When 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?