The Master and Margarita

Everyone I know who has read it has told me that it altered them forever, and I’m always surprised that it’s not known more in the West. Zoetica and I had to fight over who would blog about our favorite book, The Master and Margarita, so we’re collaborating on this entry.

One hot spring, the devil arrives in Moscow, accompanied by a retinue that includes a beautiful naked witch and an immense talking black cat with a fondness for chess and vodka. The visitors quickly wreak havoc in a city that refuses to believe in either God or Satan. But they also bring peace to two unhappy Muscovites: one is the Master, a writer pilloried for daring to write a novel about Christ and Pontius Pilate; the other is Margarita, who loves the Master so deeply that she is willing literally to go to hell for him.” – Synopsis for the Katherine O’Connor translation

We didn’t really fight, tovarish Nadya exaggerates.

Bulgakov worked on The Master and Margarita, the crowning thorn of his life’s work, until 4 weeks before his death with his own Margarita at his side.

Of note is the book’s structure of two parallel stories – the story of Master and Margarita and the story of the final days of Jesus Christ, as written by the Master [more or less Bulgakov’s alter ego]. The book was banned for many years, published only in small sections in literary magazines. The original controversy and ban were due to thick political subtext in Bulgakov’s descriptions of Pontius Pilate – a thinly veiled Stalin, and bitter satirical illustration of Stalin-era Moscow and its politics.

It’s hard to talk about it without giving away some of the book’s secrets, do let me just describe my three favorie scenes:

  • Satan presents himself as Woland, a traveling magician of uncertain origin, and puts on a theatrical magic show that 1930s Moscow won’t soon forget
  • Azazello’s Cream: a gift from one of the devil’s henchmen, a skin cream that smells faintly of swamp marsh transforms an ordinary woman into a witch
  • The Grand Spring Ball – a masked ball thrown by Woland, with all the decadence you’d expect; elaborate food and entertainment and a myriad of scandalous guests, both living and dead

The combination of the dark, the magical and the sensual will keep me forever addicted to this work – in fact I might start it again, for the 9th time. Besides its brilliant writing, fantastical themes and gorgeous magical realism, there are myriads of mysterious factors surrounding Master, its release and Bulgakov himself. Of course, at least twice as many articles on this matter have been written by older and wiser Russians. Leaving it to them, to you we can only say, read it. Read it now.

6 Responses to “The Master and Margarita”

  1. M Says:

    I love, love, love this book. So much. That is all.

  2. C.c. Says:

    I’m actually reading another formerly hard-to-find Bulgakov work, “Heart of Dog,” right now. It doesn’t have the same epic depth as Margarita, but it works well as a satire.

  3. Matan Says:

    M- Ditto. It was my “Catcher in the Rye” equivalent- I memorized the damn thing when I was 16. I can still recite it (in the Hebrew traslation…)

  4. Ben Morris Says:

    Picked up a copy today because of this post. Went with the Pevear / Volokhonsky translation because I loved their translations of Dostoevsky’s the Idiot and Notes from Underground.

  5. paul blume Says:

    Thanks for reminding me about this; it’s been a while since I read the book and high time it and I got re-acquainted.

  6. Tim Says:

    Here’s more reading on Pilate.

    1. The Procurator of Judea – Anatole France
    2. “The Night Chicago Died” – Tom Wessex {Fourth Story is about Pilate}
    3. Apocryphal Tales – Karel Capek [Three stories about Pilate]

    Have fun