Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Reading List: The Master and Margarita

The Master and Margarita,
I Guess I Can Read a Book in Less Than a Month After All!

[For how The Reading List project write-ups work, check here.]

Why Read The Master and Margarita?

I'll be honest: I had never even heard of either Bulgakov or The Master and Margarita when the polls opened for The Reading List. It was not among my original suggestions, but got written in, so to speak, by Mrs.5000. She called it "a bitter, fantastical romp that keeps reinventing itself as it goes along—a surefire godfather to Murakami's work, far as I'd guess, in its crazy stew of the impossible and the banal."

Meaghan, whose book recommendations are not to be sneezed at, chimed in: "it's got flying on brooms and devils and Pontius Pilate and sadness and beauty and strangeness." "Excellent," said Patrick; "amazing," said Vida; "scandalous," said Sarah. By the time the dust settled, I was so excited I voted for it myself, and it ended up getting the most votes in the category of post-1950 novels, despite having been written in the 1930s. An appropriate trick for this mischievous book to have pulled.


Feeling that I could have done a lot better choosing a translation of The Brothers Karamazov, I spent some time researching the relative merits of the various versions of The Master and Margarita. Based on this research, I ended up buying my own copy of the translation by Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O'Conner (pictured above) when I realized that all of the copies at our library are of other, apparently lesser, versions. I was very happy with my version, which used a snappy, natural English and had some of the most helpful annotative notes (by Ellendea Proffer) that I ever seen, in any book. Sweet!


The Devil went down to Moscow, he was looking for a soul to steal. Or was he? Bulgakov's Devil eludes our expectations of a Satanic presence, and although you can't exactly say that no one gets hurt during his visit, he seems much more prankish than traditionally evil. Like some kind of moral martial arts master, he delights in luring people into exposing their own petty vices and cruelties. He torments the wicked, in a way, but he seems more disappointed than delighted in their wickedness. This is not, apparently, your father's Satan.

A second plot woven through the book involves Pontius Pilate and somebody named Yeshua, who seems awfully familar but who also defies expectations. Is he who we think, or is he someone else entirely, or maybe both? Bulgakov gives us plenty of clues, but never enough to be certain about anything. He is messing with us, in really interesting ways.

The book was written and is set in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, a period that the annotator refers to, reasonably enough, as "The Terror." Bulgakov, who apparently had very low expectations that the book could ever be published (as it wasn't, until 1966, and even then in a censored abridgement), comments wryly throughout on the grotesque distortions of social life under Stalinism. From the opening pages, where a pompous editor corrects an inept poet at comical length for failing to properly establish the historical non-existance of Jesus Christ in his work, he attacks political correctness (the old-school Soviet version, of which the petty stuff we carp about today is but a triffling shadow). As the book procedes, he will take aim at communal housing, the use of assylums to incarcerate people with subversive opinions, pampered regime-sponsored writers, the petty corruption and mutual suspicion that pervade communist Moscow from top to bottom, and the disquieting tendency of people to disappear suddenly and without explanation. Since all of this is handled in a supernatural context -- remember, this is a story about the Devil -- the social critique is simultaneous disturbing, surreal, and very funny. In The Master and Margarita, everything disturbing is also comical, and everything that is funny is also sad.

Style Points

When I started Master, Chance and d worried that I was jumping back into "heavy allegorical Soviet lit" and "dreary Russian authors" too soon after The Brothers Karamazov. I was worried about that too, but it was soon obvious that we could all relax. Bulgakov (at least when filtered through Burgin and O'Connor) writes beautifully, the allegory leavened by a sparkling humor and the dreariness of the social commentary rendered very palatable by the crazy weirdness that crops up wherever Satan and his retinue wander. And the weirdness is pretty sublime: women riding across the sky on the backs of priggish neighbors who have been transformed into flying pigs, women fighting over fancy clothing that later vanishes while they are wearing it in public; a witches' ball attended by dead evil doers who arrive as corpses falling down the chimney into a huge fireplace. Awesome. Bulgakov writes, basically, in the comic style I'm always trying for myself -- with an exagerated, playful formality, often about seemingly trivial things, with a cumulatively profound effect. Needless to say, he manages to be a whole lot funnier, and infinitely more profound, than I will ever be.

The structure of the book is quite odd, and contributes to your off-kilter sense of not knowing quite what to expect next. In general, things get increasingly more fantastic, even hallucinatory, as the book progresses. The twining of the main narrative with the Pontius Pilate sections, similarly, becomes stranger and more intricate the deeper in you go. The characters of the Master and Margarita have to be among the least dominant title characters in all of fiction, entering the action only in Chapter 13 (of 32) and never really stealing the stage from the Devil and his oddball companions (who, I should mention, include a giant black cat that talks, walks on its hind legs, and is if anything more mischevous than his boss). Margarita is a much more vivid and interesting character than The Master, incidently, the latter a Bulgakov-like writer with several apparently semi-autobiographical qualities.

