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The Master and Margarita Revisited

Stalinist Russia. Two men, a poet and an editor, walk through Moscow’s Patriarch’s Pond in the heat of the day. As the editor lectures his friend on Jesus Christ’s non-existence, a foreigner, impeccably dressed, appears, introducing himself as Professor Wolan, and tells them what he insists is the true story of the meeting of Christ and Pontius Pilate. Shortly after the encounter, within minutes, the editor is dead, by morning, the poet is mad and locked in an asylum.

Professor Woland is the Evil, in gentlemanly disguise. Within the framework of the book he is “a stranger”, “a visitor”, somebody whose origin is unknown. Then, after he mysterious acquires a gig at the Variety Theater, he is “a visiting celebrity”,”a famous foreign artiste”, “a magician.” He is more a social devil who lives the lifestyle of a wealthy gentleman than Evil. While he provides pensive commentary, his entourage of underlings cut out most of the mischief that wreaks havoc in Moscow.

The book is obviously a satire of the time it was written—and indeed it was duly banned by Stalin. In a city full of hypocritical bureaucratic mortals, Woland, ironically, is the honest one who sees self-righteous citizens and officials punished for their hypocrisy. Margarita, who is in love with the literary Master, is Woland’s only friend who benefits from this relationship–to be granted life (listen to this, Evil grants life).

The entity of Woland really tests our idea of what evil is, until one comes to see his place in a hierarchy that contains good. “What would your good do if evil didn’t exist?” he asks, “and what would the earth look like if all the shadows disappeared?” Woland may be the catalyst for the chaos and death that open the novel, but he is also the enforcer for the final act of justice.

“Crime and Punishment”

“To go wrong in one’s own way is better than to go right in someone else’s.”

According to Goodreads, Fyodor Dostoyevsky came up with the idea for his 1866 novel Crime and Punishment after he gambled away most of his fortune. He wrote the book hoping that, at the very least, the sale of it could pay off his debts.

The crime is committed at the very beginning and the rest of the book depicts the perpetrator’s punishment, more mental, meted by his conscience, than physical. The book gripped me from the beginning when I first read it in high school. Even the central story of Raskolnikov and his struggle with fate keeps verging on comedy. Lots of punchy humor, and physical comedy, even in dark moments, percolate this novel.

The Master and Margarita: Translations

Taking a break from the dense The Sound and the Fury, I took a walk around the neighborhood. The window of the picture frame shop has this poster of Behemoth the Cat matted in a frame. The print is exactly the same as my t-shirt. It was a prop but the owner let me have it for $20. Now I just have to find the original Signet edition of The Master and Margarita with this cover.

Although I did not find exactly what I wished for, but luck is definitely on my side today. A short walk from the frame shop is Aardvark Books, where the residence orange tabby, Owen, who once out of either boredom or insecurity assaulted me. Today he was oblivious of the activities in the store, for he slept right at the window, soaking up the winter sun. Despite his skittishness, Owen is a cutie. I have to give him credit that some people go into Aardvark because of him.


Among the few copies of The Master and Margarita—Mirra Ginsburg (1967), Burgin & O’Connor (1995), and Pevear & Volokhonsky (1997), I found a copy of Hugh Aplin (2008). This new translation, published by Oneworld Classics, is based on the recently restored, unexpurgated edition, which benefits from over three decades of Bulgakov scholarship. My next reading of the novel would be Aplin translation. The new copy is available online for £8.99 but I bought it at ta bargain of $9. So the search for the Signet edition, translated by Michael Glenny, goes on; but up to this point, I still think Burgin & O’Connor is better, and more carefully done. The standard by which I compare different translations is a passage, a rather awkward one, the demons Azazello, Hella, and Behemoth the Cat, have just escorted the eponymous couple downstairs and are loading them into a car chauffeured by a magical rook (a crow?).

Having returned Woland’s gift to Margarita, Azazello said goodbye to her and asked if she was comfortably seated, Hella exchanged smacking kisses with Margarita, the cat kissed her hand, everyone waved to the master, who collapsed lifelessly and motionlessly in the corner of the seat, waved to the rook, and at once melted into air, considering it unnecessary to take the trouble of climbing the stairs. (Pevear & Volokhonsky translation)

This particular passage made a huge impression in me during the first read because I had to read this paragraph four or five times before I figured out that it was not the master who “waved to the rook, and at once melted into air,”, but rather “everyone” in their company: Azazello, Hella, and Behemoth. From the context and logic, it’s the demons, and not the master, who have demonstrated magical powers. The translators shall have no excuse to confuse the readers, when the muddle can be avoided through taking a little more care with pronouns. Burgin & O’Connor resolve the pronoun issue but the paragraph still feels cluttered:

