Review: The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

The Master and Margarita, at its base, is a love story between the two title characters – a love that goes beyond any normal means to survive. It’s about as intriguing as a love story can get without becoming too ridiculous (okay, I admit that the devil’s involvement could be classed as some-what far-fetched but somehow Bulgakov has made that seem perfectly normal and so I’ve decided to just go with it). Weaved around this, we read of Woland (Satan) and his wonderful retinue (Behemoth the fat cat with a liking for vodka and chess, Korovyov in his cracked pince-nez, and Azazello with his mystical cream and amazing shot). Their escapades, more mischievous than evil, are comical and hugely entertaining, bringing in a wonderful slapstick humour that gives light relief at all the appropriate moments (as well as a few inappropriate ones too). The final thread to pull it all together is the story of Pontius Pilate and Yeshua Ha-Nostri (‘Jesus of Nazareth’), the novel-within-a-novel, so devotedly written by The Master and so adored by Margarita – the manuscript that so famously cannot burn.

A novel as steeped in history as The Master and Margarita deserves some attention and a certain amount of reverence – something my own attention-deficit mind seems to struggle with and thus, please excuse my stumbling attempt at doing so. Bulgakov spent the last 12 years of his life focusing on this project, starting in 1928 but burning his manuscript in 1930. Restarting in 1931, he was working on his fourth draft when he died in 1940. Perhaps it was this that led to his famous exclamation that “manuscripts don’t burn”, after Margarita mourns the loss of The Master’s controversial novel. A novel, after all, will still fight for a way out of the author’s head and onto the page, regardless of how often that page is incinerated. First published in Moscow magazine, Bulgakov’s novel was massively censored, having around 12% of the original content removed. The first complete publication within the Soviet Union was in 1973, based entirely on the fourth draft, but the edition that is most popular today was published later, bringing in the earlier drafts to create a more complete and rounded novel.

The book, quite understandably, has droves of fans and maybe even a slightly cult-ish following but in true religious-allegory-style, it also has just as many fanatical opponents, who demonstrate against Bulgakov’s work at every level. So this book has quite a back-story. I had, of course, heard of the novel but when a copy happened to come into my possession through no effort of my own, I took it as a sign to begin reading immediately. Boy, that was a crazy few days (yes, I now feel tired and emotional enough to believe that I attended that Spring Ball with Margarita herself. To almost believe anyhow – I do not need a visit to Dr. Stravinsky – the novel’s resident psychiatrist, however much I’d like one).

The book can be read on so many levels and there are innumerable essays claiming that Bulgakov meant one thing or another. The themes, too, seem to be never ending – good versus evil, innocence versus guilt, courage versus cowardice. Freedom, love, sexuality, responsibility, truth and of course, religion. All these things play a role and help to create the philosophical allegory found running through the novel. Bulgakov throws in questions that can’t help but make you ponder, using Woland to make you examine your own thoughts and ideas. My favourite of all (if it’s possible to have a favourite amongst such beauties) is this:

Would you kindly ponder this question: What would your good do if evil didn’t exist, and what would the earth look like if all the shadows disappeared? After all, shadows are cast by things and people. Here is the shadow of my sword. But shadows also come from trees and from living beings. Do you want to strip the earth of all trees and living things just because of your fantasy of enjoying naked light? You’re stupid. (p.305)

The book, similarly, has been pipped as a socio-political satire. This is hardly surprising, given the context within which it was born. Soviet Russia was in full swing and Stalinism had stifled much of the country, making it intolerable. Bulgakov obviously refers to much of this through the novel, with the oppressive regime, fear, and economic struggles jumping out at the reader at regular intervals. Again though, this is nothing unusual – Bulgakov’s personal experiences are bound to come through in his work. Many have claimed that the novel, however, is just as much a satire of modern life in general as it is of Soviet Russia in particular, although Bulgakov far from derides all modern amenities. This can be seen through his mockery of society, class structure, and culture.

It’s true that I cannot refute any of these critics’ claims of satire and allegory but a big part of me wonders just how much of the analysis is necessary. With too much investigation and scrutiny, a book can lose its magic and whilst doing some research on the background of The Master and Margarita, I saw how easily this book could slip into that category. Thus, whilst it may be important (and may even be true), I urge you to forget about the commentary, the satire, the themes, the biographical content, and read it as I believe any novel is meant to be read – as an enjoyable, entertaining piece of literature, full to the brim with page-turning action, loveable characters (yes, even Woland and his henchmen), and hysterically funny narrative. This has been my first true foray into Russian literature and I can only promise that it certainly won’t be my last.

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