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7th April
2009
written by Tony
This could almost be the title of a book by Jimmy Buffet... if that weren't so repulsive.

This could almost be the title of a book by Jimmy Buffet... if that weren't so repulsive.

A warning: parts of this review may seem a bit obtuse if you have not read this book. So. Go, read this book. You will love it. Then come back and read this review and you can see how smart I am and how much you agree with me. Really! Manuscripts don’t burn. So says Satan to Margarita late in the tale. Thus, Satan reveals a truth that Bulgakov found in his own life and brought to this book. The many meanings of this simple phrase offer an excellent metaphor for the novel itself. Quite literally, the notebooks in which writers of the day put their writing were not easily burned. But, of course, more than that, once something is written it takes on a life of its own, and is never really forgotten, and that is the true value and message of this tale. Bulgakov burned the first copy of this book after the failure of another of his works, only to resurrect it years later. In fact, the novel would not have been finished at all if it were not for Bulgakov’s wife. Bulgakov died before he could finish the masterpiece and the last portion was written by his wife. In this way the relationship between the Master and Margarita (our title characters) seems eerily prescient, and is almost certainly an allusion to Bulgakov’s relationship with his wife. Some people call this the best book of the 20th century. A lot of people, actually. I think that is an over-large claim (regardless of the book), and so intensely subjective that there is no effective way to argue for or against it. I would easily say that this is one of the best books of the 20th century, if only because I don’t think there is one best book for everyone ever. Other people’s opinions aside, this is, without a doubt, an excellent book. My appreciation of its mastery (ha!) only increases as I learn about the subtle (and not so subtle) allusions to external as well as autobiographical events that Bulgakov so skillfully wove into the rich tapestry of the plot. For the uninitiated, a brief plot overview: the Devil and his retinue come to Moscow and cause all sorts of trouble. Among those affected by Satan’s mischief are the “Master,” a failed writer, and Margarita, his lover and most ardent fan. Superficially, that’s about it. Upon casual reading, especially in our modern times where nearly everyone is a religious polyglot, it’s easy to miss why this book was so controversial in a newly communist (and very atheist) Russia, and how it stirs up controversy to this day among the religious faithful (Bulgakov’s apartment in Moscow was recently broken into by a religious fanatic denouncing his work as a promotion of Satan). Of course, there is far more to the book than my basic summary above. Also woven into the tale of Satan’s mischief among the secular Muscovites is a rather drastic retelling of the tale of Pontius Pilate and the death of Yeshua Ha-Nozri (Jesus of Nazareth) told through the writings of the titular “Master.” To take a tale of such singular importance from the Bible and turn it on its ear would have been enough controversy for most people, but Bulgakov also manages to put a decidedly eastern spin on the entire notion of Jesus and the Devil. The powers of good and evil seem more to be a balance than a battle, neither side really engages with the other or tries to “win” in any real sense of the word. In fact, there is no battle to speak of at any point in the novel and I get the distinct impression that the balance of good and evil is deemed necessary and eternal (read: Yin and Yang). Interestingly enough, all Satan (known to Moscow as Woland) does is punish various citizens for their greed and stupidity and victimize various others with what is the equivalent of supernatural practical jokes. Most of these jokes and punishments are repetitions of a theme on dichotomy and duality. Noise and silence, love and emptiness, truth and deception/denial, innocence and guilt (a large theme), courage and cowardice, revelation and stupidity/denial. So Bulgakov presents us with a layer-cake of brilliant allegory. We have the frosting, the, at times hilarious, slapstick humor that Woland and crew inflicts upon everyone around them. Cut a little deeper and we find the question of religion and the nature of good and evil and the question of balance versus victory. Mixed with that (this is a marble cake, of course, yellow and chocolate — naturally) we have the biting social satire dealing with Communist Russia and its denial of basic truths and endeavors to remove any hint of discordant views from the society it has built as well as its inherent distrust of foreigners. This distrust at least, proves justified in the novel as Woland dispenses with any pretense among the citizens and makes clear the shackles communist Russia has placed on common life. Deeper still we find the question of faith and faithfulness, not only in terms of religion but also concerning convictions and love. We see Margarita’s devotion to the Master, the neglected poet, the brilliant writer, and her tireless, strident desire to see him fulfill his potential and be recognized for his greatness. Throughout the novel she is the only person who keeps her convictions and stays true to her desires, and ultimately she is the only person who is truly rewarded. And not from the source liturgical tradition would demand. Oh the scandal! In the end, I think it all comes back to the quote. Manuscripts don’t burn. This is true in another sense, in regards to the novel and also society at large. Despite being banned and eventually heavily censored in Russia, the novel persisted and eventually gained wide acclaim, and well deserved acclaim at that. Singular truths cannot be denied, despite the best efforts of those who would have them hidden, and to this end Woland serves a very real purpose in this novel: he uses deception to make plain the veils behind which society hides, he uses lies to show the truth, and to show that the truth cannot be hidden, not forever. Who would imagine that Satan would be a beacon of truth and justice? Again, here we have balance, as nearly every negative action Woland/Satan takes leads to the clearing of cobwebs from the eyes of a society saddled with self-deception. And thus the dichotomy is complete. Manuscripts don’t burn. Truth will out. 5 out of 5

