Category Archives: Master and Margarita, The

The Master and Margarita: Read from February 14 to 28, 2014

Russian literature gets a bad rap for being dry, thick, and dull, when the reality is much of the most respected Russian literature is filled with fantastic flights of fancy, and outrageous absurdities. Take, for example, a small scene in Anna Karenina where all of a sudden we get narration from the point of view of Levin’s hunting dog. This scene seems so natural it’s easy to forget we’re getting the inner-monologue of a dog. Gogol, who Bulgakov is most similar too, was famous for his absurdities: his story The Nose is about a man’s nose that leads a life of its own. And even that most serious of authors, Dostoevsky, wrote his best works about the struggles of man against the powers of the supernatural. And while many good people would scoff at the idea of religion being lumped into the same category as mere “fantasy”, the idea of a naked witch riding a man turned into a pig over a sleeping Moscow is not that much harder to believe than an angel falling from heaven and corrupting all of mankind.

But what is this book about? Yes, the plot is easy enough: The Devil comes to Moscow, causes all sorts of trouble, then leaves, but that’s not what the book is “about”. For me, this novel was about a search for truth.

Famously, Communism biggest flaw was that after awhile everyone under it grew apathetic, nobody bothered to fix or change anything because it couldn’t be fixed or changed; there was no point looking for the broken pieces because it would just cause a lot of trouble. But couldn’t the same thing be said of religion? How do we know that the story of Jesus and Pontius Pilate happened as it says in the New Testament? Bulgakov makes a good case for his version of events being much more realistic than what’s in the Christian Bible. Yet the story we have in the Gospels talks about a man who while being crucified suffered so that man could be forgiven for all their sins and on the third day after his burial he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. Millions of people take that for an absolute, unarguable fact.

But how do stories really get told? Aren’t the best stories really just exaggerations built upon more exaggerations? Couldn’t the story of Homer in The Odyssey have started out as a true tale of a man lost at sea for awhile who managed to return home (an exciting enough story as it is), but then have been built upon by countless storytellers who turned it into the epic poem we now know? And maybe that’s why in this novel The Master is belittled by the editors – not just because he’s written the true (and less supernatural) version of events concerning Pontius Pilate and Jesus – but because he’s dared to use his imagination at all in communist Russia. After all, Russia at the time was a state built on scientific reason, absolute logic, and pure atheism; Russia was building a new world order but was failing miserable, as Voland quickly discovers and as Bulgakov so humorously explores.

One of the greatest feats the novel pulls off is creating Pontius Pilate as a sympathetic, complex character. He’s not made out to be the good guy, but neither is he all evil, either. And by the end of the novel we understand the real meaning of what Jesus (Yeshua here) preached when he said all men are good (something Pilate completely disagreed with). Salvation awaits for even the most troubled of people and is where, I believe, Bulgakov was being optimistic about what would happen one day in Russia – that communism would fail (which it did 60 years later).

However, all this would be just dry academic babbling if the book itself weren’t any good, and oh, boy is this book wonderful. Ranging from moments of pure insanity – a cat with a gun – to moments of beautiful tenderness such as the fate of Judas and the moonbeams, this novel covers so much ground that it’s nearly impossible to pin down and say with any certainty what it’s really all “about”. What is is though is wonderful, funny, and touching. The Master and Margarita is one helluva story and there is nothing else quite like it.

99% done with The Master and Margarita

It’s quite a trick for a novelist to keep under control a story in which literally anything can happen at any moment: ghosts flying about, rooks driving cars, naked women riding flying pigs.

Interesting how at home Voland (the devil) is on earth while Matthew Levi and his kind seem like mud-smeared crazies stumbling about in sandals and stealing bread knives. Probably because peace can’t happen in this life.

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It’s no surprise the ruling communists were not thrilled with this book – parodying the secret police as a bunch of fools who can’t shoot straight is not going to win you any government friends.

Yet what’s interesting is that Bulgakov does not equate these buffoons with the devil, they are in fact combating evil in this scene, and doing badly too. It’s as if governments are a different kind of power, like Pilate.

