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on February 17, 2002
Take these as essential ingredients: Satan, Jesus, Stalin, Pontius Pilate and Caesar's Empire, assorted literary critics, a great Artist and the woman who loves him, life in 1930s Moscow, a poet on the bitter road to truth, and various demonic henchmen including a big black cat. They add up to one of the greatest novels of the 20th Century, and one of the handful of most moving books I've ever encountered.
The fundamental purpose of Bulgakov's magnum opus is to hold up the harsh light of truth to the sins and hypocrisies of Stalinist Russia. There are three storylines here: one of them concerns the misadventures of Satan's retinue as they wreak havoc on Muscovite literary society, and presents some of the most penetrating satirical writing you'll ever come across; the second storyline centers around the fifth procurator of Judea, the equestrian Pontius Pilate, and his fateful encounter with Jesus leading to the latter's crucifixion; the final story presents the fates of a great writer (the master), and his lover (Margarita). Bulgakov brings the three stories together in a demonstration of narrative genius, to bury the oppressive fallacy of Soviet society and ideals beneath the combined forces of good and evil, of love, of freedom, and of magic and mysticism.
One brief note about available translations: after sampling most of the available English translations, I am firmly convinced that the Pevear/Volkhonsky version is far and away the best. The notes are excellent, and the introduction by Richard Pevear gives invaluable insight into the history of the novel and its ideas. But most of all, they give the narrative much greater vividness and depth, especially in the wonderfully lyrical Pilate chapters. This translation of Bulgakov's most remarkable novel is enthusiastically recommended!
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on April 25, 2005
Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky are very special translators of this highly complex work. Before you buy any other edition, check out the footnotes here which help to explain the more arcane elements of '30's Soviet culture and the context for much of the parallel story based on the Gospels. I read the first two pages of every edition in print and this had the best narrative flow and a richer texture. But, what else would you expect from the PEN translation award winners for "The Brothers Karamozov"?
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on March 24, 2006
This translation of Bulgakov's classic is unbeatable, and its endnotes are very helpful. In terms of accuracy and faithfulness to the original Russian text, Pevear and Volokhonsky's work here is unmatched, and it puts the Glenny translation to shame. With that said, I would recommend this edition particularly to those interested in understanding the novel's remarkable Soviet context. The Glenny translation will leave the average reader blind to much of Bulgakov's satire, but it offers perhaps a smoother overall read, often because of the liberties that Glenny takes in his translation.
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on October 12, 2010
The novel is a masterpiece, even though it is unfinished and unresolved. It is truly one of the great novels of the 20th century. I am saddened that the Mirra Ginsberg translation seems to have been usurped by this lifeless and leaden, Pevear/Volokhonsky translation. I am afraid that this inferior version has become the default and I don't understand why... perhaps simply due to marketing opportunities. I am curious to hear what other admirers of Bulgakov feel about this. This being said, it is still a great novel and I'm sure it will be enjoyed in this translation. But I implore you, do yourself a favor and get hold of the Mirra Ginsberg translation.
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on March 24, 2010
I came upon this book--The Master and Margarita--by one of those fortuitous accidents one morning before work that don't exactly change your life, like getting run down by a crosstown bus might, but change your life in the sense that I would have no doubt read another book entirely if I hadn't thought to stop on my walk in to work at a small, stuffy thrift store/pawn shop on the corner of 9th and something or other, maybe 44th. Anyway, sitting there, moldering away on a pressboard shelf among a lot of other forgotten, dog-eared paperbacks of bygone times was the edition of Bulgakov's classic--I say classic though I'd never heard of Bulgakov before--translated by Richard Pevear and his wife, whose new translations of Dostoyevsky I'd already enjoyed.

I figured it was worth the fifty cents the store was charging. So I bought it along with some little volume by PD Ouspensky about the possibly future psychology of man. Egads.

Anyway, "The Master and The Magician" is a fantastic read--the kind of novel you sort of expect from Russian writers: sprawling, philosophical, packed with characters of every description with names and nicknames you can hardly keep straight, comic, tragic, rollicking, digressive, transgressive--in short, something we don't see much in American literature outside of Melville's "Moby Dick."

