Tuesday 11 February 2014

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

“Everything will turn out right, the world is built on that.” 

I'm not sure how the other translations differ but my version was the Penguin edition by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. 

After reading many glowing reviews of The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, which all seemed in general agreement that it stands as a brilliant satire and one of the great Russian novels of the 20th century, I approached it with fairly high expectations only to be severely disappointed. Perhaps it's best to not have any preconceived notions before reading a novel but it was difficult to ignore all of the immense praise. It's impossible not to read this novel within a historical context in which it was written: 1930's Russia at the height of Stalinism. Although the author should be applauded for taking a brave stand against the oppression of communist Russia and censorship, the novel itself is a tedious and desultory narrative that never seems to end. As a social/political satire, religious parable and philosophical discourse in morality, it failed to have any resonance with me at all. Don't get me wrong, the fact that Bulgakov was writing in Russia at a time when you could be killed for expressing yourself against the government is remarkable and his depiction of Christ's crucifixion from the perspective of Pontius Pilate is vividly realized but my main criticism is the writing itself: Bulgakov prose is excessively verbose making it a real chore to get through. Additionally, the use of surrealism is too ridiculous and drawn-out which impedes the narrative flow and weakens the satire.

The premise is intriguing enough: Satan and his underlings arrive in Moscow to wreck havoc on its citizens. Sounds like a really cool idea for a story right? Unfortunately, Bulgakov is unable to capitalize on this idea or make it the least bit compelling. I kept forcing myself to continue reading with the hope that the story was leading towards something significant or perhaps some great revelation would finally be revealed but alas, nothing substantial ever materialized. It was pure vanity that I managed to finish the novel at all--never a positive indication of a novel's success with me.

The first chapter starts off with great potential with Satan showing up in a park to discuss the existence of God with two writers sitting on a bench but the story quickly descends into nonsensical tomfoolery. Satan and his henchmen specifically target the arts community in which several high officials are murdered, disappear or are driven to madness (Bulgakov attack on government censorship is made quite explicit). A laborious assortment of hijinks ensue, including Satan's performance on stage at a 'Variety' show where women in the audience are given expensive clothing for free only to have it disappear later, in which they end up in pure hysterics, running naked in the street. Then one of the patients locked up in the mental institution is introduced who only goes by the name of "The Master" and his love affair with a woman named Margarita is slowly revealed. Obviously, he is meant to represent Bulgakov--a writer whose work has also been destroyed by the state. His relationship with Margarita is not exactly sexual but rather spiritual, a connection of the minds. She wants to save him from incarceration and to restore his manuscript but this only becomes possible by a random encounter with one of Satan's henchmen who shows up out of the blue and is willing to help her. She must perform certain tasks to get closer to Satan in order to earn his trust and eventually becomes a witch. She even attends Satan's ball where the guests arrive as undead murderers and other sinners of the past. Much to her chagrin, s
he is obligated to stand there and greet them individually. 

Later on in the novel, Margarita uses her new supernatural powers to influence Satan and help her free 'The Master' from wrongful imprisonment. With Satan's retinue, they all fly away on horses from Moscow forever. These are not spoilers since plot is irrelevant here. I understand that Bulgakov is working within the realm of 'magical realism' but  some kind of narrative cohesion should still exist. This is not the case here. The author bombards the reader with protracted subplots that are so bizarre, confusing and make very little sense. By the end of the novel, is the author suggesting that the only way to achieve freedom from communist dictatorship is to leave the country or to escape into the imagination? Also, what is he trying to say about the nature of good vs. evil if Satan is not portrayed as a nefarious villain but rather as a likeable trickster who actually helps the two heroes as opposed to deterring their goals? I honestly don't know. In fact, my aversion to the novel makes it difficult to really care about answering these kind of questions. I am just relieved to have finished it (a testament to my perseverance or stupidity in not abandoning it sooner?) and can now look forward to reading something else that will hopefully be a more rewarding reading experience. 

This novel is part of my Classics Club Challenge.


  1. LOL! I just had to laugh at your post. I read this book last year and while I didn't have as strong a reaction as you, I found it confusing. I, too, expected a masterpiece with all the hype, but halfway through I gave up on that perception and just took it as I found it. Parts of it were pretty funny.

    I looked back on my notes (I don't make notes for most books but this one I did) and I have lots of "that was unclear", "you couldn't really tell", "what does this mean", and lots of other questions. I understood that it mirrored oppression under the Stalinist regime, Bulgakov's own experiences and there is some barely cloaked commentary on atheist Russia, I think. I agree that it lacked cohesion. Yet, all in all, I liked it but, as I said, my expectations disappeared part way through. I did appreciate that it was not the usual stoic, yet dramatic Russian read and there was more lightness and comedy to it.

    Great review, Jason! I hope you enjoy your next book. After this, there is nowhere to go but up!

  2. I am glad that we agree about the confounding nature of the novel. I forgot to mention in my review that others often claimed how funny the novel is but perhaps Russian humor is lost on me. I didn't laugh once. Ok, maybe a couple of chuckles here and there but that's all. The use of irony and satire just didn't work for me because the narrative becomes so over-the-top and silly. Gulliver's Travels is an example of a great satire, or quite possibly the quintessential satire, and it works so well because it is 'believable' in its fantasy of exaggerations; it uses irony and caricature perfectly for its social/political commentary. In contrast, this novel is all over the place, disjointed, a random mishmash of ideas and subplots without purpose.

    You make an interesting point about Bulgakov commenting about atheism in Russia. As I briefly mentioned in my review, I am still unsure about what he is really saying about the nature of good and evil. At first I thought that Bulgakov was writing an allegory with the Stalin representing the Devil (or Woland as he is often referred) and 'The Master' taking on the martyr role of Jesus but this claim is spurious since the former is ironically presented as not being truly 'evil' in the traditional sense.

    The only other big Russian novel that I have read is Crime and Punishment and you're definitely right that M+A is a startling contrast to the seriousness of the former. Perhaps I just prefer heavy-handed psychological and philosophical drama as opposed to light comedy.

    Thank you Cleopatra for stopping by and taking the time to comment!

  3. I think I am a hopeful reader like you are! "I'm just going to read a little more. Maybe the book will get better/clearer/more exciting..." I don't know if this speaks more to our perseverance or stubborn nature. :)

    I'm sorry that this one didn't work for you. I certainly won't be running out to find it!

  4. The book is like no other and maybe that's one reason why it receives such praise and condemnation. I haven't found any reader who walked away from it without having gained very strong opinions, ranging from "It sucks!" to "It is a masterpiece." I belong to that second group but am interested in hearing people from the first group.