I finally finished this extremely well-known novel. The Master and the Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov is easily one of the most read and discussed novels since it’s publication in Russian (1967 & 1973) and English (1967). Interpretations of the novel have been made for graphic novels, stage, film, and various other formats. There are icons and symbols – to include little statues, postcards, stamps, and all sorts of other artefacts that celebrate or commemorate this novel.
To say Bulgakov struggled a bit in writing the novel is true, but sounds somewhat unfair. Bulgakov struggles continued from 1929 – 1940. In that time period, he burnt a manuscript, moved, and made at least four versions. This was not an easy novel for Bulgakov to write. Some of that shows through, I think. I understand that this is a translated version, but I do feel there are sections where the writing grows thicker and jagged.
Overall, the novel is divided into two parts over (in my copy) 400 pages. There are bunches of endnotes that explain dozens of references that Bulgakov slips into his novel, if the reader is so inclined to learn the details. I admit that I did this sparingly. It’s difficult to want to do this in a fiction novel – I feel it interrupts the storyline too much to read a quick entry from an endnote/glossary.
Since the Margarita does not show up as a character until the second part, I feel the title The Master and the Margarita is only one of a number of titles this novel could have been named. Frankly, I would have named the novel The Ordeal of Ivan Nikolayevich Ponyrev.
Anyway, it would be ridiculous to attempt any real plot summary in this review. Suffice to say, the devil and his entourage shows up in Moscow and upends the place for about four days. The neat thing is that the devil neither announces his presence nor hides it. One of the things that I think Bulgakov did an excellent job with is the way he writes the antics of the devil’s lackeys. It is downright chilling and creepy how easily the devil plays on people’s vices or how easily he leads them toward conclusions that are obviously wrong – but are what they wish to conclude. These parts of the novel are gripping and insightful.
Sure, there are depths of satire and humor here as well. But it’s almost a darker humor than most Americans in 2012, for example, would be used to. Still, there are some quite amusing moments. Without a doubt, there are, too, some very creative scenes – the Ball that Woland forces Margarita to play hostess at is intense and creative. But the magic show at the Variety Theatre is definitely one of those must-read/must-know chunks of world literature.
For my tastes, though, this is not my favorite Russian classic. I really liked the opening sections of the novel – with Berlioz and Ivan at Patriarch’s Ponds. The chapters there and following are awesome. As I said, I loved the Variety Theatre show. But I lost a lot of attention and care with the sections dealing with Margarita and (more or less) anything after Chapter 25. Margarita (self-sacrificing? devoted? courageous?) is still not a likeable character (to me) and I had a difficult time caring about her and the Master’s relationship. The last chunk of the novel is where the reader is supposed to start piecing together how thorough Woland has been, the morals of the entire storyline, and the connections between the manuscript of the master and the thoughts and dreams of Ivan Nikolayevich. However, it lost a lot of steam for me – got a bit too slow, or uninteresting, or something. I really do think it’s because I am not a Russian in 1940. Sometimes, Woland seems lazy and maybe gets more credit than his due – his lackeys seem to cause more havoc than he does. Woland is a brooding sort of devil. Overall, four stars for the majority of the book.