The Master and Margarita
There is a new project on the web and it prompted me to write this little review. It’s been 5 years since I read this book and to me it’s not just one of the greatest novels of modern literature, but (together with this) it’s what made me rediscover the pleasure of reading – not because you have to, but because you want to and because you know it’s a feeling you can’t find anywhere else. It’s one of those books that you just never want to end.
This is the book that gave us Behemoth, the fast-talking gun-loving black cat, the novel that put a human face to the devil (the face of Professor Woland) – all while making satirical references to the communist-and-godless USSR (upturned into havoc by the arrival of such characters) – how can one not love it?
In Moscow, in the 1930s, a odd looking foreigner (none other that Prof. Woland) has a baffling conversation with MASSOLIT artists Ivan Bezdomniy (the surname means “homeless”) and Berlioz in the aftermath of which the latter dies, while the first is committed to an institution. Here, he meets The Master, an author whose work (a historical novel about Pontius Pillat and Jesus) is rejected by the Soviet authorities, thus forcing him to turn his back on his former life (which included lover Margarita).
This brings us to the second setting, as the confrontation between Pillat and Yeshua Ha-Nozri as described by Woland in his conversation with Berlioz and echoed in the pages of the rejected novel.
The third setting is way past the borders of “magical realism” and downright in the middle of “fantasy”. Margarita, out of love for the Master, makes a deal with the Devil, who turns her and her maid into quite powerful witches; Margarita flawlessly hosts the Midnight Ball (in the Walpurgis Night) and Woland grants her wish – to be together with the Master.
I have made this sound rather simple and plain, yet it’s anything but. It’s a rather hard to read novel, because its density varies and you never know what to expect next. The story of Pillat strikes me as the most straightforward, while the ball, or Margarita’s flight are more difficult pieces. The fragments I found most engaging though, were those featuring some kind of “Moscow vs. Woland” match, a match with clever, fast, witty lines, hiding underneath a much more serious reality. (And since we’re on the subject of witty cracks about the Soviet Union, I saw that Ilf & Petrov have been reprinted by RAO – I read their books also about 5 or 6 years ago, and I can’t help wondering how I’d look at them now, since I’m…you know, older and wiser 😉 )
In the tradition of the Russian novel, Mr. Bulgakov is influenced by Dostoyevsky and Gogol, but mostly by Goethe’s “Faust”, and he has, in his turn, influenced some of the greatest artists of today, from Mr. Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses” to Franz Ferdiand’s “Love and Destroy” (or so Wikipedia would have us believe 😉 ).
There have been several on-screen adaptations of the novel, and I was reticent to watching any, because I thought a lot of the book would be lost. But, since it was on TV, I watched the 2005 10-episode miniseries and it totally won me over, so if you can get your hands on it (here….or maybe here 😉 ) it’s definitely worth your time 🙂
And, right at the end, a little request: if anyone knows where I can find a translated version of Robert Conquest’s “The Great Terror”, please, please let me know 😀