After returning Woland’s gift to Margarita, Azazello said good-bye to her, asked if she was comfortably seated, Hella enthusiastically smothered Margarita with kisses, the cat kissed her hand, the group waved to the Master, who, lifeless and inert, had sunk into the corner of his seat, then they waved to the rook and immediately melted into thin air, not considering it worth the trouble to climb back up the stairs. (Burgin & O’Connor translation)

As you can see, both Pevear & Volokhonsky and Burgin & O’Connor contrive to express a complicated series of actions in one sprawling but faithful sentence. While translator should try not to break down Bulgakov’s long sentences to preserve his original style, it’s more important not to sacrifice clarity. Now Alpin offers:

Having returned Woland’s present to Margarita, Azazello said goodbye to her, enquiring if she was comfortably seated; Hella gave her a smacking kiss and the cat pressed itself affectionately to her hand. With a wave to the master as he lowered himself awkwardly into his seat and a wave to the crow, the party vanished into thin air, without bothering to return indoors and walk up the staircase. The crow switched on the headlights and drove out of the courtyard past the man asleep at the entrance.

Alpin also resolves the pronoun issue, but the sentence is still somewhat cluttered. I do have expectation for this new translation, especially it’s coming out of the U. For new readers my advice is to shy away from Pevear & Volokhonsky and read Burgin & O’Connor.

Behemoth the Cat

Lo and behold, my new Behemoth t-shirt, a belated birthday present! I have never been a cat person. Cats seem distant and outlandishly independent. My only liaison with one is when I stopped by my friend’s house to feed a grey tabby while she was out-of-town. Kiyata would sit on my lap after she ate. Then there was capricious Owen, the residence orange tabby at a local indie where he scratched me for no reason. But one of the most memorable characters in literature is a cat named Behemoth in The Master and Margarita. The gun-happy, fast-talking cat is seen drinking vodka and riding the trolley in the novel. He is a member of the retinue of magician Professor Wolen who pays Moscow a visit and wrecks a havoc. Behemoth is a giant cat, extremely evil and font of firearms, who finds demonic pleasure in challenging people and putting everything in a blaze with a primus stove. Throughout the novel, he executes the most violent punishments, cuts off heads and is unbeatable with a browning in his hands. And when he gets accidentally hit by a bullet, he just needs a sip of gasoline to regain his strength. The chapter detailing the final adventure of this cat reads: “The stout cat-person tucked his primus under his arm, took the uppermost tangerine off the pyramid, ate it whole, skin and all, and took another.”

According to this this site, the name Behemoth has a biblical origin. In Job 40:10-19 is a description of a huge monster, in Hebrew called Behemoth. Bible translators didn’t know which way to go with this word for a long time because they didn’t know any beast with “a tail like a cedar and an enormous power in his abdominal muscles and loins”. Some chose for an elephant, others for an hippopotamus but they all knew that neither of these could be accurate. That’s why English translators leave the word Behemoth as it is. бегемот (begemot) is also Russian for hippopotamus. And the pretty Anna Richardovna, the secretary of Prosha Prochor Petrovoch, described Behemoth as “a tomcat, black, a colossus as an hippopotamus”. In circles of devil experts Behemoth is the devil of the desires of the stomach. It could explain why he’s so interested in the food at the currency store Torgsin. During my trip to Moscow in 2006, in the Bulgakov house at Bolshaya Sadovaya lazed this cat Stepan. The museum employees pretended not to know where he came from. I didn’t think it was a coincidence. A toast to Stepan and Behemoth!

30/30 Day Book Meme: The One Book

Day 30: Favorite book of all time

Longtime readers and followers of this blog would know right away that it is The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. I might have challenge my readers’ patience with an overload of the book’s publicity campaign. 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.

I own all the current/in-print editions in English, which are translated by various scholars. I have read the novel six times, with the seventh reading due in early next year. I have always recommended this book to friends and book bloggers with no reservation. It’s not a difficult book but it does require careful effort and patience. It contemplates on the ever-ending philosophical question about the duality of good vs. evil. Highly allegorical, with humorous, surreal, and religious nuances galore, the book 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. I cannot say it’s the all-time favorite of every person to whom I have recommended, but it’s a consensus that people felt they should have read it sooner.

