The true university these days is a collection of books.
-Thomas Carlyle

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

When I said that I wanted to 'read another Russian' at the beginning of the year, a kind person e-mailed me with this book as a recommendation. I liked the sound of it so it joined my wishlist and a friend then bought it for me. It sat on my TBR pile for a few months until I saw that it was the favourite novel of Sjon, the author of The Blue Fox (review here), so it was time to give it a go.

Written just before Bulgakov's death in 1940, but not published until 1966 this novel follows the events affecting some of Moscow's literary elite when the devil and his motley band of followers (including a big black cat called Behemoth and a naked lady) pay them all a visit, resulting in carnage and chaos in the city. Posing as a magician and calling himself Woland, the devil takes over someones flat, causes several people to be admitted to the local mental hospital, undertakes a show at the Variety theatre causing the audience to strip naked and run out of the theatre with fists full of paper that they are convinced are money and lots of other mischief. The only people resistant to Woland are The Master, currently residing in the same mental institution previously mentioned, since his disappointment over his own novel about Pontius Pilate, and his ex-lover Margarita. Woland invites Margarita to a ball where history's most macabre characters are due to attend. But beforehand, she is transformed into a witch and flies over Moscow and Russia to a lakeside. This is one of the novel's more fantastical scenes, as well as the ball itself where Margarita is guest of honour and has to receive the bizarre and the wonderful while sitting naked. Margarita manages to pull this off and is rewarded by Woland. Interspersed with all of this are sections from The Master's book about Pontius Pilate and the events of the day of the trial and execution of Yeshua Ha Nostri, or Jesus of Nazareth as we know him more commonly.

The language of this translation and the literary style of the novel is not difficult to read, and certainly the narrator in my version resembled the chirpy, friendly voice that reminded me of the narrator in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke (which I never completed). This constantly cheery voice may possibly be to convey humour but the resemblance to a Blue Peter TV childrens show presenter seemed to totally belie the subject matter. This is probably personal to me, and could be a voice I have concocted in my own mind, but it is one of the reasons I stopped reading the Susanna Clarke novel.

I have found the review of this book to be one of the hardest ones I have had to write, not only for the complicatedness of the novel, it's story and themes, but also because of how I feel about it. When I told a work colleague, who has also read it, that I was writing this review, he said, 'Where are you going to start...?'

There were parts of this novel that I enjoyed immensely. Mostly the beginning few chapters, and the sections about Pontius Pilate as an alternative view of an ingrained story from the Bible. I also liked it that Woland was not your conventional kind of devil, showing a generous and also a compassionate side. However there were other sections where I was aware of my attention waning. Hordes of more naked women ended up boring me. I like fantasy realism a lot (see my review of The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue) but some style of fantasy may just not be to my taste I guess.

When I was trying to think of what to say in this review I realised that I have probably enjoyed the novel more afterwards, while reading about it's innovative stance on social and literary issues in Russia at the time, rather than during the actual reading of it. There is another author, a hugely loved and inspirational writer, who has had the same effect on me, and that is Virginia Woolf. I can see the reason why they are important, I can admire their forward thinking and talent, I enjoy learning about them and their work and some parts are memorable, but the reading of the book itself was hard work.

This book is an excellent choice for reading groups however. There is such a lot to talk about both with the story and also its literary and social context and it will probably raise a whole array of opinions. I am glad I read it, some of it will stay with me, even though I didn't find all of it enjoyable.

Penguin does a Master and Margarita reading guide if you click the link.


Biblibio said...

That's interesting to hear. "The Master and Margarita" is one of my all-time favorite books, possibly one of the most brilliant books I've ever read, yet I've encountered quite a few people who found reading it to be hard work. I guess it's not as suited to everyone's style as it was to mine. Fascinating review.

Michele at Reader's Respite said...

I've been slaving my way through Dostoevsky and left with a similar feeling...there are parts that I just love and parts I'm having to work hard for. But I'm always glad that I did it once the book is done....I like thinking about all those themes later.

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