The Reading List Project Bears Fruit!

There are references here and there in Master to The Brothers Karamazov, another Russian novel that features (albeit more obliquely) a visitation by the Devil. The cool thing is, I caught 'em! Or at least some of 'em! Undoubtedly there were plenty of references to other great Russian novels that I haven't read, too, but my point is, already at Book #2, the Reading List Project has enhanced my appreciation of literature! w00t!

The other conspicuous commonality between Master and Brothers is that they are both simply CRAMMED with idiomatic phrases that invoke the Devil. In both novels, you start to feel a little worn out by the repetition "the Devil only knows," "to the Devil with you," "having a devil of a time," "like the devil's own {whatever}," and so on. The notes in my copy of Master explain that Russian has a lot more of those phrases than English do, and a lot of word roots that kind of suggest devilry, so an translator is obliged to really pack in an English equivalent whenever the opportunity presents itself.


Not exactly an easy read, The Master and Margarita is nevertheless entertaining and fun. If you can handle surreality and a certain dryness of tone -- if you like Saramago, or Eco, or Calvino, or Murakami, or any of those South American dudes -- I think you'll enjoy it. Worth reading in and of itself; secondarily an interesting and humane look into life under totalitarian rule during the darkest era of the Soviet state.


I'll be reading off-list this weekend and through the coming week. Meanwhile, a short subset of the master list is on its way to L&TM5K dork Gray, who I will ask to take a turn of selecting the next book.


d said...

dude. i'm totally gonna read this now. very excellent write-up. maybe it will get me excited to try tbk again. god. i just wish it weren't so…boring.

Nichim said...

I do know people who didn't like this book, but I was pretty sure you wouldn't be one of them. I'm glad to be right. This is an "is he or isn't he" test book, and you are!

Bridget said...

Hmmm . . . I am pretty put off by dry, Russian authors, but this does sound interesting . . . Great write-up! Thanks!

Rebel said...

Hmmm...sounds interesting.

(and by interesting I mean bizzare & confusing).

Don't you ever read pop fiction? Anything from Oprah's book club?

Anonymous said...

Seldom do I get amped about a fiction piece anymore but you have me stoked here.

I added it to my to-do sticky even. Enjoyable review!

Michael5000 said...

@d: SO much less of a struggle than Brothers...

@nichim: Yay! I ~AM~! I ~AM~!!

@I don't think I read too much off of Oprah's list, but I've never checked either. I think my copy of "The Poisonwood Bible," which I quite liked, has a "Oprah's Book Club!" splash on the front of it.

The Reading List certainly doesn't represent my usual fare. For one thing, if I was going to get to all of this stuff anyway, I wouldn't have needed the Reading List. Secondly, you guys had as much say in its composition as I did, so...

I guess I read "pop fiction." Like, right now, I'm reading the new one by Richard Russo, whom I absolutely adore, and, if you've heard of it, "Shantaram." Does that count? I also read a lot of science fiction and fantasy, which is certainly a kind of pop fiction. Once in a blue moon I'll rip through a dectective paperback or a Steven King or equivalent because, why the hell not?

Also, I try to, eventually, read whatever anyone recommends to me, which tends to encourage diverse reading.

@boo: Thanks! Mrs.5000 seems to have started rereading Master and Margarita after reading my review. Makes me feel like a real tastemaker.

Dr. Kenneth Noisewater said...

I'm holding out for K Fed's book.

Anonymous said...

Having the reading list must be a good catalyst for reading what I call "shoulds" (imaginative, eh?) My Should stack gets taller and taller, while my spy/mystery stack stays about one volume deep. It usually has the latest from Hillerman, Rendell, Le Carre, George, James (the PD one), and the like in it. Just finished "Mission Song" by Le Carre: beautiful writing, another character I cared for like the tailor of Panama and the constant gardener: man with moral fiber, unarmed with blog, against an uncaring world. Great.

The Margarita write-up certainly entices, and the comparison to Eco grabbed me, as I thought "The Name of the Rose" was brilliant, as was whoever translated it into I'll grab the M and M book. Now, which stack to put it into??? Thanks!

McGuff said...

After your review of Brothers, I chimed in with a "thank you, but I'll pass", and felt badly about it afterward (e.g., "form your own opinion, Phin."). But not enough to change my mind and want to read it.

However, this review inspires, and TM&M is now on my list. The comparison to Murakami sealed the deal. Looking forward to it.

The reading list (and a few other things you do) are what blogging is all about. Thank you.

Sherri said...

I read this book many years ago when in my late teens, maybe early twenties, on the advice of my well-read brother, and really enjoyed it. I bought it two years ago, the translation by Michael Glenny, and enjoyed it once again, although not as much as the first time. Great review, Michael.

margaret said...

Damn, judging from the title, I thought this book was going to be the secret history of me and my S&M master. *sigh*