue wreak havoc in the city, they also bring peace and happiness to an ill-fated, unhappy couple, the Master and his lover Margarita. The Master, who was interested in no more than the political and psychological aspect of Christ and Pilate, was pilloried for writing forbidden literature. Margarita, who is as enthralled by his writing as she is in love with the doomed author, would sell her soul to the devil if she could save the Master from his misery and mental illness. Indeed the hope that she would regain happiness makes her invincible and fearless, even when she is placed at the mercy of the devil. Throughout the book Woland gives the same test to those he encounters–that is, one must show compassion even to the worst humanity has to offer–from the hell of a dance at Griboyedov, to the hell of the criminals at Satan’s ball, to Pilate’s suffering in the relentless sun. Not only does she pass the test, she puts complete trust in Woland that in her readiness to take risk at any expense, she is the central and most active figure of the book.

As the book unfolds with further disturbance in Moscow, the characters (and most likely sharper reader)might question the purpose of telling the story of Pilate. How would the omission of it make a difference in the fate of the Master and Margarita? Clues to answer this question persist and stipple the narrative, in the form of myrial biblical motifs, and are incomprehensible until the end of the novel. While Bulgakov is not to debate about God and Satan, good and evil, but he uses parodistic echoes and facts from bible to send out his message. The point, out of all the meticulous planning and orchestration is that Woland and Jesus bring the same message, one that is only comprehensible by stripping away the conventional notion of good and evil. Whether it is taught by example or by provocation, the message is one and the same: Compassion is preferable to revenge. The parallel narratives of Pilate-Levi-Jesus and Margarita-Master-Aloisy are meant to enighten reader that the division of humanity into good and evil is no longer useful and the transcendence of the need for retribution is the goal.

Further reading:
[12] The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov
The Master and Margarita, Revisited

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33 Responses

  1. My parents gave me a copy for Christmas so sometime this year I will read it. and just for curiosity’s sake, when you re-read a translated novel, do you read the same edition, or do you try a different translation to see if anything’s changed?

  2. Excellent review. I’m intrigued.

  3. I’m not a major fan of Russian literature but now *you* make me want to read this one. On the same note as Greg, which translation do you recommend?

    Great review!!!!

  4. This looks like an important book. The portion of your review which resonates the most with me is the last sentence. Perhaps spirituality is more important than specific religious doctrine as a path to an enlightened and meaningful passage through life. Certainly, the need for and excuses for seeking retribution against the “other” constitutes the most tragic field of human error. This is one of those works which, it seems, must take on scope and depth as one passes through life. It’s a work to revisit over the years as one matures. Thak you fall calling my attention to it.

    Greg

  5. This is an important work owing to its invincible transcendence of the usual “black and white”, good vs. bad morality. That you come to a point a life in which you have no choice nor you can retrieve, what’s the use of good and evil? It’s your own soul that matters.

  6. [...] responsibility? Is it ever possible to be free from the clutch of religion? Some, like Margarita in The Master and Margarita, would rather negotiate with the devil and not to be brought to justice. Before anyone knows the [...]

  7. Incredibly well-written. I have to read this for a class but I have yet to understand the meaning of the Pilate story. I appreciate the devil and after all he does a favor for the master and margarita.

  8. May I be so bald to introduce to you a new website, solely devoted to Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel “The Master and Margarita”. You can find it on

    http://www.masterandmargarita.eu

  9. [...] The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. Division between good and evil is outmoded. [...]

  10. [...] Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy Re-read a different translation. It will be fun to read along with you The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov I read it several times. A novel with staying power Heart of a Dog, Mikhail [...]

  11. [...] I would love to have lunch with would be… Mikhail Bulgakov. I wish to tell him how much I enjoy The Master and Margarita, which is a fantasy satirical novel published by his wife twenty-six years after his death, in [...]

  12. Fascinating. I now see why you view Master and Margarita as such a significant work. I must say, my initial experience with the novel was rather like finding myself astride a Calder Mobile with all the elements swirling wildly about. It was a struggle for me to derive any sense of the thread of the various narratives and to see where the novel might be leading. Now, having completed one read-through, I can stand back and view it as a whole, and it’s all making much more sense to me. I had quite a bit of help from your blog and other sources, but it took me some time to ascertain just why commentators were reading various concepts into the work–especially the principal of viewing good and evil within a less polarized context. The key for me was finally realizing that Bulgakov presents Wolund not as the devil as traditionally viewed — a malefic entity determined to inject evil into the world in order to tempt individual souls to their doom — but as a teacher who accomplishes his lessons through provocation, just as Jeshua accomplishes his teaching through example. Once I realized that the grand ball is a test for Margarita and not some awe-inspiring celebration of evil and mischief, I began to see the bases for the various discussions as to the author’s intent. I’m now in the midst of my second read-through, and I find the Burgin/O’Connor translation to be more vigorous and much tighter in style than the Pevear/Volokhonsky, which in places seemed to me rather soggy, vague, and downright confusing. Stylistically, I’d say the Burgin/O’Connor is more focused and direct, with much more striking word choices in it’s delineation of imagery and action; in general I’ve found it a much tastier read, though a general familiarity with the whole is probably also significant. Ellendea Proffer’s annotations and Afterward have been very helpful, particularly with my struggle to understand the nature of Wolund.

