The Master and Margarita. To me, it had a faint ring of sadomasochism to it, a slight hint of the naughty. I picked it up knowing nothing about Mikhail Bulgakov, nothing of his life or circumstances, idly wondering what this one would be like in comparison with other Russian novels I’d read. Surely not religious, like Dostoevsky, or insightful, like Tolstoy, but maybe interesting enough to stick with; Michael Dirda recommended it, after all.
Four hundred pages later, I put it down, breathless, looking around for someone – anyone –I could force to read this masterpiece. A friend. A colleague. A six-year-old going home from school. Why had no one made me read this before? The idea that I might have missed out on it appalled me. I considered writing a thank-you note to Michael Dirda. It’s that good.
Bulgakov wrote The Master and Margarita in the direst of circumstances, under Stalin’s regime in Russia. Like so many writers, he was accused of being too conservative, a White Guard; his writing was insufficiently uplifting. So he was blacklisted, persecuted in the newspapers, and not permitted to publish his plays and novels; he lived in hiding, was sent for retraining, and watched those around him suffer even worse fates. This novel was written in secret (he burned it once, out of fear, and then rewrote it from memory), and published only after his death.
Yet the novel is riotously funny. Instead of allowing his bitter fear, poverty, and repression to permeate his work, his story of the Devil’s visit to Moscow is a whirlwind of fantastic pranks, tweaking the solemn administration, confounding their regulations, laughing at their certainties.
The style is a marvel: this, unlike Jennifer Egan’s The Keep, is what metanarrative should be. The Master and Margarita is woven of three stories: one about the Devil’s trip to Moscow, one about Pontius Pilate, and one about the titular master and his Margarita. Each story seems the most important until you think about the next; none could stand alone, and yet each is full and rich and textured. Bulgakov has a light, deft touch, but the emotional power of certain scenes – from humor to horror, from romance to farce – never fails to surprise you and catch you off guard. His portrayal of Biblical figures is unconventional, but not for heresy’s sake; he distances them from the figures we know, but brings them to leaping life as characters in his novel. The master is clearly a reflection of Bulgakov, suffering for his art, but he never permits himself to take on the role of saint or martyr. And even small side descriptions, like the moments when Margarita learns to fly a broomstick over Moscow, are pages of delight.
The translation is wonderful, too. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky are responsible for so many wonderful translations already, and this is another; it has almost none of that sense of heaviness that dogs most translations from any language. Their use of colloquial expressions is flawless, funny, idiomatic, and (as far as I know, not knowing Russian) perfect. It’s hard to convey humor, but this is marvelous.
There’s not a flaw in this novel, not a moment of hesitation. No novel is unputdownable in a household with small children and work to be done, but I never stopped thinking about it, itching to read it whenever I could get away. It made me laugh out loud in every chapter, and cry more than once. Despite its fantastic setting and characters, it was powerful in the way that real life is powerful. Even the last five words are inevitable, revealing, and sweet. I cannot recommend this book more highly. Everyone should read it, and as soon as possible. That this novel survived its circumstances is a blessing. Thank goodness, as Bulgakov says himself, in the character of the Devil himself (and who should know better?): manuscripts don’t burn.