Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Review: The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov


When I was a young person, I had a pen pal who described herself as "well read in Russian literature."

I at once wished I could make the same claim. How elegant, to be well read in Russian literature; how posh.

The kicker is, of course, that in order to become well read in Russian literature, one must actually read some Russian literature.

I sucked at that bit.

Over the years, I’ve read a little Chekov and a little Dostoyevsky, with a brief peek at Ayn Rand1 and a most enjoyable foray through Sergei Lukyanenko. That's it. I am in no way qualified to call myself well read in this area.

I guess part of the problem is that the most famous Russian novels and plays are a) from the 19th or early 20th centuries, meaning their syntax is not particularly friendly to my eyeballs, and b) by dudes, whereas I gravitate more strongly towards female-authored fiction.

There’s something to be said for reading work that’ll enrich your mind and expand your knowledge of the literary canon, even if you don’t necessarily like it; however, I believe that once you reach a certain point in your life, there’s a great deal more to be said for reading shit you’re reasonably confident you’ll enjoy.

Okay, then. I needed a Russian novel (or play, or essay collection, or whatever) that fit the bill.


Everyone told me I’d love THE MASTER AND MARGARITA [Amazon | The Book Depository | Scribd Audio].

By "everyone," I mean that no fewer than five people have pressed it on me over the last four years. These weren't random people; all are friends who recognize my literary preoccupations and are well aware of what I’d enjoyed in the past. This spurt of recommendation culminated in a gifted copy of the novel, three Christmases back. My very own edition was touted as a translation into "standard American English," which sounded most promising.

It pains me to admit that I didn’t love it.

That's not to say I didn't enjoy it, because I did. (Dammit, Internet, stop reading "I [anything other than loved] it" as "I hated it sooooo much.") And I've loved thinking about it after the fact. I’ve loved it so much that I decided to share my thoughts with the world, though I spent the majority of the novel certain I’d never speak more than a casual word about it.


Though I can't claim to be well read in Russian literature, I do have a deep and longstanding fondness for Russia itself. I came by this love via contact with the abovementioned novels and plays, a variety of documentaries on the Grand Duchess Anastasia2, some Russian-set novels authored by non-Russians, certain portions of my high school education, and a peculiar preoccupation with Russian photographic conventions.

Before it did anything else for me, THE MASTER AND MARGARITA reminded me of how much I love Russia, and why. Russian social conventions are wildly different from what I’m used to, whether we’re talking about the glittering, pre-revolutionary country, Bulgakov’s Moscow of the 1930s, or Lukyanenko’s post-Cold War take on the situation. Conversations twist and turn in ways that would confuse many Canadians with their different expectations for each participant. Familial organization and housing arrangements are utterly unlike what we have here in Canada. The architecture, both physical and social, fascinates me.

Russia is another world--one I’ve long wished to visit.

Except I've gotta let that dream go, thanks to legislation that makes it illegal to so much as speak positively about queer folks on Russian soil.

THE MASTER AND MARGARITA entranced me with its literary organizations, its twisty conversations, its uneasy relationships between residents and foreigners, its shared apartments, its theatricality, its careful bureaucratic dance. Then it reminded me I’ll never be able to see any of this myself, save through literature and film.

This bummed me out.


The trappings fascinated me. The story did not.

THE MASTER AND MARGARITA was not, for me, a book focused on its characters. I continued reading because I liked the prose (which still has a distinctly Russian flavour, despite the standard American English thing), because so many people assured me I’d love it, because it was often wonderfully strange, and because I figured it was about time I Expanded My Mind with something that held historical and cultural significance.

Every once in a while, I paused to reflect on what it all meant. Did my sketchy knowledge of 1930s Russia hamper my enjoyment of the text? How did the syntax impact my reaction? Was I enjoying it at all, or did I simply like bits of it? Certain scenes drew me in hard and held me close, but others left me out in the cold. What was the difference between them?


I often describe myself as a devout postmodernist. So far as I'm concerned, postmodernism is the belief that meaning lies with the reader or viewer. No one ever reads the same book, looks upon the same painting, or watches the same play (or TV show, or movie, or whatever). Our personal experiences inform our reaction to a piece of art, and the multitude of possible interpretations exist at once, in the same space if not the same context.

The beauty of postmodernism is that the term might mean something different to you. And we’re both right.

If you and I share our interpretations of a text, we might each find ourselves altering our previous opinion to accommodate what we’ve since learned about another’s perspective. The permutations are endless. It’s a glorious thing and I love it with all my soul.

Which is to say: I think cultural context and authorial intent are important, but they’re not the most important things about a work of art. They can influence how one reacts to a text, but it’s ultimately up to the reader to decide what it all means. To this end, my reviews are often as much about me as a reader as they are about the book under discussion because I think it’s important for y’all to know where my response comes from.

I snuck occasional peeks at the afterword as I read. The essay in my edition places THE MASTER AND MARGARITA within a particular cultural context; both that of Bulgakov as a creator and Russia as a country. It influenced how I thought about the novel, and how I’ve formulated my response--but it probably didn’t change my view as much as all that.