  13. [...] 1. Le Bal, Irène Némirovsky 2. The Kreutzer Sonata, Leo Tolstoy 3. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy 4. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov 5. Heart of a Dog, Mikhail Bulgakov 6. The Funeral Party, Ludmila Ulitskaya 7. [...]

  14. [...] 1. Le Bal, Irène Némirovsky 2. The Kreutzer Sonata, Leo Tolstoy 3. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy 4. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov 5. Heart of a Dog, Mikhail Bulgakov 6. The Funeral Party, Ludmila Ulitskaya 7. [...]

  15. Dear Matt,

    I was about to buy a copy but I found versions from different translators. Would you please suggest which translated version is your favourite?

    Thanks.

  16. [...] 1. Le Bal, Irène Némirovsky 2. The Kreutzer Sonata, Leo Tolstoy 3. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy 4. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov 5. Heart of a Dog, Mikhail Bulgakov 6. The Funeral Party, Ludmila Ulitskaya 7. [...]

  17. [...] 1. Le Bal, Irène Némirovsky 2. The Kreutzer Sonata, Leo Tolstoy 3. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy 4. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov 5. Heart of a Dog, Mikhail Bulgakov 6. The Funeral Party, Ludmila Ulitskaya 7. [...]

  18. [...] 1. Le Bal, Irène Némirovsky 2. The Kreutzer Sonata, Leo Tolstoy 3. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy 4. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov 5. Heart of a Dog, Mikhail Bulgakov 6. The Funeral Party, Ludmila Ulitskaya 7. [...]

  19. [...] 1. Le Bal, Irène Némirovsky 2. The Kreutzer Sonata, Leo Tolstoy 3. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy 4. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov 5. Heart of a Dog, Mikhail Bulgakov 6. The Funeral Party, Ludmila Ulitskaya 7. [...]

  20. [...] 1. Le Bal, Irène Némirovsky 2. The Kreutzer Sonata, Leo Tolstoy 3. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy 4. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov 5. Heart of a Dog, Mikhail Bulgakov 6. The Funeral Party, Ludmila Ulitskaya 7. [...]

  21. [...] 1. Le Bal, Irène Némirovsky 2. The Kreutzer Sonata, Leo Tolstoy 3. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy 4. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov 5. Heart of a Dog, Mikhail Bulgakov 6. The Funeral Party, Ludmila Ulitskaya 7. [...]

  22. This is on my top five list of books. The part where he meets Margarita, walking down the other side of the street is some of the best writing ever….

  23. [...] 1. Le Bal, Irène Némirovsky 2. The Kreutzer Sonata, Leo Tolstoy 3. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy 4. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov 5. Heart of a Dog, Mikhail Bulgakov 6. The Funeral Party, Ludmila Ulitskaya 7. [...]

  24. [...] 1. Le Bal, Irène Némirovsky 2. The Kreutzer Sonata, Leo Tolstoy 3. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy 4. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov 5. Heart of a Dog, Mikhail Bulgakov 6. The Funeral Party, Ludmila Ulitskaya 7. [...]

  25. [...] 1. Le Bal, Irène Némirovsky 2. The Kreutzer Sonata, Leo Tolstoy 3. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy 4. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov 5. Heart of a Dog, Mikhail Bulgakov 6. The Funeral Party, Ludmila Ulitskaya 7. [...]

  26. [...] All-Time Favorites 1. Shadow without a Name, Ignacio Padilla 2. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov 3. A Separate Peace, John Knowles 4. The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky 5. [...]

  27. [...] All-Time Favorites 1. Shadow without a Name, Ignacio Padilla 2. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov 3. A Separate Peace, John Knowles 4. The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky 5. [...]

  28. [...] All-Time Favorites 1. Shadow without a Name, Ignacio Padilla 2. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov 3. A Separate Peace, John Knowles 4. The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky 5. [...]

  29. [...] All-Time Favorites 1. Shadow without a Name, Ignacio Padilla 2. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov 3. A Separate Peace, John Knowles 4. The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky 5. [...]

  30. [...] All-Time Favorites 1. Shadow without a Name, Ignacio Padilla 2. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov 3. A Separate Peace, John Knowles 4. The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky 5. [...]

  31. [...] All-Time Favorites 1. Shadow without a Name, Ignacio Padilla 2. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov 3. A Separate Peace, John Knowles 4. The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky 5. [...]

  32. [...] All-Time Favorites 1. Shadow without a Name, Ignacio Padilla 2. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov 3. A Separate Peace, John Knowles 4. The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky 5. [...]

  33. [...] All-Time Favorites 1. Shadow without a Name, Ignacio Padilla 2. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov 3. A Separate Peace, John Knowles 4. The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky 5. [...]

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