10 Comments

  1. 04/07/2009

    I’ve been wanting to read this one ever since my co-blogger, Jenny, gave it a glowing review, but I’ve been holding out for the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation, which my library doesn’t have. Which translation did you read? It seems like it worked for you, whichever one it was!

  2. 04/07/2009

    I have the Burgin and Tiernan O’Connor translation. I found the section of notes after the text quite helpful as well. I think any translation is going to be enjoyable, I feel as though most of the differences would be splitting hairs for the most part, of course I could be wrong.

  3. 04/07/2009

    I started reading this book a few nights ago. I think I might end up being very confused through a lot of it, but I’m looking forward to it. I’ll have to revisit your review once I’m done.

  4. 04/08/2009

    @ charley: The first part moves pretty quickly and I found myself a little lost as well, but as the book progressed things became more focused and clear for me. I think a lot of what happens initially is designed to evoke the feeling of bewilderment that Woland creates among those who meet him. Much of what happens initially becomes clear later. Enjoy!

    @ tuesday: Thanks! I hope you enjoy it when you do read it, I do wonder how substantial the differences between the translations are in the case of this book. Maybe I’ll have to read another translation at some point!

  5. 04/07/2009

    Ahh, like Teresa, I’ve been wanting to read this for such a long time! This time I’m going to make sure I get a good translation (still haven’t bought the P&V Anna Karenina hahah).

    Wonderful review 🙂

  6. 04/08/2009

    Beautiful review! I am so glad you liked this book, it is one of my absolute favorites. There is so much going on just below the surface, and so much to think about afterwards.

  7. 04/09/2009

    Tony: I don’t really know if the translation makes much of a difference with this book, but I had been holding out for the Pevear and Vohlonsky because I had heard very good things about it. Ever since reading what I suspect was a poor translation of Anna Karenina (that also didn’t have any notes), I’ve tried to only read translations others have endorsed. I’ll add the Burgin and O’Connor to the list of possibilities for this book.

    My library only has the Glenny translation–anyone out there read that one?

  8. 04/15/2009

    Your excellent review brings back a lot of thoughts on the duality of this novel, which is my all-time favorite. I can understand the controversy it caused by making (funny) allusion to Biblical parables and incidence and turn them against it. Whereas the Bible preaches absolute good and evil, The Master and Margarita is opting for the demarcation between the two, deeming the division irrelevant.

  9. […] Eva of A Striped Armchair who requested The Master & Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (you can read Tony’s review here)! […]

  10. […] Last year Tony read The Master and Margarita and loved it so much that he promptly told me that I needed to read it too.  Only, when I first picked it up, my brain was fried for sundry reasons and I simply could not keep up with the book’s manic and frenetic pace (not to mention all the long Russian names), and I made it about 80 pages in before I threw my hands up in exhausted defeat.  It was a book I was sure I would like if only I was in the right mindframe, preferably one that wasn’t constantly sleep-addled. I put it aside, but with the promise that I would try it anew in the future. […]

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