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7th April
2010
written by Steph

Mmmm... margaritas...

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.

And so I did, and it went much better.  Though I must say, that I still found it wildly chaotic and I pretty much was only able to recall about 5 names (out of 15?) throughout the course of the book, so I can’t say all of my previous problems were surmounted, but at least this time I was able to deal with them.  But for all the better, did I love this book?

Not really.

Let me explain: I don’t think that this is a bad book by any means.  Far from it.  But here’s the thing: I kind of got nothing out of it.  The whole time I read it, I was struggling to identify themes that consistently resonated throughout the book, something a little deeper than all the surface action that was going on, and I have to say that I was unable to piece anything larger than the superficial narrative together.  Was it because so much crazy was happening that I got caught up in the details?  Perhaps.  But I also think that a huge part of my problem was that I simply did not have the background knowledge that may be necessary to really enjoy this novel.  You see, I don’t really know much other than the basics about 1930s Russia, and I also don’t have a strong background in the Christian mythos (and I don’t use that term disparagingly, I simply mean I’m not overly familiar with what is written in detail in the bible, except for, again, the basic gists).  Both of these elements are kind of critical to understanding/appreciating The Master and Margarita, at least in my opinion.

Is this a book that defies description?  Kind of.  I mean, I can boil it down to its essence: the devil and his entourage visit 1930s Moscow and chaos ensues.  But is that all the book is?  For me, yes, it kind of was.  But for those who are ardent fans of the book, I know it is more than that simple sentence conveys.  I talked to Tony A LOT when I finished this book, because I kept feeling like there was something fantastic happening beneath the surface, but I just couldn’t get at it.  I was like a Muggle walking down the street, my eyes slipping unseeing over the entrance to Diagon Alley.  I struggled to comprehend, for the bolt of insight to flash and for all to become clear, but it just never happened.  Tony would interpret things for me, tell me what he got out of the book (based on his best recollections), and at no point did I deny the truth of anything he was saying, but at no point did any of his statements ignite genuine understanding in me such that I could make personal sense of what I had read.  I could take his statements no further than what he himself had said, could find no other supporting examples in the text.

And it’s not that I didn’t try!  I did!  I looked at the frequent occurrences of fire throughout the book, and tried to run with that: what did it symbolize?  My conclusion: ?????  I tried to consider why the book itself was controversial, what about it would be censored.  Again, I drew a blank.  I looked at why the book was titled the way that it was, even though there are many characters in the book, the Master and Margarita, just being two of a crowd.  Guess how I fared there!

Seriously, reading this book was like ramming my head into a brick wall. Repeatedly.  I realize that image is not a pleasant one, so I don’t mean to suggest that this was a painful book to read.  It wasn’t.  It was fun, and I liked the weirdness of it.  But it’s the analysis and interpretation that I find so frustrating.  Because this is a book that, as much as I would wish it to, just doesn’t speak to me.

I suppose that’s the way these things go, though.  No single book will work for every reader; no matter how fervent its fans, there will always be detractors.  Maybe this book didn’t work for me because I lacked the foundation to appreciate it.  I spent time contemplating what this meant for a book, if it requires an entrance exam of sorts in order to be understood.  Shouldn’t every book be ready for any reader?  At first I thought so, but then I realized that this was an unrealistic and perhaps unreasonable expectation.  We all come to books from different places, every author writes his work from his own space, and not all of those places and intrinsic expectations and experiences are going to jive harmoniously.  Then again, I do think there is a universality about the books that I love.  I have always thought that the books I respond best to are the ones that seem to speak to and tap into the very essence of a common human condition.  But maybe that’s tunnel vision on my part.  Maybe all these books are doing is tapping into my own person, my own spirit, and I am simply assuming what’s mine is shared with everyone.  I can’t know how others feel, I can’t know how others perceive the world, whether there is a common perspective.  All I can ever be certain of is my own reaction to a book.

I can’t help but feel that my inability to connect with this book is a failure on my part, but thinking that way isn’t productive, I know.  All I can know is that I gave myself over to the reading experience in good faith, even if it didn’t turn out as I had hoped.  And I can’t say that The Master and Margarita didn’t give me anything in return.  It made me think, and think hard at that, even if answers eluded.  And in the end, it gave me something larger than itself to contemplate and discuss, so for that, it was worthwhile.

Rating: 4 out of 5 (because I know it’s good, I just don’t know why…)

14 Comments

  1. I had a similar experience with this book. I enjoyed reading it, but felt that much of it went over my head. I have got the graphic novel version of the book and have had a quick flick through it. I think that seeing the simplified version in picture form made the book a lot clearer to me. I’ll have to get round to finishing that version soon.

  2. 04/07/2010

    I hate those experiences, knowing a book is good but not connecting with it!

    I have bad luck with Russian books in general, with the exception of Nabokov’s books. :/

  3. 04/07/2010

    I’ve started this book.. 3 times, I believe, but always end up setting it down. I think I want to read it eventually, but my guess is that my reaction might be similar to yours.

  4. 04/08/2010

    I started this book a few years ago because my best friend kept raving about it and told me I had to read it. So, I picked it up and read a good amount of it before I decided that I was just not into the book. It just did not jive with me at the time. Perhaps now, many years later I would have a better chance of finishing the book – but as far as loving it, I’m not so sure. Thanks for your review – I’m glad I’m not the only one who doesn’t gel with these books that are labeled – ‘must read’ or ‘greatest book ever written’. Cheers!!