It all starts with a conversation in a Russian park between an editor and a poet about the non-existence of the historical Jesus. Enter a strange character who claims to have actually been there when Pontius Pilate condemned Christ to be crucified. From that point on, all Hell breaks loose. Satan has come to the Soviet Union, literally, accompanied by his theatrical retinue, which includes a talking cat who walks about, in plain sight, on his hind legs. This bunch put on a magic show, purportedly to debunk and expose the falsity of magic, but in reality causing all kinds of mischief, completely disorganizing the harshly oppressive organization imposed by Stalinism on Russian society. People's heads fall off (and are then magically reattached), women become witches and fly naked on broom sticks over the city, cats shoot it out with secret police agents, cramped apartments open up into other dimensions....and so it goes, the illogic of the dream-world invades our waking one.

Stalin is Caesar, Pilate is the obedient Soviet functionary, Christ is a kind of holy fool, Judas is a snitch, the secret police are the same everywhere, in every time, and life on earth, which Satan, as the ultimate dissident, cannot, in the end, be controlled, not even by a Stalin.

This is a book that was written largely in secret by Bulgakov, that didn't become well-known until some twenty years after he croaked, a book that he probably would have been shot for writing if it had come to the attention of Stalin and his henchmen--a book, in another words, that was worth the writing and the reading because the author felt he had to write it, even under the shadow of death. I can't help but wonder in this context how many so-called "writers" today would write if such were the stakes of putting their pens to the paper? Can you imagine John Grisham or James Patterson writing what they write if they were risking their lives to write it? If Dan Brown faced being burned at the stake instead of earning gazillions of dollars do you figure he'd write "The Lost Symbol"? Somehow I think not.

Well, there's one good thing you can say about Stalin, and tyrants in general. At least he inspired great literature.
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on August 18, 2012
I have very mixed feelings writing a review of The Master and the Margarita. If you speak with practically any Russian who has graduated college in Russia, they have read the novel, and they smile when you mention it. And the story behind the novel is perhaps just as important as the novel itself. Bulgakov wrote it between 1928 and 1940 during the height of Stalin's Reign of Terror, and it wasn't until 1966 that it was published, and when it was published, it went viral.

Furthermore, Bulgakov's family and Bulgakov himself had supported the anti-Bolshevik White Army during the Civil War and he continued to write satires of the existing regime. He should have been erased, but for some God-only-knows reason Stalin liked him, so he lived. Bulgakov even wrote Stalin that he wanted to get out of the USSR, and lived.

The novel itself is not only hard for a non-Russian speaker to read because of the difficulty in following the difficult Russian names and nicknames (though with some help and effort you can deal with this), but in the translation there are a lot of word plays that are lost, especially in people names. Additionally, many of the places and characters and organizations and occurrences are closely based on 1920s-1930s early Soviet life. This is a large part of the novel and is also all lost to all but the most knowledgeable modern reader.

Nevertheless, Pevear and Volokhonsky's introduction and frequent footnotes (easily accessed on the Kindle version) at least give the reader a feeling for what they are missing. For instance, knowing about the struggles the early Soviet Republic had trying to control currency is essential to be able to laugh at the scenes where money falls from the ceiling of the theater, only to change to useless pieces of paper the next day. Also, knowing about the severe housing shortage in Moscow following the Bolshevik take over makes it funny when the uncle of the deceased poet comes to Moscow not to participate in the funeral, but to lay claim to the deceased's empty apartment unit.

The scene where the main character goes for a swim (?to save someone from drowning) only to have his clothes stolen and switched out for clowns clothing....and then have this guy investigated by a seemingly relatively well-meaning psychiatrist (Dr. Stravinsky) for running around town all dressed up as a clown is funny on many levels.

Admittedly, this is the second time I read this book, the first time about 7 years ago, and I didn't get much out of it then. Since then, I have read a fair deal of late Russian and Soviet history, especially Figes (see all my reviews of him, he's super fantastic), so when I read M & M this time, it made a lot more sense and I appreciated the satire and humor much more. There is a Cliff's Notes style study guide with chapter summaries, that I found helpful as I read along. Laura Weeks also has a short paperback on M & M. I found the introduction very interesting regarding the background, though the later chapters were beyond my level of interest.

Good luck and I hope you appreciate the book.
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on March 3, 2006
I think it is safe to assume that the main attraction that this book now holds for people is not the satire of doctrinally correct literati leading lives of hypocritical privilege - and indeed how could that possibly have any application in the age of Pinter, Rushdie, et al?

No, it is the fascination of the devil in his most seductive guise - the `Old European' Devil that inspired Jagger ('If you meet me have some sympathy, have some courtesy and some taste') Bulgakov does him to perfection here and his coterie is unimproveable: chequered Koroviev with the cracked pince-nez, squat red-headed uber-gangster Azazello, the wanton and permanently nude demon-whore and (my personal favourite) the hind leg walking, caviar eating, eternally mischievous giant black cat Behemoth.

