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[323] The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov

5th Review/Translated by Diane Burgin and Katherine O’Connor

” All sorts of stories can be told! Not all of them have to be believed. ” [8:77]

Set in the iron curtain of a society that is Soviet Union in 1930s, The Master and Margarita, banned in Bulgakov’s lifetime, is his response to this fear-struck, panic-stricken era. Despite the atmosphere of terror that deepened all through the years he was working on the novel, the book takes on a surprisingly light tone, one of multifaceted humor, without compromising its philosophical depth. It is Bulgakov’s embittered and sarcastic response (and indictment) to his era’s denial of imagination and its wish to strip the world of divine qualities.

[Satan said] Excuse my persistence, but did I understand you to say that you don’t believe in God either? I swear I won’t tell anyone. [1:7]

…all of those proofs are worthless, and mankind has long since consigned them to oblivion. Surely you would agree that reason dictates that there can be no proof of God’s existence. [1:8]

Not God, but His anti-being quickly springs to defense, in the disguise of a magician. One hot spring, devil arrives in Moscow, accompanied by a retinue that includes a beautiful naked witch and a talking black cat with a fondness for chess and vodka. That the city is so rooted in its atheist conviction renders it an easy target of the visitors’ hypnotic trickery and blatant criminality. The source of all mysteriously muddled events that culminate in the disappearance of the entire staff of Variety Theatre, where Woland enthralls an audience of couple thousands with black magic, is the accident at Patriarch’s Ponds. It is where Berlioz, a prominent editor and chairman of literary association, throws himself under a street-car in a hypnotic trance. His companion and the only witness, Ivan the poet, runs berserk after the tragedy and ends up at the mental clinic, where he meets the Master, a writer pilloried for daring to write a novel about Christ and Pontius Pilate. The Master’s writings contribute to the narrative on the events leading to Christ’s crucifixion in the novel. Satan of course bridges the gap of time as well as the two intertwined narratives in the book because he was right there when Pilate, fearing to ruin his career, sent the innocent man to death.

But would you kindly ponder this question: What would your good do if evil didn’t exist, and what would the earth look like if all the shadows disappeared? After all, shadows are cast by things and people. [29:305]

The one who cares more about the Master’s fate than her own is Margarita, who is literally willing to go to hell for him. To Woland and his power she turns for salvation. Unfazed by memories of her time at Satan’s ball, Margarita’s soul is made perfect and her love for the Master fully sealed. Her deeds (as opposed to that of Levi and Pilate toward Christ’s death) leads to the philosophical enlightenment in which the division of humanity into good and evil is no longer useful. Highly allegorical, with humorous, surreal, and religious nuances galore,  The Master and Margarita is a product of reconciliation of the absolute opposites: how would anyone ever conceive a world in which God and Satan work toward the same end, and that good is not necessarily better than evil? This is only possible through Bulgakov’s enduring experiences during the remarkable era that powerfully affected his perspectives on politics and life.

372 pp. Vintage Trade paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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27 Responses

  1. Beautiful review, this book is at the top of my TBR list 🙂

  2. I have an Ebook of this waiting in my hard drive. WIll be reading this one ASAP. 🙂

  3. I just happen to be re-reading this for the 4th time right now (or is it the 5th?) One of the richest and most remarkable books I have ever read. And you certainly have been a teacher to me in understanding this complex and thoroughly engaging book. Thank you Matthew for introducing me to this work.

    • Every re-read affords new information and allusions that I was not aware previously. This book is now ingrained in the life of Russians. I also realize that cross-genre is nothing new—at least not a product of this century. Bulgakov had done it in The Master and Margarita.

  4. I haven’t read this translation yet (I have the Mirra Ginsburg and the Michael Glenny), I’m past due another reading, so I should try this one!

  5. Which translation is your favorite? I know you did a post about it, but I can’t seem to find it…

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  17. […] Margarita from The Master and Margarita: Why do you believe Satan is the answer to her future and that of the Master? What makes you so […]

  18. […] The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. I dare say this is one of the most important work of literature in the 20th century. The possibilities and meaning of this book don’t exhaust, at least they haven’t even after 6 reads. Thebook is a product of reconciliation of the absolute opposites: how would anyone ever conceive a world in which God and Satan work toward the same end, and that good is not necessarily better than evil? […]

  19. […] nor from the publisher themselves, satisfies me, so I will share with you Matt’s words (@ A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook). Matt, who keeps raving about this book, has read numerous translations of it, and has written 5 […]

  20. […] (2012)#57 review: Th… on [323] The Master and Margarita… […]

  21. […] THE MASTER AND MARGARITA by Mikhail Bulgakov. What good is good without evil? This novel gives you the best answer in the backdrop of Stalin Soviet Union. Despite the atmosphere of terror that deepened all through the years he was working on the novel, the book takes on a surprisingly light tone, one of multifaceted humor, without compromising its philosophical depth. It is Bulgakov’s embittered and sarcastic response (and indictment) to his era’s denial of imagination and its wish to strip the world of divine qualities. […]

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