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?
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…)