The Master and Margarita - Mikhail Bulgakov, Diana Burgin, Katherine Tiernan O'Connor Rating: 2.6667; "The Master and Margarita" thread: 3+

I originally thought to begin this review with "meh" as an initial reaction to this book but in composing this review I realized that that was inadequate to my reaction. "Meh" implies that there's no reason to read the novel, but I don't regret the days I spent with it and there's some really fine writing to be found here but I was left dissatisfied and wanting more.

Much of the novel is a satire on life in Stalin's Russia during the '20s and '30s and as such isn't all that different or much better (IMO) than similar literature from other authors (though still good and often funny). Mr. Woland (Satan) and his entourage - Korovyov; Behemoth, a black cat (sort of); Azazello; and Hella, a red-haired vampire witch - come to Moscow one fine day and proceed to upset the orderly, mediocre and atheistic lives of the bureaucrats who control society and the literary hacks who glorify it. There are two parallel stories. The first is Margarita's quest to save the Master, who has been institutionalized because of his literary proclivities. The latter forms the third thread as the Master's latest and worst "sin" has been the writing of a novel whose central character is a sympathetic Pontius Pilate.

Reflecting upon the book, there's a lot going on here, probably more than the book can bear. On one level, there's the satirization of Soviet Russia. This is the most obvious and easiest aspect of the novel to understand; readers don't need an appreciably deep knowledge of the era to "get" why totalitarianism is wrong or to enjoy the tweaking of the soulless bureaucrat. The scenes where Woland hypnotizes several hundred women into thinking they're wearing the latest Western fashions or when he teleports a self-important bureaucrat to Yalta and others are amusing and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny but like a Johnny Carson monolog they don't make much of an impact. It's the weakest part of the novel and it's unfortunate that it takes up its bulk.

Of greater, if undeveloped, interest are the other two plotlines. I'll begin with Pontius Pilate: The Master's greatest work is a fictional biography of Pontius Pilate that presents him as a tormented soul who doesn't want to crucify Jesus (Ha-Notsri) but is forced to by the contingencies of politics. For two thousand years, he's tormented by his weakness until freed by the Master. I don't think Bulgakov successfully integrates this (or the Margarita plot) very well into the book. The tone is too somber and introspective to gel, particularly with the absurdist satire. It's only in the last few chapters, as Woland and company prepare to leave Moscow, that the reader begins to see how this story does mesh with the other two.

It's the second thread - the story of the Master and Margarita's love for him - that most affected me; alone it deserves a solid 3+ rating, if not a 4. It's an Orphic tale of Margarita braving Hell to save the Master (with better luck than poor Orpheus and his Euridice). It's an homage to the power of authentic feeling (love) and unfettered imagination (the Master's work); and the scenes of Margarita flying naked and invisible over Moscow, trashing the apartments of the Master's fiercest critic, are some of the best realized in the novel. There's a scene in chapter 29 that hints at the profundities Bulgakov could have explored but didn't (at least in this work). Levi Matvei (Matthew the Evangelist) comes to Woland to say that "He" has read the Master's book and wants him (Woland) to grant the Master peace:

"Nothing is difficult for me to do," replied Woland, "as you well know." He was silent for a moment and then added, "But why aren't you taking him with you to the light?"

"He has not earned light, he has earned peace," said Levi in a sad voice.

"Tell him that it shall be done," replied Woland. (p. 305)


Here we have an intimation of the complexities of Good and Evil, and why it's not a simple matter of being "for" or "against" anything.

In the end, I couldn't connect in any significant way with the rest of the book, which made it a chore to read and enjoy at times (and I don't blame that on the translators - Dianna Burgin & Katherine O'Connor - who appear to have done a fine job of rendering the Russian).