Monday, July 19, 2010

The Master And Margarita

Mikhail Bulgakov was a Russian playwright and novelist, best known for his posthumously published work The Master and Margarita.

To understand the work it helps to know something about its author. Being born in 1891, and having grandparents who were involved in the church, he saw the old deeply religious Russian empire and the new atheistic Stalinist dictatorship firsthand. He began writing The Master & Margarita in 1928 and did not complete it until just before his death in 1940 (he was in fact still working on the 4th version of the book at this point, so it may actually be regarded as incomplete). The first version was burned by Bulgakov in 1930, as he saw no future as a writer in the Soviet Union.

The book is set in 1930’s Moscow, where the devil in the guise of a ‘master of the dark arts’ called Woland comes to visit. Accompanying him are his assistants: the personable Koroviev, the fang toothed thug Azazello and the anthropomorphic gun toting tomcat Behemoth. The first part of the book mostly concerns itself with the havoc Woland and his cohorts cause in Moscow; predicting deaths and ‘outing’ members of society, having them investigated and in some cases ‘disappeared’ by the authorities seemingly just because they can. One person who unfortunately crosses paths with them is the atheistic poet ‘Homeless’. After witnessing the death of his literary patron; Berlioz, Homeless is institutionalized, where he meets ‘The Master’; a young writer who is in the institution for unspecified reasons.

The Master may be a vaguely autobiographical character, he’s a writer, and he was working on a manuscript that he burned before turning his back on society and being locked up. The Master’s manuscript; a version of the encounter between Christ and Pontius Pilate, also appears at various points of the story.

The second book concerns The Master’s lover; a spirited and beautiful, somewhat hedonistic lady, called Margarita. Bulgakov based her on two of his wives, although I rather fancied there were some parallels between her and Mary Magdalene, possibly influenced by the subject matter of her lover’s novel.

In the search for her lover Margarita encounters Woland’s associates, is given unearthly magical powers and taken to meet the devil himself. For me the book’s standout chapter is The Great Ball At Satan’s. Margarita seems to be the guest of honour and at a magnificent dreamlike ball held in the fifth dimension she meets all manner of characters, all sinners, but all so wonderfully portrayed in this one sumptuous chapter.

While The Master and Margarita are eventually reunited and the readers get to see the end of the writer’s story about Pilate I found the ending somewhat unsatisfactory, possibly because Bulgakov never really got to finish the book to his own satisfaction. It probably went on a chapter or two too long for me and I found the epilogue completely unnecessary, I didn’t require explanation of what happened to the many people whose lives Woland and his associates manage to so neatly ruin, it was implied at the time. I found the entire Pontius Pilate story dry and over long, not to mention wildly at odds with every other report of the events.

Bulgakov’s frustration with the regime he was forced to live under and his deep affection for the city in which he lived was evident in the narrative. Given the frank nature of the book and the subject matter it was unsurprising that it was not widely published until long after Mikhail Bulgakov’s death. It was circulated in a serialised and heavily censored version within Russia, but was not published in novel version or translated into English until the late 1960’s.

The Master and Margarita is well worth reading, even if only for that one marvellous chapter about Satan’s party. It will certainly make you think deeply as you’re reading it. I haven’t read anything quite like it previously, although the first part of it often brought George Orwell’s 1984 to mind and the second part with Margarita quite frequently recalled Clive Barker’s Weaveworld.


  1. As far as I know the book is mainly not about soviet regime, since the author had made rather good career in theater but mostly a good satire on the economical situation of 20-s and people flaws and collection of comparatively good or evil jokes on the author's colleagues. So the reader is recommended to read mostly not about political situation which at the time consisted of struggle for power in the upper class but about so-called "new economic policy".

  2. Thanks very much for the comment. I wasn't aware of that particular interpretation, but I can see how it fits the book.