In fact, despite knowing that it was written in the Stalin era, it is surprising how much of the Old Europe appears to have survived in Bulgakov's Moscow - good restaurants, ladies wearing the latest fashions, theatre managers in evening dress - and despite the officially approved atheism spouted by the literati, when under stress, ordinary people still mutter prayers under their breath and cross themselves.

`Satan's Ball at midnight' is a stunning set piece and could stand up on it's own. Reading it, one hears in one's head those weird, sinister Russian waltzes composed by the likes of Khatchaturian, Prokofiev and Shostakovich.

My own, very personal, feeling about it is that Bulgakov himself got taken in by the old rogue at the end. If the Devil exists, then, despite whatever gentlemanly facade he may care to assume, he really does not give a damn about the welfare of any human being and he will not keep his promises - so read with care, and watch out for being seduced yourself!
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on March 11, 2014
Before you dive into this review, know this. I'm a native Russian, and a writer, and I have just completed a feat of rereading the novel in Russian and reading first Ginsburg and then Pevear & Volokhonsky translations, back to back, to compare. And Ginsburg's translation will give you the best feeling for the language, the culture, and the story. It's the bomb. This translation left me in tatters, it didn't speak to me as Bulgakov, it even impoverished his style for me. The rating you see is for the novel itself, which is the work of art. Now, to the review itself.

The first time I read The Master and Margarita in Russian, it was, out of all places, in Berlin. I was a teenager, and I lived in Berlin with my father and his new wife and my half-sister, because my father was a writer and a journalist and was sent by Soviet Union to Berlin to be the correspondent for a large Russian newspaper agency. I remember reading the book so vividly, that even today every detail is etched in my brain like a colorful photograph. The soft bright chair I sat in, with my back toward the window, the book in my lap, the pages rustling, and the image of Margarita, most importantly, of her knee, the knee that's been kissed over and over and how it turned blue. And the cat, the black cat that could talk. That's all I remember, plus the feeling of fascination I got. And now, over 20 years later, I have read it again, after becoming a writer myself 2 years ago, not knowing back in my teens that I would ever write, but being struck by the genius of Bulgakov. And, my, oh my, rereading it now I understood for the first time what the book was about. I sort of thought of it as a fairy tale back in my teens, I felt something underneath it, but couldn't get it. I got it now, and I cried, I cried for Bulgakov, for his imprisonment as a writer in the country that oppressed him to the last of his days, and I cried because he refused to be broken, and because he has written a masterpiece, and I was holding it in my hands, reliving it like so many people, many many years after he died.

As to the story. It's not just one story, and not even two, it's four. A story of love, and of darkness, and of life and death. There are four narratives, the love between Master and Margarita, the strange visitors and Satan who come to Moscow, the story of Moscow life itself, the city, the people, and the story of Yeshua in the ancient walls of Yershalayim. Each has its own flavor, breathes its own air, and weaves into one book that tethers on that notion that no work of art can be destroyed, "manuscripts don't burn", says Satan, and that's Bulgakov's pain, him against the system that wanted to crush him, and didn't. He escaped. The irony of the book is that, in some sense, it's autobiographical, and that makes it even more tragic. But the satire! Oh, the satire! I don't know how many times I snorted coffee and tea out of my nose, because I have this habit of drinking hot drinks while reading, curled up on the couch. So many memories burst on the scene, so many authentic Russian quirks and habits and characters, the wealth of which I have nearly forgotten over my 16 years in US, and which dazzled my mind like fireworks, albeit of course, because I was reading it in Russian, and I'm about to start reading two translations in English, one by Mirra Ginsburg, and another by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Because, if there was ever a book worth reading 5, 10, 20 times in a row, it is The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov, his last book written over the course of 10 years, and not quite completed… he narrated changes to his wife right up to his death. No matter. It is perfect. Read it.
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on January 28, 2006
"The Master and Margarita" is one of the worlds greatest books and certatinly one of the 20th.century's masterpieces. It has been reviewed by the greatest scholars. I spent a number of years learning Russian and over a half year reading the book in the original. The beauty and clarity of the original language and the telling of the story in Russian was well worth my effort. This is one of these novels where every chapter can stand alone as a complete beautiful story.. It's a work of art made of many works of art bound in one. Any loss because of translatiion is inevitable, however, Russian experts agree that Pevear and Volokonsky's translation is probably most acurate and loyal. It makes a fine gift and I hope to someday find a leather bound high quality printing edition.
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on July 31, 2004
Whether one believes or not: Satan disguises as a foreign magician, and along with his thrice-cursed assistants, penetrated a theater in Moscow with black magic and hypnotic tricks. The artiste, who has personally met Pontius Pilate, is believed to have hypnotized director of the theater and has then contrived to fling him out of Moscow. The whole of the city is occupied with impossible rumors and portion of truth that is embellished with the most luxuriant lies. One thing is for sure: the theater has had to be closed owing to the mysterious disappearance of its administration and all sorts of outrages which have taken place during the notorious séance of Professor Woland's black magic.

