Friday, May 22, 2020

The Master and Margarita: Mikhail Bulgakov

Katrina (at Pining for the West) and I read this book at the same time. We both had it on our Classics lists and she asked if I wanted to read it now with her. That was a really good thing because without that motivation I don't know when I would have read it or if I would have persevered to read it all.

I always prefer to read a book knowing as little as possible about it. Sometimes that is not possible but with this book I only had a basic overview of the book. It was written in the 1930's and finished shortly before the author died in 1940, at the age of 49. The author's writings were often rejected and he wanted to leave Russia so that he could write. He knew he could not publish this book while he was alive; otherwise he would "disappear." The novel was finally published in Russia in 1966.

I did not read the foreword or the introduction, and for the first two hundred pages I skipped the notes at the end, because I usually find that notes impede the flow of reading or tell too much. However, in this case I should have read all of those. I just did not understand enough about the issues that were at the center of the novel or Bulgakov's writing to understand what I was reading or its intent.

At this point, I will share a summary from Penguin Random House.
When the devil arrives in 1930s Moscow, consorting with a retinue of odd associates—including a talking black cat, an assassin, and a beautiful naked witch—his antics wreak havoc among the literary elite of the world capital of atheism. Meanwhile, the Master, author of an unpublished novel about Jesus and Pontius Pilate, languishes in despair in a psychiatric hospital, while his devoted lover, Margarita, decides to sell her soul to save him. As Bulgakov’s dazzlingly exuberant narrative weaves back and forth between Moscow and ancient Jerusalem, studded with scenes ranging from a giddy Satanic ball to the murder of Judas in Gethsemane, Margarita’s enduring love for the Master joins the strands of plot across space and time.

This is a very weird book. It made little sense to me. At times it is very funny, but in a sad way. Things happen to people and they make no sense. People lose their apartments or jobs for fabricated reasons. And yet life goes on. I realize that this is a satire on conditions in Russia at the time it was written, but I did not have enough context to understand it.

Some of my confusion was due to the names being hard to follow. Some names were similar. Sometimes a person would be identified by his last name, other times by the first and second. Some important characters were identified by different names in different parts of the book. And I did not realize it would read like a fantasy, thus I was not prepared for the tone. For instance, the cat does not only talk, it walks upright its back feet and is the size of a human being.

Some of the writing was very entertaining and most of the time I did not care whether the book made sense or not but there was a large portion, from about page 50 - 200, where I was so confused it was hopeless. It seemed incoherent to me.

The book is in two parts. Book Two begins with Margarita trying to find the Master. Although that half is very fantastical, also, I found it more coherent and less confusing.

Margarita loves the Master and wants to leave her rich husband. She is willing to give up her privileged and easy life. But she cannot find him. The devil, often referred to as Woland in the edition I read, offers to grant her a wish ... and weird things happen. She gets two wishes because her first wish is selfless... to save her maid, Natasha.

Four chapters of the Master's book on Jesus and Pontius Pilate is included in The Master and Margarita. Those four chapters were my favorite part. The writing style in those chapters was entirely different. The chapters are interspersed throughout the book, two in Book One, two in Book Two.

I fear that my review is incoherent and doesn't tell you much about how I liked the book. I liked parts of it, I will reread it again, and maybe one day I will understand it more.

The translation I read was by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. The very enthusiastic Foreword was by Boris Fishman and the Introduction was by Richard Pevear.

My husband took the photo of the cover above and it shows the many, many sticky tabs I used trying to keep track of the story.

I highly recommend Katrina's review of The Master and Margarita. Her summary and thoughts on the book are excellent.


Publisher: Penguin Classics, 2016 (orig. pub. 1966)
Length:  396 pages
Format:  Trade paperback
Setting:  Moscow, Russia
Genre:   Classic Fiction (Fantasy, Magical Realism)
Source:  On my TBR since 2017.
Translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky


pattinase (abbott) said...

I read this at my husband's insistence back in the seventies and as a person who has little ability to navigate magical realism and similar approaches, I didn't get much out of it then. I should probably give it another try but probably won't. I am going to read your friend's review too.

TracyK said...

Patti, I have never tried any magical realism but I think I should try at least one (more) book of that type. Just for the experience. In this case I had no clue what I was getting into. I think I will like it better when I reread it someday, but I will never love this book.

Cath said...

I've heard of this book of course but had absolutely no clue what it was about. My goodness it sounds weird! Well done you for persevering, judging by your review I think I would probably have abandoned it. Are you glad you've read it?

TracyK said...

Cath, I am glad I read it. And the 2nd half was a much better read (for me) than the first, so I was glad I kept going. Some readers absolutely love this book.

Judith said...

Hi Tracy,
You've now had your intro to Russian and Soviet literature, and I will admit, from long experience, that it can be a slog until you get your bearings. The names, the history that is so foreign, can be difficult. Congrats to you for sticking with it. I'm a slave to Russian History and studied it in college and since. I find Russians to be so fascinating because they are so different, and most of all because they have had to suffer from a regime that would not allow them to live full lives as independent individuals. I think that's what draws me to Russian literature. Such a tragic, tragic history.

TracyK said...

Judith, I did remember while writing this review that you are very interested in Russian literature. Someone commented in another review I read that it was usual in reading Russian literature to have problems with names, which made me feel somewhat better. The only Russian literature that I can remember reading is War and Peace and Anna Karenina (and I am going to reread Anna Karenina). Oh, yes, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich too. Nice and short. But I should try other Russian novels.

Rick Robinson said...

I have read a handful, but the only Russian novel I've enjoyed is The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. After reading your description, I'd definitely not try this one. I'm not a fan of plots featuring the Devil, and the whole thing sounds like a mess. Sorry, but this is a definite no.

Margot Kinberg said...

I took some lit. courses at university, and we read some magical realism, Tracy. So I have a bit of a sense of what the book might be like. But that said, I'm not sure I'm eager to read it. Your review is excellent (and a lot more coherent than you may think!). But I'm not sure this one's for me...

TracyK said...

Rick, I am glad I read this book, but I definitely would not recommend it to anyone. So, I agree, you should not read this book. I will keep The Brothers Karamazov in mind for a Russian novel to read someday, but it is extremely long.

TracyK said...

Thanks, Margot. Someday I do want to read a magical realism novel, just to try it out. And now I know a little more what to expect.

Katrina said...

Your review is very good, I must admit I found this one very difficult to write about. Like you I'm glad that I read it although it's not really my thing. It was my husband who recommended I read this one. I don't have a problem with the different ways Russians are named as it's very similar to in the UK where members of the aristocracy or royalty have multiple titles and names. In Scotland a farmers/landowners can also be called by the name of the land they own too. Like you I may have ducked out of reading this one if we hadn't 'chummed up' to do it together. Thanks.

TracyK said...

Thanks, Katrina. I did wonder if your husband had read this book. Another reason I am glad I read the book is because I learned more about Russia at this time, by virtue of some of the information from the Foreword, the Introduction and the Notes. And it was good to have someone reading it at the same time.

col2910 said...

Sounds like the sort of book I'd hate to read. Life's too short. I'm glad you got through it, but it would be more of a chore than a pleasure for me.

TracyK said...

Parts of it were like a chore for me too, Col. And I prefer my reading not to feel that way. But there were also parts of Les Miserables that felt that way too, and I was glad I read that one in the end also.

But no, not recommended for you.

Anonymous said...

I have this one and remember setting it aside. I will pick it back up eventually. Hope all is with you Tracy. Take care - Keishon

TracyK said...

Keishon, how nice to hear from you. I hope you are doing well. I think you might like this book when you try it. I found it very challenging.