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!
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"?
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.
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.
When finally published in 1967, "The Master and Margarita" made a huge impact on the young Russian generation. It came at the end of the "Russian Spring." The years of Stalinism had partially thawed, and the Soviet Union saw a period of relaxation of many of the austere measures that had been levied on its citizens. Bulgakov had written the book at the height of Stalinist repression. A devil mercilessly playing with the indoctrinated minds of the proletarians and intellectuals alike. One has to understand that Bulgakov was a deeply religious man. He used satire as a means of renouncing the god-less Soviet state. Bulgakov can be viewed in the same literary vein as Gogol and Dostoevsky. He also delighted in word plays, hidden meanings and multiple layers of storytelling, making this a book you can return to again and again.
There are two essential stories in this novel. The first is that of the Master and Margarita, a doomed pair of lovers who find themselves fatalistically intertwined with the devil and his henchman. The other is that of Christ and Pontius Pilate. Bulgakov moves effortlessly back and forth in time through the voice of the devil, Woland, who overhears two Russian literati discussing the veracity of the death and resurrection of Christ. The fun and games follow in rapid succession, as the devil turns Petersburg on its ear, confounding a sedated city with his miraculous tricks.
Pevear and Volokhonsky have done a fine translation. It is a bit too literal for my tastes. They didn't need to translate the names into English. Footnotes would have sufficed. But, then Bulgakov often employed blunt language. He was a playwright by profession, and in many ways this book is a theatre of the absurd.
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.
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!
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.
on July 30, 2005
I read this book in a matter of a week, a record for me with a Russian novel. It is easier to swallow than Dostoevsky, that is for sure. The book starts out with a literary magazine editor (Berlioz) and a poet (Ivan Homeless) discussing their disbelief of God in park. The devil swings by, posing as a foreigner--a proffesor of black magic--and predicts that Berlioz will be beheaded by a woman before a meeting he is due to have later with other literary persons. This prediction becomes true and the devil and his comrades, which includes a man with a pince-nez and a checkered suit, a witch with a grotesque scar on her neck, a talking cat, and a demonesque red haired man then wreak havoc on the bureaucratic literary world of Moscow.
I think one of most interesting aspects of the book is the devil, or Woland. I do not see his character as necessarily evil. Certainly, he is the devil, but he is a very important aspect of the world. There is even a point where it seems that the devil is working for Jesus. There is black and white and also grey, and the devil, at some point, seems to cover all of these areas.
And then there is, of course, the master. The writer of the unpublished book about the Pontius Pilate, the man who sentenced Jesus to death. The master is tormented because his work was roundly rejected by the club house that was literary Moscow, and is seemed that not even Margarita's deep love for his could save him. The literary and governmental harassment the master endures because of a work about guilt and forgiveness probably mirror the situation Bulgakov found himself in at the time the book was written.
It is a strong work that had me glued. The translation is magnificent as well, though I always love a Pevear/Volokhonsky translation. Their edition of The Brothers Karamozov is magnificent. Finally, there were parts of this book that were so biting and funny. I highly recommend it.
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.