The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

The Master and Margarita

TracyK of Bitter Tea and Mystery and I decided to read this book, it was on our Classics Club lists and it was a good way of making sure that I got around to reading it anyway. You can read her thoughts on the book here.
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov was first published in 1966. My copy was translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky in 1997.

This is a strange read and I can imagine that a lot of people might have given up on it, but I persevered as usual and thankfully ended up liking it.

It begins in Moscow where two men are sitting on a bench in Patriarch’s Ponds. One is a poet who has written a novel about Jesus and the other is an editor, soon they are joined by a foreigner, they can’t make up their minds whether he’s French – or maybe Polish. The foreigner tells one of the men how he will die. It seems so preposterous that they don’t take him seriously, but in no time the horrible prediction is fulfilled. The stranger was of course the Devil. He has red hair, as do lots of the characters in this book, and he has a large talking cat as a companion. They pose as a stage act in a Moscow theatre, supposedly illusionists and hypnotists, causing mayhem and becoming the talk of the city. There’s even a witch on a broomstick.

From time to time the book flips back to Judea – the poet’s novel. Pontius Pilate has been forced to condemn Jesus (Yeshua Ha-Nozri of Yershalaim ) to death because he was supposedly overheard complaining about the Romans. Pilate knows that the whole thing is just a way of getting rid of Yeshua who is seen as being a problem to some. It plays on his conscience. The author has never been able to get his novel published. He is The Master of the title and his married lover is Margarita. In despair he burns his manuscript.

Meanwhile there are lots of glimpses into how life is lived or endured in Russia. Neighbours denounce each other, with the death of one character so many people have their eyes on his flat, how can they get it for themselves? Communal kitchens are a way of life and you can’t get away from your neighbours.

As ever with translated books, and particularly when communist regimes are concerned, I have the feeling that I’m only getting the book on one level. I’m sure that for people who lived through those times there would be so many hidden allusions, and probably a lot of missed humour as humour seems to be the way people cope with adversity. It seems that despite communism, and with religion being frowned upon by the authorities, it didn’t stop people from knowing the bible well it would seem. This book even has four horsemen in it (as in the apocalypse?) – even though one is a woman.

I liked this one, despite the fact that for some reason Bulgakov gave all the ‘bad guys’ red hair – and there are an awful lot of them, so it was obviously not coincidence.

Apparently Bulgakov himself burned one of his manuscripts for fear of the consequences if it was found in his possession, though I believe there were copies elsewhere.

6 thoughts on “The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

  1. Katrina, I have just finished my review and will posting later today. You do a much better job than I have on conveying the story and the meaning of the book. I totally missed all the people with red hair, I will have to check that out on a reread. I did end up liking the book but not really understanding it, and there was a large portion in the first half I just had to slog through, but I was determined not to give up.

    • tracybham,
      As a redhead myself I always notice mention of red hair. Often, especially in Victorian books it was used as a lazy way of flagging up that someone was not a nice character. I think that stems from the fact that Judas supposedly had red hair. It’s the one type of prejudice that is allowed, you can say anything nasty about ‘gingers’ with impunity. I’ve always thought it is jealousy though!

  2. This is certainly a very strange book, but I loved it when I read it a few years ago. I know there was a lot that I didn’t fully understand, so I think I will have to read it again one day.

    • Helen,
      Strange but enjoyable in the end, as you say. I have so many books in my piles that I rarely do re-reads. I don’t think it’s possible to understand everything when you haven’t experienced that sort of atmosphere, but it all adds to the reading experience.

  3. Hi Katrina,
    Oh gosh–How did you persist with the bad guys all having red hair. That would have put me off.
    It’s so interesting what you’ve described. This magical realism is so hard for me to relate to on any level, but you’ve done it.
    I must look up a bio of the author. Such tragic lives some of these authors led, as well as the tragic lives of many of the Russian people they wrote about. Interesting post!

    • Judith,
      I’m not a big fan of magic realism either. The Russian people over the generations have had hellish lives to contend with. Supposedly it’s much better for them now, I suspect we don’t know the half of it though. One woman we spoke to in St Petersburg was nostalgic for the good old days of Leningrad – as was Jack as he had been there in the late 1960s on a school cruise.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *