Ever since Jenny reviewed The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov last year, I’ve been eager to read this completely new-to-me classic. When OneWorld Classics gave me the opportunity to receive a review copy of Hugh Aplin’s new translation, I just couldn’t say no.
To get an overview of what this book is all about, go take a look at Jenny’s review. She’s covered the bases quite nicely. Trust me when I tell you that you won’t want many more details than what Jenny provides, so I’m not going to offer much more information about the plot. Instead, I’ll focus on my personal reaction.
The Master and Margarita, which is widely considered Bulgakov’s masterpiece, is nothing like most of the Russian novels I’ve read (Anna Karenina, Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich). Those novels are all on the serious side and are generally realistic, psychological portraits of people and place. Although firmly ensconced in a specific time and place (1930s Russia), The Master and Margarita is a fantasy through and through–also a love story, a meditation on religion and meaning, a slapstick comedy, and a satire on politics and literature. It features some marvelous set pieces, including an unbelievable magic show and a ball that never seems to end. (After reading that particular scene, I couldn’t help but wonder whether Susanna Clarke is a fan.)
Much of what is written about The Master and Margarita focuses on its political importance and the difficulty Bulgakov had getting it written and published. The novel was not published until after his death, and that version was heavily censored. This is good information to know, but what struck me most about this novel as a first-time reader was not the politics but the fun. It’s a crazy, loopy, exhuberant story that goes in entirely unexpected directions. If you go in expecting an exposé of the Soviet system of governance, you’ll be disappointed. The politics aren’t so straightforward as that—in fact, I know that I missed a lot of what Bulgakov was doing because my attention was so focused on the plot and characters. Much of the comedy is broad and farcical, and the satirical bits are just as likely to focus on types of people that exist in all times and places as on Soviet political types. In short, this is a book that can be read and enjoyed on many levels, and I imagine it’s also one that will reward multiple readings.
I know that many people, including Jenny, have praised Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translation. I’ve only started paying attention to translators in the last three years or so, and as far as I know, I’ve not read any of their translations, so I can’t make any intelligent comparisons between Pevear and Volokhonsky and Aplin, but I found Aplin’s translation to be pleasantly readable. This OneWorld edition includes endnotes that explain the literary allusions and a helpful appendix on Bulgakov and his works. I could have done with more detailed endnotes, but there were enough here to keep from ever feeling entirely at sea.
For other opinions, see Steph and Tony Investigate, Farm Lane Books, and A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook. (I’ve linked to Matt’s first review at A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook, but he has many more posts about this book—he may be the book blogosphere’s greatest evangelist for Bulgakov.)