22/30 Day Book Meme: Treasure

Day 22: Favorite book I own

I own all my favorites. Without hesitation my favorite book in the collection is a beautiful, hardbound, illustrated copy of The Master and Margarita published by The Folio Society. As you might have recognized, it is my all-time favorite novel. It is absorbing, brilliant slapstick, and looks deep into the heart of fantasy and longing. The beautiful illustrations by Illustrated by Peter Suart and buckram bound with a pique touch certainly do this classic justice. The translation of this edition is by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, a minor foible. It was gifted to me by a very special friend with whom I share common reading interests. Bulgakov wrote this 20th century classic in secret between 1928 and 1940. Smuggled past the censors, its subversive message, dark humor and lyrical force combined to make it an instant success and a beacon of optimism and freedom that spread through Russia and the world.

[407] White Guard – Mikhail Bulgakov

” It’s midnight. Listen. Midnight. Listen. It struck admonitorily, and men’s halberds clicked a pleasant, silvery clink. Guards were patrolling and protecting, for unbeknownst to himself man had erected his towers, his alarms and weaponry, for but one purpose—to safeguard man’s tranquility and hearth. That was why he fought, and to be honest, there never was any other reason to fight. ” (12, 203)

Bulgakov’s debut novel, written in 1923 to 1924, is thoroughly autobiographical. Almost every character in White Guard represents people who orbit his life. At the very beginning of the “great and terrible Year of Our Lord 1918” the young physician Bulgakov returned to his native Kiev. During the height of World War I, he practiced in remote village, after he was declared unfit for combat service. It’s against this chaotic and confusing time Bulgakov set his novel. White Guard begins in 1918, in a Ukraine damaged by World War I, and is engulfed in the Russian Civil War, with all its confusion, violence, and chaos. As the novel unfolds, the Germans have withdrawn and the autonomy the Germans have granted Ukraine is reverted. Bolsheviks prey on Ukraine but Ukraine is later become a republic of the U.S.S.R.

Who was firing on whom, no one knew. It happened at night. During the daytime things calmed down, and occasionally people saw a regiment of German hussars march down the main street . . . (People) hated the Bolsheviks. Not with a face-to-face hatred, when the hater wants to start a fight and kill, but a cowardly, twitching gatred, from around the corner, from the darkness. (4, 56)

In the middle of the Revolutionary chaos is the Turbin family, who has just buried their mother. Alexei, the oldest son, is a physician who later joins the mortar regiment as a medical officer against Petylura, leader of socialist and nationalist forces that fight unsuccessfully for Ukraine’s independence. Elena marries a captain who defends the hetman, a German-puppet who reigns over the city of Kiev. Nikolai, the youngest, becomes a corporal of the White Army.

They’re all blackguards. The Hetman and Petylura both. But Petylura, along with everything else, is in favor of pogroms. Although that’s not even the main thing. It’s been so long since I’ve thrown a bomb. I’m bored. (9, 139)

Seething with anger and anti-Bolshevik sentiment, Bulgakov shows how the Revolution has singed his life, showing the perils of his real-life Kiev, where people may be pursued, robbed, or even killed. After the collapse of the Russian Empire, Kiev becomes a cauldron of warfare, hosting an array of powers that confuse even the local people: Reds, Whites, anti-Communists, Bolsheviks, Russian empire patriots and Ukrainian nationalists. Caught in the historic moment of cataclysm, the Turbins, epitome of a subjectively honorable family rooted in books and culture, are resistant to change. Not only are they obdurate about the old values, they are almost too blinded by their own notions of honor and duty to defend a country that is no more. As Petylure gains ground in Kiev, chaos and difficulties befall the Turbins, assaulting their lives, catching them unawares. Revolution degenerates into a riot, a havoc.

In these same little towns . . . everyone spoke Ukrainian, everyone was in love with a magical Ukraine they imagined free of Polish lords and Moscow officers . . . (5, 68)

White Guard reads like Russian history through the eyes of the emotionally torn Turbins. One can also read Bulgakov’s profound shock at the Revolution and hatred for the Bolsheviks. While the tragedy of the White movement is that people of honor undertakes the unjust cause of defending a shamefully moribund regime that didn’t work for its people, Bulgakov finds himself impossible to lampoon the Russian Revolution because the revolution itself is a lampoon of socialism. The book leaves an open-ended conclusion, which allows readers to appraise not so much the essence of Bulgakov’s position but the reality of issues raised in the novel and the contradictions revealed in it. This book is about the perpetual theme of Russian history, about the evolution of an iron-cordon of a regime in the 20th century. It shows how helpless humans can be when they’re thrown into the whirlpool of war; but at least they can show each other with individual acts of kindness and humanity.

