Master & Margarita: Non-Spoilery General Review

As some people already know, I did a readalong with Alice of Reading Rambo of this book in October.   It also fit in for the R.I.P. which I hadn’t realized until I started it, but it’s got the devil, witches flying around and demons, so that counts, I think.   Plus I’m counting it as my classic in translation for the Back to the Classics challenge.   Not published until 1966, it was written by Bulgakov from the late 20s until his death in 1940.   It’s quite a wonder it survived at all.   He burnt the first version.   Could have been arrested for writing it at all.   His wife carefully kept it until things relaxed a bit in the 60s and it has been a huge hit in Russia ever since.   Bulgakov has become one of their most celebrated writers although for the most part he seems to have mostly befuddled our little group.   In Moscow, there is a sign near Patriarch’s Ponds:


“Don’t Talk to Strangers” which is exactly how the book begins.   Berlioz, an editor, and Ivan, a poet, are discussing an article Ivan has written about Jesus which Berlioz is unsatisfied with because it made Jesus seem too real.   The goal is to discredit the existence of Jesus, God, the Devil and any other religious or superstitious figures.   Unfortunately for Berlioz, at that moment, the Devil himself introduces himself to the conversation.   The two do not realize exactly who they’re talking to, although his strangeness is immediately apparent.  In addition to looking a bit odd, he seems to be claiming to have known Kant and then Pontius Pilate.   From here, things just get more and more bizarre.   The devil and his cohorts, a couple of strange, demonic men and a humanoid cat cause all sorts of trouble, driving men mad, transporting them to Yalta, getting them run over by streetcars…   It is a wild, prankish, entertaining ride that makes you think maybe LSD was actually invented much earlier.

Then there is a parallel story of the crucifixion which is told first by Woland, the devil, and then later as part of a book which is central to the story of the Master and Margarita who don’t show up until much later.   Pilate’s story and Yeshua’s is quite different from the one that has come down to us.   As I read somewhere that I can’t figure out where,  ‘the devil is there but not that devil and Jesus is there, but not that Jesus’ which seems to be about as well as it can be put.   Woland is only sort of satanic and Yeshua is sort of like Jesus and the whole story seems to mean something important which I can’t guess.  But although more than half our group was pretty much ‘wtf?’ about the whole story, I highly recommend it.   I don’t get it, but I don’t think you’ll read anything else like it and many people have loved it.  In its absurdity, I think it captures something about living in Soviet times that could not be captured any other way.

There are quite a few translations of this book.   I went with the Burgin and O’Connor after looking up a couple websites which posted comparison sentences.  I’m not sure they had all the versions though.   Here’s an article definitely not recommending Pevear and Volokhonsky  It is not about Bulgakov, it is about Tolstoy, but reveals P&V’s attitude toward translation and why their work might be “like singing or piano playing by someone who is not musical.”


2 thoughts on “Master & Margarita: Non-Spoilery General Review”

  1. Plus, Bulgakov really hits the note a la Fantasia, Night on Bald Mountrain, The Nutcracker with the fantastic elements like the rejuvenating cream and Natasha riding the pig that used to be a man. Quite a wonderful book on more mundane levels – like trying to find a decent apartment during the Soviet Era.

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