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The Master and Margarita (Penguin Classics)
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88 of 90 people found the following review helpful
on February 18, 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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53 of 57 people found the following review helpful
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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26 of 27 people found the following review helpful
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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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on October 13, 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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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon December 9, 2002
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.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
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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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
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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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on January 29, 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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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on July 31, 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.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
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 gradesaver.com 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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