The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

The Master and MargaritaWhen you have a reading list as long as mine and you don’t know what to choose next, sometimes it’s just easier to just start at the top. A book which had been lingering for a long time on my list was ‘The Master and Margarita’ by Mikhail Bulgakov, a fantastical satire about Soviet Russia widely considered to be one of the masterpieces of 20th century literature. Although difficult to summarise a plot as such, ‘The Master and Margarita’ is essentially a story about the devil in the form of Woland the magician who visits Moscow and wreaks havoc with his accomplices including Behemoth, a cigar-smoking vodka-drinking cat. Embedded in the story is another novel written by the unnamed Master who has been incarcerated for writing a book about the crucifixion of Yeshua Ha-Nozri (or Jesus Christ) while his former lover, Margarita, seeks help from Woland to be reunited with him.

An appreciation of the context is essential to understanding ‘The Master and Margarita’ and the story behind its composition is as fascinating as the book itself. Written in secret during the early years of Stalin’s regime, ‘The Master and Margarita’ was revised, burned, resurrected and revised again several times before Bulgakov’s death in 1940. There are some obvious parallels between Bulgakov’s experience of writing ‘The Master and Margarita’ and the Master’s book about the crucifixion and Pontius Pilate, most notably in the famous quote “manuscripts don’t burn”. Although Bulgakov died believing that ‘The Master and Margarita’ could never be published, a censored version of the first part of the novel appeared in the magazine ‘Moskva’ in 1966 and became an instant phenomenon before the book was finally printed in full in 1973.

A bit of perseverance through certain passages was sometimes necessary but the notes in the Penguin edition helped me understand some of the more obscure Biblical and Soviet references throughout the novel which juxtaposes Stalin’s Russia with Pilate’s Jerusalem. Once I got used to the more abstract elements of the writing and how the different strands of the story were interwoven, I found the second half of the story in which Margarita finally makes an appearance more enjoyable overall than the first half.

Highly imaginative and surreal, ‘The Master and Margarita’ is a bizarre and often mind-bending reading experience but one that is well worth persevering with. Have you recently finished a book you had been meaning to read for ages?

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20 Comments

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20 responses to “The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

  1. This is a classic that I must re-read. Previously I tried three times to get started on it, and was third time lucky about 8 yrs ago. Then, I found I enjoyed the Pilate parts less though. Oddly my key in getting into it was the release of a documentary about the Rolling Stones track Sympathy for the Devil – which is inspired by the novel and I’d not realised before. Doh! Being a Stones fan it finally clicked and I loved it.

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  2. Thanks for the review (and the context of the book) – a friend whose reading taste and style I admire greatly put this on a list of her favorites, but I’ve always been a bit hesitant of trying to take it on.

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  3. This one is on my reading list as well. I really enjoyed the diary of a young doctor and your review make me want to read it even more. Also i didn’t know the story behind it is very interesting Thank you!

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  4. This is my favourite book of all time. It even tops Les Miserables on my favourites list. Glad you liked it!

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  5. I read Master and Margarita in Russian in college and have since gone back to read it again (alas in English, my Russian abilities degraded). I love the book, the story behind it, and find his portrayal of Pilate the strongest and most intriguing part of the novel. Thanks for your review.

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  6. I think I read this right….a cigar-smoking-vodka-drinking-cat. You had me there. I’m looking forward to trying this out.

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  7. Col

    Like Irtrovi I read this as a student. I also read it in English as my Russian didn’t degrade as much as never got started really! I was really impressed by I t when I read it but if am honest think was probably too young and immature to fully appreciate it. It’s always been one of those I’ve planned to re-read but never got around to. You’ve just reminded me so will look out for a copy( as my dog-eared, alcohol-dipped student copy fell apart during a house move a few years ago! That makes me realise that perhaps it wasn’t immaturity that stopped me appreciating it but the fact that I read a lot of it while I sat in pubs!)

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  8. I just bought this one,and I don’t know when to read it!
    I picked it because I know it received great reviews by almost everybody!
    I hope I will like it!

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  9. I bought this book in high school at a teacher’s recommendation, got super excited to read it, and then never actually started. Argh, and it sounds so good! Your review has reminded me to dig it up. (I keep resolving to read it every year and then newer books pile up over old classics. The eternal predicament of too much to choose from.)

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  10. I’m reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One hundred Years of Solitude, and finding my imagination and political sensitivities equally stretched.

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  11. kateatthekeyboard

    This is one of my all-time favourite novels! It is a bit hard going at times but it really is worth the perseverance,

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  12. Great review, and what a wonderful read this book is – like some earlier commenters – I think this needs to go on the TBRe-Read pile – a pile which is even larger than the TBR pile!

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  13. Thanks for the review. I’ve seen references to it & been curious, but thanks to your review I can now cross the book off my list.Currently I’m wading through Proust’s “Remembrance of times past” & this willl more than fill my quota for 2014 Difficult Books!

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  14. I love this book. Great blog

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  15. Reblogged this on Chasing Woland and commented:
    A Little Blog of Books and Other Stuff recently reviewed the Penguin Classics edition of The Master and Margarita:

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  16. I’ve had this book on my shelves for a couple of years now, and I really must get to it this year; perhaps I’ll save it for the winter months when I tend to be in the mood for something chunky.

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  17. Great review of a book that can be really tricky to penetrate. Plus you read the Penguin translation, which isn’t nearly as good or accessible as the Picador translation by by Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O’Connor (in my humble opinion.) We read it for book group and it was really interesting to see who struggled dependent on this – plus just how much everyone enjoyed it against all the odds. Gotta love a gun toting cat 🙂

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  18. Pingback: The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller | A Little Blog of Books and Other Stuff

  19. Wm Jack

    I’ve had a hard time summarizing “The Master and Margarita” for others. Sometimes it comes out better than others, but never good enough (too long, too short, too flippant, too serious). You do it beautifully and masterfully. I am envious.

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