The Master and Margarita is about Woland a.k.a. the Devil who weaves himself out of the shadow of the "other world" and into Moscow. This fantastical, humorous and yet devastating satire of Soviet life consists of two interwoven parts - one set in contemporary Moscow and the other in ancient Jerusalem at the time of Pilate. The Pilate story mainly focuses on his decision in sentencing Jesus Christ to death and the purging of his soul owing to fear and cowardice. The Moscow story impressively brims with imaginary and frightful characters, most importantly of which is an anonymous master who writes a novel about Pilate (in fact Satan has read the story and re-tells it) but is accused by literary critics of possessing illegal literature. Closely interwined with the master is Margarita, a woman who deserts her wealthy husband for the master and whose book has so inexorably absorbed her. She is willing to pawn her soul to the Devil in order to rescue the master from delirium. After all the sorceries and wonders by which she flies on a broom and destroys the apartment of the man who has rejected the master's novel and so ruined his life, she knows precisely it is Satan she is visiting. But the meeting does not frighten her in the least for the hope that she will manage to regain happiness and peace makes her fearless.

While thousands of spectators, the whole staff of the theater and members of government commissions have seen this magician and almost everyone who encounters the eerie retinue is in an delirious state, it is no doubt that all these events begin with the gruesome death of Berlioz at the Patriarch's Ponds. The chairman of a Moscow literature organization has slipped off some sunflower oil spilled on a turnstile and tumbled under a tram-car, head severed, and the exact manner of whose death fortold by Woland at his encounter with Berlioz and Ivan Nikoaevich Homeless. Poor Ivan has tried to convince that Devil does not exist and under Berlioz's tutelage writes an anti-religious poem that negates Jesus' existence. Ironically it is this very non-existing one who dwells in the beheaded writer's apartment and to whom Margarita desposits her faith., and from whom seeks salvation and peace after she and the master have been robbed of everything in the normal reality of the world.

In The Master and Margarita, through its unusual range, picking up of tone, and sometimes a parodying voice, Bulgakov produces a novel that is a theatrical rendering of the terrors of 1930s. He meticulously weighs the question of cowardice, guilt, and conscience in considering the fate of his hero and through audacious portrayal of Christ, Satan and Pilate. The Pilate story, which is also the story written by the master, passes through a succession of narrators and converges to the Mosocw scene at the end, when the fates of Pilate, the master, and Margarita are simultaneously determined. Their fates reflect Bulgakov's own conviction that cowardice being the worst of human vices - for it is impossible not to believe that the indomitable Margarita has tried, at the expense of forfeiting her soul and salvation, to think up the best future for the master. As for Pilate, he persistently felt the scruple of his conscience since Jesus, whose life if not for his damnable cowardice he could have spared knowing the guilt of other prisoners is more considerably burdened. All that is left to the procurator are wicked pains, incomprehensible anguish, and the piercing feeling that he has lost something irretrievable and all his belated attempts to make up for Jesus' loss are nothing but some petty, worthless and despicable deeds.

The novel is meant to educate, and to guide one of a state of enlightment in which the demarcation of humanity into good and evil is no longer useful and the transcendence of the need for retribution is the goal. The characters eventually are brought to see beyond apparent identity to the real identity, and to understand that Woland and Jesus being the same message. On top of the philosophical depth in redemption and death, the novel bespeaks details from Bulgakov's own life and a more personal tone in the satire of Woland and the retinue versus the literary powers. The normality of Soviet life is imposed from the very beginning, at the expense of the poet Ivan Homeless, who remains throughout the book and appears at each pivotal turn of the novel, especially when parable merges with normal reality.

2004 (43) ©MY
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