The Master and Margarita is biting satire beautifully written. The Devil and his entourage turn Soviet Moscow upside down and inside out. Lives are ruined, lives are saved. Two women throw off their clothes and discover their power. Jesus is tried and crucified. There is a theatrical spectacular and a grand ball. Shots are fired. Buildings burn down. Love wins.
One of the reasons I love this book so much is the layers and layers of humor, meaning and emotion. I lucked into a beautiful translation by Mirra Ginsburg. She captures Bulgakov’s absurd humor without losing his bite. A “citizen arrest” of a black tom cat is a good example without getting into plot spoilers:
As soon as the tom was delivered to the precinct, the officers found that the citizen reeked most revoltingly of alcohol, which cast immediate doubt on his testimony. Meantime, the old woman, who had learned from neighbors that her tom had been arrested, rushed to the militia and just made it in the nick of time. She gave the tom the most flattering testimonial, explained that she had known him for five years, since his kittenhood, vouched for him as for her own self, and proved that he had never done any evil and had never been in Moscow. He had been born in Armavir, and it was there that he grew up and learned his honest trade of catching mice.
The passage is farcical and the tone is lighthearted and breezy. Layered beneath humor is reality. People were being arrested and disappeared on the barest of suspicions. This passage is not the funniest or most biting, but those passages would be spoilers. I can’t go too much into the Master, his lover, Margarita, or his novel about Pontius Pilate without spoiling the story.
It feels profoundly odd to me that my two favorite books of the year involve the crucifixion of Jesus as a major plot point. No, I’m not suddenly going religious. The conservative Christian groups would be appalled by Christopher Moore’s Lamb and Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. Moore’s Jesus has carnal desires and Bulgakov’s devil isn’t such a bad guy. In both novels, the light of heaven is not the desired happy ending. When I was discussing the book with Natalie Kapuler, who recommended the book to me, she said, “starving to death in peace is the closest you get to a happy ending in the Soviet Union.”
Bulgakov satirizes the bureaucracy of state-sponsored art, the police, and a citizenry that informs on one another. On a grander scale, Bulgakov is satirizing a society that has rejected magic, disorder and the artist. The Devil brings magic and chaos, and watches to see how the rational citizens of Moscow behave. The people who fare the worst in the book are the ones who deny the truth before them because it does not match the official truth promoted by the State.
You can enjoy the book without knowing Bulgakov’s story or understanding what like was life under Stalin. For a richer reading experience you should know that The Master and Margarita is a personal novel. Bulgakov started writing it in 1928, burned his first version in despair because it would not be published, and then re-wrote it and continued to work on it until shortly before his death in 1940. His widow, his ‘Margarita,’ saved the manuscript and was finally able to get a highly censored version published ten years after Stalin’s death. The uncensored version wasn’t officially published until 1987. In the decades before it was published in full, it circulated secretly as samizdat – self-published illicit writings. The KGB had control of all printing apparatus, so copies often had to be hand-written. Copying and possessing banned writings was an act of dissidence that could result in serious punishment.
Bulgakov’s relationship with Stalin himself was strange. Stalin wouldn’t allow Bulgakov’s work in theater or as a novelist to be seen by the public, but he also protected Bulgakov from persecution. Because he respected Bulgakov as an artist, Stalin kept him in the Soviet Union but unemployed. The humor in the book is sharpened and the heartache is heightened knowing that the author himself suffered like his character, the Master.
The first time I opened The Master and Margarita, I freaked myself out about reading ‘serious Russian literature.’ I was working hard reading each word. I was having no fun and not seeing the story. But then I took a deep breath and reminded myself I’m not getting a grade for this. I started again and just let the story unfold. This book is an exquisitely enjoyable reading experience. I laughed so hard in places that I cried. This is one of the great books you should read in order to be a well rounded person, just like your favorite comedian should be experienced by all people who want to understand what funny looks like.
You should read this book. It came to me with the highest of recommendations, and I pass it on to you with the highest of recommendations. I leave you with one last passage:
And then the moon bursts into frenzy, it tumbles streams of light upon Ivan, it splashes light in all directions, a moon-flood fills the room, the light sways, rises, washes over the bed. And it is then that Ivan Nikolayevich sleeps with a blissful face.