  5. 04/08/2010

    I have been intimiated by this book mainly because I worried it would be “wildly chaotic.” That said, I love the premise you shared: “the devil and his entourage visit 1930s Moscow and chaos ensues.” Wow, that sounds awesome. I may have to give this a chance when I have the mental energy to appropriately do so.

  6. 04/08/2010

    @ Jackie: I’ll be really interested to see how you respond to the GN version of this book. It might make it easier to keep track of the characters!
     
    @ Amanda: I rarely feel as bemused as I did with this book, but these things do happen. I know you’re not the biggest Russian lit fan, so I’m not sure that this is something you would enjoy…
     
    @ charley: It only took my two tries to get through this, but I admit there were times this time through when I considered forsaking the book again. I’m glad I stuck it out until the end, but I do wish I could have taken more from it.
     
    @ Nadia: It’s always doubly hard, I find, when someone you respect recommends a book (or just plain loves a book) that you then fail to connect with. But of course, everyone is different and I know that there are some books that I love that others won’t care for!
     
    @ Rebecca: I would love to hear your thoughts on this one, because I think you might have a bit more of a footing to appreciate some of its elements (especially the parts on biblical vs. historical Jesus). And yes, the premise was super awesome, I just wanted to take more from it!

  7. 04/08/2010

    I read this quite awhile ago, and loved it. I admit that a lot of it went over my head, but there was so much going on that it was one of those books that I could puzzle about for a long time after I had finished it. I think I got most of the religious aspects of the book, but the parts about Russia were harder for me to understand. Actually, the weirdest thing about this book for me was the fact that I loved it so much the first time around, but when I tried to reread it a few years later, I had a very hard time getting into the story and keeping the narrative threads straight. It may have been the wrong time for a reread, or perhaps I didn’t get as much the first time around as I had originally thought. I am not sure what to make of it. It was a weird experience. That being said, I think one of the things I loved the most about the book was the unpredictability and chaos of the plot. There were times when it seemed almost impossible to comprehend all of what was going on at the time, and I liked that for some reason. I am sorry that you didn’t totally connect with this book, but you explain your difficulties with it very well. I kind of agree with your assessment. It was a very difficult read, but I appreciated the parts that I did understand.

  8. 04/08/2010

    I forgot to mention this on my earlier comment, but Bulgakov has another book out there that I have read called Heart of a Dog. It is a much shorter book, almost a novella, and I thought it was pretty good. The story doesn’t have as many heavy themes and symbolism as The Master and Margarita and it almost borders on magical realism. The two books are very different. Just thought you might want to check it out.

  9. 04/08/2010

    It took me a couple of goes as well. However when I was finally in the right frame of mind, it blew me away – I’d just seen a film about Sympathy for the Devil by the Rolling Stones which references the book, and my love of the Stones was the catalyst for thoroughly enjoying the book I think. Also with a few years in between tryings, I was able to appreciate the satire just a bit more. I’d be interested in reading the graphic novel version though …

  10. 04/08/2010

    As usual, love your thoughts. I’ve come across so many books that I “should” like, but don’t get to–or felt like I liked it, but really can’t claim that there’s any nobility in that liking; that is: maybe it’s influenced by the opinion that “this is a book smart people should love,” hahaha.

    It might interest you to know that it was Tony’s thoughts on the book that had me listing this book down (back when I still lurked). When you had your anniversary giveaway, it was my choice. I didn’t win then, haha, but I bought this book last weekend, and it’s leering at me right now. I’ll get to it soon.

    I think that whether or not my intentions would be pure, I’d end up liking this book, haha.

  11. 04/09/2010

    @ zibilee: I thought I would love this book since I do think it is an example of magical realism, and you know I’m such a fan of that genre, so I’m not sure what went wrong! It might be that on a subsequent re-reading I’d be able to get more out of it because I know the basic story now, but I certainly took my time reading it, so I don’t think it was an issue of me failing to pay attention. I liked the Bugakov kept me on my toes, but I just wish I had taken more than plot from the novel!
    I’ll keep Heart of a Dog in mind for future reading, however. It might be a better fit!
     
    @ Annabel: I think that’s the thing about satire – you really need to be in the right frame of mind and have enough working knowledge of what’s being spoofed to fully appreciate it. Perhaps a couple of years down the line will find me better appreciating this one.
     
    @ Sasha: That Tony is a pretty convincing reviewer, I must say! ;) I’ll be really interested in your thoughts on this one, because I could see you responding quite well to it!

  12. 04/10/2010

    I’ve been meaning to read this book, but now I’m worried. I definitely don’t have the background either, neither when it comes to Russian history nor when it comes to Christianity :\

  13. 04/11/2010

    Great review! You capture well what it’s like to grapple with a book that everyone says is good but that doesn’t quite work for you. It’s hard to know what to do in those cases. I felt that way about the Balzac novel I recently read; I think it’s foolish to say that Balzac is no good, since obviously lots of people disagree. But boy did I not get much out of that book!

  14. 04/12/2010

    @ Nymeth: Well, I will certainly be interested in hearing your thoughts when you do read this one. I think it’s a very personal book, and each reader may respond differently to it. For me it was certainly one of those books where I wanted to like a lot, but just couldn’t connect with it!
     
    @ Dorothy: Yes, reviewing classics and well-regarded books can be very difficult, especially when we don’t really connect with them. It’s rare that I get so little out of a book, but obviously it does happen! I think all we can do is to honestly discuss our reaction, but as you say, it would be silly to say this book is no good!

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