310 pp. Yale University Press softcover. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[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]

Mikhail Bulgakov

A few days ago the discussion on my reader’s profile raised the question of the different translations on The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. To the best of my knowledge, you may find seven current editions of this modern Russian classics at the bookstores: [Top from left] Penguin Classics, Vintage Classics, Oneworld Classics and Penguin Red Classics editions, and the [Second row] Picador, Avalon and Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics editions..

BulgakovThe Vintage Classics edition is my first choice for the novel. Translated by Professor Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O’Conno, the 1995 edition is by far the best, especially if one is interested in studying what Bulgakov really wrote. They have the advantage of some 30 years of Bulgakov scholarship, which they take into consideration in their translation, and thus affords the most punctilious details. The endnotes, provided by the Bulgakov scholar Ellendea Proffer, are also invaluable. The Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics edition, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, is almost as good as the Diane Burgin translation.

The Picador edition, translated by Mirra Ginsburg, was first published in 1967. It’s an alternative choice choice for the novel if you cannot find the two above. Ginsburg’s translation is lively and entertaining, but it was unfortunately made from the 1967 Soviet text without the advantage of the censored sections. As a result, it mirrors the censored version, including deletion of passages about the actions of the secret police and most of Nikanor Ivanovich’s dream. Depending on how you view this deletion as a caveat, this translation is worth a read.

A brilliant blend of magical and realistic elements, grotesque situations, and major ethical issues, The Master and Margarita combines two distinct yet interwoven parts, one set in contemporary Moscow, the other in ancient Jerusalem. Brimming with historical references, religious imagery, storms, witchcraft, and romance, Bulgakov’s novel is impossible to categorize: Its story lies between parable and reality; its tone varies from satire to unguarded vulnerability. Its publication represents the triumph of imagination over politics.

As you see, I’ve been on a campaign to promote this great novel, cajoling, encouraging, and canvassing those who have yet experienced this literary journal. Eclectic this book might sound, it is probably the most widely read book in 20th century Russia (former Soviet Union). Kindly approach a Russian and ask about the book, you will be assured of the novel’s significance and popularity. This is the one book that I always tell people to read, and I have made many of my friends read.

My Other Coverages:
The Master and Margarita (2006)
The Master and Margarita, Revisited (2006)
The Master and Margarita (2007)
The Master and Margarita (2008)

[182b] Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoevsky

crimeMost readers, especially the first-timers, would probably disagree that Crime and Punishment is humorous. Given the seriousness of its subject matter, it is most obvious that the scenes surrounding death of Marmeladov and the memorial meal following his funeral are most comical, even farcical and scandalous.

” ‘It’s all this cuckoo-bird’s fault [Katerina Ivanovna calling the German landlady]. You know who I’m talking about—her, her!’ and Katerina Ivanovna nodded towards the landlady. ‘Look at her eyes popping out! She feels we’re talking about her, but she can’t catch anything, so she’s gawking at us. Pah, what an owl! Ha, ha, ha! . . . Hem, hem, hem! Have you noticed, she keeps wanting everyone to think she’s patronizing me and doing me a great honor by her presence! I asked her, as a decent woman, to invite the better sort of people—namely, my late husband’s acquaintances—and look who she’s brought! Clowns! Sluts! Look at the one with the pimply face: some sort of snot on two legs!’ ” [383]

Even the central story of Raskolnikov and his struggle with fate keeps verging on comedy. Lots of punchy humor, and physical comedy, even in dark moments, percolate this novel. like when Raskolnikov slips around in Alyona’s blood, or when Katerina pulls Marmeladov around by his hair while he screams that he loves it. These three elements work together to creep us out while hopefully keeping us from getting too depressed. Pulcheria and Dunya crowded the room of Raskolnikov, bickering over how it’s the best way for Raskolnikov to be delivered from his illness. Luzhin’s ulterior designs on Dunya and his hoax on Sonya. Dostoevsky almost portrays these people as if they some actors in some sort of show. Are these people real?

It is essential and typical of Dostoevsky to shift his omnipresent view of the siuation of a novel. His view is constantly shifting but without losing its scope on the main plot. He may drop into horror, like a death, as we have seen in Marmeladov and later his consumptive wife, or rise into laughter at any moment. Yet this ambiguity, which is not incidental to Dostoevsky’s vision, but only most obvious in the comical sense, does not make light of suffering. On the contrary, what authors have ever revealed it so nakedly. Maybe Toni Morrison does as I’m reading Beloved. And that precisely because Dostoevsky does not allow us our usual rational or sentimental evasions. Suffering is unmitigated and there is no answer to it in this novel.

Further Reading
[182a] Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoevsky