“The Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov

The Master and Margarita was recommended to me long ago by my friend Trash, who is married to M. Giant who blogs at Velcrometer. Christopher Moore mentioned the Pontius Pilate chapters as an influence in interviews about his book Lamb, a fictional account of the early life of Jesus, which one of my book groups read earlier this year. When I offered it as an option for our group to read, several people clamored for it. (In the manner of book groups, most of those did not attend the discussion. Hmmph.)

After reading this article and its links, I chose the Burgin/O’Connor translation because it was a more complete text than some earlier editions, which were censored versions. The most recent translation by Pevear/Volkhonsky had some detractors online, though seemed fine when I compared first paragraphs in a bookstore. (I tried to do that on my nook, but found one of the nook’s shortcomings is the inability to pick a particular edition of a particular classic. The Kindle has the Penguin version but the nook had no translation at all. Again, hmmph.)

I’d known the book was about the devil, so I’d always assumed he was the Master of the title, while Margarita was the black cat on the cover. Completely wrong. But not a bad guess in a book where the devil appears on page 5, yet the Master doesn’t appear until a third of the way through, and Margarita not till the halfway point! This is a good example of why I found the book confounding, yet engaging. I could not predict what was going to happen. And when things did happen, it wasn’t like, oh, yes, that makes sense. It was a constant series of jaw-dropping, What-The? moments. Chapter 12’s theater show, and Chapter 20’s significant transformation were particularly mind boggling to me.

The chapters in which the devil and his crew appear and make mischief in Moscow drip with magic, some of it nicely presaging Harry Potter, Twilight, et al. These alternate with chapters from a book within a book, a straightforward, utterly non-mystical telling of the encounter between Pilate and Jesus, named here as Yeshua Ha-Notsri.

This was hard to get into, and a few of my friends who tried to gave up, based on the Nancy Pearl 50-page rule. Those who persevered, though, said they were glad they did, even if it won few fans as fervent as those who’d urged the picking of it.

I’m very glad to have finally read it. I appreciated its themes of repression, fear and bravery. The bizarre narratives swayed me, as did the background of the book, written by a dying man who knew it would not be published in his lifetime, or perhaps ever.

If you do want to give it a go, I strongly recommend reviewing the Faustian legend beforehand, and following up with this site, which has links out the wazoo, helps to explain its continued popularity in Russia, and includes video from various television and movie adaptations.

Have you read it? Are you a disciple, a liker, or a hater?

2 Responses to ““The Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov”

  1. Isabella Says:

    I read this about 20 years ago, remember very little of it except for Pilate. I found those sections most engaging while the rest flew past me. I recently downloaded this and vowed to reread it soon. From what you say, the mystical half really ought to make a stronger impression on me. Hopefully I’m a smarter reader now and will better appreciate it. I don’t know what it is about this book (the title? teh cover?) that makes me want to love it, be the sort of person who loves it.

  2. girldetective Says:

    It does have some sort of cool factor, doesn’t it? I really appreciate how complicated and unexpected it makes good and evil.