So. What does THE MASTER AND MARGARITA mean to the girl who sort of wants to be well read in Russian literature; who didn't care a fig about the characters; who wishes she could visit Russia and is angry that she can't; who believes in the reader's essential place in fiction?

It’s about madness and irrationality in a world that struggles to maintain order; a wild release of tension at a time when careful regulation is the norm.

Given my background studying Dionysiac imagery3, I can’t help but view the initial focus on the Variety Theatre and Woland’s performance there as a clear reference to Greek mythology. The theatre is the preserve of Dionysos, the god of madness, the Dying God. One might argue that the employees of the Variety all experience ecstasy--ie, religious madness that removes the individual from themself and makes them one with a higher power--when they come into contact with Woland and his associates, just as Dionysiac initiates hoped to when they enacted their mysteries.

And of course, Yeshua Ha-Nostri is also a Dying God (or, arguably, a stand-in for one), albeit one who preaches the goodness of humankind rather than a path of licentiousness.

Woland’s very presence deforms Moscow. It twists it into something at odds with its workaday identity, granting empty suits the power to conduct business and transforming office workers into unwilling participants in a musical extravaganza. Women become witches and the men who love them recognize the Devil from the barest description.

It is wonderfully strange. And as I understand it, Bulgakov wrote it at a time when strangeness, wonderful or no, was strongly discouraged.

For values of "strongly discouraged" that mean "ruthlessly eradicated."

The book, then, is a deliberate embrace of madness; a descent into something peculiar and dark and difficult to divorce from a religious worldview. It’s littered with writers and theatrical types--those who have the power to form and reform the world, but who must do so according to a particular set of specifications if they value their lives. And it gives them a space where they cannot help but rebel; where Woland’s influence gives them no choice but to reject the status quo and aim for something brutal, elegant, outside the norm.

I didn’t always enjoy reading it, but I’ve had a hell of a good time thinking about it after the fact.


The afterword informs me that Bulgakov knew, as he wrote it, that THE MASTER AND MARGARITA would never see print in his lifetime. Even still, he poured a tremendous amount of mental energy into his manuscript. He saw it as important work; as something to continue and to perfect, regardless of its potential audience or lack thereof.

I like that very much.

  1. Who might not have self-identified as Russian? I know she was born there, but from what I’ve heard of her she seems to have adhered more fully to American ideals; or, more accurately, to ideals she herself developed as a direct response to what she saw growing up in Russia.
  2. I love a good historical conundrum, and there was a time when Anastasia was my favourite.
  3. I have a degree in Art History and Classics, with a particular focus on both Dionysiac imagery and the Nativity Cycle. THE MASTER AND MARGARITA deals more with the Passion Cycle--ie, the death of Jesus--with which I am less familiar. Which is odd, really, because the Passion Cycle itself is Dionysiac. Dionysos and Jesus both fall into the Dying God tradition, with the main mythological difference being that Dionysos dies over and over again while Jesus only dies once. The religious and historical differences are, of course, much more pronounced, and more relevant in the largely Christian North America where I reside.


  1. OH NO YOU HATED IT. THAT IS SAD. (Ha ha. Little internet joke for you.)

    My sister gave this to me for Christmas years ago insisting I would love it, and the thing is that I am also not well-read in Russian literature because I tend to virulently hate all Russian literature. (Awful, I know.) So it's just been on my shelves collecting guilt. :/

    1. Dammit, Jenny, at first I thought you were serious!

      My own copy sat on my shelves collecting guilt for nearly three years, even though I've quite liked some the Russian plays I've read. (Which is to say, I liked them when I read them in first year Theatre, but that was a looooooong time ago and I might not like them now.) I haven't the heart to try, like, ANNA KARENINA or anything of that ilk. Maybe I'll pick it up the next time I feel like Expanding My Mind.

  2. I don't even own this book. I have come across it a lot in books about books... I should maybe just get it and read it... Some day...

  3. Hah! Well, I am not a Russiophile (is there such a word? if not, there should be), and I don't care for Russian lit, which to me is depressing beyond what I can bear (no pun intended), but I am so glad I forced myself to read The Master and Margarita, which I thought powerful and, as you put it, wonderfully strange, and I have not stopped thinking about it since I read it a year ago. Great review, Memory!

  4. First of all, I love that cover! So absurd.

    I read this so very long ago that I really need to reread it. I remember that I liked it, but can't remember WHY. I think you wrote an awesome essay about it and will come back and read it again after I reread the book.

  5. Madness and irrationality in a world struggling to maintain order...that's beautiful. Although I might say that it's not the world struggling to maintain order, but the opposing forces of governmental control. As in The Screwtape Letters, Lucifer is the one you're supposed to identify with, at least to some extent.
    I read Russian novels when I was 17. My son is reading them now, at the age of 17. That is the right age for them.