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I love the image of the sliver of moonlight illuminating only the straps on the sandals of dead Judas. After, we get the dream of Pilate walking with Yeshua along a moonbeam and debating philosophy.

Matthew Levi is an unusual study; he’s dirty as a beggar and half mad, too. He’s what you’d expect a doom prophet holding a sign to be like.

Bulgakov picked the most complicated characters from the New Testament.

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Who doesn’t dream of being royalty, right? Well if all your subjects are criminals and you’re still forced to entertain each of them all night long no matter how tiresome – and you have to do that all the time, it would get old really quick.

At least that’s my reading since I think Bulgakov is comparing the Margarita to a Czar and the damned to the boyars. They were slaves, after all.

Annushka is a folk tale.

65% done with The Master and Margarita

It feels like there are a lot of images of superstitions and folklore that haunt around the edges of the story. Margarita, naked and flying a broom like a witch, is followed by her maid, Natasha who is flying a pig. The critic who ruined the Master, has his home destroyed by an invisible, naked woman who only stops when she sees she’s frightened a small boy who she convinces him it’s all a bad dream.


55% done with The Master and Margarita

Obviously, according to the old saying, money is the root of all evil and is probably why it plays such a role here. However, there is a Russian superstition about the handling of money – you’re not supposed to put money directly into someone’s hand for fear of transferring evil energy.

I love the image of the sparrow dancing to the foxtrot in the doctor’s office.

We finally get to meet Margarita.

48% done with The Master and Margarita

It really is funny how a book where a cat can talk, the devil can appear and do magic tricks to a packed theater, currency can turn into a bee, and a novel won’t burn in the fireplace, contains the even more ‘fantastic’ element of the retelling of the Crucifixion of Jesus as it might have really happened before the story was embellished beyond all recognition and sense. This is the book’s true genius.

I love this!

42% done with The Master and Margarita

“Turn in all your currency!”

The currency really has two meanings: in a communist state everything belongs to the state and everyone has just what they need, foreign currency is not needed.

The other meaning would be secrets; there will not be any secrets; the state knows everything and will catch you in a lie anyway so turn yourself in now.

I love the audience of all bearded men- very orthodox, very Russian

38% done with The Master and Margarita

I love how everyone is slowly being admitted to the lunatic asylum, one strange case after another.

The novel burning scene was brilliant. Of course the book wouldn’t burn, but I take it not so literally but more symbolically since it would be hard to remove all traces of your work – some still lingers in your mind.

With as much as is going on between the lines here, it rises above and tells a great story, too

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The theater chapter, while I’m sure is teeming with literary nuance and insightful reference, is really best just enjoyed for what it is.

This style of fantastical storytelling is one of the pleasures of Russian literature. This strangeness can range from the horse beating in Crime and Punishment, to the outright bizarre in the Strugatsky’s “Monday Begins on Saturday’.

It’s pure imagination, but deeper, too.

22% done with The Master and Margarita

Pins, stabbing, needles, washing one’s hands, wringing of hands, the devil knows, headaches, losing one’s head both figuratively and literally.

The book is a fever.

Is Bulgakov implying the state is the devil? The state can judge your story as true or not true or either when is convenient.

And the narrator keeps addressing us, the reader, as if we all know this story to be well true enough, we’re ‘in’ on it

17% done with The Master and Margarita

There is such a frantic pace to the book it’s hard to slow down and take it all in. I wonder if this is part of the point since the devil would be lost among all these quickly moving details – the modern world?

The cat is unusual; I know it’s a famous character but as yet we’ve only seen it trying to catch a bus.

Berlioz ends it much like Karenina – there’s even a ‘prophecy’.

I love he’s satirizing writers.

8% done with The Master and Margarita

While the first chapter is something about what I was expecting – funny, unsettling, lively – this second chapter is remarkable.

The entire interview of Jesus by Pontius Pilatus as told by someone who might have had a first-hand account of the event and not the hand-me-down, word of mouth version passed down and distorted through the ages. All discussing truth, too.

The image of that bird stays with me.