Review | The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov (trn. Burgin & O’Connor)

My New Year’s resolution? Stop banging on about Scandinavia. Until I go back, at least. Which means that until I start planning a new sidetrack blog project, I’ve got no excuse not to get back on track with the Classics Club Challenge.

I feel obliged to explain that I haven’t just not been reading all this time. Since I started commuting, I’ve had at least two books on the go pretty much continually, but I haven’t yet managed to pick a single one on my Classics Club list. (That would have been much too sensible.) Handily, there are two in reserve that I hadn’t made time to review before beginning the headlong rush to finish my Scandinavia posts. This is one of them. And it was a lot of fun.

Reading The Master and Margarita

First sentence: One hot spring evening, just as the sun was going down, two men appeared at Patriarch’s Ponds.

It’s a suitably ominous setting for the sudden arrival of the Devil in Moscow. Literary elites Berlioz and Ivan ‘Bezdomny’ Ponyryov meet the mild-mannered Professor Woland, who promptly challenges their atheism, reads them a story about Pontius Pilate, and foretells Berlioz’ death: a prophecy that’s almost immediately fulfilled. Bezdomny’s manic subsequent efforts to track down the mysterious Woland and his entourage only result in his being committed to an asylum. Here, he meets the nameless Master, the author of the Pontius Pilate novel. Extracts from his work, detailing Pilate’s mental struggle with the execution of Yeshua Ha-Notsri, are interwoven with the Moscow story.

Meanwhile Woland and his diabolical entourage take the aggressively atheistic Moscow by storm, causing terror with black magic shows, disappearances and the occasional vampire. It’s all becoming very sinister, dystopian even, when they turn their attention to Margarita, the Master’s abandoned lover. She, unlike all before her, immediately embraces the escape offered her by the increasingly mischievous visitors, who consequently make it their final responsibility to determine the fate of Margarita and her Master.

At first I had my doubts. In fact, I was almost terminally put off by the oppressive atmosphere of the first half – the Muscovites’ growing panic, the seemingly senseless malice of their hellish tormentors, and the thoroughly sombre Jerusalem chapters. But when I reached the second part, and realised that it was turning into a gloriously riotous romp through the fairytale and the ridiculous, I began to read it much more avidly.

The difference is Margarita: trapped in a dull, passionless marriage, she’s so fed up with her Masterless existence that, instead of trying hysterically not to believe in the evidence of her eyes when the Satanic band appear, she just goes with it – as does the Master when he too is plucked from his prison. The result is twofold: the entourage treat her as a person, not a plaything; and they themselves take on a different character.

Where before they seemed genuinely diabolical, taking malicious enjoyment from the panic they created, suddenly they become more nuanced – both more caring and more innocently mischievous. The ensuing uproar when Korovyov and the wonderful Behemoth visit the fish counter in a department store is little short of hilarious. At the same time, the ringleader Woland becomes less the diabolical mastermind and more the exasperated genius trying unsuccessfully to keep his irreverent stooges in check. Thus the characters who started out as sinister, otherworldly and almost merciless end up being some of the most endearing characters in the novel.

To a Russian reader, or at least a reader familiar with Russian socio-political history, this is also a novel of relentless parody and satire; institutions, events and individuals are echoed in its pages as some of its most ridiculous, corrupt and repugnant features. I, however, am neither of these types of reader, so it was just as well I was reading a translation with a commentary in the back. Having done academic work on this topic, I have lots of opinions on the usefulness or otherwise of such editions, but in this case – in terms of both my own ignorance and the quality and unobtrusiveness of the commentary – it genuinely enhanced the text.

As a writer, I also couldn’t help but sympathise with the Master’s chronic distress over the continual rejection of his life’s work (echoing Bulgakov’s own difficulties). I’ve never yet been moved to burn a manuscript, but if ever I am, it’ll be useful to remember that ‘manuscripts don’t burn’…

The other grounding influence on the diabolical farce is its sharing of the narrative space with events in 1st-century Jerusalem. While on the one hand Woland and his merry band are busy refuting Soviet Moscow’s atheism with their own existence, the Jerusalem arc achieves the same end by being narrated not as a story within a story (there are no framing remarks), but as a parallel set of events that therefore seem just as real as those in Moscow. These, though, are endlessly harrowing. It’s the dark underbelly of religious suppression, described in merciless and excruciating detail. It, too, is an allegory, but one that is itself suppressed, both inside the novel and out; the Master can’t publish it in Moscow, and Bulgakov himself is able to channel objections that could not otherwise have been published.

This is all very pleasingly neat, but the two styles and settings are so disparate that I couldn’t work out how to reconcile them until very late in the novel, in the moment when they actually enter the same space. And it is quite a moment. After hauling his readers along on a madcap ride from the sinister to the riotous by way of the utterly absurd, Bulgakov has one last emotional ace up his sleeve: poignant, heart-stopping sincerity.

There are hints that it’s coming: Margarita’s mercy, her and the Master’s shocking departure from civilisation, and the moment when the impish characters we’ve learnt to love resume their true and frankly awe-inspiring forms. But less expected are the final moments of redemption and the discourse on the true nature of good and evil. The discovery that these agents of Hell are in fact majestic and dignified, alongside the assertion that Woland and Yeshua are both present in everyone as equal-but-different forces for true human good, make for a solemn and unexpectedly emotional concluding scene.

So from these slightly off-putting beginnings, I found that The Master and Margarita became an immensely uplifting and rewarding read. It has sophisticated satire, unsettling social criticism, a spectacular cast, and autobiographical references that make the history of its manuscript just as interesting as the story itself.

But equally importantly, and much more simply, it’s also just one hell of a glorious ride.

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