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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.

The One Book

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Booking Through Thursday asks:

If your house was burning down and you could save just one book from your collection … what would it be?

I am taking the one book that never exhausts its possibilities, that which I re-read on a regular basis: The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. 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. This novel 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.

If you haven’t read it, get the translation by Diane Burgin available under Vintage.

The One Book

Musing Mondays2

This week’s musing asks:
What’s one book you always recommend to just about anyone?

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. Just when I am about to let it’s publicity settle a bit comes this week’s musing question. It’s just meant to be. I recently compared different translation of novel, as I’m now in possession of a new edition, translated by Hugh Aplin. Set in the iron curtain of a society that is Soviet Union in 1930s, the timeless classic, banned in Bulgakov’s lifetime, is his response to this fear-struck, panic-stricken era. 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 have recommended it to everyone within the sixth degree of separation: friends, family, co-workers, bosses, friends of friends, book bloggers, readers at the bookstores, the person sitting to me on the plane, my barista. Everyone.

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.

Not at the Theater

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And–the reverse of last week’s question. Name one book that you hope never, ever, ever gets made into a movie (no matter how good that movie might be).

I have mixed feelings about the desire to see a favorite novel made into a film and the fear that a half-hearted or cheaply made film would ruin the book. I have read The Master and Margarita five times, and I am sure that I will read it again. My only regret was that my Russian is not good enough to understand the novel. Three out of five times I read the same translation by professor Diane Burgin and the rest two different translations. A quick poll at the local Russian grocery market revealed that almost all the Russians have either read or known about the story. I know for sure that even the best translation can not compare to the original because cultural nuances are inevitably lost during translation. The book has nonetheless made a deep impression me. Every time I re-read, I found something new in the book—a different connotation, a refreshed interpretation; it would turn to me by different facets. The novel itself, in both forms and plot, is incredibly beautiful, deep, sophisticated yet playful and sparkling with unforgettable characters, not to mention it’s audaciously ahead of its time. Supernatural elements will render an adaptation challenging despite the advent of technology and special effects in the film industry.

That said, there is in fact an adaptation in 2005. Vladimir Bortko has become the first Russian film director to start shooting of renowned Bulgakov’s novel and not to stop half-way. All the others Russian directors once engaged in the production of Master and Margarita have actually turned out to be unable to finalize their projects. I had a lot of doubts before watching the film because as much as I wanted to see Bulgakov’s masterpiece, which fuses three plots into one, on the screen I was not sure that it was possible to adapt it and not to lose anything important—which is everything. Bulgakov gradually weaves the three scenarios together, all the while exercising devilish lampoonery and wit to satirize Soviet life under Stalin. How would the film achieve the same? I was nervous and antsy while watching the familiar story unveiling across the screen. Bortko’s adaptation is actually not bad at all. It is respectful, thoughtful and as close to the spirit of the greatest Russian novel of the last century as possible. Even I have enjoyed it, I still don’t expect to see another adaptation because I’m just too fearful!

[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]

Reading Notes of a Couch Potato: Satanic Verses

SatanicI am happy to hear that many of you are reading or planning to read The Master and Margarita. To say the very least about the book, it’s a very clever story-within-a-story reading. The Master has simply taken what is normally perceived as religious material and breathes in it a social context—one that is characterized by unseen forces of politics and morality—the very things that cripple his life. I recently found out that Salmon Rushdie wrote The Satanic Verses with The Master and Margarita in his mind.

The Rushdie book is, at least for me, way more difficult and complicated to read than the other. On top of the many narratives that intersperse magical realism and dream-sagas, the plethora of Islamic references to the Qu’ran can be perplexing, if not suffocating. I have a copy of The Qu’ran handy, which I riffle and finger on occasions when Rushdie’s name references are obscure. I can already see why this book has offended the Muslim world which triggered the issue of a fatwa to claim Rushdie’s life: prostitutes named after Mohammed’s wife, Mecca dubbed Jahilia, meaning the ignorant period before Islam.

The controversy of the book, and the origin of the title, is the first 18 verses in Surah 53 of the Qu’ran. Muhammad was summoned to the highest universe to receive this Qu’ran into his heart. The stars fell away as he traveled through them at millions of times the speed of light. Subsequently, the Quran was gradually released to his memory. So, fellow bloggers, bear with me while I embark on this litero-religious journey, slowing down my pace to (hopefully) understand the best of Rushdie’s intention. It might be a while before I post another book review. Meanwhile I’ll keep you posted on the progress of reading. The line between good and evil and just as nebulous as that between reality and dream in this book.

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)